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A Forward Thinking Curriculum : Let's Get Down To The Nitty Gritty

Updated: May 28, 2022



A Forward -Thinking Curriculum: Let’s Get Down To The Nitty Gritty

Educational Consultant and Author, Kate McCallam, shares why grit is a key component for success and how to instil this in pupils.

Along with focusing on the four Cs, (creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking) I believe there are other major components necessary for an effective forward-thinking curriculum: global citizenship, mental health, career-related learning for example and grit.

For many, grit is already embedded within creative thinking, and this makes sense to me as grit shares much with the convergent side of creative thinking - less flashy than divergent thinking but absolutely necessary to see any creative pursuit through to fruition - but I want to focus on grit in greater detail for the purposes of this article.


The Background

The term ‘grit’ gained prominence in education with Angela Lee Duckworth. Angela was a 7th grade Maths teacher, having quit her job in management consulting, and, like many teachers, was trying to pin down exactly what and how to teach in order to achieve the best outcomes for her pupils. In doing so, she began to notice that pupil achievement did not have as much to do with IQ and natural talent as she thought: her brightest kids did not always perform the best and she wondered why. After a while, she came to realise that the most important factor among her pupils in determining academic success was the presence of what she referred to as ‘grit’.


For Duckworth, “Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”

What Duckworth discovered was that her ‘average’ pupils with a gritty disposition consistently outperformed those peers with a higher IQ and a less conscientious attitude.

She was so taken with this idea that she left teaching in order to become a psychologist and pursue the concept further. Her team of researchers visited many different settings , for both children and adults, where the work undertaken was very challenging. They went from military schools to teachers in inner-city schools to spelling bees, and posed one question: ’Who is successful here and why?’

The findings bore out Duckworth’s initial discoveries in her own classroom. Time and time again, in multiple different settings, success and achievement boiled down to whether or not someone had a ‘gritty’ character. It was grit that separated the winners and the ‘also-rans,’ not natural intelligence nor good looks nor physical health. A resilient attitude was the predictor of success.

The next question was obvious. Was grit a fixed part of our DNA or could it be taught? Would it actually be more productive for teachers to focus on teaching ‘grit’ rather than spending hours and hours on different teaching strategies, methods and resources?


Grit and Growth Mindset

Duckworth is a big fan of Dr Carol Dweck from Stanford University and her work on ‘growth mindset’. Through collaborative research the two proved unsurprisingly that gritty individuals are more likely to have a growth mindset than a fixed one. Many leaders in education got on board with ‘growth mindset’ and the movement swept UK schools by storm. Whereas once the term was unusual, you won’t have to go far these days to find a school where pupils are specifically taught to have a ‘growth mindset’, where they’re celebrating failures as ‘learning treasures’ or ‘marvellous mistakes’. It is a hugely positive initiative and when ‘growth mindset’ was introduced to schools, it was with the best intentions, but for me it can all feel rather trite and, in some cases, all talk and no trousers. It’s not enough to talk the talk. Grit needs teaching and modelling, day in day out within the culture of the school and has to be embedded in a curriculum that provides many opportunities for challenge, hardship and resilience. Personally, I prefer the word ‘grit’ to the term ‘growth mindset’ anyway, it’s more child-friendly and less pyscho-babble (Sorry Dr Dweck..). The fact that the former encompasses the latter means that I would go with ‘grit’ over ‘growth mindset’ as a curriculum component.

Good examples of integrated grit are when resilience is woven into the fabric of the curriculum like at Bootham School in York. Here, resilience is one of the 6 key pupil dispositions the school seeks to instill in its pupils, and is constantly taught, celebrated and referred to. Grit has been nurtured in this Quaker school for a long time and long before doing so became popular.


Another good example is Scarborough College where a former Head (a Yorkshireman returning to God’s country) actually introduced a subject named ‘Yorkshire Grit’ into his curriculum. The subject seeks to ‘challenge children in a variety of ways’. The school explains further:

‘In addition to their excellent academic credentials, pupils have made a difference in the world because of their can-do attitude, their resilience and their sense of humour. We recognise these traits in the landscape around us and in the natural energy inherent in Yorkshire folk. ‘Yorkshire Grit’ was designed to reinforce these characteristics.’


Outside of the UK, there’s a great example Duckworth provides in her 2020 TED talk of schools in Finland who use the Finnish word ‘sisu’, which roughly translates to grit. The Finns apparently believe that no-one else outside of Finland can have this character trait (tell that to any self-respecting Yorkshireman!), and they deliberately promote it and leverage it in schools. Young children talk about their ‘sisu’ in the classroom. They understand what it is and how to develop it.


Teachers themselves are vital in establishing a ‘gritty’ culture. Duckworth believes that teachers not only need to teach grit and character to their children, they need to embody it in all that they do. In addition, they need to be optimistic people. Interestingly, she discovered that optimistic teachers were more likely to be gritty people and more likely to be happy outside of the classroom in their non-working lives. Both teacher grit and teacher life satisfaction, which were strongly connected to optimism, led to increased pupil performance - another reason to look on the bright side of life, and leave before the caretaker! For school leaders it is about making sure you have a happy staff with a good work-life balance and that staff are encouraged to reflect upon their own capacity for grit too.


