Games & Grit

Joe Norden Education

a formula for success

Way back in the 1930s, author Napoleon Hill decided to study successful men and women in an attempt to find something they had in common that might help others achieve their own success. Surprisingly, he found nothing in the way of specific genius or super-human abilities in those high achievers. Rather, the overall skills of the group seemed to be pretty average–they weren’t necessarily more talented or smarter than anyone else. Hill was befuddled and frustrated by his findings, as he apparently was not on his way to discovering the Rosetta Stone for Success. Going back over his notes, however, he noticed one single trait that group of individuals had in common: They persisted.

grit

The field of education has been desperately seeking its own Rosetta Stone for years, and hasn’t met with a whole lot of success in that endeavor. Recently the field has become interested in something called “grit,” which is essentially the same as persistence, although certain researchers have created the distinction of grit being a sort of long term form of perseverance. For our purposes, we won’t use those distinctions here.

Of the many researchers studying the phenomenon of grit, one of the best known is University of Pennsylvania Professor Angela Duckworth, who popularized the usage of the word “grit” in educational contexts. She has researched the concept at some length, finding that persistence is usually a better predictor of success than IQ tests over a wide range of diverse populations.

Duckworth has indeed studied quite an array of groups, including teachers in urban districts, West Point cadets, and spelling bee contestants. Each study found that, of all the possible variables, grit was the single trait that most accurately predicted effectiveness and success. For example, the grittier teachers were the ones more likely to succeed and not to leave, unlike many of their apparently less gritty colleagues. Her work has led Duckworth to believe grit is not an innate characteristic; rather, it can be learned through proper training and practice.

failure

The idea of “failure” in the classroom has been fully entrenched as problematic for generations. Many students have experienced the sting of a failed test or a botched assignment, with the future effects of those events often being detrimental to their progress, and academic “failure” acting as a sort of cognitive trauma. Yet when kids play games, a setback is seen simply as an event that can be learned from and repeated, with the possibility of success the next time around. This resilient mindset is inherently derived from well-designed games; it’s one of the things that playing games brings to the table–and which can also be delivered to the classroom. It is a mindset that encourages persistence and grittiness. Games allow us to fail freely and then to continue onward toward achieving a goal, despite whatever setbacks may have occurred.

Interestingly, if a game does not include a certain number of “failure events,” it’s considered to be a poorly designed game, too easy to play. On the other hand, if a game is overly difficult, the same judgment is made, only in this case the game is too hard. Thus a “sweet spot” needs to be achieved for players to be effectively challenged, but not faced with something completely over their heads. This situation is analogous to Vygotsky’s concept of a Zone of Proximal Development, where a learner is close to “getting it,” but maybe needs a bit of help or a hint to fully break through to the desired goal. Persistence helps get the learner through “the Zone,” en route to the objective.

perseverance is not innate

So, grit, persisting, perseverance, stick-to-itiveness — or whatever you wish to call it — emerges from the research as something fundamental to academic success, and likely to any sort of success. This important character trait is not innate; it can be nurtured, promoted, and developed. Children can be supported in their education by playing learning games that motivate and engage, encourage persistence, and which do not punish failure.


When children play with Puzzlets, they inevitably fail at some point or other. And yet, rather than become discouraged, they persist to get to the next level of play. Why? Because playing the game is fun and engaging–they want to continue; for them, the challenge is worth it. It’s the polar opposite of what many kids experience in a traditional classroom, where failure is regarded as a badge of shame.