Youth makers making communities sustainable

Marcos Gonzalez

In my first blog entry for Invincibility Lab website I would like to write about how youth makers are the foundation for the present and future of sustainable communities. And you must be wondering, what is a sustainable community? Good question. What make a community sustainable are their people. That is why I started with the premise that youth makers are important for these communities.

Now, let’s go back to what is a sustainable community. Sustainable communities are communities where its members actively engage in practices that ensure the environmental, social, and economic health of future generations. For example, the members of a sustainable community are always thinking about future generations while they partake in the resources they have now. When we talk about resources we are not only talking about water and land, we need also to consider energy. Every time we use the TV or the computer, we are consuming energy that future generations, may not be able to enjoy. So, what we can do to ensure that the upcoming generation in our community could have an opportunity to enjoy of energy sources? Some of you got it right: renewable energy sources.

In M4C our youth makers have this issue very present when they start designing their projects. Most of the designs from the youth makers have a component of renewable energy. For example, the light umbrella from Ariel and the bird house heating system both use different forms of renewable energy, such as human or solar, which they figured out how to convert to electrical energy.

Another important aspect of sustainable communities is engaged, informed citizenship. That is, sustainable communities’ members are actively involved in their community’s problems. Every time the youth makers starts a new project, they collect data with surveys about the needs in the community. Once they have that information, they use it to incorporate new elements to their design or develop a product that can serve the community’s needs. The youth’s active role in identifying a problem and design a solution to that problem is an important characteristic of sustainable community members. Remember, a community is sustainable because of their members’ practices.

The youth makers in M4C demonstrate how to transform a community to a sustainable community with creativity and the will to help others. The sustainable future of these communities is secure when we create spaces for youth where their voices, ideas, and dreams, are heard. They are the principal community’s assets to attend the problems that affect them and find solution for their problem.

Creativity in STEM

Day Greenberg recently wrote a blog post about one of our newer GET City members, M*, who was not able to join in the 2014- 2015 GET City session, by virtue of not being in middle school (our grade requirement), but made sure Day knew he would be back. Now that he’s in 6th grade he is an active force in our group. I can completely imagine what M’s persistence to join must have looked like because we see it every session. There were probably six different elementary school-aged youth who regularly come to the door (or come on in and sit right down) to ask if they join GET City today. One elementary youth in particular, L*, and I have a lot of fun talking about WHY she can’t wait to be part of GET City. Her answer is simple, “You guys make awesome stuff!” We regularly talk about the flying shoes she wants to create — she has a clear vision of why she wants to make them, and what she’s going to use them for. Her imagination, her desire to change the way she interacts with her world, and her belief in the potential of science (and GET City) come together in this amazing vision that pulls on the importance and potential of creativity in STEM.

Creativity in STEM is getting an increasing amount of attention these days; but it’s a narrow kind of attention. It mostly seems to be coming from business leaders and politicians — from those who want to push innovation because that’s what drives economic development and competition. From these perspectives, the standard bar for creativity (as an idea or product that is both novel and effective) is judged against cultural norms; which means those who can be deemed creative are those already within that culture and that ideas / products will only be judged as creative if they contributed in a way perceived as important to those top dogs who issued the call.

The value of being called “creative” or considering yourself creative is something I’ve long been interested in. Why do so many people think it’s for artists only? What makes it tricky to see the creativity in science? I was recently at a professional development seminar where not one of forty faculty members and graduate students were willing to identify themselves as creative. Who says you have it or don’t? If you don’t have it, who does? These are all questions I look forward to teasing out, but for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll re-focus in on my main question: how can thinking about being creative in STEM expand opportunities for youth voice and agency?

I’m excited to start some conversation groups in the last few months of GET City to see what the youth have to say about creativity in our science and design work — what it looks like to them, where they see it, why they think it’s important, and how we can be better about supporting it. This top-down push for creativity in STEM doesn’t match up with science education; it’s a mis-aimed point: advocating for creativity in our science classes shouldn’t just be about how creativity can push the agendas of those in charge. It should be about the power of creativity to elevate the experiences of those whose expression might otherwise not be recognized as authentic participation in science. Creativity has transformative power for individual’s meaning-making and agency in science — we see this frequently when we ask our youth engineers what their inventions say about them, because two narratives often pop up: 1) “that I care about my community,” and 2) “that I’m a creative person.”  I think that speaks volumes about what happens when we support creation. Flying shoes included.

