Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 3:55 PM ET, 10/31/2010

The importance of being unprincipled

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Larry Ferlazzo , who teaches English at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento He writes a popular resource sharing blog at, on which a version of this post first appeared. His third book, “Student Responsibility and Engagement in Your Classroom: A Practical Guide to Classroom Management and Instruction,” will be published in 2011. He is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

By Larry Ferlazzo
Community organizers and leaders in the Industrial Areas Foundation (where I spent most of my 19-year organizing career) are given a 1933 article by John H. Randall, Jr. It’s titled "On The Importance Of Being Unprincipled."

Granted, it’s a bit of a strange title. Its premise is that we need to be very careful what beliefs we turn into principles, because once they become a principle, we can’t really compromise on it. And that many people turn far too many ideas into principles that they are unwilling to reconsider. Subsequently, negotiation becomes out of the question, and unnecessary conflict often ensues. We can see it in our families, our schools, our country, and in our world.

The article is not saying there are no principles worth upholding. It’s just suggesting that we very, very carefully decide which ones they are.

I was reminded of this article in a piece titled Strong Opinions, Weakly Held by Bob Sutton. He writes:

...I was talking to the Institute’s [For The Future] Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.” .... Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of “confirmation bias.”

Perhaps we all could use a little of being "unprincipled" and of "weakly holding some strong opinions.”

It’s a hard thing to remember in the classroom when it can be tempting to get into "power struggles" with a student (even though a teacher can never ultimately “win” one of them). It’s also a hard thing to remember when debating "school reform" strategies.

I know that in both situations I am often unsuccessful in practicing this advice.

But I’m trying.

That is much more than I can say about the legion of “school reformers” who over the past months -- the “Waiting for Superman" movie ; the Los Angeles Times publishing of teacher’s “effectiveness” ratings; and the recent appalling “manifesto” written by a number of school superintendents in The Washington Post -- have reached a crescendo of teacher-bashing.

And if the word “unprincipled” makes you uncomfortable, there is always Mark Twain’s admonition:

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”


Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | October 31, 2010; 3:55 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Larry Ferlazzo, Teachers  | Tags:  larry ferlazzo, teachers, waiting for superman  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: A real Halloween fright: Costume contracts
Next: Is D.C.'s teacher evaluation system rigged?


Hey everyone,
Let's send a message to George Lucas telling him to do a documentary about this high stakes testing craze and the other issues Diane Ravitch talks about in her book. Go into schools that are test factories and then schools that are actually teaching kids to think etc. Who are using formative assessments etc. Go behind the Billionaire boys club to see what's actually happening in this business model of education? Can you imagine this documentary starting with a futuristic look at schools - all charter schools- all segregated - all test prep centers - all kids with glazed eyes??? Let George Lucas know that he should consult Dr. Ravitch, Dr. Peter Johnston, Dr. Allington, Dr. Darling Hammond, Ellin Keene, Harvey Daniels, Katie Wood Ray, and George Wood as they are the experts in education.
Just go to, and learn more about his mission and then go to

Posted by: tutucker | October 31, 2010 10:26 PM | Report abuse

It's worth mentioning the origins of "strong opinions, weakly held"-- something Sutton does in his original post, but which is left out in the ellipsis. He notes, "They've been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Institute Director Paul Saffo." Credit where it's ultimately due, and all.

Posted by: askpang | November 1, 2010 12:15 AM | Report abuse

Right on, Larry! You've inspired my next blog post. In the realm of "faith-based" education reform, I just wish the education reformers would give us a hint how much evidence and from what sources would change their mind. In the spirit of fair play, I'll offer my threshold. I'll stop slamming the concept of value-added measures on state tests for teacher evaluation when the American Psychology Association, National Council for Measurement in Education, and American Education Research Association endorse that approach. Simple enough? Until then, it would be nice to hear someone on the other side of the debate admit they have doubts, and maybe even they jumped the gun in endorsing VAM.

Posted by: DavidBCohen | November 1, 2010 2:46 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company