Looking for the Teacher of Grit

I’m in the middle of working on organizing my courses for the Exeter conference in about a week and something I’m really struggling with is trying to articulate to teachers how they can impart to their students this idea of grit in the PBL classroom.  So I started doing a little research online (besides looking through all of the books I have read on the subject).  I took Angela Duckworth’s Grit Test at her lab’s website (got a 3.63 grit score- grittier than 60% of other U.S. citizen’s my age…hmmm).  Then I started reading some blog posts of other PBL teachers and writers like here on the MAA’s blog which is trying to encourage math students to tinker with problems or here which is more of an all-purpose index of resources to teaching grit. There was this wonderful video of a teacher in NH who created a neat grit curriculum for her 5th grade class (with Angela Duckworth too)

John Larmer of the Buck Institute wrote a really nice blog entry on how project-based learning fosters grit in students. I even found a nice video of Po Bronson, author of Nurture Shock (the book about how parents have failed kids because we don’t let them fail).  This is a short video of how Mr. Bronson believes we should be allowing kids to fail these days.

He says (in so many words) that if kids grow up without learning how to fail, they will become risk-averse.  This is what I am finding in my classroom at times.  The risk-averse kid combined with the fixed mindset kid, combined with the “I-have-to-get-into-college-and-make-my-parents-happy” kid makes the PBL classroom very difficult when you are trying to get them to take risks and be creative.  Add that to the classroom culture that they have been used to for the first 9 years of their education in the U.S. and sadly, it makes for a tough place to foster the teaching of grit.

In fact, on my most recent course evaluations I asked students what they found most challenging about the class and the two pieces that tied for first place were journal writing and

“having to be vulnerable and make mistakes in front of my peers.”

I so want to change that and I always thought that I created a classroom atmosphere where students were comfortable.  I did all of these things that the professionals are suggesting on these websites:

1. modeling risk-taking and making mistakes myself
2. talking about growth mindset regularly
3. ask them to write about positive experiences when they are proud of themselves
4. using class contribution feedback forms (self-report and analysis of class contribution sheets)
5. using strategies where students think of a wrong way before we talk about the correct solution method together.

But somehow, even at the end of the year, their fear of being wrong in front of each other (and me, some commented) is still predominantly what they say challenged them.  So I would say to Po Bronson, where is the teacher of Grit?  What is the secret?  How do I make it so?  Is there a time when it’s too late for some kids?  Most of what I’ve seen on the internet is teaching grit to elementary school children – does the fact that I am teaching high school kids make it any harder?

I finally found this great Prezi created by a teacher named Kristen Goulet which, I know, is geared towards elementary school kids, but I think I could find a way to direct it towards older students.  The idea of having them ask themselves whether their self-talk is “because of me” or “because of other” and whether it is “permanent (i.e. fixed mindset)” or “temporary (i.e. growth mindset)” definitely would help them realize how much of the way the deal with adversity is flexible.  It also helps with seeing how to have a more realistic and optimistic view of a certain situation (and is kind of hard to argue with).

So, I’m still in search for the best practices to teach grit (and apparently so is Angela Duckworth – she admits this in her TED talk), but now I know that it is way more complex than just following a certain number of steps – it has so much more to do with a student’s socio-emotional state of mind. Vicki Zakrzewski’s article “What’s wrong with Grit?” is probably the closest I got to agreeing with someone’s assessment of grit and how to teach it.  I know that I am really good at letting kids know what is important to me and doing that modeling that is important as well.  Undoing what has happened to them before they got to me is a tall order, but I’m not going to stop trying.

Does journaling in PBL promote resilience?

So I just read a great blogpost by Kevin Washburn of Clerestory Learning entitled “Teaching Resilience: Reflection” and it immediately made me think of the Metacognitive Journaling that I have students do in my classes.  I never really thought of it the way that Washburn was describing the reflection and the conseuences of reflection, but it’s pretty clear that if his theory is right, that a by-product of journaling could easily be resilience.

Initially, Washburn talks about the process of reflection – right out of Dewey in a way – but he narrows it down to the steps in the process (but does mention the word metacognition – thinking about thinking).  He defines reflection as “the ability to monitor one’s own thinking” which is what I tell my students the goal of writing in the journal is.  Hopefully, by the end of the year, they will have realized the way they look at problems and how they’ve had those “lightbulb” or “ah-ha” moments enough after writing about them, that when they come across a new problem, the process of being aware of their own problem solving is much more natural.

Washburn’s three steps are as follows:

1. Asking yourself “what am I thinking now?”
2.  What can I tell myself to redirect my thinking?
3.  What can I do differently?

Most students in the beginning of the year, can easily do the first step – it begins very simply as them just redoing their work (usually the correct way), which can, unfortunately, just be them rewriting their notes from class.  However, this has to be a place to start for them.  This is where teacher feedback is key.  I spend most of my time writing comments like ,”I want to hear what *you* did initially” or “is this what your first thoughts were?”  It’s really hard for students to believe that you want a record of what they did wrong.

But somewhere during the year, kids grow in their understanding of WHY their initial idea didn’t work.  This seems to be the most important part of the reflection.  That gained insight gives them not only deeper understanding, but a sense of ownership and responsibility for their own learning that can’t be had with just seeing how many points they got off from the problem on an assessment.

