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July 1, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

The Best Posts Responding To David Brooks Criticism Of Diane Ravitch (& Many Of The Rest Of Us)

I’ve said it before, and I suspect I’ll have to say it again, but something seems to happen to the ordinarily thoughtful and even-handed New York Times columnist David Brooks when he writes about education issues. Robert Pondiscio wrote about this awhile back in his post, When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Columnists.

Brooks’ column today (Smells Like School Spirit) was certainly a bad idea, and many thoughtful people in the education world have responded. Here are the best responses so far:

You certainly don’t have to go far by just looking at many of the comments on Brooks’ article on the New York Times website.

Smells Like. . .Another Strawman Argument is from P.T. Thomas.

David Brooks: C’mon Feel That Invigorating Moral Culture, baby! comes from Cedar’s Digest.

The incentives are critical, but they’re not responsible for critical choices is by Sherman Dorn.

Diane Ravitch has written a response to David Brooks’ column.

As always, feedback is welcome.

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You might also want to check out over 700 similar “The Best…” lists.

January 10, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Odd, But Interesting, Article By David Brooks

I generally appreciate columns by David Brooks, the New York Times columnist. Though, when he writes about education issues, he can be way off base.

He’s just published a rather odd, but interesting, piece in The New Yorker Magazine titled Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life.

It’s pretty meandering, but there are some intriguing parts. Here are a couple of excerpts:

One of Harold’s key skills in school was his ability to bond with teachers. We’ve spent a generation trying to reorganize schools to make them better, but the truth is that people learn from the people they love. In eleventh grade, Harold developed a crush on his history teacher, Ms. Taylor. What mattered most was not the substance of the course so much as the way she thought, the style of learning she fostered. For instance, Ms. Taylor constantly told the class how little she knew. Human beings are overconfidence machines…

Ms. Taylor was always reminding the class of how limited her grasp of any situation was. “Sorry, I get distracted easily,” she’d say, or, “Sorry, sometimes I jump to conclusions too quickly.” In this way, she communicated the distinction between mental strength (the processing power of the brain) and mental character (the mental virtues that lead to practical wisdom). She stressed the importance of collecting conflicting information before making up one’s mind, of calibrating one’s certainty level to the strength of the evidence, of enduring uncertainty for long stretches as an answer became clear, of correcting for one’s biases. As Keith E. Stanovich, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, writes in his book “What Intelligence Tests Miss” (2009), these “thinking dispositions” correlate weakly or not at all with I.Q. But, because Ms. Taylor put such emphasis on these virtues and because Harold admired her so much, he absorbed and copied her way of being.

Here a second excerpt:

Harold was gripped by the thought that, during his lifetime, the competition to succeed—to get into the right schools and land the right jobs—had grown stiffer. Society had responded by becoming more and more focussed. Yet somehow the things that didn’t lead to happiness and flourishing had been emphasized at the expense of the things that did. The gifts he was most grateful for had been passed along to him by teachers and parents inadvertently, whereas his official education was mostly forgotten or useless.

I’d be interested in hearing other reader’s reactions — do you think it’s as odd an article as it seems to me?

May 12, 2009
by Larry Ferlazzo

What Is Going On With David Brooks?

Even though I haven’t always agreed with David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and commentator on the PBS News Hour, I’ve always been impressed with his intellect and reasonableness.

However, it appears that he loses these attributes when he talks about education.

I’ve posted about a relatively incoherent colum he wrote last month (see Relationship-Building, Merit Pay, & Testing).

This week he wrote another bizarre one — this time on the Harlem Children’s Zone, the well known charter school run by Geoffrey Canada.

Instead of going into my issues with what he wrote, I’d encourage you to read two other posts that express similar concerns much more eloquently than I could do:

What ‘The Harlem Miracle’ Really Teaches by Diana Ravitch

David Brooks In Opposite Land by Claus von Zastrow.

There are also some very insightful comments that were left by readers right below his column on the Times’ webpage.

I think Brooks would be better off staying off the education “beat.”

May 30, 2017
by Larry Ferlazzo

NY Times Publishes Best Summary Of Why Social Emotional Learning Isn’t Enough….

As regular readers know, I’m a big advocate of Social Emotional Learning (The Best Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Resources).

I’ve also been a critique of those, like NY Times columnist David Brooks, who promote what I call “The Let Them Eat Character” strategy by suggesting that all people have to do is develop some of those SEL skills, like grit and self-control in order to escape poverty (see The Best Resources Showing Social Emotional Learning Isn’t Enough).

Ben Carson, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, became the latest person parroting that line this week saying that people in poverty just have “the wrong mind-set.”

