On Flappy Bird and Grit

Two Fridays ago as I settled into my seat at Assembly, I found my freshman advisee enthralled in a game she was playing on her iPhone. That was my first introduction to Flappy Bird. To my credit, I realized right then and there that I should immediately buy stock in the company, but alas, .GEARS STUDIOS is a closely held firm out of Viet Nam, so that’s a no-go. Two weeks later, I find myself living in a Flappy Bird world. My students are playing the arcade-style, retro big-pixel game at every available free moment. The chatter before my last class this afternoon was who had the highest score ever. I downloaded the game an hour ago. My high score so far is 3. That’s not a typo; the game is brutally tough.

Why then are the students so enthralled? The game is challenging and boring at the same time. But they seem to enjoy the challenge. This got me thinking about the opening remarks our Associate Head of School gave to the faculty at the beginning of the school year. It was the first time I heard about Angela Lee Duckworth and the “grit” phenomenon. Since then, grit has been on every educator’s lips, and it comes up frequently in the Twitter chats I participate in as I dive deeper and deeper into my new-found connected educator identity. Teachers are living in Gritland and students are living in Flappyville. Are they the same place?

The students’ willful application of their attention to a boring-yet-challenging game seems to be the epitome of grit, but if so, a depressing one. The skill they are developing (tapping on a screen delicately to guide an animated bird through narrow openings in metal plumbing) is useless and has no transference possibilities. The game isn’t aesthetically uplifting. It’s just a challenge that seems to have a siren song despite its banality.

This looms large in my mind because last night during #isedchat I saw the grit phenomenon publicly challenged for the first time by a head of school that I’ve come to admire from afar. Apparently there is a bit of a grit backlash going on, and as a lifelong contrarian and outsider poseur, I felt an immediate kinship with the grit rejectors.

Should I, though? To be sure, there are many students I know who could use more self-discipline and better work habits. What is the Quaker educator’s answer to grit? Friends believe in hard work, to be sure, but also compassion and love. I’d rather see my students doing less drudgework but losing themselves deeply in challenging work that has no ceiling for the those who have unusual aptitude. And yet they choose Flappy Bird. (I can hear students’ response to this already: We don’t all play Flappy Bird. Many of us wouldn’t waste our time on such nonsense.) There is nothing wrong with down time, however, and I don’t want to judge how students choose to relax. Flappy Bird is no worse than the crummy arcade games I played as a kid.

It’s Friday afternoon, and I have a lot to do this weekend. Varsity basketball at 4pm, field trip on Sunday, grading and planning, supporting my partner as she runs East/Central Weekend, etc. But I think I’m going to add a little Flappy Bird time in there, too. Maybe I can raise my high score to 5 by Monday. At the same time, I’m going to feel empowered to speak out against the grit-pushers when they get out of line. Grit is good when the task is righteous, and downtime is needed if over-scheduled teens in a college preparatory school are going to maintain their sanity. Have a great weekend, everyone.

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