Gritty Politti: Grit, Growth Mindset and Neoliberal Language Teaching

Over the summer, while everyone else was enjoying themselves I was ruing the day I decided to look at grit (Duckworth, 2007) for my Master’s dissertation. I decided it’s unworkable so you get to read about it here.

What is Grit?

Grit is so difficult to define that it takes Duckworth (2016) the best part of a book to describe it adequately. Grit is the orientation of short-term goals toward one’s passions and long-term goals. It has also now mutated, taking on Dweck’s (1996) Growth Mindset, Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) Flow, Ericsson and Pool’s (2016) Deliberate Practice and become a behemoth. One is left with the impression that only Duckworth truly understands what she means by the  term ‘grit’. Grit has also been criticised for not being substantially different to conscientiousness (Kamenetz, 2016). Even Duckworth and Quinn (2009) acknowledge that:

Grit is similar to one Conscientiousness facet in particular, achievement striving, which is measured with items such as “I’m something of a ‘workaholic”’ and “I strive for excellence in everything I do” (Costa & McCrae, 1992a). We believe grit is distinct from achievement striving in grit’s emphasis on long-term goals and persistence in the face of setbacks. However, further research is needed to determine the relationships between grit and other facets of Big Five Conscientiousness.
(Duckworth and Quinn, 2009, p. 173.)

Grit does appear to be lauded, particularly in the USA, for being a commonsense approach to teaching and learning. I do not think this is a good thing. The Grit Score, a short, subjective, Likert-scaled questionnaire, is being used by teachers and learners to assess learners’ grit. One problem here is the weight of the scoring and the disparity between teachers’ and learners’ perceptions. When searching the literature I found nothing. The fact that grit is being used as a magic bullet for the school system’s ills is also worrisome when one might consider the least advantaged actually attending school being a gritty act in itself. Yet, it is these children with poverty-caused cognitive overload (Mani et al, 2013) who will be labelled ‘least gritty’. Duckworth has bemoaned this, much like Frankenstein died at his own monster’s hand.

What negative effects are present? Well, we have teachers buying in to a new orthodoxy dressed up as science, where learners score themselves on how they tend to stick with certain habits. If the teacher is scoring them, so much the worse due to the likelihood of other factors making their way into the scores, such as warmth toward the learners of even empathy towards them. This grit then is used to blame learners or anything but the system, including curricula and syllabi.  To me, grit is simply another tool for attacking the poor and the other. They might not be as gritty and it provides an excuse for not targetting financial resources in the classroom, such as teaching assistants, smaller class sizes or taking time to reflect on whole-school issues such as homework, which can effect some learners who may be primary carers. As Thomas (2013) states, “the dirty little secret behind ‘no excuses’  and ‘grit’ is that achievement is the result of slack, not grit.” However, if a lack of achievement can be put down to intrinsic factors within learners, then it provides grounds for ignoring them. 

In language teaching, progress is known not to be cumulatively acquired (Lightbown, 1985) yet when language is assumed to be a skill acquired like the learning of facts, it may appear that there is not enough work being done by learners. In adult EFL, language learning may not be the most important part of a learner’s life; even in ESOL, when learners may have to adjust to living in a new country, community and culture, integrative motivation (Gardner &  Lambert, 1972) may be lacking. To assume that everyone in a community shares the same values of utility is unwise; to assume language learners progress through stages at the same rate, with the same goals and motivational orientations is to ignore literature and evidence in the classroom. 

All of this grit and Growth Mindset then, seems to lend itself to a laissez-faire attitude in the classroom, where what is taught is what is learned, with learners not progressing at the same rate somehow deficient and lacking gumption to catch up. This characterises the grammar syllabus of textbook ELT. However, if one eschewed that, and taught learners English as opposed to teaching English as a subject, one need not abide by or pay lip service to such ideas. 

Grit, Growth Mindset and SLA

There is, so far, no research linking grit nor Growth Mindset and SLA. There is research linking motivation, particularly long-term motivation, to SLA. Dweck’s work thus far has looked at problem solving in puzzles yet it may prove to be useful in decreasing the effects of the frequently observed slump in intermediate-level language learners’ development (find and cite).

Dörnyei’s (2009) work on motivational selves has elements of learners orienting themselves toward long-term goals, expectations of others (such as schools, parents, bosses) and visualisation of what would be a possible worst-case scenario if they did not study. This is, in my opinion, compatible with grit but has the benefit of not being burdened with the unnecessary accoutrements of highly subjective data from questionnaires for groups; it is personal.

Duckworth (2016) also talks about building gritty communities yet what if one is alienated from the community of sees oneself as unintegrated in the target community? Seeing as grit is passion and perseverance for a goal, essentially personal, grit may not be the best paradigm to apply to the EFL/EAL/MFL classroom in a compulsory school setting.

Furthermore, developing grit may be an irrelevance. As Norton Peirce (1995) demonstrates in her work with ESL learners in Canada, learners are driven toward communication when needs arise, whether there may be negative affective factors in the immediate environment. This need can drive learning, with Martina, one of Norton Peirce’s learner-correspondents providing anecdotal evidence regarding problems in a part-time job:

In the evening I asked my daughter what I have to tell the customer. She said ‘May I help you’ and ‘pardon’ and ‘something else.’ When I tried first time to talk to two customers alone, they looked at me strangely, but I didn’t give up. I gave them everything they wanted and then I went looking for the girls and told them as usually only ‘cash’. They were surprised but they didn’t say anything.
(Norton Peirce, 1995, p.247)

Rather than nebulous ideas of how to teach or foster grit, self-regulative strategies (Oxford, 2013) could provide a jumping-off point for more effective self study or use of self-access facilities. Such strategies may foster greater motivation by providing learners with alternative ways of working than their current preferences.

