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by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

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Topic tags: why PBL, what is PBL, how to do PBL


May 5, 2014
Grit Happens in PBL

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

This year’s trendy new term in education is “grit.” Love it or hate it, it’s being talked about on blogs and other social media, and Edutopia just released an excellent new video about it. No doubt there are people presenting staff development workshops about grit in schools around the nation, and companies are quickly producing curriculum materials to sell. Here at BIE, we are seeing grit show up in our PBL 101 Workshops, when we ask educators to list the qualities of an “ideal graduate.” For sure, grit is happening in 2014!

Much of the sudden prominence of grit is due to the work of Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania who, among many useful resources, has a “Get Your Grit Score” tool. Recent books related to the topic include Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential (2012) by Carol Dweck of Stanford University, and How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (2012) by journalist Paul Tough. All the above offer much food for thought for teachers, parents, and education leaders.

What I see missing from the discussions of grit is, guess what… Project Based Learning.

Grit has been known by other names in the past: toughness (that’s the John Wayne/Jeff Bridges "true" cowboy type), or resilience, or perseverance despite challenges and setbacks. Current discussions of grit in education focus on the need for students to pursue long-term goals – such as going to college or becoming a nurse – and hang in there when trying to learn challenging material in school.

I’m reminded of “character education” efforts when I hear how students can be taught to get, er… grittier (if that doesn’t sound too much like what happens to my sandwich on a windy day at the beach). It’s all fine, as far as it goes. Have students learn about people who showed persistence in the face of adversity. Ask them to commit to long-term goals and write about how they intend to achieve them. Help them monitor their progress and reflect on how they are meeting challenges. Change the way we talk to students so the emphasis is on working hard, instead of “being smart.” Teach them to use Tools of the Mind that help control impulsivity, avoid distractions, stay focused, and manage emotions.

But in character education, the most successful efforts to help students become good people go beyond simply teaching them what it means to be good. To really help students become ethical, kind, honest, and so on, they must be asked to act that way, and held accountable for doing so.

Similarly, to build grit in students, put them in situations that require it. Instead of asking students to show grit by finding ways to sit dutifully through years of meaningless assignments and boring instructional methods, give them challenging, long-term projects that call for grit.

Imagine how much grit it would take to do something like “The Shrimp Project” where teacher Laurette Rodgers led her fourth graders on a multi-month quest to protect an endangered species. The students had to work with local ranchers on whose land a freshwater shrimp’s habitat was shrinking, and win their support for planting trees and bushes along creeks (resulting in grit under their fingernails). The students had to contact state legislators and persuade them to pass bills, and raise funds by selling t-shirts to local citizens. Imagine how much students learned about persistence and how to set and achieve long-term goals.

Even a less ambitious project – say, to create a book about local history, or propose a solution to a community’s traffic problem – requires grit. No project is going to unfold perfectly; students are going to face setbacks, decide they have to find new resources, rethink their ideas, or try a variety of solutions before deciding on the best one. A ”fail fast” approach is needed in PBL, it’s part of the process of innovation. Try something, see if it flies, then try again. Don’t give up. Think critically about what you’re doing, reading, and saying. Confidently defend your work to a public audience. That’s how to learn and demonstrate what it means to have grit.

* The term “grit happens” came to me from BIE’s Master Punster Alfred Solis.


  • Great article, John. One additional piece that I think is important, and is sometimes hard for me to do, is model grit in front of the students, by taking on a challenge that includes some kind of failure.

    inspirepassion on May 3, 2014 
    [Reply to this comment]
    • Thanks, and good point! In the same spirit as advice I’ve seen for PBL teachers: do the project/create the product yourself first, to understand what your students are going to need to do.

      John Larmer on May 3, 2014 
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  • There is no question that “doing” is the key to learning how to be “gritty”.  I think this quote says it all “Instead of asking students to show grit by finding ways to sit dutifully through years of meaningless assignments and boring instructional methods, give them challenging, long-term projects that call for grit”

    inspiration4kidz on May 20, 2014 
    [Reply to this comment]
  • John, I agree that PBL is a helpful vehicle to help students attain this elusive “grit.” I wrote about it this week on MiddleWeb’s Future of History and how the idea of grit connects to a PBL unit on the Civil War. Hope your readers can check it out!

    21centuryteachr on May 28, 2014 
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