What the NEA Says Kids Need
Grit is a quality that has been identified by the National Education Association (NEA) as the quality, above all others, that guarantees the success of a student in school and later in life. Not DNA, not I.Q., not taking accelerated courses, not doing well on academic testing, but grit. Grit is a difficult concept to define. The author, Paul Tough has given us his understanding in the recently published book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. He says grit includes the qualities of perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control and that these are the ultimate keys to success.
So let’s examine how, or if, a Montessori education is developing grit in children. I can think of any number of activities that might contribute to this. Giving children physically challenging activities in the practical life materials sets the stage, even as early as age 2, for overcoming obstacles. Experiences like getting all the grains of rice poured back into the bowl without spilling any, carrying a long rod that is longer than your arms outstretched across the room without hitting anyone with it on the way, carrying a heavy chair and placing it quietly on the floor, picking up the beans that you have spilled on the floor one at a time until they are back in their container, are just a few that come to mind. And for the older primary child, skip counting all the beads on the 1000 bead chain over a series of days is certainly an arduous task. Yes, most, if not all, Montessori classroom activities would potentially build a sense of responsibility, stick-to-itiveness, and task completion. The need to do the “job” correctly – any Montessori piece of material – is applied to all children, regardless of their backgrounds or talents. The end result for many children is the development of “perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control”, the very qualities Tough is promoting. This is the great beauty of the Montessori approach and the end result is now being validated by mainstream education experts as parents everywhere are being told to help their children develop grit. I say to the NEA, “What took you so long?”
There is a term normalization that is used in the Montessori lingo. It refers to whether a child has acclimated to the Montessori environment. Thus, teachers speak of whether a child is normalized or not. I prefer the word accommodated. Nonetheless, the reactions the teacher hopes to see are the same. Has a child learned the routines of work and found joy in facing the challenges the materials present? If so, this would be the obvious first phase of the development of grit. This process of self-mastery begins with the feeling of accomplishment and self-pride that children feel when a difficult task has been mastered. You can see it on their faces without them even telling you what they have done. This is how to build character. This is why Montessori teachers do not interfere with the work of the child and why there is a control of error inherent in each activity so they don’t have to interfere for self-control to develop and learning to occur.
So, we need to remember not to make things too easy for children in our homes. Let them struggle a little to end up with the satisfaction of having overcome an obstacle. Montessori said never do for the child what they can do for themselves. In the end their accomplishments will build character and the other mysterious qualities in the word grit that are now considered so important in learning.
Dr. Celeste Miller