True grit? Maybe teaching zest is best

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Schools today talk about developing grit, but what about zest, its lesser-known cousin? Having energy and enthusiasm even in the face of difficulty is linked with happiness, both in the world of work and in life in general – so, teachers would do well to nurture this trait in pupils, says Soizic le Courtois

Maybe zest is best

You have heard of grit. Since Angela Duckworth’s TED talk and Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, grit – perseverance in the face of difficulty – has been high on schools’ agenda for getting children on the road to lifelong achievement. Just as the imagery of the word suggests (think gritting your teeth and getting on with it), grit is about not giving up; it’s about mental toughness and single-mindedness to achieve a goal.

But have you heard of zest? Rather than learning being something that we have to endure, I would argue it should be all about zest. Grit’s lesser-known cousin is enthusiasm and energy even in the face of difficulty and, in my opinion, it is rather underrated.

The idea of zest as a psychological trait comes from the same body of research as grit, namely positive psychology. This is a branch of research that seeks to understand how we can support human flourishing (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

Zest is defined as “an approach to life with anticipation, energy and excitement” (Peterson and Seligman, 2004), and it has been found to be related to a range of wellbeing outcomes.

Zestful adults report greater life satisfaction (Park et al, 2004) and work satisfaction (Peterson et al, 2009); in children and young people, zest has been associated with greater happiness (Park and Peterson, 2006a, 2006b) and greater school satisfaction (Weber and Ruch, 2012).

Not only this, but helping people to be more zestful leads to improvements in reported wellbeing (Proyer et al, 2013).

But although zest is linked to happiness, it doesn’t mean it’s about everything being great and easy all the time; it’s about relishing challenge and approaching activities – even the difficult ones – with positivity and enthusiasm. Zest also shares many characteristics with curiosity (being interested and wanting to explore) and love of learning (wanting to master new skills and knowledge), but it is part of a group of traits called “courage” – in other words, zest comes from the heart, not from the head.

How to be zestful

The problem with thinking of these ideas as character traits is that it rather suggests they are fixed. And although the whole point of positive psychology is to understand how we can harness these qualities in people, it also states that people come with a certain amount of these strengths.

As a teacher, that is not a very helpful view if we take it to mean that there isn’t much we can do about it.

But that is not entirely correct. The research shows that these traits can be trained (eg, Proyer et al, 2013) and that they are exhibited differently depending on the situation. For example, people who are curious have greater wellbeing on days when they experience curiosity (Kashdan and Steger, 2007) – and the corollary is that there are days when they will experience curiosity more than others. Being a curious person does not mean that you are curious at all times, but it makes you more likely to be curious at any given time.

Similarly, being zestful simply means you are more likely to be enthusiastic. And, as a teacher, that is much more encouraging, because if being zestful is something that happens in the moment, then we can help all children to be as zestful as they possibly can be.

So far, however, my experience is that schools have focused on drawing attention to traits such as grit by raising their profile – talking to children about them and making displays. Creating cultures in which these traits are valued is important, but the risk is that we forget to create the conditions that are required for them to flourish.

It is not enough to tell children that it is good to be enthusiastic and then present them with dull content. We have to create learning experiences for children to be enthusiastic about.

How we do that is a much more difficult question and one that I am still researching. But the search for this answer has made me investigate a range of teaching approaches and dive deep into those pedagogies that foster inner motivation, interest and curiosity.

The picture is complex, but some of the key ingredients that keep on cropping up are:

The importance of agency

In order to be motivated from within, people need to feel that they endorse a task, and that means having some say over it and feeling that they can be successful in it.

The desire for mastery

Children are born with the desire to master the world and to make sense of it, but that desire is somewhat fragile. The messages we implicitly send children about why they do their work, about whether it is good or not, can replace mastery motivation with the desire to please us, get rewards and achieve good grades.

Making it matter

When children engage in activities that they are genuinely interested in and that are meaningful to them, when it is not something imposed on them by someone else, when the children are committed to the task, they want to see it through.

The power of play

There is increasing research on the gamification of learning, but here I would rather emphasise playful learning: learning that is joyful, open-ended and comes from within. This is not to say that learning should be frivolous, but a spark of joy can go a long way in making learning more engaging. And besides, play can be serious work, a chance for children to explore, investigate and express themselves and their personality.

The power of stories

It might be clichéd to say that humans love stories, but it doesn’t make it less true. Whether it is enquiries with narratives, weaving human anecdotes into factual accounts or using books as hooks, stories have the power to get children engrossed in their learning and to expand their horizons.

Experiences

Novelty and wonder are important sources of interest. Zest does not necessarily mean being pumped up full of adrenaline – enthusiasm can come from simple things and be slow burning. But we need to provide children with rich experiences for them to be excited about the world around them.

Getting outdoors

Nature is not only a source of curiosity and full of learning opportunities but being in it can also leave us re-energised and calmer.

Relationships

Warm and supportive relationships help children to develop, take risks, make friends – they allow them to be their full selves.

Showing them zest

Teachers know all about modelling, and it’s the same for zest and curiosity. If we show enthusiasm for what children are interested in, and share with them our enthusiasm for the things we love – be they our favourite books, exciting facts about insects or the invention of the zero – we help them to become enthusiastic learners.

These are only suggestions and there is much that we still don’t know about how to do this successfully in the classroom. But at a time when meeting targets and standards seems to be the driver of so many decisions that schools make, I think it’s good to remember that zest, curiosity and love of learning are also worthy goals of education. And if we can give children genuine opportunities to experience these emotions, then we can hope to foster them as attitudes to learning – and to life.

Soizic le Courtois is a PhD student with Pedal (the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning) at the University of Cambridge

This article originally appeared in the 15 November 2019 issue under the headline “Think teaching grit is a hit? Maybe zest is the best”