*names withheld for privacy

Authentic Partnerships for Change

One of our commitments in Invincibility is to work towards authentic university-community-school partnerships in support of designing equitable STEM learning experiences for youth from non-dominant communities. This collaboration has been the forefront of creating serious conversations in our community around what high quality STEM experiences can be for youth in low-income communities, and the hoped for impacts on youth development.

For example, our collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club of Lansing began in 2006. At the heart of our partnership are a set of shared beliefs about working towards equitable outcomes, including drawing upon the strengths that each brings to the table, on-going communication for building a shared vision, and working for change – change in how we make sense of, design, and deliver equitable programs for youth, and change in ourselves as we learn from each other and the process. The process is not always smooth, even when the collaborative relationships are strong. Change is difficult, and the process is always under the stress of external forces, such as limited access to resources for community and public organizations, competing external priorities, and broader sociohistorical narratives/practices about equity and STEM.

In response, we have found that we are able to sustain our efforts by foregrounding the importance of youth perspectives. By inviting the youth to play powerful roles as co-researchers and co-developers, their voices provide a centering mechanism.

Inspired by the Research + Practice Collaboratory, three practices have helped us along the way that draw upon this youth-based focus.

First, youth participatory methodologies have served as a grounding mechanism of our partnership. We focus on the importance of a weekly conversation we hold with youth, where they provide on-going direction and feedback regarding our partnership programs. We also focus on the importance of youth researchers – youth who play the role of broker between our partnership and other participating youth and families. We also believe that youth participatory methodologies are important in supporting youth in trusting the process and the ones delivering the process.

Second, we have a set of both informal and formal tools and routines that have emerged from our efforts to listen to and learn from youth that keep us focused on our commitment to work for equity, such as the importance of deliberate efforts to talk about particular youth and their work/development, “thinking big” conversations (what we hope/dream for), and weekly check-ins on youth progress.

Third, we our committed attention to youth voices enables on-going productive change in ourselves and in our partnership. For example, what started off as a partnership focused on offering short term programs for middle school youth, has developed into year-round programming that incorporates family and community engagement, authentic community concerns, and opportunities for youth to form empowering relationships with leaders of local professional and academic communities. This partnership has also resulted in physical changes to the club, as they secured a new green roof based on youth research and action taking on energy- and community-related issues, and now with the construction of a dedicated makerspace.

If you have useful tools and practices towards research + partnerships, we would love to hear about them.


Making 4 Change Community Event

Like a Piece of Gum.

by Day Greenberg

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Last time, I wrote a blog post about what I think about grit research. That post referenced a running metaphor that Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth made in her TED talk about grit. “Running ahead” with that metaphor, I challenged it with my own analogy about access to high-quality running shoes, in that there are some crucial resources that act as gatekeepers on people’s paths toward their goals. These gatekeepers (e.g., a high-quality educational opportunity) make rushing forward—AT ANY SPEED—toward a goal either easier, or much, much harder.

This time around, I want to introduce you to one particularly gritty young person I know, and to the metaphors he has used in discussions of his access to educational gatekeepers. This person—a youth engineer who is currently in the middle of prototyping an actual pair of running shoes—has some very relevant points to share about forward momentum and what it requires.

M*, an active member of our afterschool STEM club, visited our club at the end of last year (his 5th grade year) and asked to join. We turned him down, reminding him that the school year was almost over, and that our program membership usually begins in 6th grade. This fall, he showed up at our welcome back party and joined that same day. Since then, he has been actively involved in engineering for sustainable communities, developing novel footwear design solutions to community member’s needs related to injuries, cold and wet weather, and economic constraints.

We asked M what he thought about doing science and engineering afterschool in our program. Here’s what he said:

Author (A): Why are you doing it?

