Mathew A White PhD FACE

Positive Education

Should Schools Get Grittier About Grit?

I couldn't agree more with Professor Duckworth's op-ed on grit.

Posted Mar 31, 2016

Professor Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania has authored one of the most thought-provoking articles published on wellbeing in recent days. I couldn't agree more with Professor Duckworth’s note of caution in her Op-ed for The New York Times "Don’t Grade Schools on Grit". It is spot on.


Professor Duckworth is internationally recognized for her research on grit which she defines as 'perseverance and passion for long-term goals.' Nearly every educator I know is fascinated by Professor Duckworth's research. Intuitively, each day teachers recognize students who persevere more than others (White, 2016).

As teachers we spend much of our time focusing on the 'craft of teaching', as we strive to help individual students find links between their hopes for the future, creativity and to develop personal qualities to persevere and to grow academically and socially.  

Professor Duckworth clearly outlines why the study of grit is helpful for educators. However, she has raised a note of caution claiming that questionnaires on grit and growth mind-set could be crudely used to evaluate a school’s quality.

Measurements including grit and growth mindset do provide school leadership with helpful snapshots of students at different time points. As Professor Duckworth outlines her collaboration with Dominic Randolph, of Riverdale Country School, and David Levin of the KIPP networks such measures can provide school leadership with a general guidance to strengthen pastoral care, provide student feedback, select and implementing wellbeing interventions and strategies (White, 2015).

What are the benefits? Managed carefully the advantages of such measurement can give learning, teaching and well-being leadership teams an overview of students across a range of measures.

These measures can provide a more holistic understanding of year levels to include academic, social, and emotional well-being. These data can guide school leaders to make selection and implementation of well-being interventions and strategies.

I agree with Professor Duckworth's view that policymakers can reduce measures and turn these scales into an 'emotional' form of a national assessment program in literacy and numeracy test.

Well-managed group measurement of well-being enable school leaders to know  how:

  1. students have learned from and are benefiting from the social and emotional programs implemented.
  2. Aide school leaders to suggests that well-being and academic achievement are complementary, not competing, outcomes.

Grit and growth mindset have been among many measures of student well-being at St. Peter's College - Adelaide.

So, what have we learned? We have found that group levels of grit appear to be a major predictor of academic growth across our school. In collaboration with my colleagues Professor Lea Waters and Dr. Margaret Kern at the University of Melbourne we found that perseverance and grit, which reflect the ability to 'stick with things' despite challenges, were relatively stable across our Junior School students, dropped from year 8 to 11, and then peaked again in year 12.

These snapshots have been very helpful in helping us to paint a richer picture of our students. Melbourne University Laureate Professor John Hattie notes, “You can’t teach grit generically.” Professor Hattie is right. Anyone who claims that by 'talking up' grit they will make student 'grittier' is kidding himself or herself.

At St. Peter's College - Adelaide, Duckworth’s theory of grit is discussed along with many other capabilities in our positive education classes. I've defined positive education as a blend of evidence-based learning from the science of positive psychology and best practices in learning and teaching (White 2014). White and Waters (2015) and White (2014) describe it as an “an umbrella term used to describe empirically validated interventions and programs from positive psychology that have impact on student well-being.”

As well as Duckworth's grit theory we invite students to develop their knowledge and understanding about self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, strengths of character, and connection.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's call for education to pursue its true goal – ‘intelligence plus character’ captures why we measure grit among our well-being scales at the school.

As outlined in Evidence-Based Approaches in Positive Education Implementing a Strategic Framework for Well-being in Schools we have discovered from a range of subjective and objective measures that our positive education lessons have had a substantial impact on the way that many of the boys know and understand themselves, peers and families.

Some policy makers seem to be calling on schools to get 'grittier on grit.' But, there is much more to whole school improvement agendas than simply teaching students to persevere with their goals.

An unthinking call for a scale like grit to be used as a high-stakes metric for school accountability is flawed. Education is complex. It is a human enterprise - and one that cannot be reduced to a single metric.

I am looking forward to joining discussing this point with Professor Angela Duckworth on a panel about Grit, Imagination, and Creativity: Research implications for school leadership, at the upcoming The Festival of Positive Education at the InterContinental Dallas July 18th-20th, 2016.

Professor Angela Duckworth and I will be joined Scott Barry Kaufman Ph.D., Scientific Director of the Science of Imagination Project at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and Professor Lea Waters, Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology, Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at The University of Melbourne.

I think searching for a school with the highest ‘grit factor’ is taking hold of the wrong end of the stick. Literally.

Instead, we should be asking how schools and systems are educating young people to create a better world and build communities that enable the most disadvantaged to flourish, share and advance learning to create a healthier, more civilized and safer world.

Click here for further details about the The Festival of Positive Education at the InterContinental Dallas July 18th-20th, 2016.


White, M. (2016). Why won't it Stick? Positive Psychology and Positive Education. Psychology Of Well-Being: Theory, Research & Practice, 6(1), 1. doi:10.1186/s13612-016-0039-1.

Waters, L. E., & White, M. A. (2015). Case study of a school wellbeing initiative: Using appreciative inquiry to support positive change. International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(1), 19-32.

White, M. A., & Waters, L. E. (2015). A case study of ‘The Good School’: Examples of the use of Peterson’s strengths-based approach with students. Special Edition. Christopher Peterson Memorial Issue. Journal of Positive Psychology., 10:1, 69-76.

Kern, M. L., Waters, L. E., Adler, A., & White, M. A. (2015): A multidimensional approach to measuring well-being in students: Application of the PERMA framework, The Journal of Positive Psychology: Dedicated to furthering research and promoting good practice, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.936962