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November 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 3
Interview

Anindya Kundu on the Difference Between Grit and Agency (and Why It Matters)

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    Unlike grit, which can be a “luxury,” agency has real potential to inspire engagement and positive social change. 

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    EquityInstructional Strategies
    Anindya Kundu on the Difference Between Grit and Agency (and Why It Matters)
    Credit: PHOTO BY RYAN LASH VIA TED
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      November 2022 EL Voices / Anindya Kundu

      1 month ago
      Anindya Kundu, a sociologist and assistant professor of educational leadership at Florida International University, is the author of The Power of Student Agency: Looking Beyond Grit to Close the Opportunity Gap (Teachers College Press, 2020). His TED Talks on agency and the opportunity gap have garnered more than 2.5 million views each. Kundu argues, on the basis of his research, that schools should foster agency—not simply grit—for students to thrive, especially students from disadvantaged backgrounds. When true agency is exercised, Kundu says, positive change can happen both individually and collectively.

      How do you define grit and in what ways do you think it's problematic?

      The commonly accepted definition of grit from Angela Duckworth is "passion and perseverance for long-term goals." That's something I truly believe all kids have. Yet the challenge is thinking about how grit is recognized and rewarded in our school environments.
      The way I see it, grit is like having a "North Star" in your life–this thing that you're so passionate about achieving that you can't take your eyes away from it. Even though it's incredibly far away, it guides your day-in and day-out work. It's like, you want to climb Mount Everest, but you have to take a million steps to get to the top. Grit is knowing you have to go through that grueling process.
      But there are a lot of reasons why privilege and advantage come into play with grit in this sense. The ability to figure out what you're passionate about is a luxury in and of itself that not all kids have.
      I think that we're not looking at grit holistically. A person's individuality, their identity, their home life—all of these things matter in terms of grit. The kinds of kids who I study—like the kid who has three younger siblings she has to feed and get ready for school every morning because both her parents work multiple jobs—certainly show a form of grit. We should be able to recognize that and help that kind of grit translate into academic success.
      Agency, to that end, forces us to think about the totality of a student's life experiences. If you know a little bit about a kid and their background, you'll learn why they are drawn to certain subjects. If you allow a student to tell their own story, on their own terms, then you can build that bridge to figure out what are they interested in. What are the skills gaps we need to think about, and how do we address them together? And how do we hold kids accountable to meeting goals that they've set for themselves?

      The ability to figure out what you’re passionate about is a luxury in and of itself that not all kids have.

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      In your work, you say that agency isn't so much an individual trait as one that can be grown by groups—like schools and communities—for collective interests. Can you elaborate on that?

      In my book, I define agency as "a person's capacity to leverage resources to navigate obstacles to create positive change in their life." Agency exists at the individual level but also has collective elements and dimensions to it. For example, an individual may have agency to overcome structural obstacles in their own life—like taking college courses in prison—but they cannot enact structural change by themselves. That requires a collective.
      When we think about a social movement, like Black Lives Matter, what people are doing is acknowledging a structure and then mobilizing collectively to try to enact structural change. A social movement is not something that a person can do in isolation; we can't necessarily influence public policy or public change by ourselves, but we can if we mobilize en masse. And that's exactly what agency is at both an individual and social level—leveraging resources, in this case the resource of the collective, to create a positive change.
      Going out and marching or calling your local representatives about issues that you're passionate about—putting in that kind of action—takes grit. But agency is a little bit easier to think about in terms of, "Here's an outcome that we want to achieve and here's how we can collectively unite to do that."

      How, in a practical sense, can teachers develop student agency?