So, we can deliberately ensure grit has prominence in our curriculum and staffroom and teach children to have a growth mindset, however, as Craig Barton points out in his book ‘How I Wish I’d Taught Maths’, schools need to proceed with caution. He points out that Dweck herself ‘concedes that much of her work on mindsets has been misinterpreted and misapplied in schools.’ He writes of one of his Y9s leaving an assembly on mindset and saying It’s kind of hard to have a growth mindset when I keep doing sh*t on tests, sir.The child and Barton make a very good point. In order to be motivated and supported with the stamina necessary for Maths and life in general, a crucial element is success. Nothing breeds motivation like success and whilst we want pupils to rise to a challenge and show strength in adversity, it’s important to understand the role initial success plays in motivation. Small victories support a self-belief that enables more gritty behaviour in the long run. Barton explains ‘ Dweck certainly does not say that students should struggle and fail all the time. But I believe this is how it has been interpreted in many schools. By emphasising the importance of mistakes in the mistaken belief that we can magically produce gritty, determined students with growth mindsets, we are in danger of overlooking the importance of success. Success is the foundation upon which grit and a growth mindset must be built.’

Duckworth seems to agree with this. In her 2020 TED talk, she explains that a feature of a gritty person is having the tenacity to withstand ‘deliberate practice’. Deliberate practice is focusing on the things you are not good at, or the things that are not much fun and doing them anyway, day after day, week after week, in pursuit of a higher goal. This is a tough ask for many of us, and children do struggle with it, so she advocates focusing on a child’s natural inclinations and passions and the things they are good at first, before tackling deliberate practice, which will involve addressing the less fun stuff and their weaknesses. In the case of Barton’s pupil, she would need support to gain success in a part of Maths or success in the early part of problem solving to enable her to retain a growth mindset and be invested in the concept. She is unlikely to want to engage in the deliberate practice of identifying and interrogating her mistakes on her test paper if it all feels too overwhelming and fruitless. She has to believe that her efforts will pay off. Deliberate practice is the one activity highly successful people focus on and do a lot of, forgoing pleasure for pain in pursuit of something they need or want, but we need to get our children to this point via mini successes.


Home/School Partnership

School is clearly only one part of the picture. A child’s family culture has a great deal of importance in how a child perceives difficult situations and whether they are prepared to ‘stick at it’. Duckworth was lucky in that she had grit modelled for her every day by her father. She grew up in a family culture where achievement was admired and celebrated, but also one that understood that achievement, in any form that took, meant an awful lot of hard work and stamina.

Parents have a significant role to play here and there is a brilliant TED talk by education experts Rebecca Glover and Clemmie Stewart called ‘Does Snowplough Parenting Remove Grit?’ Glover and Stewart call for parents to stop wading in and saving their children the minute they encounter distress or get into trouble. Playground disputes should be left to the children to deal with, misdemeanours at school left for the child to accept the consequences, losses at tournaments celebrated just as much as the wins, and they beseech parents to never ever do their child’s homework. They make an excellent case for parenting that instils grit and all the benefits that this brings.

If we are going to embed ‘grit’ into our curriculum, we most certainly need the parents on board and so explaining to them the scientific evidence behind ‘grit’ and the role they could play in supporting a school to instill it in their children could be transformational. You could for example invite parents to assess their own levels of grittiness using Duckworth’s grit scale as a starting point. You could give a talk on grit and signpost parents to the TED talks by Duckworth and Glover and Stewart.

In her own parenting, Duckworth uses something called the ‘Hard Thing Rule’ and this applies to each member of the family herself included.

  1. ‘Everyone has to do a hard thing. A hard thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice, and so for parents can be their job!

  2. You can quit but only at a natural break (when the season is over, when the tuition payment is up) and after the time period you’ve committed to - never on a bad day when you lose a race, when it’s inconvenient, when practice clashes with a sleepover or when the teacher shouts at you.

  3. You choose your own hard thing.

  4. At high school, you must do at least one activity for at least two years.’

I think it would be worth sharing this with parents and inviting discussion around it. Parents need to understand that in order for children to be gritty themselves, children need ‘grit cheerleaders’ around them, people who won’t let them throw the towel in when the going gets tough, people who extol the virtues of playing the long game and people who remind them of others who faced challenges, just like them, and stuck with it.


As a teacher, what practical measures might you introduce?


Get off to a Gritty Start

I would start the year by explicitly teaching what grit is, by sending the message loud and clear that this is what your pupils are going to need to be successful and that hard work, persistence and passion matter for life. I like the quote; ‘It’s funny, the harder I work, the luckier I get’.

