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The Teaching 'Mindset:' How Expectations Matter

Katie Brohawn

Katie Brohawn directs research for TASC.

The idea of "Growth Mindset" has received a lot of attention recently. The term itself was originally coined by distinguished Stanford Psychology professor Carol Dweck, who describes growth mindset as people believing “that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.”

While this is definitely one of the hot new(ish) concepts in education, researchers have actually been studying this phenomenon for over 60 years, albeit indirectly. I’m taking a step back from the latest research to share findings of a groundbreaking study from 1963 that ties directly to growth mindset. While we often discuss the importance of instilling in our students a belief in their abilities, research has documented the incredible importance of ensuring that we – teachers, community educators and parents – maintain a growth mindset ourselves about the kids we are teaching and raising.

In their article entitled "The effect of experimenter bias on the performance of the albino rat" published in Behavioral Science, researchers Rosenthal and Fode showed the detrimental effects of educators not having what is now referred to as a growth mindset. College students taking a psychology course believed themselves to be experimenters teaching rats how to learn, when in reality they were the ones being studied. Each student (hereon referred to as "experimenter") was given a group of rats and was asked to train the rats on how to learn their way through a maze. However, half of the experimenters were told that their rats had been genetically bred to be "maze-bright," meaning they typically show learning immediately which only continues to further increase over time. The other half of the experimenters were told that their rats had been bred to be "maze-dull," meaning they typically show little learning. In reality, the two groups of rats were identical and had been randomly assigned to one group or the other.

The experimenters then had to teach their rats how to use the maze correctly over the course of five days. The results were astounding. The rats arbitrarily labeled as "maze-bright" showed significantly more learning after just one day than those labeled as "maze-dull," as well as a greater increase in learning over the five-day period. In other words, the experimenters were asserting unconscious influences over the learning of the rats that they were assigned to teach.

Back in 1963, the results of the study weren’t directly linked to the student/teacher relationship, but rather, served to educate the scientific community about the realities of unintentional experiment bias. However, clear parallels to the field of growth mindset can certainly be drawn. If we as educators do not believe that all children have the capacity to learn, we face an incredible risk of hampering the outcomes of the very kids we are trying to help succeed.

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p.s. For another great summary of this research and other examples of how other’s expectations can influence your behavior, I encourage you to listen to a recent episode of This American Life, number 544 entitled "Batman."

 

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