Grit is Passion + Perseverance

The road to sustained motivation for young math learners

What is the real linchpin in a student’s ability to learn math? Is it family socio-economic status? Maybe family members who model confidence in their own technical capabilities? Is it the resources of early-learning classrooms? How safe kids feel in school? Or does it simply come down to individual IQ?

Angela Duckworth­, management consultant turned middle school math teacher in the New York City public schools, has given this question a lot of thought. And she has developed a theory about the core element that undergirds student success in learning mathematics. Here’s a hint: It’s not IQ. She describes what it is in one word: Grit. She discusses her observations, research, and conclusions in this compelling TED Talk titled: “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”

As a 7th grade math teacher, she was struck by the reality that IQ wasn’t a determining factor in student success or struggle in math learning. Some of her “smartest kids” gave up more easily, and some of the others were more willing to press through challenges and learned everything they put their minds to. “And that got me thinking,” she says. “The math you learn in 7th grade, yeah it’s hard ––ratios, decimals, the area of a parallelogram. But these concepts aren’t impossible. And I was thoroughly convinced that every one of my students could learn the material if they worked hard and long enough.”

But what was the key to sustained effort in students? Angela wanted to gain deeper understanding on the nature of motivation and how it relates to learning success. She says, “In education, the one thing we know how to measure best is IQ. But what if doing well in school, and in life, depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?” So, she went to graduate school to become a psychologist and delve into this question.

Her research took her into many different arenas––from West Point Military Academy, to the National Spelling Bee, to Chicago public schools, to private companies. In each context she wanted to find out who would keep going in rigorous settings, and why. “One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success,” she says. “And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks or physical health. And it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.” She defines this as passion, perseverance, and stamina to stay with long-term goals.

But how do educators help students build grit, follow through on commitments to their own learning, and stay motivated to keep working even when it’s not so easy? Angela says parents and teachers ask her this every day. She doesn’t know the answer yet. But a groundbreaking idea came her way that could unlock it.

“So far the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called “Growth Mindset,” she says, referring to a concept developed at Stanford University by Dr. Carol Dweck. It is based on the belief that the ability to learn isn’t fixed. It can change.

In her work, Dr. Dweck has had kids read and learn about the human brain. The result? They are fascinated and inspired by the scientific details of how their brain changes as it responds to challenges. Angela explains that they become “much more likely to persevere when they fail––because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.” You can read more here in this piece titled “Dr. Dweck’s research into growth mindset changed education forever.”

In the course of her dedicated research, Angela Duckworth has uncovered “grit” as a crucial component for successful math learners, above and beyond IQ and social factors. Her standing definition of grit is passion and perseverance for a long-term goal. Through that combination, even reticent students can succeed. And maybe, along the way, even come to love math and discover how it can open up the world. DreamBox is there to help each student find passion for math, and cultivate motivation to keep learning that they can carry for a lifetime.

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