M: Cuz last year, I couldn’t make it out here. And I seen something, and I started thinking maybe that could be me next year. So, I stuck around. On the bottom of your shoe. Like a piece of gum. And I waited… [looks at author smiling] That’s a big cheese.

A: Cuz I love that metaphor! …Now what does that mean to you?

M: That I’m patient.

A: … So how do you feel now that you’re done with being patient and done with the wait?

M: Now I can build stuff!

A: How’s that feel?

M: Good. It gets my hopes up to build, like, all these type of things that people need, or all these things that we need. So, we build. And we create. And we present. And we search for facts, and people’s opinions. And we do.

A: And what do you mean by “do”?

M: We work off of them [facts researched, and people’s opinions], and sometimes we actually take their things and put them into our things, and create a whole big thing! [moves arms out wide] Like a whole big thing of ideas for our invention. Like, something be cool, so, it builds up… it just started spreading when people started talking about it. …it just made it into this big ole resource that people need. So, I worked off of it. Or, if somebody says they did it [that the product he wanted to create already exists], then that might stink, so I bounce back. Or sometimes I just rush forward.

A: When do you rush forward?

M: When I see stuff that is really, things that I really need.

In M’s comments, I definitely see grit. It’s quite hard to miss. We told him “no,” and he came back. After an entire summer, he still remembered. And the way he describes it, there was no way we could have gotten rid of him, even if we tried. He was sticking around and waiting for his turn. No matter what.

But you see, the thing is, this young man who described himself as “a piece of gum” was not acting as “a piece of gum floating in space.” He had something (and someone) to stick to. In his mind, he was anchoring himself to me, and to the club. By proxy (whether he was/is fully aware of it or not), he was also anchoring himself to our cache of precious resources—educational information, social relationships, institutional affiliations, professional network connections, experiential opportunities, not too mention the financial and material support we have the ability to share.

Where we went, he wanted to go too. As he would likely tell it, we couldn’t get rid of him, and we had to accept his presence eventually. Not only that, we had to finally give him access to the resources, environments, and opportunities he so craved.

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So, I have my own interpretations and perspectives about this story and what it can tell us as science education researchers and practitioners, but to be honest, I’m still in the process of figuring that out. One of the benefits of longitudinal, qualitative research is that the investigation of data can be viewed as a journey, one that runs in parallel to the journeys your participants/students complete during your research/practice (and I’m not done with exploring M’s journey just yet).

For now, why don’t you tell me: what lessons can potentially begin to be uncovered here with M, in your opinion? What connection do you see between his grit, our shared resources together, and his supported, forward momentum past multiple different gatekeeper stations (some of which he has already passed, and some of which he has yet to encounter)? Where is the balance of power, responsibility, and perseverance located, in M’s world?

Where is it located in yours?


*Name kept private.


Makerspaces: Seeking Equitably Consequential Outcomes

“To us, a makerspace is a place where you can invent, have fun, and make stuff to save the world… If you don’t feel welcome then you won’t want to go help people build stuff. If we help people learn about what this stuff is, they’ll know. A makerspace is a community because it’s all of us there.” Ayana (11 years old) & Desiree (12 years old)

Makerspaces can support youth from minoritized communities in learning and becoming in STEM in meaningful and equitably-consequential ways when opportunities to make are sustained and mutual, and when forms of engagement supported are expansive towards critical, connected and collective ends.

We use the term equitably consequential quite intentionally. Framing youths’ experiences through the lens of equitably-consequential learning and becoming challenges the field to consider how making, as a practice, is never separate from individual and social histories that unfold across space and time. Who can make and who cannot, whose knowledge matters and whose does not, are all a part of making itself. Every day decisions in makerspaces inscribe not only what counts as authentic “making,” but also youth identities as makers, participants, collaborators, community-members, young people who legitimately belong in this makerspace, signifiers that endure as historicizing elements shaping the emerging culture of the youth makerspace.