Today, The New York Times published a response to his comments, and it’s the best rebuttal imaginable. Columnist Emily Badger basically took all the research you can find in my “Best” list and summarized it succinctly. In the future, you won’t have to bother reviewing all those links – just reader her column, Does ‘Wrong Mind-Set’ Cause Poverty or Vice Versa?

Here’s an excerpt:

July 15, 2015
by Larry Ferlazzo

CNN Video “Can Grit Be Taught?” Shows Its Seductive Attraction & Lurking Danger (If You Look For It)

You will find no more forceful advocate than me for teaching Social Emotional Learning Skills in schools — I’ve written three books on the topic and have posted multiple related “Best” lists.

I’ve also written, and spoken, about how some SEL advocates (including David Brooks and KIPP Charters) are using it inappropriately as a “Let Them Eat Character!” approach that doesn’t recognize the assets our students bring (it’s not an issue that our students don’t have self-control and grit – many have them in huge amounts and may just need some assistance in applying those qualities in academic ways) and acts as a substitute for providing adequate economic and political support to our students, their families and our schools (see my Washington Post piece titled The Manipulation of Social Emotional Learning and my post The Best Articles About The Study Showing Social Emotional Learning Isn’t Enough).

This week’s CNN segment, Can Grit Be Taught? (embedded below), shows how seductive that “Let Them Eat Character!” approach can be – all it takes is a bit of grit and self-control and things will be fine. It demonstrates no recognition of the broader socio-economic challenges facing students and their families.

I respect Professor Duckworth’s work, and appreciate her recent attempts to rein in over-zealous uses of her work (see Measurement Matters….Maybe Not So Much). Perhaps she is really trying to communicate a more nuanced approach and the media, not known for its appreciation of nuance, is not going for it.

If she’s trying, I just hope she starts trying harder….

Strangely, CNN deleted the video from it’s YouTube account, but you can still see it on their website (though it’s not embeddable).

May 10, 2015
by Larry Ferlazzo

The Limits To The Power Of A Growth Mindset (& The Dangers When We Don’t Recognize Them)

As regular readers know, I’m a big believer in helping students understand and develop a growth mindset, and have recently published two very popular posts about it.

However, I also think it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Carol Dweck, whom I have praised repeatedly, and her colleagues just published a paper on self-control/willpower and a growth mindset. Jonah Lehrer has written the best explanation of it that I’ve seen. Basically, their study suggests that contrary to previous research that has found self-control to be a resource that can be depleted and then needs to be replenished through food, beverage, or other means, in fact, having a growth mindset about your capacity for self-control is really the best way to keep your willpower at a high-level (I believe that’s an accurate summary, but am more than willing to be told otherwise).

This study seems to build on Professor Dweck’s Op Ed in The New York Times a few years ago which I, and other researchers ,critiqued. And I made similar criticisms of another researcher who I admire, Heidi Grant Halvorson, when she made a similar case for people dealing with stress (see Our Students Are Not Supermen & Superwomen). Many studies have found that we have a certain amount of cognitive “bandwidth” available to deal with pressures and that certain stresses, particularly economic ones, can take up a substantial space in it. That, in turn,  limits what might be available for what are considered Social Emotional Learning skills. In other words, people aren’t poor because they don’t have self-control or grit — poverty itself helps create a lack of those qualities.

I’m not convinced that pushing our students to develop a growth mindset should be the primary strategy we educators use to help our students deal with all the challenges they face, including self-control and stress. Though I think a growth mindset is a critical perspective we want our students to develop, I think also acknowledging that we all have some limitations, and learning strategies to effectively cope with them is an equally important concept and skill to learn (here are strategies around self-control and stress I teach students).

I am not trying to put words into the mouths of Professor Dweck (and Heidi Grant Halvorson) and her colleagues by suggesting that they believe that having a growth mindset is the answer to all these challenges, though I think that pushing these ever-expanding claims about the power of a growth mindset can sometimes leave that impression.

These kinds of claims also play into the “Let Them Eat Character” narrative that the problem for low-income people is character and not poverty and inequality. David Brooks is a big public advocate of this perspective, which he repeated just last weekend. And I’ve written about it in The Washington Post, The manipulation of Social Emotional Learning.

As I’ve stated before (see the discussion in the comments here), I hope that all researchers take into consideration how their studies might be misused by others in the public policy arena.

What do you think — am I over-reacting?

May 5, 2015
by Larry Ferlazzo

What Are The School Implications Of New Chetty Study On Geographical Mobility?

Regular readers of this blog, and informed educators everywhere, know about the damage economist Raj Chetty has done to teachers, students, and schools by his exaggerated pronouncements about the education policy implications of his past work.

