Building Student Grit: Is Hard Work and Effort More Important Than IQ?

“Every child needs to encounter frustration and failure to learn to step back, reassess, and try again” (Hoerr, 2012).

Could it be that students with access to more resources, from higher socio-economics might just be shielded from success as their parents unwittingly hold them back from those inevitable challenges that other students face? And if so, then does adversity build character? Without the facility to handle challenges – whether they’re wrought of life or academics –  how equipped will students be to handle life beyond high school? What exactly works into grit? Many studies have shown that where there is challenge, there is learning, and when there is real learning, at some point there was grit.

Thomas Hoerr  (2012) confronts the status quo of teaching to student strengths, instead advocating for an avoidance of the teaching that leads students directly to success (one as a reading specialist I’ve always advocated for), instead insisting that they must encounter frustration and failure in order to learn. He also says that:

  • Educators should cause students to fail sometimes.
  • Attitudes are more important than skills, and that by making students aware of their own intelligences – personal intelligence and emotional intelligence – they can (and do) learn to monitor and build their own character.
  • Positive attitude about school is important.
  • Character education counts LOTS.

Including those with whom learning comes easily – those who score high on tests, join the after school clubs, hold offices in student government, join athletic teams – lots of students encounter frustration at some point. Is failure part of this equation? Yes – but not entirely. Hoerr says that, “part of our job is to ensure that every child finds success” and then goes on to say, “But every child needs to encounter frustration and failure to learn to step back, reassess, and try again—and again.” That “and again” part – this is grit.

The ability to overcome failure and adversity. Why do some of us have more of it than others?  Life experiences, challenges, and those life-terms we so often are confronted with that had little to do with what we did or did not do, but we dealt with them anyway: when we picked ourselves up,  dusted ourselves off, and got on with it. Does this mean we present our students with similar life challenges? Not really. The same challenges they might face in life as a result of adversity and whatever else comes their way, can be similarly situated through academics with a sound character educational program (Duckworth, 2012; Hoerr, 2012, Tough, 2011).  Showing them grit, and how to make it through the tough times, are the challenges that teach. Book pics 075

Dr. Angela Duckworth, author, professor and researcher of numerous studies on grit calls it, “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.” Indeed, grit entails a working ethic that transcends IQ, because as Duckworth (2012) Hoerr (2012) and Tough (2011) all will attest, grit has a greater impact on success, and is the difference between success and failure. Dr. Duckworth’s research concluded the following:

  • There is a 10-year rule that states that people need 10 years of deliberate practice to become a true master of craft, an expert – even Mozart did.
  • More than IQ, self-control is a better predictor of students’ academic success.
  • High achievers had great passion driven by a “single mission” in what they choose to focus on, and are ultimately successful in.  Grit.
  • Dr. Duckworth’s Grit Scale became a well known tool to measure grit using 12 questions that focus on attitude toward projects and project completion.
  • The intentional teaching of character strength is in two clusters: moral character (fairness, generosity and integrity) and performance character (effort, diligence and perseverance).
  • Dual purpose instruction is character strength worked deliberately and intentionally into curriculum.

How can we teach grit? We guide students as they confront it. Here are some recommended steps for ensuring that students confront grit:

  • Ensure that all students confront their own limitations and have opportunities to reflect on how hard they worked, where the challenges were, and how they surpassed them.
  • Use multiple intelligences theory to help students identify, and become aware of, their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Encourage students to step outside of their comfort zones and take risks, or forge safe territories they might not be comfortable or familiar with.
  • Enlist the support of parents so that they understand why a grit curriculum, or character education system, is in place and how it works.
  • Demonstrate what grit looks like: show students examples of when you ventured outside of your own comfort zones, encountered failure and overcame it.

In “What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?” author Paul Tough discusses his findings from a model of character education developed by Peterson & Seligman (2004) in Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification.  They outline 24 character strengths and virtues, among them bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom, integrity, love, humor, self-regulation, social intelligence and gratitude.