Recently Jurow and Shea (2015) have written about “consequential learning” – or learning that changes the community of practice in which it takes place. The term consequential surfaces the important role that disrupting normative practices play in learning. Similarly, we also draw upon the term consequential to foreground the importance of such disruptions. For us, ‘equitably-consequential’ underscores the importance of the ways in which learning and becoming are forward directed and transformative for both the self and the community, such that acts of learning and becoming contribute productively to, and help to legitimize, an ever expanding range of ideas, tools, resources and ways of being in the makerspace. Like Jurow and Shea we are interested in how the youths’ practices interrupt flows of peoples, tools and resources and how these interruptions matter to both individuals (youth) and communities (makerspace community, STEM community).

Building further on this work, we use the term equitably-consequential to call greater attention to the ways in which the movement of young people’s makerspace practices transforms the boundaries of participation in making in-the-moment and over time. Such movement brings along with it a critical orientation to the complex, dynamic interaction between vertical and horizontal dimensions of learning. Such transformations support youth in persisting in a STEM trajectory beyond the initial communities in which they participate, (e.g., vertical movement), and that the artifacts innovated by youth within these makerspaces hold potential for ameliorating particular, personally felt and experienced inequities in their lives in-the-moment (e.g., horizontal movement).

For many of the youth with whom we work, engagement in the makerspace is about critically engaging the issues that framed their young lives, whether it is concern about sexual violence and bullies, or access to “cool,” light up cards that one’s own family could not afford. These histories and geographies of learners shape the ways in which the youth bounded the problems they sought to solve and the solutions they developed.

For example, we have worked with a group of young women who made an anti-rape alarm jacket. Their efforts – 6 months in the making – shed light on the meaning of equitably consequential. The need to outfit a jacket with a rape-alarm reflects the girls’ experiences in the world, and how they have learned to navigate and respond to those experiences through the power dynamics that play out there, both in-the-moment, and historically. The youth’s focus on the jacket was not as much interest-driven as it was an attempt to make in ways that positioned them with agency over the dangers in their lives. These critically-oriented forms of engagement in space-time open up new possible trajectories for making.

In stressing criticality, we also push on the notion of interest driven learning. When considering equitably-consequential making for youth, the kinds of experiences, relationships, and identities that youth are allowed to connect with their making, have often been trenchant – imbued with the perilous nature of their peripheral positioning in society. The risk-taking here for youth is quite high. The youth are driven by critical interests grounded in unequal power dynamics in their everyday lives, and their practice fundamentally impacts their survival.

But such understandings are not without tensions for the work that youth do. How work-in-the-moment is legitimized requires those with power to see beyond their own worlds and into youth worlds. How actors (i.e. youth makers) are positioned (and by whom) across time and place, and the funds of knowledge actors bring to the process, all shape the meanings inscribed in these spaces over time. How artifacts of practice endure and become reified in these spaces, intentionally and unintentionally, all open and foreclose opportunities for sustained engagement. A more focused agenda on equity-oriented makerspaces is needed – one that takes into account equitably consequential outcomes of learning and becoming, especially for those whose histories still remain silent in making worlds and in STEM.

~  Written by Angela Calabrese Barton & Edna Tan

Space-making & identity-making in youth-centered makerspaces

Interviewer: Samuel, why did you decide to make a light-up football?

Samuel:         Well, when little kids are playing outside football and it’s getting too dark, and they still keep playing and somebody might get hit in the head or something cause they can’t see the ball really, so I ‘m going to light up the football so you can see where it’s going. (artifact interview, May 2014)

Samuel designed a prototype of a “light-up football” while working in an afterschool community-based makerspace over five months. His light-up football had LED tube lights that wrapped around the ball to provide maximum lighting with minimal added weight, friction, or power expenditures. Because the lighting was efficient, it kept hands from getting burnt. The lights were powered with batteries that could be recharged at a solar docking station, limiting environmental impact and saving money. The football, itself, was constructed from nerf material to minimize added weight and to reduce the possibility for injury if one were to be hit in the head. The batteries were stored in a pocket at the center of the ball, accessible by a small door, to keep it weighted properly and to minimize their potential contact with water or sweat.

