Silver bullets have always been popular in education and I have seen many completely miss their mark in my 45 years at the coalface.
Apart from education apparatchiks, anyone who has had any first-hand experience of what happens in schools will recognise endemic and systemic problems that will not magically disappear with, for example, the silver bullet of increased funding.
Other magical elixirs include the latest fads which will become nothing more than flavours of the month and will be discarded as quickly as they were heralded. An example of such a fad is the Grit curriculum.
In 2016 Angela Duckworth controversially argued in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance that hard work, determination and perseverance, rather than talent, are the keys to success.
Critics have argued that Duckworth’s theory is simply stating the obvious and that her ‘grit’ is nothing more than conscientiousness, one of the classic Big Five personality traits.
Psychologists describe conscientiousness in terms of self-control, organisation, thoughtfulness and goal-directed behaviour rather than a skill that can be taught. Furthermore, while most have no doubt that passion, perseverance and a good work ethic are critical to success, fewer are not convinced that they are more important than talent.
Mike Egan, a former member of the United States Marine Band, in a letter to the Times Book Review claimed: “Anyone who would tell a child that the only thing standing between him or her and world-class achievement is sufficient work ought to be jailed for child abuse.”
The assumption here is that if a student doesn’t succeed it is because they did not have the required work ethic, true grit. Failure is the fault of the individual student.
Other critics argue that the most important predictor of academic success is the socio-economic status of the student. They argue we should explore family background, race, gender, cultural constraints, opportunity and class.
Be that as it may, should we consign Duckworth’s theory to the dust bin of forgettable educational fads?
Those of us who have toiled in classrooms know that students today are generally grit-less, and apathy and lethargy are typical traits of many of our students.
A visit to any Grade 1 classroom will reveal a refreshing buzz and energy which will contrast with the torpor in most senior school classes.
The curriculum effectively suffocates the life and joie de vivre out of our students.
Schools are fun-sponges that lead many of our older students to regard school as boring and drudgery.
Some will love learning and bring to the table passion and perseverance. Most need to be dragged to the trough and forced to drink, the grind for teachers of trying to motivate listless and begrudging students.
Can grit and a healthy work ethic be taught?
In this respect, I would argue that schools are trying to paddle up-stream if they try to inculcate perseverance and grit in their students.
We live in a culture than demands instant gratification. The demand that we work conscientiously and passionately for any length of time is anathema.
Furthermore, we live in a world where we refuse to take responsibility for our behaviour. Helicopter parents will refuse to accept that the fault might be in the genes that they gave to their children.
How many parents write a note excusing their child from PE because their child doesn’t feel like participating. Poor grades are the teacher’s fault. My child needs medication because of the stress around exam time. My child is borderline ADHD which should excuse their disruptive behaviour and refusal to complete homework.
How easy is it for schools to swim with the tide and not antagonise students and their parents!
If students are not working hard and not fulfilling their potential, it is much easier not to intervene than endure the wrath of aggrieved parents who will more than likely counter-attack with a vengeance.
Teachers quickly learn to write banal euphemisms in student reports to avoid confrontation.
Teachers will refrain from pushing students and criticising them for a poor work ethic for fear that they will be accused of being sadistic bullies who do not understand the traumas the child is suffering because they are being ostracized on Facebook. Ensure everyone goes home after the Athletics Carnival with a ribbon!
Duckworth may not have ticked all the boxes but there is no doubt there are many students who are not reaching their potential because they lack grit, a quality which they will need in the real world.
Maybe those children of Asian parents who blitz Speech Night awards are blessed with superior talent compared to their Australian-born counterparts. But then again, it might have something to do with a much superior work ethic!
Although it might not be the silver bullet which will guarantee academic success, schools should still foster student passion and perseverance as qualities which will contribute to success during and after their school lives.