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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Critical Consciousness Complements Grit

The recent publication of Angela Duckworth’s Grit punctuates several years of enthusiasm for grit within K-12 education. Duckworth defines grit as a combination of perseverance and passion for achieving long-term goals and reports that grit is a stronger predictor of students’ success than IQ or a host of other factors. Many of the high schools I visit each year have adopted grit as a core value, feature mottos like “Effort determines success,” and teach their students about Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow study.

There has also been a backlash against grit. Articles and blog posts have critiqued (1) the amoral nature of grit; (2) pointed out that youth from marginalized groups already possess ample amounts of grit; and (3) accused the current focus on grit of obscuring systemic challenges facing youth marginalized by inequities in race, socioeconomic status, and language.

This third critique seems to me to be the most worthy of consideration. When presented in an un-nuanced way, educators’ enthusiasm for grit can obscure the genuine obstacles that oppressive social forces such as racism place in the paths of youth from marginalized groups. Not acknowledging those forces increases the likelihood of youth attributing the effects of systemic obstacles to personal shortcomings and leaves them ill-equipped to navigate or challenge those obstacles when they encounter them.

For this reason, schools and educators who are enthusiastic about grit might be well-served to complement this work with programming and practices focused on critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is the ability to analyze, resist, and challenge the oppressive social forces shaping our lives and society (Freire, 1970). A growing body of research has found that high levels of critical consciousness are predictive in marginalized youth of higher academic achievement, mental health, resilience, and civic engagement. In explaining these relationships, Spelman College President Emeritus, Beverly Daniel Tatum (1997), has written: “We are better able to resist the negative impact of oppressive messages when we see them coming than when they are invisible to us.” Other scholars have added that critical consciousness buffers marginalized adolescents against the negative effects of oppression by replacing feelings of isolation and self-blame for their challenges with a sense of engagement in a broader collective struggle for social justice.

Imagine, for example, a young adult from a low-income background arriving freshman year at a four year, private university. This student’s wealthier classmates can focus exclusively on their academic responsibilities, while the low-income student spends twenty hours per week at a work-study job necessary for tuition. Likewise, many of this student’s wealthier classmates can move directly into advanced-level courses due to the AP classes offered at their well-funded high schools, while students from less-resourced high schools begin in larger, introductory courses that offer fewer opportunities for building relationships with faculty (and, thus, access to internships, letters of recommendation, etc.).

If the young adult in the scenario above was deluged during high school by messages about the power of grit, the myriad ways in which class inequality (and other social forces) impacts his or her college experience may be invisible. In contrast, the gritty and critically conscious young adult can identify the systemic obstacles in his or her path; recognize that these challenges are by no means theirs alone; and strategize individually and with others about how to overcome them. Perhaps, then, both proponents and opponents of grit can agree that complementing discussions of grit with opportunities for adolescents to deepen their critical consciousness will strengthen these young people’s capacity to thrive and contribute to the various communities of which they are a part.

*Scott Seider is an associate professor of education at Boston University where his research focuses on the civic and character development of adolescents. He is the author of Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students toward Success (Harvard, 2012) and a former secondary teacher in the Westwood (MA) and Boston Public Schools.