The idea for a light-up football grew out of Samuel’s desire to make something that would be helpful to people in his community. Samuel knew that lighting was a concern at night due to limited working streetlights in his neighborhood. He also felt that the game of football was a positive peer activity that helped young people his age make friends and stay out of trouble. He knew that most families could not afford an expensive toy, and that inefficient designs were costly to the environment as well.

Samuel worked on his design for five months seeking help from family, friends, and engineering and football experts alike. He was proud of his efforts. As he stated, “I was really proud ‘cause it just made me feel good about myself so I could, like, kinda, acknowledge people what I could do. . . Like make what I did, a light-up football. I wanna make more stuff like that.”

Samuel’s making practice is not unique. Over the past several years we have been learning alongside youth makers in non-dominant communities who engage in making practices in community settings. Many of the youth have taken up complex and time-consuming projects to address concerns that they believe are important to their community. From designing light-up birthday cards for family members when store bought cards are too expensive and impersonal to prototyping rape alarm jackets for teenage girls, the youths’ making practices reflect a desire to engage the multiple and intersecting spaces of community while also challenging what it means to become in STEM.

Returning to Samuel’s light-up football, we see his work drawing upon, but also challenging, the discourses and practices of STEM, makerspaces, and community. Samuel draws upon and deepens his understanding of energy transformations and circuitry while also offering a vision for how STEM expertise can be rooted in, and contribute, to place. His light-up football subverts the power structures that shape life in his makerspace and his community, while also creating new possibilities and meanings for being and becoming, across and within the boundaries of these spaces. Samuel’s identity as a maker grew as his practices took shape within the intersecting spaces of his engagement.

Through his making practice, Samuel is involved not only in “artifact making” (the prototypically viewed outcome of makerspace work), but also in space-making within and across the worlds of STEM, makerspaces, and community. We believe that such space-making fosters new forms of interaction among scales of activity, and supports the movement of ideas, resources, relationships and people in support of youths’ emerging practices and how they might be recognized for them. As the youth engage in their making practice, they inscribe new meanings for what it means to make within the worlds they inhabit, refiguring participation in these worlds and their possibilities for becoming within them.


Collective Science Literacy

Collective STEM literacy: Pushing us all forward
Written by Sarah Keenan

We usually think of literacy as an individual competence – whether it has to do with our ability to read and write or to understand and apply scientific concepts. Scientific literacy, and STEM literacy more broadly, is the ability to make sense of the science in our world; but how does this develop? Sense-making, knowledge about and interaction with scientific concepts happens constantly – beyond the walls of school, beyond books, and definitely extending beyond adult authority figures who hold the “right” answers. This kind of literacy learning is a social and collective act: collaboration with peers helps youth decide what counts as important knowledge and gives them the opportunity to scaffold each others’ growth, as their individual strengths and understandings combine to develop a strong, collective STEM literacy.

In Making4Change, youth take action on community problems that hold meaning for them, engineering and designing solutions to these problems with an eye for green energy technologies. By exploring the ways in which our community culture shapes the nature of problems, the STEM literacy of the youth in this program is tapped into a community need. This gives them a platform to highlight their own STEM literacies beyond what might be recognized in school, and to challenge existing solutions.

Every project in M4C is shaped by the collective STEM literacy of the groups – every participant influences the direction of the project. By developing solutions with a group, individual competencies needed to achieve the goal of the project are identified and unite youth by giving them each a chance to share their STEM abilities. Each year we find students position themselves as experts in certain STEM literacies (for example: soldering, light bulb energy usage, etc.) in such a way that their peers can take advantage of this knowledge, building their individual STEM literacy and while contributing back to the collective literacy and ability of the group.

A lot of time our time in M4C is spent in groups, with youth members leading and mentors giving advice to help develop the collective STEM abilities of the group. For the most part our sessions take place in one room, which allows for a crossing of boundaries between projects, so youth are able to share skills and knowledge across different groups. The “expert feedback” days are an opportunity to expand the collective nature of this literacy, as youth present their inventions to professionals, receive their feedback and use outside expertise to inform the direction of their project and push their own abilities.

