Spring Break Learning: A Nugget from The Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, AZ

What approach works best when helping learners to overcome academic challenges? As educators, it can be helpful to reflect on our own learning struggles. In fact, hiking in the Grand Canyon over this Spring Break, I experienced a memorable learning challenge at the edge of a magnificent precipice.

Though I wanted to continue down the path at the start of the Grandview Trail, I was uncertain about how to approach it, and my knees were shaking with apprehension. Before barely descending, I returned to the top, defeated. But a little later, with the help of our guide, I tried again and made it far enough to enjoy some incredible views of the canyon.

My journey on this historical mining trail uncovered some valuable nuggets for struggling students (like me):

  • Students are most likely to persist if the goal is personally relevant and meaningful to them. The reason I overcame the challenge is because I really wanted to explore the canyon.
  • Students must recognize that “trying again” is part of the learning process. When I first climbed back out of the canyon, I would have been finished with this trail had I not understood that “trying again” was a ready option.
  • Students must feel comfortable asking for help. As I hiker, I was thankful to have a knowledgeable, friendly guide who kindly helped me on this trail.
  • Sometimes a student’s difficulty may be based more upon self perceptions of ability, rather than actual ability. Teachers need to express their confidence in their student’s ability to meet challenges. Hearing that others were confident in my ability helped me immensely on this trail.
  • Sometimes students need the opportunity to work through challenges slowly. Accomplishing my goal at a speed that was manageable for me brought success.  I’m glad I wasn’t being timed on this one.
  • Laughter is key. When hiking in new terrain, a laugh and a little humor helped to make learning fun and to keep difficulties in perspective.  Laughter in the face of challenge is empowering.
  • It really works to break down challenging tasks, set individual student goals, and celebrate success. Catching up to the rest of the group was not going to happen for me on this hike. However, I left feeling that I accomplished a great deal. My guide helped me adjust my goal to meet my learning needs—even if this was just to navigate the first leg of the journey. When the other hikers returned from their longer journey, I still had my own accomplishment to celebrate. I left the canyon wanting more…
Hardened Grand Canyon Hiker

Instant Grit? A Recipe for Teaching Perseverance

Photo on 2-24-16 at 10.29 PM

“Instant Grits.” I smile to myself when I see them on the store shelf, because as a Chicagoan, I always associate grits with vacation ease in a warmer climate. Grits are supposed to take time—you sit down and savor them with honey and biscuits.

As an alternative to instant grits, a “grit” I’ve encountered in professional development sessions has potential:

In the education arena, psychologist Angela Duckworth asserts “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not jus for the week, not just for the month but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint”[1] According to Duckworth’s research, “grit” is an essential ingredient for success—even beyond I.Q.

So, as teachers we may ask, “Can grit be taught? If so, what is the recipe?…Can we just add water?”

For some, grit seems to be about prolonged attention span and perseverance even when activities are not immediately rewarding. This idea of “grit” sounds akin to pitting cherries, shelling peas, or husking bushels of corn. The world is full of mundane tasks for “teaching” grit in this way.

Yet, in the classroom, it does seem more palatable to teach students to develop grit by striving and persevering for their own goals, rather than chasing unfulfilling ones. In light of this, some educators suggest that “grit” can be naturally fostered by having children identify their own passions or engage in project based learning.

I do believe that passion projects bring joy to learning, and even students who otherwise lack “grit” may choose to stick with projects that are authentic and meaningful to them. But passion projects are unlikely to guarantee instant grit. Deciding what one’s passion is in the first place requires a respectable bit of perseverance for some students. Moreover, on the road to pursue passions, some students “fall out of love” with their projects when challenges arise. Perhaps in order to prepare students to achieve excellence in any subject, we need to make “developing grit” a more intentional part of our daily routine.

One suggestion I have heard during discussions about teaching “grit” is the idea that “children need to fail.” Rather than being coddled and protected from failure, children need to learn to scrape themselves off the ground and try again.

Although I will never know the complete recipe for “grit,” from what I have tasted, I find that the essential ingredient is not found in failure, but in student success.

Teaching grit means helping students to see the connection between individual effort and excellence, and this can apply to any subject. As teachers, the challenge is to teach “grit” everyday. Celebrating effort and realizing the results – even incremental results – again and again is what motivates students to develop the habit of striving.

Given this reality, the secret ingredient for teaching and learning “grit” may be time.

…time to develop and create thoughtful work products.

…time to revise work to achieve excellence.

…time to break tasks down and master each part of a skill

…time to practice each skill until it comes easily

…time to recognize progress

…time to celebrate success

…time to reflect on what could have been done differently

…time to change direction

…time to try again

…time to ask questions

…time to come up with new ideas

We may need to make time from scratch.  But there is one thing for certain —

There is no “Instant Grit.”


[1] “The Key to Success? Grit.” Angela Lee Duckworth:. TED Talks, April 2013 Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit?language=en&gt;.