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Imagine dropping someone off in the middle of the wilderness to survive in the wild for a week. What are the most important things that person needs to help them survive? Arguably more than anything else, grit—sustained perseverance and passion towards long-term goals—will help him or her thrive in this challenging environment. Grit also turns out to be essential in education; grittier students tend to outperform the less gritty ones (Duckworth et al. 2013). Given the importance of grit, the question becomes how can we instill this trait into our students. Using mountain climbing as an analogy, this paper explores how giving students ownership over their education can help them develop grit and become active, independent learners.
The first clue that today’s education system is insufficient at instilling grit comes from the definition itself: grit requires passion and there is no passion in most of today’s classrooms. Education today goes something like this: The teacher tells the students what they are going to learn, how they will learn it, and how they will be tested on it. The students have no control, often are not interested in the material the teacher is supposed to be teaching, or find that the teaching style does no fit well with their individual learning styles.
If classes or problems are like mountains, then today’s education system is about teachers bring the students to a mountain they usually don’t want to climb and handing them a map that micromanages every aspect of their journey. The first problem with this pedagogy is that it is not interesting; the students have no idea why someone would want to climb this mountain in the first place. If the material is not interesting to the student, there will be no passion and no chance to develop grit. At the same time, if the student does not care about the material, they will have no motivation to continue after they get stuck, so there will be no perseverance. The biggest problem though is that even when students succeed, they feel no reward. Because they are climbing a mountain that the teacher prescribed using a map that they were given, they will not appreciate the work they did to get there and the view they have at the top.
Today’s education system focuses on teaching map-reading. The idea is that there are certain mountains that every student should know how to climb, and the best way to achieve this is to give students maps for those mountains and to teach them how to navigate with them. What this doesn’t teach is map-making, which means that students are not prepared to climb the worthwhile mountains—the mountains that interest them that have never been climbed before. It is the difference between teaching survival skills for the jungle instead of general survival skills; the former is useful for one specific situation, while the latter can be applied anywhere. To prepare students for the challenges they will face in the 21st century—climate change, sustainable energy, world hunger, complex mountains for which no map has ever been drawn—this is the direction education needs to go.
By focusing on teaching map-making, education can not only better equip students with the tools they need for the modern world, but it can also instill students with the grit they need to become successful in whatever inspires them.
The main difference between map-reading and map-making education is who is in control. The latter is all about giving control to students, and helping them realize they have the potential to learn anything. It begins by first asking a student what kinds of mountains interest them. Once a student has chosen a topic that inspires them—be it robotics, basketball, or ballet—then will then have to create the map that allows them to climb that mountain.
Students will struggle at this task, especially the first few times they try to make maps, but this is exactly the point. Students need to struggle to develop grit, and because they are climbing a mountain of their choice, they will understand that a wonderful view awaits them at the top and will be motivated to keep climbing. When they reach the top, having struggled tremendously to get their, students will appreciate the view more than they ever could when following the teacher’s map. At the same time, students gain the self-efficacy that only comes from experiencing personal success at something difficult.
Teaching students to make maps and letting them climb mountains of their choice helps students develop the passion and perseverance that define grit. Students become passionate because they can learn about topics that inspire them, and develop perseverance by struggling and succeeding to achieve their goals. Together, these steps form a cyclic process, where each previous success inspires the next, and students strive to climb higher and higher mountains.
The turning point in this style of education comes when students have mastered map-making to the point that they see the common features in all maps. At this point, students will then be able to climb any mountain, no matter how tall. They recognize that they have the tools to make a map for any mountain and that no matter how tough a climb it is, they have the grit to make to the top. Most importantly, they will recognize that awaiting a top of this challenging mountain is a phenomenal view that will more than validate their effort.
Ultimately, education is about preparing students for the future. Given the uncertainties the future holds, the best way to prepare students is to give them the tools to adapt and learn whatever they need to flourish. Teaching map-making gives students the opportunity to learn how to learn, while also providing opportunities to develop the grit that is so instrumental to success. When students can make maps to climb any mountain, they have the power to cure cancer, generate sustainable energy, and change the world in whatever way that inspires them.