M4C provides a place where STEM is connected with the daily lives of youth, legitimizing their interests and abilities, giving them a platform to showcase their expertise and collaborate with their peers. As these youth frame STEM as useful to themselves and their projects, individual abilities build a collective literacy that pushes every person’s ability to act as an agent for the public good.

The Makerspace Movement: Sites of Possibilities for Equitable Opportunities to Engage Underrepresented Youth in STEM

Angie Calabrese Barton, Edna Tan & Day Greenberg

Large gaps in achievement and interest in STEM persist for youth growing up in poverty, and in particular for African American and Latino youth. Within the informal education community, the recently evolving “maker movement” has sparked interest for its potential role in breaking down longstanding barriers to learning and attainment in STEM, with advocates arguing for its “democratizing effects.” What remains unclear is how minoritized newcomers to a makerspace can access and engage in makerspaces in robust and equitably consequential ways.

Our research team has been studying how makerspaces might support sustained engagement for minoritized youth as well as the forms of engagement that seem most salient for sustained engagement. Our findings to date suggest that sustained, mutual engagement matter to youth because it provides opportunities to learn and re-mix STEM knowledge and practices with what one brings into the makerspace can make possible more robust designs and more expansive possibilities for becoming in making. Our work also suggests that greater opportunities to build social networks in support of STEM learning increases youths’ mobilities among a range of learning arrangements, opening up new forms of learning and becoming.

We propose three ways in which sustained mutual engagement is supported. 

  1. Learning within the tension: Purposeful playfulness and just-in-time content/practice learning. If makerspaces are to help ameliorate inequality in STEM, then opportunities need to exist for youth to develop robust knowledge and practice within the domain. At the same time, one of the very assets of a makerspace is in how it supports young people in making in ways that are creative, playful, and personally relevant. Sustained and mutual engagement allows for both playfulness and deepening understanding to co-exist, and for the emergent tensions to be productive spaces of learning. We have found that designing and making available “just-in-time learning resources” to support deepening understandings of STEM knowledge and practices is central to this equity concern. We have also found that sustained engagement provides more and varied opportunities to play around with the tools, resources, and ideas available in the makerspace, in ways that open up mastery of these tools in both traditional and nontraditional ways – and for traditional and nontraditional purposes.
  2. Broadening the range of maker identities for minoritized youth. As people populate makerspaces, and leave imprints through the enactment of novel practices and the production of artifacts made public there, a narrative around what it means to make (identity), what one can make (the making process), and who is allowed to make (maker community) all take form. Youth benefit from an expansive view of what it means to become a “youth maker”. Some of the youth in our study come to the makerspace with no explicit interests in making, at least in its traditional forms. However, many end up staying because the enterprise of making is woven into other salient areas of their young lives – afterschool hangout space, spending time with friends, access to the internet and computers, and snacks.
  3. Unpacking “community” in a community-based makerspace for youth from minoritized communities. In seeking community-based partnerships, we recognize the significance in housing makerspaces in physical and figurative spaces where the youth “rule.” We have learned from our long-term partnerships that there are specific affordances that support productive hybrid STEM identity work for under-represented youth, when such programs are housed in these community spaces. These spaces are shaped by youth culture – their ideas, ways of relating, interests and desires. How youth move in these spaces significantly shapes how they engage in makerspace activities.

In our next blog post we describe how and why these forms of engagement are equitably consequential.

Who Does Our Grit Discourse Gravely Insult, and Why?

by Day Greenberg

A particular construct has been sweeping the educational research field. It promises a silver bullet of sorts to address educational challenges on an individual level, through individual perseverance. It makes this promise absent of any attendance to or recognition of specifically relevant contextual factors. This construct is grit.

