09/22/2017 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

A Word About Rigor and Grit

Rows of empty desks in a classroom

We all know we need to commit to our jobs to do them well. The same is true in school. Perseverance matters. Excellence requires dedication. But in education, there’s a tendency to rely too heavily on concepts like rigor and grit — independent of any context — and then blame students for not measuring up. Such thinking misconstrues how rigor and grit work.

Sustainable commitment can only arise from positive emotional engagement. John Dewey made this clear a hundred years ago and research has backed him up ever since. We have to care about what we’re doing or learning. To some degree, students can perform well for teachers they admire to please parents or out of a sheer desire for recognition. But good teachers understand that it’s best to engage students on both an emotional and intellectual level. We shouldn’t ask students, for instance, to sit still, do worksheet after worksheet, and expect them to happily sustain their commitment to school. We shouldn’t ask them over and over again to be generically disciplined and work hard for some vague future.

Thinking about the emerging mindset in education that spotlights rigor and grit as skills to instill reminds us of what writer Annie Dillard once said about the discipline of writing (in her essay, “To Fashion a Text”). It seems worth repeating from time to time:

There’s a common notion that self-discipline is a freakish peculiarity of writers — that writers differ from other people by possessing enormous and equal portions of talent and willpower.  They grit their powerful teeth and go into their little rooms. I think that’s a bad misunderstanding of what impels the writer. What impels the writer is a deep love and respect for language, for literary forms, for books. It’s a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning. It’s a challenge to bring off a powerful effect, or to tell the truth about something. You don’t do it from willpower; you do it from an abiding passion for the field.

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