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How Adam Grant Just Made Teaching More Complicated


I’m a big fan of Professor Adam Grant’s work (see my interview with him at Education Week, Teachers As “Givers, Takers & Matchers”: An Interview With Adam Grant).

And I was very excited to see his must-read guest column in The New York Times today, Raising a Moral Child.

It’s geared towards parents, but just about everything he says is also extraordinarily useful to teachers, too.

He discusses recent studies identifying effective ways to help children become “kind, compassionate and helpful.”

Developing these kinds of qualities are being identified more and more as an important part of our work as educators (see my Ed Week series, ‘Character Is Not Compliance Out Of Fear,‘ and The Best Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Resources).

There’s so much substance in his short column that I’m not even going to try to summarize it — just read the whole thing.

I do, however, want to highlight one part of it where I think he just made our job more complicated (obviously, I’m talking tongue-in-cheek):


Many of us who are familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on praising action instead of intelligence might find a contradiction in this finding.

I know I was a bit confused.

So I sent an email to Adam asking about this apparent contradiction and he was kind enough to respond right away. Here’s what he said:

In “Mindset”, Carol Dweck describes her famous body of groundbreaking research demonstrating that when we praise children for their intelligence, they develop a fixed view of ability, which leads them to give up in the face of failure. Instead of telling them how smart they are, it’s wise to praise their effort, which encourages them to see their abilities as malleable and persist to overcome obstacles. Some parents and teachers have stretched this idea to its logical conclusion: always praise actions, not fixed qualities. In the domain of moral character, though, this might be the wrong approach. If we want children to become caring and generous, the evidence suggests that there’s value in helping them see these as stable dimensions of their identities.

That said, even in the moral domain, there may be some risks of praising character. Research on moral licensing suggests that when we see ourselves as good people, we sometimes feel greater freedom to engage in unethical behaviors. This is captured in chilling detail in Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, and in The Honest Truth about Dishonesty by Dan Ariely. I’d love to see more research on how to instill a sense of moral character without leading people to say, “I’m a good person, so I can do a bad thing”—or worse yet, “I’m a good person, so this clearly isn’t a bad thing.”

So, now, based on this research, we might need to be aware of which character quality we want to teach and employ contradictory instructional strategies for some of them.

Teaching is complicated, ain’t it?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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


  1. Thanks for writing this, Larry! I don’t know that these are contradictory instructional strategies… On the one hand, you want people to believe character is innate so praising them for being that way works. On the other hand, you want people to believe success results from effort rather than a fixed quality (IQ) so you praise actions (effort) rather than a fixed quality. So it appears the question is when should we recognize qualities (fixed) and when should we recognize actions / effort (growth). However, I believe that is a false dichotomy – you actually want to do both!

    As examples,
    – You are smart because you put in the effort.
    – You are a thoughtful and generous person because you always help others.
    – I know you can do this if you put your best effort into it.

    Expressing true confidence (not hopeful encouragement) that someone can meet high expectations is a self-fulfilling prophecy that produces superior results – the Pygmalion Effect. “Can meet” conveys the need for effort while confidence acknowledges they have the ability. In essence, the instructional strategy is to convey they have the innate ability to excel if they put in the right effort.

    Expressed another way, one does not want to convey that someone succeeds because they have some innate quality that does not require effort. One wants to reinforce that people have a competency (intelligence, helpfulness) because they take specific actions. You are (will be) successful (have this ability / quality) because you take (can take) these actions.

    Regarding Adam’s comment on wanting to see “more research on how to instill a sense of moral character without leading people to say, “I’m a good person, so I can do a bad thing.” — there is a lot of research on this! Three qualities in particular inoculate people from crossing to the dark side: humility, empathy and compassion. Inclusive in these qualities is an understanding that circumstance and environment have a profound effect – being born into privilege or poverty matters a great deal. Power, wealth and status corrupt (in business, politics, religion…) when humility, empathy and compassion are absent – the self-serving bias asserts itself and people blame the 47% as takers while attributing their success to ability (I made this) – completely oblivious that they are actually the ones taking…

  2. It’s funny, because I have been doing this for years in my classroom. I drew the idea from attribution theory: to what does a person attribute their behavior? Who they are, or the situation. It overlaps with Dweck’s ideas about mindset, for sure. But while we want students to think of their being mean as because they are cranky or tired or hurt–in other words, not about who they are, but about the situation–we *want* them to think of their pro-social behavior as because they are good people. This shapes their sense if self and makes it more likely that they will act to fulfill this identity later.

    The difference between, You are very caring and You are very smart is that you are caring explains a child’s behavior. Why did you help your friend? Because you are caring. You are smart, on the other hand, explains results: why did you get a good grade? Because you are smart. The thing being explained is external–a grade, rather than internal–behavior.

    So, You helped your friend because you are nice is not, in fact, parallel to you did well because you are smart. It is parallel to you put in lots of effort because you are a hard worker.

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