Culture of Grit: an ethical philosophy of education

Education is the backbone of a society; if it is strong, the future is bright. But if it is weak, then that society’s future is bleak. Virtually all faith traditions and humanistic philosophies advocate for quality education and extol their followers on its importance. Islam regards the path towards education as a scared path and makes the search for knowledge a mandatory act of devotion to God. Nations become great when proper quality education is offered to the children of the land and civilizations flourish on the backs of a well-educated masses. The Islamic civilization reached its Golden Age and peak when education was at its prime in the Muslim lands. But when the Ottomans stopped putting premium on education by putting a ban on the printing press during the early years of its invention, they reversed the massive progresses God had done to Islamic civilization and the Muslims through their focus on quality education and set the Muslim world behind the West in many ways of which its effects are still apparent today (Watson, 1968). 

            As an educator, my ethical philosophy is informed heavily by the faith tradition of Islam, cultural experiences, and reflections on compendium of researches in developmental psychology and education. Hence why I like to refer to this part of Islamic history to underscore the importance of education when discussing ethics and philosophy. It gives a vivid example for how lack of quality education can set people with potential backwards and begin a declining cycle that can last for generations and generations.

            In this paper, I will be explaining my philosophy of education which is based on creating a structure that ensures developmentally appropriate expectations at each stage of learning, that accommodates for gender differences in its approach to teaching and assessing, controls for external factors and prepares students into becoming responsible, moral citizens. Some of the practical approach to my ethical philosophy may seem radical and outdated, but in personalizing it to the problems of low income neighborhood schools, I will demonstrate how these approaches may help solve some of the pertinent issues plaguing our school district.

   Developmentally Appropriate Expectations

            When right things are done at the wrong time that’s usually a recipe for failure. This is very much true regarding child psychology as well. While we tend to gravitate towards the notion that the earlier the better and praise children who are beyond their grade level, we need to realize that for children: the earlier isn’t usually the better. In fact, on the contrary the earlier can be damaging. If we look at the state of the American early education today, there’s no doubt that it is one which can be described, in the words of Dr. Leonard Sax, as an accelerated elementary curriculum with a high focus on phonics and reading drills. This means pre-k and kindergarten curriculum are primarily geared towards teaching reading and phonics. Kindergarten classes have become more structured towards learning by instruction, rather than learning by exploration and play which are the developmentally appropriate expectations for children of age 5.

            Children in pre-school and kindergarten are usually in the early stages of Jean Piaget’s Preoperational Stage which is characterized by learning to use words and pictures symbolically and thinking about things in concrete terms. Essentially, at this stage children need to relate to things in concrete terms. This means while reading about trees is good, seeing and touching a live tree outside in the open is far better for children developmentally and cognitively at this stage. And similar examples abound. Rich people know this and are enrolling their children later than usual to make sure their children are developmentally ready. In [ affluent] neighborhoods, it’s not unusual to find that half the boys, or more, are enrolled in kindergarten at age 6 rather than at age 5. In low-income neighborhoods – where many working parents simply can’t afford to keep their children home another year – it’s less common to find parents holding their kids back (Daphna Bassok; Sean Reardon , 2013). 

Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague at school over her anxiety that her three-year-old doesn’t know all her alphabets completely yet. When I cautioned her on the possible demerits of unnecessary head-start, she told me that she had ensured her first born, a boy, knew how to read before pre-school and ahead in her math skills. Now in the first grade her son’s teacher sends negative report home, saying that her son doesn’t pay attention in class and talk out of turn. When she asked her son why, he groaned that the class is too boring because the works are not challenging.  Here we’re not only seeing a case of how early it is not necessarily better, but how it can even lead to behavioral problems in classrooms. Earlier is not usually better. For example, children in Finland don’t begin any formal schooling until they are 7 years old. Nevertheless, by the time they’re teenagers, Finnish children are beating American children by large margins on the same test (Sax, 2016). While it is important for parents to do informal reading preparations for their children before formal school such as bedtime stories and the sort, schools must be wary of having expectations that exceed the developmental realities of students: children 5 and below need to play around, they should not sit for hours listening to instructions. 

Accommodating for Gender Differences

Boys and girls are different. This is a statement of fact which, unfortunately in this clime where objective truth has been erased from public sphere, has been given a connotation of misogyny. This refusal to accept this basic reality of life has streamed into the school system and has been having profound effect on the education and social developments of our children. There are tons of research that show biological differences between both genders in hearing and seeing and even smelling[1]. When we know that girls and boys outlook about life are different, how then do we do a disservice to our boys and girls by creating blanket teaching, assessing and evaluating styles for both genders? It is no news that boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls. But do we interrogate and ask why?

To say girls can’t master STEM as boys can is false and misogynous. But to say girls typically have a different approach to mastering STEM is correct. Gilligan (1982) already emphasized the gender differences that are associated with the two orientations shaping how each gender approach morality. It only makes sense that similar orientations would be impacting other aspect of life such as academics and creative expressions. In his book, Why Gender Matters, Dr. Leonard Sax explained how there are gender specific strategies that help towards teaching and assessing, backing his claims up with enormous research-study results. Gender blind education tends to perpetuate gender stereotypes, and as a result, fewer girls than boys are really excited about subjects such as physics, computer science and advanced math (Sax, 2016).  Educators should be made aware of the effects of gender blind instruction and trained on how to implement strategies that effectively teach and assess each gender appropriately.

