Let’s be gritty about our teaching

Yesterday I was browsing through Ted.com when I came across this fascinating talk about education by Angela Lee Duckworth, which completely captivated me: “Grit – the key to success”.

Soon after she started teaching first graders, Angela realised that the students who performed best in tests were not necessarily the brightest or the most intelligent. On the contrary, some of the smartest kids in class would have some of the lowest scores in tests. It lead her to think that IQ was not what separated the high- from low-achievers. She became convinced that all students can learn practically anything, as long as they work long and hard enough, a belief I wholeheartedly agree with.

In order to find out what formed the real difference between succeeding and failing, she went on to do a PhD in psychology. She studied kids, West point cadets and salespeople, among others, trying to determine what made some more successful than others.

In all cases there was one key characteristic that made the difference. But it wasn’t IQ or social intelligence. Nor good looks or health.

“It was GRIT”.

But what is this mysterious trait that we would all want to have?

To quote Angela:

“Grit is passion and perseverance for your long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future — day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years — and working really hard to make that future a reality.”

The long term aspect of grit is crucial. Especially for us, language teachers, and language learners. Language is not learnt within weeks or months. It takes years of hard study. For example, typically it takes about 800 contact hours to get to C1 level, that is about 8 years if you study twice a week for 90 minutes.

That’s indeed a long-term commitment. Strong but short-lived motivation won’t do. You need GRIT. And a lot of it.

So how do we become gritty?

Unfortunately, the honest answer is: nobody’s sure.

One idea, developed at Standford University by Carol Dweck, is called “growth mindset”. This idea assumes that the ability to learn is not unchangeable, but that it is possible to develop and improve it. In a nutshell, Dweck has shown that if children are taught how our brains responds to new challenges, how they develop and adapt, these kids are less likely to give up when faced with failure.

This is because they have learned that failure is not permanent. Nor is it negative. It’s just a natural and inevitable part of the learning process.

So what does it mean for us, EFL teachers?

As Angela puts it, teachers “need to be grittier about making our [students] grittier”. We should make our learners aware that learning a language is a long and difficult process (great post by Luiz Otavio) and that there will be ups and downs, but that with enough grit, we can all get to the end.

The best starting point (or at least the one I’m planning to start with next week) might be to watch the video with your students, and introduce the concept of grit (lesson plan coming). We can then do the questionnaire that Angela used in her research to find out how much grit our students have. With the results in mind, we can hopefully find out what drives and motivates them, and help them discover their gritty side!

I’m not sure if it’s going to work. But I’m going to try. And if I fail the first time, I’ll try again. I hope you do too.

Let’s be more gritty about our teaching methods!

PS If you’re interested in becoming part of Angela’s ongoing research program, you can volunteer as a data collector for your school here
PS 2 Emma Segev prepared an interesting practical follow up to this post. She uses the video described here, and another TED talk to motivate learners and show that failure is not the end of the world, but a learning moment. Recommended 🙂


11 thoughts on “Let’s be gritty about our teaching

  1. Thanks for your comment, Naja. I'm not an expert on psychology. What do you mean by positive psychology? What other parameters have been found? I'd be interested to know. Perhaps it can be implemented in the classroom.

  2. I so agree with Angela's words and your own. Learning a foreign language is not easy and it cannot be done overnight.
    I teach adults basic English (greetings and introductions and talking about yourself) and just last night one lady wanted me to explain why English words are pronounced in a certain way. Something I cannot explain in 20-hour course, can I? I really should show her this, but she wouldn't understand.

    I like your blog. Keep up the good work.

  3. Thanks Kuharca. I'm glad you find my writing helpful.
    Regarding your student, of course you can't talk about the Great Vowel Shift, or explain all the spelling and pronunciation patterns. Perhaps you could devote a short slot (e.g. 5mins) every week to explain some typical spelling sound relationships (i.e. is pronounced as /i:/). What do you think?

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