Today, he unveiled a new study that, as usual, has received lavish media attention. This one is very intriguing though, of course, his past work makes me a little wary of his conclusions in this one. It is difficult to be wary,, though, of such common sense results. Basically, he says that low-income children moving from poor neighborhoods to middle-income neighborhoods results in better life outcomes for the kids when they are adults.

Duh, you might say. Of course, living in areas with better-supported schools, less crime, and better community services would lead to more success for kids. Agreed. However, a previous study of much of the same data a few years ago did not find that to be the case. Chetty says his results are different because more years have passed and the positive outcomes took longer to become apparent.

Here are links to today’s articles on the study:

The New York Times has an article and an amazing interactive on the study.

Want to help poor kids? Help their parents move to a better neighborhood. is from Vox.

Where Poor Kids Grow Up Makes A Huge Difference is from NPR.

I’m wondering if the study’s conclusions, if accurate, might specifically apply to education policy discussions in two ways:

One, though I doubt it will, it would be great it would quiet those who push Social Emotional Learning as a “Let Them Eat Character” approach to responding to poverty instead of seeing SEL for what it is — if done well, a useful supplement to classroom instruction. Interestingly enough, the most public proponent of that mistaken and damaging perspective is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who pushed it again in a widely ridiculed weekend column. You can read more about this topic at my Washington Post column, The manipulation of Social Emotional Learning.

Despite what Brooks and other might say, escaping poverty is not just a problem of “psychology.”

Secondly, I wonder if it might not be a stretch to think this study says something about the damaging effects of classroom tracking by ability (see The Best Resources For Learning About Ability Grouping & Tracking)?

Plenty of studies have shown that students facing more challenges benefit more being in a mixed-ability classroom than in a lower-tracked one. The counter argument has been that some research shows that advanced learners do not gain similar benefits and are even hurt. However, as Carol Tomlinson has discussed, those studies showing a disadvantage for advanced learners have not been done in classrooms where teachers have been trained in differentiating up (she calls it a “plus-one” environment), as well as differentiating down.

As she writes:

The studies most cited in terms of benefits of homogeneous instruction for bright learners examined two conditions: heterogeneous classrooms in which little or nothing was done to provide plus-one learning for advanced learners, and homogeneous classrooms in which teachers regularly planned for plus-one learning.

In the two decades since those studies, I’ve observed and studied schools in which the entire faculty focused on providing a third condition: differentiation in mixed-ability classrooms where regular planning for a full spectrum of learners—including advanced learners—was a given.

It seems to me that a middle-class neighborhood with low-income families integrated within it is, in many ways, similar to the kind of classroom Tomlinson has observed — where, by force of numbers alone, a “plus-one” environment naturally occurs.

And, according to the Chetty study, what are the results of this kind of mixed-ability community for the young people who are in a more “advanced” position when families with more challenges move in?


(Thanks to Derek Thompson for bringing attention to that section of the Chetty study)

So, what do you think – am I as guilty of exaggerating the implications of this study as I have accused Chetty of being about his previous research?

April 1, 2015
by Larry Ferlazzo

People Might Be Interested In This Interview I Did About My New Student Motivation Book


Routledge, the publishers of my new student motivation book, just did an interview with me about my series of books.

Here’s an excerpt:

3. What are grit, flow, and transfer, and why are those terms getting a lot of buzz these days?

More and more, people are realizing that “transfer” — the term used to describe applying what one has learned in a particular situation to another in a different context – is really the main purpose of schooling. And, many are recognizing that schools don’t do a very good job at it.

Flow is a term originally coined by professor and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the highest level of intrinsic motivation – the “optimal experience.” Flow is what people feel when they are enjoying doing an activity so much that they are “being carried away in a current,” says Csikszentmihalyi, and they lose track of time. Research has found that, apart from when they are doing paid work like flipping burgers, students feel a sense of flow less oftentimes in the classroom than at any other time.

I think that these kinds of research findings are finally making their way into the education establishment, and it’s pretty frightening. Fortunately, there are many things that teachers can do in their day-to-day lessons to both increase transfer and maximize the odds of their students getting into “flow.”

Of the three words you mention, “grit” is probably the one most well-known, and basically means perseverance in the face of obstacles. Unfortunately, the concept is being used by some, including New York Times columnist David Brooks, to advance the myth that this character trait is what low-income people and schools need, not additional resources or a change in our society’s wealth inequality. I believe that lessons and support of “grit” have a place in the classroom (and in my books). I also believe they have to kept in their place, and we need to acknowledge the grit that many of our students and their families show in their everyday lives, as well as recognizing that grit is just one piece of a much more complex puzzle.

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