Seth Godin just wrote a great post called "Red Lantern" in which he argues that we should reward kids who persevere at least as much as we reward those who have more natural talent. Winning the gene pool is one thing, but persevering is a skill that can and should be encouraged.
The whole article is brief and worth reading, but here's the anecdote that begat the title:
At the grueling Iditarod, there's a prize for the musher who finishes last: The Red Lantern.
Failing to finish earns you nothing, of course. But for the one who sticks it out, who arrives hours late, there's the respect that comes from finding the strength to make it, even when all seems helpless.
The solution here isn't simply to give out more "participation" ribbons. This piece in New York sets out the dangers of giving out unwarranted praise. The key is to somehow recognize, foster, and reward grit, that trendy personality trait) getting so much attention lately. It's not just about effort, but perseverance even when they fail the first time or the first three times.
I think my school generally does a decent job of rewarding a variety of students, not just the ones with the most natural talents. But what can I do in the classroom to foster grit–a trait I would not say I personally have in abundance? It's the same challenge faced by video game designers: it's easy to make an impossibly hard or incredibly easy game. The challenge is getting that balance–difficult enough to be worthwhile, but with opportunities for growth and success to prevent frustration.
If I go too far towards the "Challenging" side of the spectrum, I will lose a lot of students who simply get frustrated and do not see any payoff (especially since I teach an elective and they can simply quit). But if there are too many rewards just for effort, there won't be any meaningful growth.
There are a lot of complicating factors, not the least of which is a culture that often expects an A for effort. I'm not sure yet how to navigate all this. Maybe new technology can make students' effort/progress more visible to them, in a way more meaningful than a spreadsheet of grades? I'm not sure, but I do want to help form gritty students.