Could Grit Thinking Drive Inequality?

What I wished I had asked Angela Duckworth at LWMOOCS III.

October 9, 2016

Penn professor, MacArthur Genius Award recipient, and author of the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance Angela Duckworth gave a wonderful keynote at Learning with MOOCS III.

It would be difficult to find a more engaging, accomplished, persuasive, and polished academic to keynote a conference. Dr. Duckworth's research is compelling, her presentation is pitch perfect, and her speaking style is both forceful and conversational.  It was an honor and a real treat to be able to listen to Dr. Duckworth.

I do have a question about grit and grittiness - and about the entire growth mindset / resiliency line of thinking. This is the question that I wanted to ask Dr. Duckworth at the Penn MOOC conference, but could not figure out how to phrase this query in the moment.

By now, there is no need for me to summarize Duckworth’s work on grit, or Carol Dweck’s research on mindset. If you are an educator then you are most likely a grit/growth mindset enthusiast.  I know that I am.

Some days it seems that resilience is all that we talk about when we talk about higher ed success.

The question I have for Dr. Duckworth is about inequality.

Is it possible that the success of grit thinking is increasing inequality?

Let me explain.

I’d estimate that two-out-of-three conversations that my wife and I have with our daughters are about grit and a growth mindset. We drive them crazy with this stuff.

We have faith in the power of grit.

We constantly implore our offspring to understand that anything worthwhile will be difficult - and that true satisfaction only comes after long periods of hard work and failure.

We never tells our kids that they are smart, and we only praise them for effort and not results.

If we could have our kids read any two books, it would be Duckworth’s Grit and Dweck’s Mindset.

It is little exaggeration to say that our entire family philosophy is based around grit and growth mindset.

We are not alone in our grit worshipping style. This is how all of our friends in our community talk to their kids as well. This is the key message that our kids get in our excellent (and well-resourced) local public high school. Teachers talk about grit.  Growth mindset is baked into the academic culture of the school.

What is left out of Dr. Duckworth’s presentation is that grit thinking has emerged as yet another advantage for our most privileged of communities.

What happens when the most advantaged of our families and our communities re-order our lives and our institutions around grit thinking and growth mindset?

It is very clear that Dr. Duckworth’s goal is help all kids. She is passionate about improving opportunities for the children of low-income families.  Both Dr. Duckworth's research and her activism demonstrate an absolute commitment to increase opportunity and success for kids living in disadvantaged and marginalized communities. My strong sense is that Dr. Duckworth would fight for more equal and robust school funding, as well as greater access to affordable high quality postsecondary education.

My question - and I guess my (friendly) challenge to Dr. Duckworth - is that those larger structural and policy forces don’t seem to be mentioned in her presentation of her research on grit.

She talks about how individuals can change their thinking - but not about how privilege replicates itself through how we fund our public schools (local property taxes), or the struggles of families to pay for postsecondary education (especially given the erosion of public funding).

What is left unspoken and unarticulated in the context in which success occurs.

The development of personal traits that can lead to achievement are certainly critical. This is a powerful message - but it is a message that those of us who already enjoy the most advantages and the most resources are also most receptive to internalizing.

We can afford to instill grit thinking in our kids because we have the resources to fail.  We can put cushions around our childrens' failures - and invest in building durable bridges to success.

My request to Dr. Duckworth - and all of the proponents of resiliency - is to include structural opportunity factors in their descriptions of the drivers of positive individual outcomes. Don’t stop talking about grit.  Rather, expand the discussion about grit to include context and opportunity structure.

Could the success equation change from:

Grit = Success


Grit + Opportunity = Success

This is a request that every sociologist makes of every psychologist. The request to recognize that individual outcomes are mediated by both individual factors and structural constraints.

What we should be asking of Dr. Duckworth is just how salient and powerful grit is as an explanatory variable. How does the attribute of “grittiness” compare in explanatory power to other variables such as household education, income, school quality, and neighborhood crime and poverty rates?

Is it possible that grit is better thought of as a dependent variable than an explanatory variable - highly correlated with parents' education, income, and school quality?

Finally, it is worth asking - even if the answers may be disturbing - if grit thinking can drive inequality?

An answer in the affirmative would not be a reason to stop advocating for pro-grit institutional and individual level actions.  Family stability is also highly correlated with positive outcomes for kids - but nobody is advocating for less stable families in order to reduce inequality.

Rather, recognizing the role of structure in determining life chances may cause the pro-grit / pro-resilience researchers to expand their policy recommendations. They may fight to equalize educational funding with the same passion as they advocate for changes in mindset. They may recognize that poor individual outcomes (however those are measured) are a result of both actions (including grittiness) and the opportunity structure in which individual choices are played out.

This critique is one that I’m sure Dr. Duckworth has heard a million times. I am positive that Dr. Duckworth will have a smart, open, progressive, and persuasive response.

So why not inoculate herself against the critique?

Spend more time when talking about grit also talking about the opportunity structure.

Spend time talking about how grit might be a dependent variable.

Address head-on if grit thinking might drive, as well as ameliorate, social inequality.

Include issues of class and opportunity in her framework to explain individual success.

How has the research on growth mindset, resiliency, and grit changed how you think, work, and parent?

What would you ask Dr. Duckworth about her research?



Back to Top