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Thoughts On Today’s NY Times Column By Carol Dweck

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I’m a fan of much of Professor Carol Dweck’s work, and have often written in this blog (and in my book) about how I’ve applied her research in the classroom, especially around praising effort instead of intelligence.

A few months ago, though, I heard about one of her recent research projects that bothered me a bit, and, then, today, I saw a column she co-wrote about it in The New York Times. It’s titled “Willpower: It’s in Your Head.”

In it, she challenges the research findings of Professor Roy F. Baumeister, another researcher whose work has influenced my teaching practice. Professor Baumeister has written a great deal about self-control, and I wrote a piece in Education Week about how I apply his findings in the classroom — he also contributed a guest commentary.

Basically, Professor Baumeister (and many others) have concluded that self-control is a resource that can be depleted, and needs to be periodically replenished. Professor Dweck claims that it only is depleted if you believe it needs to be replenished.

That’s a very simplified summary, and I’d encourage you to read both her piece and Professor Baumeister’s commentary to get a more amplified view, as well as learning more how I interpret it for classroom use.

I’m all for having a “growth mindset,” which is another concept that Professor Dweck is known for and which I use with my students. However, especially with adolescents, it seems to me that we need to recognize that our students are not Supermen or Superwomen, and it’s unlikely that many — if any — have an unlimited level of self-control. My students and I have found Professor Baumeister’s research very useful and I have often seen it work effectively.  The key, of course, is that we need to help our students develop effective strategies to replenish their capacity for self-control.

Earlier this morning, I contacted Professor Baumeister to get his reactions to the critique. Here is his response (and he granted permission for me to share it here):

[Many] things can make a difference right at the beginning of depletion, when you’re only slightly depleted. we have replicated her finding that getting people to believe in unlimited willpower makes them do better when they are slightly depleted. but that same manipulation actually makes them do worse when they are severely depleted.

What do you think?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. Great post, thanks for following up on this interesting topic. I’ve followed Baumeister for a long time and I respect his ideas and his work, same for Dweck. I consider this a legitimately tricky interpretation of research data based on what conceptual model best applies. Very interesting question of what model best represents the capacity for self-regulation of various flavors or even whether it should be considered a single causal model.

    Right now I tend to lean toward the expectancy interpretation that Dweck endorses. I think the glucose model is a little shaky. See Robert Kurzban’s analysis for some of what I find compelling evidence and arguments:

    http://www.epjournal.net/blog/2011/08/glucose-is-not-willpower-fuel/

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