Succeeding in the 21st Century: Our Kids Need More Than Smarts. They Need Grit.

By Jim Grant

How can educators best prepare children to achieve the Common Core State Standards and succeed in the 21st century? Content knowledge, while certainly important, is not enough. Students must also have the opportunity to develop a much richer set of skills that will have a positive impact on their success in school and influence in later life as leaders.

In this article, we’ll look at one of two of those character traits—grit and mindset—and how educators can create a learning environment where students can acquire, develop, and strengthen these keys to 21st century success.

The 21st century mindset

It’s exciting to believe we live in times that are evolving so dramatically that our children need new skills to succeed. It’s also a concern because today’s changing times can be challenging and stressful for those who have not yet acquired the resiliency, perseverance, and resolve necessary to overcome obstacles and thrive.

That’s where the renewed interest in mindset comes in. A 21st century mindset is based on the notion that one is always growing and that the view one adopts profoundly affects the way they lead their life.

People with a 21st century mindset believe they are evolving and always have something to learn. They are known for their reliability and commitment. They are always up to a challenge, stretch themselves when learning new things, and have the persistence to learn something over a longer period of time. This mindset will foster the adoption of “grit.” When combined, mindset and grit can transform an individual’s personal and work life.

Grit, a message students need to hear

What is “grit”, exactly? It can be defined as a collection of hardy, timeless character traits that enables one to persevere—no matter what—in the pursuit of long-term goals. It is firmness of mind and spirit, in the face of hardship. A few decades ago, traditional character traits were commonly emphasized in the classroom. These included honesty, citizenship, and responsibility. While still important—indeed these traits transcend all people and ages—these traits are not the only ones students need to succeed.

Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania is known for her research into personality traits and the role they play in academic achievement. For the last decade, she has been conducting groundbreaking studies on grit. She’s found that one of the things that makes you grittier is a growth mindset. Teachers who instill the attitude “I can try harder” can help create tenacious, hard-working students.

The Common Core connection

Certainly, our students need grit as they move their way through the rigor of the Common Core. In fact, “perseverance” is a theme throughout the standards. The first of the Mathematics standards clearly says that students should “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” The other standards also send the clear message that students are expected to put forth sustained effort as they investigate in-depth, deepen their understanding of different perspectives, read complex tests, listen carefully, and share their reasoning.

Science says grit comes from both nature and nurture. You are not necessarily born with it, although students born to gritty parents are most likely to have it. It’s not tied to intelligence either. We also know that someone’s character is not set. It can change. And that’s where a good teacher—a believer in the power of grit—can make a lasting difference.


For a deeper look at the 21st century and qualities needed to succeed, check out SDE’s webinar Grit, Mindset, and Determination: The Key to Leading by Influence (Grades 1–8) by former educator and author Jim Grant.

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