I’ve written about this a few times (see other blog entries) and have seen kids grow in their understanding during the 18 years that I’ve been using journals in my classroom.  However, what Washburn helped me see is how this skill of recognizing how their initial erroneous thinking has actually made them a stronger, more confident thinker.  This is an amazing gift.  As Washburn says,

In life and in the classroom, the one doing the thinking is doing the learning. When thinking ceases and self-defeating messages crescendo, we can guide students to healthier states of mind and, in the process, equip them to make such cognitive turns on their own.”

So  great!

Does PBL teach Resilience?

I just read a great blogpost by a business writer, Gwen Moran, entitled, “SIx Habits of Resilient People.” When I think of people that I admire in my life for their resilience there was usually some circumstance in their life that led them to learn the quality of resilience because they had to. Even the examples that the author uses in this blogpost – being diagnosed with breast cancer, almost being murdered by a mugger, the inability to find a job – these tragedies that people have had to deal with can be turned into positive experiences by seeing them as ways in which we can learn and grow and find strength within ourselves.

But wouldn’t it be great if it didn’t take a negative experience like that to teach us how to be resilient? What if the small things that we did every day slowly taught us resilience instead of one huge experience that we had no choice but to face? Having to deal with small, undesirable circumstances on a daily basis, with the help and support of a caring learning community would be much more preferable, in my opinion, than surviving a mugging. (Not that one is more valuable than the other). But I just wonder – and I’m truly ruminating here, I have no idea – if it is possible to simulate the same type of learning experience on a slower, deeper scale by asking students to learn in a way that they might not like, that might make them uncomfortable, that asks more of them, on a regular basis.

I think you know what I’m getting at. Does PBL actually teach resilience (while also teaching so much more)? In my experience teaching with PBL the feedback I’ve received from students has been overwhelmingly positive in the end. But initially the comments are like this:

“This is so much harder.”
“Why don’t you just tell us what we need to know.”
“I need more practice of the same problems.”
“This type of learning just doesn’t work for me.”

Having students face learning in an uncomfortable atmosphere and face what is hard and unknown is difficult. Thinking for themselves and working together to find answers to problems that they pose as well as their peers pose is very different and unfamiliar. But does it teach the habits that Gwen Moran claim create resilient people? Let’s see. She claims that resilient people….

1.Build relationships – I think I can speak to this one with some expertise and say that at least if the PBL classroom is run with a relational pedagogy then it is very true that PBL teaches to build relationship. My dissertation research concluded nothing less. In discussing and sharing your ideas, it is almost impossible not to – you need relational trust and authority in order to share your knowledge with your classmates and teacher and this will only grow the more the system works for each student.

2. Reframe past hurts. – If we assume that real-life “hurts” are analogous to classroom mistakes, then I would say most definitely. PBL teaches you to reframe your mistakes. PBL is a constant cycle of attempting a problem->observing the flaw in your solution ->trying something else and starting all over again. This process of “reframing” the original method is the means by which students learn the the PBL classroom.

3. Accept failure – This may be the #1 thing that PBL teaches. I am constantly telling my students about how great it is to be wrong and make mistakes. You cannot have success without failing in this class. In fact, it is an essential part of learning. However, students in the US have been conditioned not to fail, so that reconditioning takes a very long time and is a difficult process.

4. Have multiple identities – In a traditional classroom, certain students fulfill  certain roles – there’s the class clown, the teacher’s pet, the “Hermione Grainger” who is constantly answering the teacher’s questions, etc. But what I’ve found happens in the PBL classroom is that even the student who finds him/herself always answering questions, will also find him/herself learning something from the person s/he thought didn’t know anything the next day. Those roles get broken down because the authority that once belonged only to certain people in the room has been dissolved and the assumption is that all voices have authority. All ideas are heard and discussed. PBL definitely teaches a student to have multiple identities while also teaching them a lot about themselves, and possibly humility, if done right.

5. Practice forgiveness – This might take some reinterpreting in terms of learning, but I do believe there are lessons of forgiveness in the PBL classroom. Students who expect themselves to learn everything the first time and when they don’t, feel stupid, need to forgive themselves and realize that learning is an ongoing process. Learning takes time and maybe needs more than one experience with a topic to see what the deeper meanings and understandings really are. Since PBL is not just a repetitive, rote teaching method, students need to learn how to be patient and forgiving of their own weaknesses as a learner and take time to see themselves as big picture learners.

6. Have a sense of purpose – This habit is about “big picture” purpose and looking at a plan. From the research that I did, I also found that PBL brings together many topics in mathematics, allowing students to see the “big picture” connections between topics much better than traditional teaching does. The decompartmentalization that occurs (as opposed to compartmentalizing topics into chapters in a textbook) is confusing at first because they are not used to it, but eventually students see how topics thread together. Just the other day in my geometry class we were doing a problem where they were asking to find as many points as possible that were 3 units away from (5,4) on the coordinate plane. A student in the class asked, “is this how we are going to get into circles?” The whole class was like “Oh my gosh, it is, isn’t it?” Bam, sense of purpose.

All in all, I feel that PBL meets Moran’s criteria of “resilience characteristics” in ways in which it allows students to practice these habits on a regular basis.  So not only does PBL help students learn collaboration, communication and creativity, but perhaps they will see the benefits over time in learning how to move forward from a setback – just a little.