The concept of grit, and its frenzied take-up by researchers and practitioners, needs to be problematized—and fast. Unfortunately for students, it has so far been given an almost “free pass” to permeate the conversation on and in our school systems with an insidious bootstrap mentality that rightly praises hard work and resilience yet simultaneous distorts that praise through an insulting, willful blindness that actively harms our nation’s children. The blindness of “grit speech” is the willful ignorance toward the powerful, and power-mediated, external factors that more often than not act as gate checks for students’ efforts toward success. No matter how “gritty” a student is, these factors retain the dangerous power to either expand or cripple such hard work. Such factors—socioeconomic status, parental free time at home, the color of students’ skin and the first language they learn at home, tax-dependent school resource levels that differ by district and often along lines of color, school violence levels that likewise disproportionately plague lower-income schools, teacher quality levels that (surprise, surprise) also are not equitably dispersed across schools and districts, etc.—matter. They matter a great deal: for the support students receive, for the support parents receive, for the assistance toward success that some “gritty” students can find and leverage more easily than others, etc.

In April 2013, Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth delivered a “TED Talk” on her groundbreaking research titled “The key to success? Grit”. In it, she argued that grit, “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals… having stamina… sticking with your future… and working really hard to make that future a reality,” should be taken even more seriously than what she described as the traditional standard of intelligence and “the one thing we know how to measure best,” the IQ score (Duckworth, 2013). Must we digress to address the many tested and confirmed reasons Dr. Duckworth’s praising of IQ tests is problematic? For the purposes of brevity, I’ll merely state that her assumptions about IQ and our ability to test for it are outdated, as scientists agree that those assumptions are “just wrong” (Connor, 2012; Hampshire, Highfield, Parkin, & Owen, 2012) because “the test is a measure of social class background, and not one of the ability for complex cognition as such” (Richardson, 2002).

For the same reason that praising IQ outside of sociocultural, economic, political, and any other context is misguided, placing grit in such a contextual vacuum is unwise. It’s unwise for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners, and it’s harmful for students.

Halfway through her talk, Dr. Duckworth asserts that “grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” What she doesn’t mention is the massive—and for many individuals, prohibitive—cost to purchase the premium brands of running shoes that offer higher levels of protection and support for the runners who have access to them. This metaphor reminds me of my middle school years, when my parents could not afford to buy me new shoes and my older sister’s hand-me-down sneakers with worn-out soles caused me to develop plantar fasciitis when I ran in them. This is not to say I was not a gritty child. But at that time and in that circumstance, when my parents were using food stamps and food banks to fill our bellies, it would not have been wise (or realistic, or kind) to expect her to find a way to buy me more supportive running shoes. My school was not giving away free running shoes, either. In that context, how should I have been expected to be able to run sprints, let alone a marathon?

Dr. Duckworth also does not mention the fact that many menacing obstacles obstruct some running paths differently than others, based on the neighborhood in which you run and even what you look like as a runner. One of the causes of my parents’ financial stresses, besides my mother’s constant medical issues and unethical health insurance practices that dropped my family into bankruptcy twice during my childhood, was the school tuition that my parents paid so that my two siblings and I could attend a college preparatory program at a Catholic school, in one of the lowest-performing and most violent public school districts in my home state of Florida. This, for me, WAS the pair of fancy running shoes I so desperately needed to complete my marathon of high quality, challenging learning in a supportive and protective environment. I cannot honestly say that I became who I am, a PhD student in one of the best programs in the country, because of my grit, my willingness to persevere in spite of my obstacles, outside of the context of how fortunate and privileged I was to escape the oppressively violent and low-resourced conditions that the other kids in my neighborhood were subjected to in their schools. I also can’t take my grit out of the context of my white skin color and the privileged social class in which my parents positioned me in our school/church community, in spite of their mismatching economic class.

Sure, I worked incredibly hard to continually earn annual scholarships that ultimately cut my tuition down to about $2,000 a year (which sometimes required even such humbling tasks as writing personal thank you notes to my friends’ parents when they donated), but who paid that balance? My parents, who were privileged enough to have jobs, and who (perhaps because of how my White, American, native English-speaking parents sounded when they talked and what they looked like when they dressed up for meetings) were forgiven by my school when they were (often several weeks) late to submit tuition payments. Besides even that, I had parents. Two of them. Alive. In the same household. Sacrificing for me. THIS was privilege. It was resources. It was social and economic capital. It was context. It was not just grit.