Teacher-Centric Culture for K-8 and Less Vacation Time

            One elephant in the room we often circumvent when talking about high test scores, teacher effectiveness and student learning is discipline. The amount of instructional time lost due to indiscipline fancily called “classroom management” is simply outrageous. Whenever I talk to my colleagues in general education, I am left with an agape mouth hearing how they barely have enough time to actually teach. One frustrated teacher on social media echoed this perfectly:

Sometimes I feel like I’m being punished for giving my students the grade they deserve. I’m pretty sure I’m being bullied into passing each student, with the bully being the mountain of paperwork it takes to give a child an unsatisfactory grade. I just want to teach. I don’t want to put out fires all day with parents. I don’t want to chip away at a never-ending pile of paperwork. I don’t want to give my students busy work while I try to get ahead so that I can leave at a decent time today.

Education, especially, in the developing years of a child should be teacher centric. This gives students a sense of structure and ability to recognize and obey authority. Additionally, during this period, according to Kohlberg, the child’s morality tends to be towards conformity and acceptance of authority and order. So, teachers should be the center of authority at this stage, not the student. Sadly, though, the opposite is the case. In all the parties involved in public education today, form administration, to parents, to students, teachers are the least powerful and the ones at the mercy of the rest. Teachers can’t verbally reprimand students, rather they’re encouraged to document instances of misbehaviors from little children which chime away from their instruction time, then they’re ordered to make a referral for psych evaluation on the student instead of dealing with the misbehavior once and for all in the presence of other students or in a conference with the parent.

            The taking of authority away from teachers have led to an array of dysfunctions in education of which one is the surge in diagnosis of ADHD and ODD. Teachers are engrossed in plenty of documenting, parent appeasing, children mummying that they aren’t allowed to do the bulk of their jobs.  In addition to loss of instructional time due to teacher’s loss of authority, students are losing lots of their academic gains due to long vacations and the already short school days. Malcolm Gladwell (2009) intelligently notes that disparity in academic mastery between students from low-income families and affluent families becomes more significant after summer break. While students from affluent families are busy with meaningful extracurricular, reading, and music summer programs, low-income students are losing all the gains they have made. Hence, the system must either make the holidays shorter for each period or provide educational programs that transcend the classrooms for students which will ensure retention of what have been learnt.

Culture of Grit, Responsibility, and Civility

            If education is preparing students for the real world, then it is imperative that the approach to education be reflective of realities of life. Life is not a bed of roses, nothing good comes easy, actions have consequences, and to be better at something efforts must be exerted, and failure is part of life. I believe every child can learn and succeed, and it is the duty of the adults – teachers, parents, admins, policy makers – to make sure the child gets what he needs to be successful. Often times what the child needs is neither  pleasing nor easy and the normal reflex of the child is to give up or yell, but because the adults can see beyond the child’s view, they insist he does it, so that at the end, one day, the student can look back, realizing the power of that perseverance and how it impacted his or her life and be thankful for what seemed like a hard time or grilling experience.

            Coming from Nigeria, where there’s an educational culture of grit although overshadowed by poor, underfunded public school system, my first year in college was full of amazement as I saw American students fail to submit assignment on time or at all, read assigned texts, or even participate in class discussion. The culture of “winging” things I would later learn in sociology is a norm in American education. As can be seen from the KIPP’s experience, the success is barely the result of different teachers or curriculum, it’s mostly due to the seriousness the program gives to the cultural legacy of grit (Gladwell, 2009).  

            Students must be taught the value of hard work by making the results of their works apparent. Parents need to understand that failing or repeating a class is okay. The culture of not wanting to hurt a child’s feeling by rewarding mediocrity is in the log time debilitating and disastrous to our educational system and our students’ sense of responsibility. We must create a system where hard work and results are rewarded, not just showing up. We must fill our students with desire to succeed and as well fill their daily schedules with meaningful work, meaningful play and appropriate socialization and meaningful mentoring that will guide them into becoming responsible fathers, mothers, workers, spouses, and good, ethical citizens of the world.

                                                    Works Cited

Daphna Bassok; Sean Reardon . (2013). Academic Redshirting in Kindergarten: Prevalence, Patterns, and Implications. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis , 283-297.

Gladwell, M. (2009). Outliers . New York: Penguin Books.

Sax, L. (2016). Why Gender Matters . New York: Basic Books.

Watson, W. J. (1968). , “İbrāhīm Müteferriḳa and Turkish Incunabula. Journal of the American Oriental Society, , 88 (3): 435–441.


[1] There are numerous sources for this: Janice Hasset, and Kim Wallen, “Sex Differences in Rheuss Monkey Parallel Those of Children,” Homrones and Behavuor, volume 54, pp.359-364

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