Cultivating motivation and grit

31 May 2018

As a classroom teacher and rowing coach, I have watched some naturally ‘talented’ students not reach their potential. At the same time, I have seen far less ‘talented’ students go on to do amazing things. Thankfully, educators have broadened their predictors of success to more than simply IQ. In his book, ‘Why Children Succeed’ Paul Tough emphasised character strengths like perseverance, curiosity, kindness, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.

Over the past decade there has been an increased focus on the importance of cultivating ‘grit’ in our students. In her research, Professor Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania, has highlighted two characteristics of high performing people. Firstly, they are unusually resilient and hard working. Second, they know in a very, very deep way what they want. They have determination and direction.

In 1851, Charles Darwin expressed that “zeal and hard-work are ultimately far more important than intellectual ability”. Duckworth agrees. Her research confirms that effort counts for twice as much as talent (I am sure that many of us intuitively know this too).

The thing about the concept of ‘grit’ is that it can be easily misunderstood and grossly oversimplified. It is not enough to tell students they need to be ‘grittier’. Or simply to ‘work hard’. Intrinsic motivation is more complex than this. Grit should be viewed as a process and as something that grows. And parents, educators and coaches help to set the context for this growth to happen. They make sure students work hard on the right things.

This year I have been fortunate enough to participate in professional development with my colleague, Dr Brett Clark who is Head of Learner Support and the Accelerated Learning Programme. His deep understanding of how to cultivate grit and intrinsic motivation in the classroom is truly inspiring.

So how do we grow grit in our students?

Students working together

We Foster Curiosity and Play

Curiosity is the emotion where many wonderful things begin; fulfilment, meaning, relationships and learning. It is a character strength that is central to education. The British writer Samuel Johnson conferred this seeing curiosity as ‘the first and last passion in great and generous minds’. We want our students to explore, seek out novelty, ask questions and move out of their comfort zones. There is nothing lovelier than wonderment in a lesson. The moment when students find out something surprising or unexpected.

Education is where we all hope to ‘follow our passions’. And I’m sure that most students would do that – if they could find their passion easily. The reality is that passions don’t usually come as an epiphany. Our early interests are fragile, and are vaguely defined; they are in need of cultivation and refinement.

Students need space and permission to foster a passion. Time to play, ask questions and to experiment. I think that short cutting this stage of relaxed play, discovery and curiosity in secondary school has dire consequences for development.

In this stage we need lots of encouragement. So, all praise to the supportive teachers, coaches and parents that make this initial learning a positive and fun experience. This is where ‘grittiness’ begins.

Pre-schoolers and Preparatory students in the library

We promote deliberate practice

The next important part of the process is creating the environment where students strive to grow. I was in awe of the actors in our senior college production last week. These students were passionate, engaged and energised, they were inspired by their teachers and motivated to be the best they could be. Their outstanding performances were the result of 100’s of hours of practice.

The cognitive psychologist, Anders Ericsson has spent his academic career studying how experts develop world-class skills. His original research estimates that experts dedicate over ten thousand hours of practice to hone their ability. However, the crucial insight to his research is that experts practice differently – they engage in deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice requires:

  • establishing a clearly defined stretch goal (the stretch bit is important);

  • full concentration and effort;

  • seeking immediate and informative feedback;

  • repetition with reflection and refinement.

When students engage in deliberate practice they make sure that the challenge always slightly exceeds their skill level. They can sit with difficulty, persevere and they focus on the growth.

By seeking feedback and asking questions, these students develop a feeling of competence and autonomy over their progress. This is true in the drama room, on the sports field and in the classroom.

Student actors in the school production

We create purpose and relevance

Angela Duckworth’s research has shown that people that persevere over the long term, have often found a purpose greater than themselves. This theory is the core theme in Victor Frankl’s incredible book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl theorised that finding meaning in life is a primary motivational force.

In the end, we are social creatures and are driven to connect with and serve others. At a basic sense, this promotes our survival.

Stanford developmental psychologist, Bill Damon believes that adolescents should be inspired to form a beyond themselves-orientation because this will enable them to cultivate purpose-driven grit in the future. Self-effacing values like compassion, humility, kindness and social intelligence are important in helping us see the bigger picture. We want our students to be exposed to role models who are making a positive contribution in society and believe in the power to make a difference.

Purpose is hugely important in the classroom. In their learning, students are intrinsically motivated when they see relevance and understand how their learning fits into the wider world or their future.

Polo player

We have hopeful and optimistic mindsets

How we think about the world impacts on our ability to persevere. In her extensive research, Duckworth has noticed that paragons of grit explain events optimistically. Yes, gritty people are hopeful. At a basic level they expect their efforts will improve their future and they believe they are the locus of control.

Carol Dweck’s research shows us that people have different private theories about how the world works – mindsets. And these theories determine a lot about what people do in their lives. A fixed mindset about ability leads to pessimistic explanations of adversity and a lack of resilience and effort. Whereas a growth mindset values challenge as important for growth and sees intelligence and character as something that grows (which it does).

It is vital that teachers, parents and coaches model a growth mindset to students.

Te Waka Calling Ceremony balloon release

Researcher, Camille Farrington studies student’s mindsets. Interestingly, she has distilled her research into four key beliefs that, when embraced by students, seem to contribute most significantly to their tendency to persevere (I loved this):

  1. I belong in this community.

  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.

  3. I can succeed at this.

  4. This work has value for me.

There is no doubt that motivation is a process which is complex. Developing intrinsic motivation or ‘grit’ is not always easy. We are all unique and are motivated and inspired by a multitude of different things. It is unrealistic to be expected to be ‘gritty’ in every aspect of our lives. However, we believe it is important to understand the environment which cultivates grit.

It will be one where students feel connected, confident, competent and see relevance and meaning in their learning.

Have you ever thought about what motivates you to persevere?

Bag pipers at sunrise for Te Waka ceremony

Damon, W. (2008) The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find their Calling in Life. New York: The Free Press.

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2000). The “what’ and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behaviour. Psychological Inquiry. 11 (4), 227-268.

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York; Scribner.

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

Ericsson, K. Anders (2003). The Search for General Abilities and Basic Capacities: Theoretical Implications from the Modifiability and Complexity of Mechanisms Mediating Expert Performance”. In Sternberg, Robert J.; Grigorenko, Elena L. The Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 93–125.

Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson, D.W., & Beechum, N.O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

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