Tough looked at schools with a college completion rate not correlated with high IQ, but rather character strengths that included optimism, persistence, perseverance and social intelligence, even as weighed against other students with stronger parental support at home and access to more resources. He concluded that unequivocally, character education was “devoid of value judgment.” Book pics 080

“Real work isn’t about glory – it’s about getting your hands dirty and being of use” (p. 70). Author Jennifer Klein, founder of PRINCIPLED Learning Strategies, Inc taught in an all-girls  school in Central America.  Her experiences in training, coaching and supporting teachers and administrators led her to develop a global curriculum that fosters student grit through hard work, diligence, empathy, compassion, and global awareness. She asserts that the hard work of great leaders tends to remain in the background, while their success is cast in the spotlight, and thus advocates for a curriculum that showcases effort as much as success in order to foster grit.

This is Klein’s take on grit:

  • Developing students’ capacity to “lean into discomfort and navigate the difficult” (p. 73).
  • Development of empathy for the social justice and human rights challenges that many are confronted with daily.
  • Community immersion into global service learning as foundations for the development of grit.
  • Suspending the ego to do the work of calling – true calling, without agenda, gratification, or any role other than to just do it.
  • Inviting students to create change, and making them a part of it through opportunity.

Bringing young adults on service missions, especially around the developing world, can help them to “understand that the accident of birth worked in their favor, but that they can choose to use those advantages for the good of others – and even have a moral responsibility to do so” (p.  74).

If we cause our students to fail, we’re setting them up for failure, but if we allow them to fail through trial-and-error, guiding them along the way, we’ve taught them something invaluable about never giving up: that hard work and effort might just count more than, or at least as much as, their IQ.

This content was taken with permission from Literacy Solutions PD, Inc. Course No. 141: Building Student Grit at

Duckworth, A.L., Kirby, T.A., Gollwitzer, A. & Oettingen, G. (2012). Teaching self-regulation improves academic performance. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Hoerr, T. R. (2012). Got Grit?Educational Leadership, 69(6), 84-85.

Klein, J. D. (2012). Fostering Global Grit. Independent School, 71(4), 70.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

About Literacy Solutions and more, Inc.
Author, CEO of Literacy Solutions and More, Inc., Educational Consultant, Instructional Designer

13 Responses to Building Student Grit: Is Hard Work and Effort More Important Than IQ?

  1. city ville says:

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I
    clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr…
    well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just
    wanted to say excellent blog!

  2. In my book “On Character and Mental Toughness” (Amazon/B &N/Kindle) I define mental toughness as the ability to keep your character under pressure. I also define the core Mental Toughness traits. These are skills I teach on a daily basis. I have been a public school teacher and coach for over 20 years. These #grit traits transcend athletics and academics. When we discuss 21st century skills, this EVERY century skill that separates the victorious from the vanquished too often gets left out. I have seen so many kids, many dealing with horrid circumstances , achieve a great deal when they have had the opportunity to learn perseverance! This is a rising tide which will lift all of our students!-@coachbillmoore

  3. principalaim says:

    Hello Susan. I am very happy I found your blog. Your ideas (and concerns) reflect a thoughtful approach to best practices in literacy education. I found several of your post interesting (this one in particular) because you reference two of my favorite folks: Paul Tough and Dr. Angela Duckworth. I became a fan of both because I believe they truly understand how important it is for teachers and parents to help build grit in students/children. I also like them because I believe they understand I.Q. alone is not enough to make it in the world.

    Do you mind if I share your work with my friends? Thank you! Tiffany

  4. Philip E. Repko says:

    I do not think I have such a different take than others, but I will throw it out there regardless. A high IQ coupled with an absent work ethic yields limited development. A typical IQ coupled with a solid work ethic yields unmeasurable progress and ceilings. What students need to know and do does not stretch the limits of the human brain in most high school settings, and that is not a condemnation of high school objectives. Therefore, grit and perseverance, and resourcefulness and attitude are the difference makers.

    That said, the teacher’s role is not to ensure failure, but to encourage it. Every classroom, every day, should push students to an intellectual threshhold where understanding and facility are elusive today, but may not be tomorrow.

    That may sound high-fallutin’, but all it really means is that student activites must be designed to make students think each class period. Ambiguity and paradox and dichotomy are not so elusive if the aim of each lesson is to create or present intellectual obstacles.

