What is the key to a successful classroom?
When I first stumbled upon academic, psychologist and popular science author Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, I was struck by how clearly she articulated what I had been trying to define as the key to a successful classroom – grit, or ‘passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement’.
Once defined, it became easy to reflect upon how I did – or sadly, didn’t – purposefully establish a classroom climate that fostered grit. Sure, I did my best, but my years of experience taught me that a ‘gritty’ attitude to learning wasn’t as commonplace as I would have liked – and embarrassingly, any students with such an attitude most likely came to my class with it. It had very little to do, explicitly, with me and my classroom processes.
Generally speaking, my high school students often seemed quite content in adopting a ‘near enough is good enough’ attitude toward their learning – and it certainly seemed that only a handful of students possessed the focus and self-direction to strive toward their goals with vigour. And just like Duckworth observed, it wasn’t necessarily the most ‘intelligent’ student who achieved the greatest gains. It was the student who felt completely comfortable repeatedly asking questions, approaching you for help, or reading drafts endlessly to their peers. There was a clear relationship between their attitude toward the classroom, their place within it and the process of gritty learning itself.
So, it all came down to attitude and how I could have created an environment positively focused on hard work. Huh.
Luckily, Duckworth and the worlds of modern psychology and neuroscience offer an understanding of how to tackle the situation. Considering – and planning for – the following elements can support teachers in establishing a classroom where gritty learning is the norm.
We avoid threat. Our brain is an amazing piece of biological machinery and humans have the most complex brain of any animal on earth. Designed for survival, we are constantly assessing our environment for threats or rewards. Things, people or experiences that threaten our physical survival, personal values or self-esteem can trigger the threat circuitry in our brain and seriously impede our willingness to engage in situations.
Classrooms are full of potential threat. When we consider that classrooms are essentially social environments, it’s clear that teachers need to be aware of how the actions and words that occur within the classroom can trigger a threat response in the brains of students. This is particularly true in idea generation and class discussions. If a student perceives a potential threat in putting forward new ideas (being wrong, being the focus of attention, and giving and receiving feedback), they are less likely to actively participate.
Teachers can intentionally mitigate threats.
A good place to start is to consider the threats that your students might perceive – and then plan to minimise their influence. The most essential element to reduce social risk is that of relationship. Classrooms where students demonstrate grit towards learning are those that have trusting teacher-student and student-student relationships at their core. Positive relationships can greatly improve students’ willingness to attempt tasks in the first place and sustain effort when things get tough or tedious.
You can teach students to ‘lean into’ the threat of being wrong. Teachers have the power to create a classroom culture where mistakes are used as learning opportunities through actively modelling helpful attitudes such as, ‘Mistakes are necessary for success.’ and ‘There is no such thing as failure, only opportunities to learn”. These helpful attitudes will influence a teacher’s behaviour and how they respond to errors, or mistakes both within themselves, and within their students. A teacher with these helpful frames will also influence their students to understand that it is expected that they will make – and share – their mistakes. Teachers can create an environment, not of blame, but of learning, as they encourage students to reflect on mistakes and focus on how to improve next time. Just like those gritty, self-directed students who worked so hard to succeed.
So, the moral of the story is that a gritty attitude the key to a successful classroom and that teachers can plan to explicitly develop this in their students. Through being aware of how they encourage and model helpful attitudes towards every student’s capabilities, the nature of relationships within the classroom and the importance of mistakes, they can help all students see that success is possible. All it takes is a little grit.
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Scribner/Simon & Schuster.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House. Leiberman, M.D. and Eisenberger, N.I. (2009). Pains and pleasures of social life. Science, 323, 890-891.
Symmonds, M., Bossaerts, P. & Dolan, R. J. A behavioral and neural evaluation of prospective decision-making under risk. J. Neurosci. 30, 14380–9; 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1459-10.2010 (2010).