The Poisonous Mythology of Grittiness


Posted by Bill Ferriter on Wednesday, 01/13/2016

Yesterday, I had the chance to do some brainstorming about Design Thinking with John Spencer — a thinker and a friend that I greatly admire.  During the course of the conversation, I asked John why he thought that Design Thinking should play a role in modern classrooms.  His answer was a huge a-ha moment for me:

“Design thinking builds grit by giving a lot of slack.  We have this idea that perseverance comes form a buckle down and get it done mentality.  Design Thinking says you develop perseverance through tons of iterations and freedom to make mistakes and time to make revisions and improvements.”

Stew in that for a minute, would you?  John’s right:  We DO define grit as the ability to “buckle down and get it done,” don’t we?  

I’m not sure if that definition is a result of our compulsive obsession with bootstraps, our one-time belief that hard work is the Golden Ticket to Heaven, or the fact that we’ve been told time and again that instruction in our schools isn’t all that ‘rigorous’, but defining grit as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences is a poisonous myth that harms students because it suggests that learning has to be painful in order to be meaningful.

Worse yet, defining grittiness as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences provides built in excuses for educators who are unwilling to rethink their learning spaces and for policymakers who are unwilling to rethink the relevance of our required  curriculum.   Instead of working to improve our own practices, we peddle the notion that surviving bad lessons is a rite of intellectual passage.   “Sure, school is going to be boring,” we argue, “but it will be GOOD for you. It will teach you to work hard even when you AREN’T having fun — and I hate to break it to you, but life isn’t always about having fun!”


What if we believed that ALL learning should be fundamentally joyful?

Could students still learn to persist even if they were studying concepts that moved them in deep and meaningful ways?  Is it possible to demonstrate grittiness while constantly iterating on an idea that has the potential to change the world for the better? Aren’t people driven by passion MORE persistent than people who are driven by intimidation?

THAT’s Design Thinking in a nutshell, y’all.  It is built on the notion that people — regardless of who they are or what they know — can identify problems that are worth solving, propose and prototype solutions that are worth trying, and systematically improve on their thinking from one revision to the next.  Design Thinking sends the message that no final product is perfect and that dedicated learners are always ready to improve  everything that they create.

That sounds a heck of a lot like grittiness to me.


One thought on “The Poisonous Mythology of Grittiness

  1. What’s really toxic is that when you’re stressed out and afraid, your brain shifts from operating in the frontal lobes where learning happens, to the rear lobes where pre-programmed responses happen. Which means you literally cannot learn when you’re frightened or unnerved or angry; you run entirely on preprogrammed ideas. It’s heartbreaking.

    There’s an important component of empathy in design thinking, which I think you’ve picked up on… but — as someone who’s consciously taught from a design thinking methodology now for nearly six years, and unconsciously for longer than that — is that there are genuine skills that go along with a design thinking curriculum, like geometry (for building objects that are beautiful, for graphic design), color theory, 2D-to-3D creation (for cutting paper or wood and folding or assembling it into forms), materials science, programming, data analysis. The grit and the power to persevere in the face of obstacles is a byproduct of the authentic project. But helping the student develop the knowledge base in non-core mathematics, typography, color differences between screen and printer, statistical analysis for game design, the difference between cross and rip cuts in carpentry, and more… All of these also provide authentic teaching elements that gave my school’s design program both depth and richness.

    Curiously enough, empathy emerges from the master-and-apprentice model of teaching in the design workshop, too: the issues of safety and product/project production simultaneously make students and teacher love the work we do, and our clients, together.

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