Adversity by Design
Adversity by design is a set of course considerations and methodologies and is at the core of the GRITLab program. While it exists most authentically in a project-based-learning environment, its principles can be used in any classroom. But before explaining what Adversity by Design is, let’s start with some definitions.
“Adversity occurs when something negatively affects, or is predicted to negatively affect, someone or something you care about.”
~ Adversity Quotient
Grit: “Passion and persistence in pursuit of long term goals.
~ Angela Duckworth
Grit: “The will to relentlessly persevere, to struggle, sacrifice, suffer and endure, in the pursuit of worthy goals.”
~ Paul Stoltz
A Thought Experiment:
Let’s start by taking a moment to remember the last time you faced adversity – the last time you really had to struggle through something. Try to recall how it actually felt. Now think of a single word or phrase that best sums up your state of mind in that moment. Did you get butterflies in your stomach? Did you want to quit and move onto something else? Were you thrilled by possibility of learning something new? Chances are that, regardless of the ultimate outcome of your struggle, it was an uncomfortable experience. Now what if I offered you a magic pill? A magic pill that instantly and permanently immunizes you against adversity – against that uncomfortable feeling you thought of earlier. The pill cannot be diluted and the effect can not be undone. Do you take the pill? Better yet, do you give the pill to your children or to your students? When I pose this question to educators from around the country, there is always a resounding NO. They explain that encountering adversity, and going through those uncomfortable challenges, is an important part of growth and learning. And the ability to persevere through that adversity is called grit.
If we take a more pragmatic approach and poll employers for what they value in potential employees, 98% will overlook minor skills and qualification deficiencies for someone with exceptional grit. Furthermore, if employers are asked to reflect on previous employees that exhibited tremendous grit, then asked how many employees they would trade for just one of those exceptionally gritty employees – the average number is 7.3. Employers would trade an entire team of employees for just one employee with exceptional grit.
With adversity as an instrumental part of growth and learning and GRIT as such a desirable character trait, we must explicitly foster the development of grit in our classrooms. The point of creating adversity in our classrooms is to guide students through conquering it in a controlled environment so when it hits in an uncontrolled environment – they can persevere.
How? The Five Pillars
The concepts of grit and perseverance dominate our national identity. Whether you’re looking at Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, or Einstein – they are all used as fables to outline the cultural and personal value of GRIT. Yet only recently have these concepts become prevalent in academia. Angela Duckworth has identified and quantified the value of Grit but admittedly struggles to find ways to foster it in others. Carol Dweck has developed definitive tools to use in fostering growth mindsets but the reach of these tools is limited by their subtlety and the surrounding experience. So that leaves the ultimate question – how do we manifest these traits in our students? The Adversity by Design methodology breaks it into five considerations, each explored below.
Develop the Need
GRIT is an immune response to adversity. In order for students to develop grit, they must encounter authentic adversity and experience some level of discomfort in their projects.
Teachers must design product-focused projects with the following characteristics:
- Students must build to a specification or proposal. When they encounter adversity – the most common reaction is to change the desired outcome. For example, a student struggling with the fabrication of a guitar might simply decide to build a drum instead – thus dodging the adversity inherent in the design of the guitar. If students build to a pre-determined outcome, this can be avoided. GRITLab projects start with an explicit set of themes or specifications and students write formal proposals on what they would like to build within those themes and specifications.
- The project must be widely perceived as extremely difficult. Nothing is more deflating for students than being one of few in the room that lacks a skill. If you’re doing a project that many students are already capable of doing – then don’t do it. Furthermore, an external perception of difficulty lessens the perceived risk of failure and adds to the value of the impending success.
- Students must develop tangible skills on the project. Students must emerge from the project capable of something that sets them apart from their peers.
- The product of the project must be differentiable. Maintaining an even level of adversity for a diverse group of students means that student projects will be of varying difficulty and complexity. The product(s) being produced in this project must be easily varied in difficulty and complexity.
“Facilitation in our tinkering environment is an exercise in observation and restraint….”
~ Tinkering by Design, by: Luigi Anzivinoand Karen Wilkinson , Exploratorium
- Carefully craft your interactions with students
- Don’t give them an easy way out. Provide the resources, not the answers.
- Do not refer to students as “smart” or “talented”. Only refer to “hard workers” and those who get their work done.
- Be authentic and provide authentic and critical feedback.
- Set the Pace
- Make your expectations clear –this is an effort based course. Students are expected to operate at 150% of “normal student output”.
- Lead by example –students will mirror your character, actions, and commitment.
Adversity is, by definition, difficult. Some students may not yet have developed the cognitive or emotional maturity to meet it head-on. As such, Adversity by Design requires careful emotional scaffolding and support, including:
- Be sure that the culture and environment are emotionally supportive. A student should have a clear and defined way to access the teacher when having trouble.
- While Adversity by Design requires a critical analysis of student performance, you must remain soft on students emotionally.
- Even with the best emotional scaffolding – expect some emotional fallout and have infrastructure in place to involve parents.
- Remember that grit is a finite resource. Some students may encounter all of their adversity in the classroom. However, some encounter adversity before even stepping into your door. As such, be cognizant of students out-of-school environment when defining your expectations of them.
- Carefully manage student perception of performance and difficulty. While the actual difficulty of a project is also important, their perception of its difficulty is even more so.
- Aim for projects to be extremely difficult but not daunting.
- Be explicit about student learning goals from the beginning. Some things students should do themselves from scratch. Other tasks outside the learning goals can sometimes be provided for them.
- Determine what they don’t need and fill in the gaps. When balancing the external perceived difficulty of the project with the actual difficulty for students, you may need to freely provide materials, processes, and other structures for students.
The “GRIT” model and acronym is borrowed with permission from #1 Bestselling author and noted scholar, Dr. Paul G. Stoltz, whose grit-related assessments and methods are featured as global best practices at
Harvard, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Cornell universities (among others), has substantively evolved Angela Duckworth’s basic grit model, creating GRITT™, also known as, “GRIT 2.0.” This advanced construct has strong predictive validity on a variety of success factors, and adds Growth, Resilience, and Instinct, to Tenacity. It also assesses “Robustness,” one’s capacity to maintain one’s ideal, best state despite the onslaught of unexpected perturbations, or adversities.