Grit won’t remove children from the contexts in which more powerful others place them. It cannot save our children from the structures that actively threaten their right to live, learn, and play. Grit did not keep Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, or Aiyana Jones safe from the very structures of power that still claim to protect life while continuously destroying it. In the context of the real, tangible threats cities and city leaders throw in front of our students’ paths on a daily basis, why do we believe the answer lies in isolated psychosocial interventions to make these children more resilient? Does grit stop police bullets? Does grit cure structural racism and inequity? Does grit produce healthier and more respectful teacher-student, school-community, corporation-worker, and politician-people relationship dynamics? When Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced the concept of our nation’s education debt resulting from such abuses as funding inequities and continued school segregation, she did not suggest that the way to pay back such a debt was to train our youth to shoulder it for us with a stiff upper lip (Ladson-Billings, 2006). Why do we power holders claim that the ultimate solution to the abuses we cause depends on the stamina and capacity of our victims to take the punches we give them?

Yes, grit is an interesting concept and studying this quality in students is a worthwhile effort (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). But, as with any other concept or construct in educational research, it should not be taken out of context and treated as a silver bullet. Truly, before we label something as a silver bullet, shouldn’t we begin by asking: to where and at what are we aiming, and what other weapons in our arsenal are we accidentally ignoring that might make more of a difference?



Connor, S. (2012). IQ tests are “fundamentally flawed” and using them alone to measure. Retrieved January 1, 2016, from

Duckworth, A. L. (2013). The key to success? Grit. Retrieved from

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101.

Hampshire, A., Highfield, R. R., Parkin, B. L., & Owen, A. M. (2012). Fractionating Human Intelligence. Neuron, 76(6), 1225–1237.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3–12.

Richardson, K. (2002). What IQ Tests Test. Theory & Psychology, 12(3), 283–314.

Schwartz, K. (n.d.). Does The Grit Narrative Blame Students For School’s Shortcomings? Retrieved January 1, 2016, from

Productive Identity Work Classroom Series #2- Knowledge

Written by Katie Schenkel

Welcome to my second post in the Productive Identity Work Classroom Series. In this post, I am going to talk about leveraging your students’ knowledge to promote positive outcomes. Teachers know that knowledge is important for students’ success in science and engineering. Standards and textbooks point to the specific types of content knowledge that students will need. However, everyone has other important and valuable types of knowledge that is sometimes ignored by traditional curricula. This post is going to focus on ways class communities can value the various types of knowledge that students bring into the classroom. Just like you, students know many things from their family, experiences and everyday life! When students can combine this knowledge with their new science and engineering practices, transformational learning and doing can occur.

Here are three tips for helping your students utilize their different funds of knowledge in science class:
1. Connect the unit goals to your students’ community. For example, during your ecology unit, have your students investigate invasive species in your community and design plans to mitigate the problems caused by the species. Have your students draw upon what special characteristics they know about their community. Have them share their ideas, proposed solutions and engage with local experts.
2. Highlight and use your students’ contributions to class to guide the class flow. For example, if a student describes a scientific phenomenon they saw at home or another parts of their life, bring it up multiple times later on in the class discussion and link class activities to that phenomenon in future activities. This could be as simple as working to understand as a class why the school’s basketballs seemed flat right when they were taken out of the coach’s car, but seemed to magically inflate as practice continued. It could be part of the day’s discussion then be incorporated into gas law experiments in future units.
3. Provide opportunities for your students to showcase their other skills, interests and talents in science class. For example, I knew some of my students were enthusiastic about creating computer slideshows while some of my artistic students enjoyed making informational posters. Therefore, I would occasionally give students the option to complete their assignment using the format they preferred. I provided them a rubric so they knew what information was needed on their assignment. To really help students to showcase their skills, interests and talents, you can even invite them to come up with another way to share their knowledge that fits their expertise better. They can use the rubric as a guide to know what information they need, but can use their own experience to determine the best way for them to meet the criteria of the assignment. Finally, remember to celebrate their expertise by providing opportunities to share their work in a meaningful way.


Jennifer helping other youth makers using her sewing skills

What ways have you found to value and leverage all of your students’ knowledge?