Sunday, March 23, 2014

Teaching Grit... In a High-Stakes High School

Grit is the new ed buzzword apparently. It's nothing new to those of us who teach the arts. We've known for years that without grit, or perseverance, students cannot answer open-ended questions. In a high stakes high school like the one where I teach, open-ended questions can produce a lot of angst. When students are faced with a problem or question that doesn't have an easy, 'correct' answer or when you pose a problem and don't give them a linear path through the problem, many crumble. 

When I first started at this high school 6 years ago, I began teaching architecture and created the curriculum. One of the projects asks the students to map their journey through school for the day. I tell them they must show me where they entered, what path they took, the rooms they inhabited, how those spaces felt and then how they exited. Our school building is a warren with classrooms on four different floors. Some students get right to work. Others are completely stuck and have no idea how to begin. They ask me how to convey this information-how should they make these drawings? I tell them, to their dismay, that I don't care what format they choose, they just need to get the information across to me in a clear manner. Students have not learned yet what a floor plan looks like. In the six years I have been doing this project, I have had students who are so uncomfortable with not being told how to convey the information that they get really mad at me. 'Why won't you tell me how to do it," they ask? And why don't I just tell them what a floor plan is and ask them to create one? If I tell them, they don't have to figure it out for themselves and then it's just one more thing that someone has taught them that doesn't have relevance to their lives. If they figure it out, they own it and they never forget it as a useful tool to convey information. 


But back to grit. Some students have it, some don't. Can you teach it? Of course you can. Like any other skill, it is learned through practice. The uncomfortable place of open-ended questions without right answers can be overwhelming if you've always been in an environment where there are only right answers. But as far as I can tell, it's the only way to build grit. You have to let students be in that uncomfortable place long enough to have an aha moment and figure things out on their own. The more we give them questions with only one right answer, the more multiple choice tests, fill in the bubble, find the solution tests, quizes, and quizlets, the more stressed they get and the more they believe there is only one correct answer. Grit isn't even part of that equation.