      As teachers, we want our students to take learning into their own hands and really feel like they're able to contribute positively to what they're learning or to the world in some way. There are a lot of competencies and skills that students already have when they come to the table. One thing I try to do in my work is combat implicit deficit perspectives, the idea that some students are not as interested in learning as others. That's the place to start, to reframe that script and remind ourselves that all students, if we can just connect with them, really desire to learn and really desire to improve something in their lives.
      One of the stories that I share in my book to ground this idea of agency is the story of "J-Stud" (a self-proclaimed alias). J was a kid who grew up really poor in Jamaica, Queens. He grew up without a father figure and was raised by his mother and grandmother. He would get into a lot of fights in school, and eventually he was tracked toward special education and given an IEP.
      J wasn't interested in school, didn't connect with any of his teachers. He would sit in the back of his classes and scribble away at a notebook, barely looking up. And eventually, in his 10th grade English class, his teacher asked, "Hey, J, what are you writing in your notebook? Can I take a look?" He reluctantly shared what turned out to be pages upon pages of eloquent, beautiful rap lyrics with lots of metaphor, great structure, and really complex thinking.
      His teacher used this as an opportunity to allow him to showcase his hidden forms of giftedness. She had a friend who worked at a recording studio, and she said to J, "Hey, listen. If you show up to class and do your homework, I'll introduce you to my friend. You can go to his recording studio and record a couple of songs and make a CD." Music was this kid's number one passion, so he eagerly took her up on the offer. He did his homework, showed up to class, improved his grades, and then got to go to this recording studio and record music. He performed a song in front of his class, and they gave him a standing ovation. He still thinks about that moment—that standing ovation—as one of the best moments of his school trajectory.
      In this case, the social capital provided by J-Stud's teacher led to a whole chain of circumstances. He started interning at the recording studio and met mentors there who got him interested in the financial side of the music business. Then he went to community college to study finance and got an internship at a bank that paid for his college degree in economics. He now works at an investment firm in New York. But J-Stud still lives in Jamaica, Queens. He's someone the kids in the neighborhood can look up to and aspire to be. It's yet another example of how agency can be social and contagious. You never know what small influence you can have that will impact a kid in a way that might really change their life.

      Agency exists at the individual level but also has collective elements and dimensions to it.

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      What might fully realized student agency look like in a classroom? Is it observable?

      Yes, I think agency is observable. Agency is when you walk into a place of learning—an elementary school, middle school, high school—and you can just feel excitement about learning in the air. To me, agency in action looks like a school that is beating the odds stacked against them. One example from my research is The James Baldwin School, a transfer high school in Chelsea, New York. Most of its students have aged out of the traditional high school age range, so they're older than 18. It's also a Title I school that serves mostly Black and Brown students. They've done a ton of agency-building work over the past decade and now their students are graduating at high rates. They think about the agency of their teachers and their students. What is it that their students want to learn? They offer classes like Islamic art and mathematics, the abolition of racial slavery, an exploration of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and my favorite—Dracula and gender identity. These different kinds of classes, and the in-depth projects students engage in, really allow these young people to critically think about the world, their place in the world, and the limits and possibilities.
      The teachers don't reprimand students for having their phones out—because these students are adults. They are going to be plugged in because they want to be plugged in. Most teachers in the school know most students by name. That's something that's very simple but makes a huge difference in student outcomes, where students feel like they belong in that space.
      The principal of this school is also a big part of it. I think leadership is one of the key elements of agency-inspired culture. The principal stands in the hallway during passing periods and greets each individual student by name—and he knows what classes they're supposed to be going to.
      I encourage everyone to go to schools like James Baldwin to see agency unfolding in real life. When you walk in, the school is decorated with student work; it's colorful, it's loud, it's boisterous, but there's always thriving and learning happening.

      What can principals do to support student agency schoolwide?

      I think there's a ton principals can do to build cultures of agency. The first thing is around perspective: Know that your school exists in a very unique set of environmental and circumstantial factors and really embrace that. So as a principal, you can become a liaison between teachers, students, parents, and—ideally—community organizations that you can invite in to become partners.
      The second thing is around connection: In some low-income schools that predominantly serve students of color, for example, principals have created mentoring programs where local college students come in and offer SAT tutoring. So, the students are not only learning how to prep for the SAT, but they're also seeing themselves in these older kids. The principals, in these cases, have created an opportunity for students to expand their worldview and relate to people outside of the school building in a way that helps them realize, Hey, I could go to college, too. These kids look like me, they sound like me. There's no reason I can't be like them.

      In 2014, you wrote an article with Pedro Noguera on why students need more than grit. Something you said in that piece really stood out: "Teach a kid to catch fish and you've taught him how to feed himself. But don't stop there." Where should educators stop?

      That's a great question. The inspired answer is to provide students the tools they need to take learning into their own hands and to make the world a better place. You teach a kid not just how to fish, but you teach the kid why the river is polluted, how they might clean up the river, and how to mobilize their friends to join the effort so that the entire community can eat, too.
      Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space.

      Sarah McKibben is the director of digital and editorial content for ASCD.

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