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Confucius once said, “It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.” The Chinese philosopher lived 2,500 years ago, but he understood something the traditional education system has seemingly forgotten. 

Test grades and bell curves don’t add up to success. Instead, success comes from perseverance and pushing through adversity. Parents and educators who encourage resilience — as opposed to a high class rank — will promote positive change in children, successfully preparing them for productivity and happiness as adults.

Can “grit” be taught? 

Recent research from the University of Pennsylvania has found that “grit,” a character trait associated with the passionate pursuit of a long-term goal, factors heavily into whether someone will succeed. The grittier the person, the more likely they’ll persist when things get tough. 

Among other points of research, the study looked at West Point cadets tackling a six-week boot camp before their university careers began. On average, 3% of the elite students quit during the experience. 

Surprisingly, it wasn’t low academic scores or physical preparedness that had researchers able to predict who those quitters would be — it was those who scored lowest on measures of grit. 

Why did the cadets quit? It likely has something to do with the fact that traditional education pushes parents and teachers to focus on grades and class rank, rather than embracing the concept of making mistakes during the learning process. The system is so backward, that students receive scores on how successfully they’re learning an idea while they’re still trying to learn it. A much more logical method of education would be to wait for a student to learn the necessary material and them have them demonstrate that mastery.

The model thus rewards those who either know the material already, or who excel at mastering academic content quickly. As a result, students don’t see the value of making mistakes — despite the fact that progressing through multiple failures is the way we learn how to fundamentally operate in the world (case in point, walking, talking, and riding a bike). When students don’t see it as healthy and normal to struggle while learning, they quickly begin to conflate that struggle with being unintelligent or incapable. 

Academic success doesn’t negate the need for resilience

High-achieving students internalize a similar lesson, thinking themselves smart because they learn quickly and don’t have to work hard to succeed at academic pursuits. Then when they actually do struggle with something for the first time — perhaps at West Point boot camp, for example — they don’t recognize the struggle as natural. Furthermore, since they’ve rarely encountered it, many lack the necessary coping mechanisms to soldier through the experience.

Parents and teachers would better serve the children in their lives by promoting grit, perhaps by taking a page from the book of proficiency-based education. 

Proficiency-based educational models rely on projects and demonstrations of competence rather than endless graded problem sets and multiple-choice tests. In proficiency-based education, students learn material at their own pace and demonstrate their mastery at the end of a module, often in their own way. 

This style of learning helps students internalize the idea that the destination matters more than the journey. They accept that struggle is a natural, normal part of the process, and they take that lesson into the adult world. After all, that world — at least as we recognize it today — wouldn’t exist without thinkers, inventors, and scientists who understood the immense value of making mistakes. 

In other words, they learn that it’s okay to fail — that it’s just part of the process. That it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them.

Parents and educators who want to encourage positive change, productivity, and happiness in children must embrace this idea of failing gracefully on the way to mastery, a concept that rewards personal growth and encourages the kind of resilience that life requires of us all. 

Perhaps if the high-achieving West Point cadets had encountered that lesson in earlier years, they wouldn’t have quit before attending their first university class.