You could be hurting your child's learning at school

There was once a researcher who explained to his team of lab assistants that he had stocked his lab with two types of rats. One lot of rats was well above average in intelligence and the other lot were well below average in intelligence. He had placed signs on each rodent's cage to identify if it was ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’.

The research assistants were then required to run their rats through a maze and record their performances. Each maze was exactly the same and the experiment was carried out using timers. When the results were in, they showed that the intelligent rats performed almost twice as well as the unintelligent rats.

But the real experiment was something much more than a rat intelligence test. The lab assistants had been tricked. The 'smart' or 'dumb' signs had no actual connection to the intelligence of the rats inside the cages. They had been randomly placed by the researcher the night before. The cages only held lab rats from your average lab rat store.

Through his experiment, psychologist and social researcher Robert Rosenthal proved that a lab assistant’s thoughts, beliefs and expectations had an influence on their own small, invisible behaviours. This, in turn, had an influence on each rat’s ability to perform—to make decisions and move through space. For instance, if a lab assistant believed a rat was really smart, they were warmer in their attitude towards the rat and handled it more gently. This led to better performances by the rat.

These are the silent, invisible forces that also shape education. Attitudes and beliefs influence behaviour, performance and outcomes.


What this means for families and schools is that both explicit and implicit communication—things said, believed and ‘behaved’— about a child’s potential has an influence on that child’s performance. At the core of this issue are not just the assumptions and expectations we hold about the performance of individual children, but our beliefs about intelligence.

Leading researcher into motivation and intelligence theory Dr Carol Dweck of ‘Growth Mindset’ fame, says that if we believe that intelligence is a fluid thing—that it has the potential for growth and change—we take a very different attitude to learning. No individual’s intelligence is the same at birth as it is at death. IQ responds and grows if we challenge and stretch ourselves, or it stagnates and decreases if we avoid challenge.

So how do we as teachers and parents communicate this belief about our children’s potential for learning? Does it mean that we increase our rah-rah cheering from the sidelines or maybe go out of our way to smooth the path so that children don’t suffer setbacks and failure? No. We acknowledge their growth so far, we help them develop a plan of attack, we give them the help they require to meet their challenges (but not do it for them!), and remind them that setbacks are part of the learning process.

The role of both teachers and parents is to, in partnership, provide support (according to their level of expertise), and a rich environment for learning.


Does a student’s beliefs about their own intelligence improve their performance? Short answer: yes. If a student believes he can improve through effort and practise (I use the pronoun ‘he’ deliberately because I believe that many boys are suffering a silent education crisis these days), this increases his motivation to develop more ambitious learning goals and go beyond the interim setbacks that might have once halted his progress. As a result, he will experience greater learning (and IQ growth) than another student who believes his intelligence is unchangeable or ‘fixed’ and gets caught up believing he simply cannot do something because he is not smart enough.

Belief is important and complex. It has great implications for the future of our children and we are responsible for the mindsets of the children in our care. A growth mindset, if held by teachers, parents as well as students, results in leaps in learning and far greater individual potential.

Resources for parents and teachers

1. For more on Robert Rosenthal's rat experiment (including the incredible story of the blind man who learnt to click like a bat to find his way around) go to NPR's Invisibilia podcast, How To Become Batman.

2. Read more about beliefs about intelligence and how growth mindset influences learning in these two articles I wrote for Brisbane Adventist College.

3. Listen to Carol Dweck's TED Talk about Developing a Growth Mindset.

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