  5. Teacher’s are highly influential members whose role is included in the student’s developmental and motivational direction they follow. When a student cannot take risks in observing their own behavior, they may be seen as showing a lack of effort. The positive Influence of a Teacher, to a student who is demonstrating their own abilities by meeting the discussion points with intelligent and skillful communication skills, may prove to have a pivotal role that can altar the student’s perspective in addressing such questions as to what leads to their own success or failure.

  6. Delbert Dyar says:

    This is a very interesting conversation. In thinking about my experiences in K-12 special education and online learning, it seems that “grit” is an essential quality of those students who are able to assume responsibility for their learning and for their failures. Unfortunately, our culture has taken “grit” away from learner by putting the outcomes of learning on the shoulders of the teacher. A recent visit to the College of the Ozarks reminded me that “hard work” is really the basis for success in learning and in life.

  7. John Brown says:

    Excellent article and food for thought. The only line that I am reluctant to accept is that teachers should cause students to fail. I believe that teachers should encourage risk in learning and to help students accept, deal with and learn from failure, but should not be the source of it.

  8. Julie says:

    Hi all,
    Thanks for this conversation thread. it is a very important one given the premises of the rollout of the Common Core which talks about what needs to happen but not how. I am intrigued by how Carol Dweck’s work on “Mindset” takes into account the importance of the mental mindset of both teachers and students contributes more directly to the willingness of students to persist through struggle to success. Her research is very interesting and has direct implications for this discussion. Just to clarify — I have no commercial interest in her work, just an intellectual one! So I am not promoting — just offering a resource to add to people’s thinking about the topic. Hope that is okay.

  9. John Jensen Ph.D. says:

    A good analogy for the kind of effort students need most is to think what we do when we are asked to give a talk to a group. Everyone does the same thing: we gather information and we express it. We practice it by thinking about it and then actually putting it into words. For students this would be called “explaining it” which combines aspects of memory and of sense-making. As things stand now, teachers do the overwhelming proportion of explaining. Time needs to be reallocated so that students explain to each other their entire courses back to the beginning. The point is really simple and based in how the mind operates. John Jensen

  10. Thanks, Richard – I too have walked a thin line with my students in allowing them to fail, and allowing them room for success, particularly having worked primarily with students who struggle. It is a thin line, but the entirety of Hoerr’s article does make a point: that when we teach them to continue to try and not give in to frustration, there are payoffs. Another thin line: at what point do students compensate, and how much do they keep trying the same thing only to fail? This isn’t useful either, and different students respond to “failure” and academic challenge differently (for instance, students from more stressful environments have less tolerance for failure – so how do we motivate them?). Is this what distinguishes grit from giving up? Not sure…I know that I personally do not to continually fail at something – I need positive reinforcement, positive results, and at least a small element of success in order to keep going – but this is me. How do we teach students to “switch gears” while hanging in there; try another strategy, take a breath, reflect and try again? I’ve lived a million lives of this, but that doesn’t mean all students have a million lives to live. I would love more dialogue on this – I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface! I am open to other suggestions/further reading – please suggest if you have any.

  11. Richard Owen says:

    Thank you for your blog post Susan. I have always believed in building on strengths. I still do. I have always believed in functioning within the learner’s zone of proximal development. I still do. I have always believed in the importance of teacher scaffolding. I still do. That said, I am very attracted to the idea of “grit” — the refusal to give up, the determination to complete the task, take on the learning, become more proficient. And I think we need to give more attention to that in classrooms without abandoning the care and concern for strengths, ZPD, and scaffolding. I enjoyed Paul Tough’s recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. The book seems to operate around the periphery of the teaching and learning cycle that I am familiar with, but it doesn’t seem to me to contradict it. I would love to hear what others think of that book (Susan, I believe the NY Times article you referenced is now part of Tough’s book) What I don’t think is necessary is for teachers to “cause students to fail” (Thomas Hoerr). If students are engaged and willing to take risks, they will confront academic adversity without any intervention by the teacher. If they are self-satisfied or timid, they will likely to be stuck for too long at the same spot in their development. Maybe one of the places for teachers to evaluate their teaching is to look at their success in helping children become more adventurous learners.

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