Grit and Failure

At Riverdale Country Day School, developing character strengths like grit, self-control, optimism and curiosity are big part of the schools mission. Grit, defined by psychologist Angela Duckworth as a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, is a particularly difficult quality to develop, especially at a largely affluent school like Riverdale. Riverdale is trying to develop these character traits and lead their students to deeper success by helping them learn how to fail, or at least that seems to be the stated aim. 

I learned about Riverdale's mission and the work of Angela Duckworth from the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. The book was very interesting, especially because I have tutored and currently tutor a number of students who attend Riverdale. It was really funny to be reading about Riverdale and talking with students about their experiences there at the same time, and I touched on this a little bit in a previous post.

I recently had an interesting chat with a student about grit and failure. From her feedback and what I know about Riverdale, it seems that the school is pushing somewhat contrived failures, all for the sake of building grit. For example, teachers may use certain tests or assignments to 'teach failure' but other big  exams or final grades are off-limits. The grade inflation game is still being played, with a panel where students can argue that a grade they received was unfair.

The thing that really struck me, though, was the contrived nature of the failures. I know it must be extremely difficult to operate a large, prestigious school like Riverdale, especially with so many affluent customers (parents), but pushing contrived failures trivializes failure and makes the system seem like a game, just a different game than before. I wonder if the students are really getting anything out of a 'failure' when they know it has been somewhat set up. If you want to set up a real sense of failure, go for it. But playing at it doesn't do any good, and is probably detrimental, for the students.

Rather than manufacturing opportunities for failure, why not design a system of learning where trial and error are the status quo, and you don't have to talk about failures. This is easy to say, and extremely hard to do, but it seems like it's worth it, for the kids. This also connects with my belief that we need to change the fundamental nature of education and how we evaluate learning. In the grade based, race to the top, success is getting a grade, not developing your character. And in that system, with that definition, failure will never lead to success.