You will be setting a good school/classroom culture and strong work ethic, and using Duckworth’s scientific evidence and real-life examples, you can explain to children that natural talent is only one part of the picture. It is empowering; pupils will understand that they have control of their future success, but like all things worthwhile, it won’t be easy. The naturally bright kids will understand that they cannot simply rely on their brains and rest on their laurels while those with a lower IQ will understand that they have just as much chance of success as their peers with the right attitude.


Role Models

I appreciate, as Barton quite rightly points out, it takes more than a few posters put up in schools to introduce grit or growth mindset and it does, but my classroom posters did have a positive impact in promoting resilience. I had examples of successful ‘failures’ up in my room that the children often referred to, as did I. Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, JK Rowling - all apparent failures at one stage in their lives. It’s reassuring and provides evidence you can’t argue with.

There are also many live role models you can call upon to inspire children. Primary Futures , whilst focusing primarily on providing schools with career-related learning, could point you in the direction of those people who have overcome more adversity. ‘Run in partnership with the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), Primary Futures connects primary schools with inspirational, diverse volunteers from a range of careers, who connect with schools to talk to children about their jobs and show how what they are learning at school can lead to an interesting, exciting future’. If you haven’t signed up yet, do it now. It’s a brilliant resource.

Airbnb.co.uk provide a whole host of ‘online experiences’. We arranged for our 9-year-old son to speak to an Olympic athlete as a Christmas present this year and his talk was hugely inspiring, aspirational and compelling - unsurprisingly, grit was a major part of the Olympian’s success.


Outdoor Education

This should be a top priority for all schools. Forest schools, outdoor adventure, team building etc., children should be doing this type of activity frequently - not just on the annual residential, but consistently throughout the year. Different learning environments push children out of their comfort zone and thereby promote grit helping kids come out of their shells and show you what they’re made of.


Extra-Curricular Activities

Duckworth’ s research found that a key indicator of university success was whether or not a pupil had ‘sustained an interest in something over many years’ and had improved or developed in that time. Grit can be encouraged and practised with hobbies and interests outside of school. Children should be encouraged and praised for consistent effort in sticking with that piano practice, chess club, D of E, volunteer work etc. and schools can , not only notice and celebrate these achievements, but promote them. For example, one of the options on our Y6 take-away homework menu was a sustained ‘hard task’ over 10 weeks. It involved learning a new skill and developing it over that time. It meant sticking with the hard task, engaging in deliberate practice and seeing a project through to a satisfying result. Pupils reflected on their progress each week as part of the process and then shared their journey during a homework sharing day at the end of term.


Character Lab

This is an online resource of which Angela Duckworth is the founder and CEO. It is ‘a nonprofit whose mission is to advance scientific insights that help children thrive’ and there are so many valuable resources on here. The playbooks for teachers are particularly good and you can head here for specific ‘grit’ resources.


Becoming X

Becoming X is a digital platform for schools to super -charge their PD curriculums and inspire children to be as successful as they can be via over 200 ready to use lessons, assemblies and activities and the use of inspirational films from real-world role models such as Bear Grylls, Roger Federer and Victoria Pendleton. The intrepid explorer Mr Grylls sums the importance of embedding grit up brilliantly here:


Every student has the potential to achieve extraordinary things. We've heard that before haven't we? The platitudes that serve only to mislead and disappoint, seldom backed up with the hard messages of what it really takes to succeed. The truth is, it isn't easy. Life for students can be tough and the global pandemic made it even harder. As students returned to school after 18 months of unprecedented disruption, we wanted to share an irrefutable truth with them in our commencement speech. Greatness isn't born. It's learned.


If you do nothing else, I urge you to play the commencement speech at the start of the school year: https://www.becomingx.com/education/


Get them inspired, get them motivated and get them to understand that nobody achieves success without a considerable amount of grit.


There is so much to learn and to talk about. ‘Grit’ is most definitely a teaching rabbit hole, but I assure you, it is one well worth falling down.


Sources and Further Reading 1)The Centre for Real-World Learning identified 5 key habits of mind involved in the creative thinking process, persistence and discipline are two of them.

2) Angela wrote a paper in 2007 entitled Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. She went on to present a TED talk on the same subject in 2013 (nearly 10 million views) and in 2016 turned her findings into a book and a New York Times best-seller. Read her work here :https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2007-07951-009

3) Angela Duckworth - Psychology of Achievement https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_k8VFv2YbkY

4) )How I Wish I’d Taught Maths - Craig Barton

5)https://www.ted.com/talks/the_ted_interview_how_to_turn_grit_into_a_lifelong_habit_angela_duckworth

6)https://www.ted.com/talks/rebecca_glover_clemmie_stewart_does_snowplough_parenting_remove_grit

7) https://angeladuckworth.com/grit-scale/

8)Teaching Creative Thinking - Bill Lucas and Ellen Spencer


An abridged version of the below was published in the fabulous RISE magazine Issue 3 in May 2022 - a publication packed with all aspects of primary and secondary education from a diverse, rich bank of knowledge. You might want to share yours? Authors welcome.

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