When I think of Alvin Toffler’s quote, it reminds me of Briana, a 4th grader living in the predominately African American and Latino low-income community in East Oakland. Her grandmother asked me to come over and help her with her reading. I could see that she had a sharp wit and quick mind, but she read at the second grade level. She had a hard time getting the words off the page and as a result was falling behind, as she now had to read to learn.

She’d been faking it for a few years, and it was all catching up with her. I knew the fix was pretty easy – teach her to get fast at decoding so her brain could pay attention to comprehending what was on the page, but that was easier said than done.

Brianna had the smarts to learn, but she’d experience failure for so long she didn’t the stamina to hang in there when things got a bit hard.

In a word, she didn’t have grit. What we might call Perseverance. Tenacity. Doggedness. Stick-to-it-iveness

Turns out grit is one of several “non-cognitive learning factors” that are instrumental in helping urban students tackle challenging content. Here’s a quick definition of “true grit”.

But grit is just one of a constellation of factors. A new literature review from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance spells out what these non-cognitive factors are and the critical role they play in helping students tackle more rigorous content. Some of the others are:

  • Self-regulation
  • Positive mindset
  • Positive learner identity
  • Meta-cognitive monitoring

Grit is the Secret Sauce for Getting Kids Ready for Rigor

Let’s not get it twisted. These non-cognitive factors are not some set of fluffy add-ons. They are not simply complements to higher order thinking. They are intertwined and synergetic. They are part of what makes higher order thinking possible.

The problem we see in many urban classrooms is the opposite of grit – learned helplessness. Learned helplessness leads to the downward spiral of shame and a negative self-image as a learner. If you are told for so long that you aren’t smart enough to learn, you might begin to believe it, especially if the adults in charge didn’t bother to teach you what you needed to know when you were still open to learning.

Developing grit is the secret sauce for undoing learned helplessness and getting urban students on the path toward higher achievement.

Turning Learned Helplessness into True Grit

Turning learned helplessness into grit maybe as simple as helping struggling students tell a new story. There’s mounting research that points to the powerful effect of our own personal narrative. It’s all about understanding students’ explanatory style or the story they make up to explain what is happening and why.

It might be as simple as ABCDE…that’s the acronym for shifting one’s personal narrative. Part of our job as teachers is to help students become more optimistic and establish a positive identity as a learner. Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism created the ABC model.

Here is a quick and dirty overview of the steps:

Step 1: Have the student name the Adversity or challenge he’s facing.

Step 2: Have the student recognize his underlying Beliefs about the challenge.

Step 3: Have the student identify the Consequences resulting from his negative beliefs.

Step 4: Help the student Dispute or push back on his negative beliefs and gather evidence as to why they are wrong.

Step 5: Energize. Help the student generate a positive and more useful alternative beliefand help him get energized to act according to the new belief by creating a new “back story” to go with it.

The first three steps (A, B, and C) are about knowing yourself and becoming mindful of the challenging situation, your beliefs surrounding the situation and the subsequent emotions you have and actions you take as a result of your beliefs. The last two steps (D and E) are about breaking the loop of negative thinking, re-framing the challenge and increasing your resilience to the adverse situation at hand.

If we are really about getting our students ready for rigor, then our challenge as educators is to figure out where the development of non-cognitive factors fits into our instructional practice.

Share your strategies. How do you help your students develop grit and let go of learned helplessness?

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