One caveat here is that I think grit should be researched; I just don’t think there is a place for it to be brought into classes on a whim due to TED talks bringing a superficial informative lacquer to a few minutes of distraction.

If you disagree, by all means comment. I would love to know more, having spent ages with this.

References

Csikszentmihaly, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, New York: HarperCollins ebooks.

Denby, D. (June 21st, 2016) The Limits of Grit. The New Yorker. Retrieved August 22nd, 2016 from: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-limits-of-grit

Dörnyei, Z. (2009). The L2 Motivational Self System. In Z. Dörnyei & E. Ushioda (Eds.), Motivation, language identity and the L2 self (pp. 9-42). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

Duckworth, A. L. & Quinn, P. D. (2009). Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (Grit-S). Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(2), 166-174.

Duckworth, A. L. (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House

Ericcson, A. & Pool, R. (2016) Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt.

Gardner,  R. C.  & Lambert, W. E. (1972) Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. 

Kamenetz, A. (May 25th, 2016) MacArthur ‘Genius’ Angela Duckworth Responds To A New Critique Of Grit. Retrieved August 22nd, 2016 from: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/05/25/479172868/angela-duckworth-responds-to-a-new-critique-of-grit

Lightbown, P. M. (1985) Great Expectations: Second language acquisition research and classroom teaching. Applied Linguistics, 6(2), 173-189.

Mani, A. et al (2013) Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function. Science, 341,(6149), pp. 976-980

Norton Peirce, B. (1995) Social Identity, Investment and Language Learning. TESOL Quarterly 29/1: 9-31. In Seidlhofer, B (ed.) (2003) pp. 236-255. Oxford, New York: OUP.

Oxford, R (2013) Teaching and Researching Language Learning Strategies. Abingdon: Routledge.

Thomas, P. L. (November 10th, 2013) The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement. Retrieved August 22nd, 2016 from: https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/the-poverty-trap-slack-not-grit-creates-achievment/

Further Reading

Sheppard, R. (2016) Grit, Resilience and Conation in Adult Esol

Sheppard, R. (2016) Grit, Resilience and Conation in Adult Esol Part II

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12 thoughts on “Gritty Politti: Grit, Growth Mindset and Neoliberal Language Teaching

  1. Ooooo really interesting post thank you! I’ve just got round to reading Dweck’s book, grit and mindset have been cropping up a lot lately. It’s raised a lot of questions and this have given me food for thought and a good source of further reading beyond the ‘pop’. Great blog!

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  2. Grit is needed when we do something that we are not really into. We may want to learn a language but it is how we learn that determines whether we are into it. Who talks about grit when we are learning to play a video game! 😊
    Key is to “enjoy” what we do and then nothing can hold us back!

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  3. Yep, self regulation is surely needed. The real interesting Q is what prompts us to do that and keep doing it…so we end up with an “auto” regulated new language that approximates as closely as we desire to the target language as is spoken by so called natives.
    Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory is a useful one that has clear applications in language learning (www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/flow-in-language-learning/) There is a need to keep looking at what it is that has get engaged and stay engaged. Once we do that, I believe the poor outcomes that are the norm in language learning will start to turn around

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    1. Thanks again, Andrew.

      I think Flow is interesting but I really don’t see how this kind of positive psychology approach can be applied wholesale to language learning. It does rather seem that we as language teachers expect everyone to enjoy language as much as we do. I don’t think it is possible to change people’s preferences, especially as much of this is to do with external circumstances. I don’t think we’ll ever end up with automatic self-regulation; for one thing, free will is a much more important thing although it may be inconvenient for teachers.

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  4. Marc, I believe Flow theory is a whole lot more than positive psychology. It helps to explain and in fact underpins game theory, something that is currently making such big strides forward in not just digital learning.
    Just look at all those who get so engrossed in their hobbies, professions etc that they lose sense of time. Language Teaching has too long been dished out things you have to do to learn a language, hence the exceedingly poor results we have seen. The ones who succeed are the ones who are “sucked in” by by their learning.
    No learner “fails” to learn when they are engaged and engrossed in their learning. What faces us as a profession is to have classes where students are clamouring to come to them AND stay in them, rather than the opposite!

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    1. You are right about Flow and that it contributes to motivation. Ideally language learning would be a hobby for everyone. It helps to put something interesting as a carrier for learning but I must disagree that everyone must love foreign languages. I simply see it as impossible.

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  5. This is a very interesting post. As an American ESOL teacher, I can testify to the holy grail of the “Grit Scale” being used across our campuses. I think you’ve hinted at a deeper problem in American public schooling-that being our attempts at staying relevant and updated pedagogically, however with little research and study to support our practices. I can say this, if all teachers were as well researched in pedagogy and theory as well as this post is, things would be a lot different over here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much, Bret. This post seems to resonate with a lot of people and I wonder if part of this is because what happens in America often spreads elsewhere.

      As for researching and reading, I do fear that teachers are kept busy because it’s not in corporate interests to have teachers represent learners and kick against a system that is being eroded.

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