Knot for Teacher

Shouts to planetjan on this one…

This post will be like a big ball of used gum. I keep coming back and editing in more bits. Thus, it won’t be very cohesive and is going to jump all over the place. You have been warned. (Note to my students: Here I employe the classic negativity technique known as “Tell Them How You’ll Suck Right Up Front.”)

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB – for added fun pronounce this as “nicklebee”) was one of the first things proposed by George W. Bush, not long after the Supreme Court decision that helped make him president. With that kind of mandate under his belt he leaped in and, on January 23, 2001, boldly proposed NCLB. The bill was mothered by Senator Ted Kennedy and received “overwhelming bi-partisan support” in Congress. It become the law of the land on January 8, 2002.

One of the driving ideas behind NCLB was that measurable standards and goals would lead to positive individual outcomes in students. This included, of course, incentives in the form of Title I funds and how those funds would be allocated to government-run schools that receive federal funding.

At the bottom of this post I’m including an amazing video from TED entitled, “How do we do the right thing?” This is a topic I ponder a lot. The video covers lots of topics, including doctors, but also has a fair amount about teachers. What does an emphasis on things like test scores tied to funding bring?

The video tells one story. A teacher was visited by a consultant. The purpose of the visit was to help the teacher produce higher test scores for the school. The consultant was there to provide training towards that goal. Step One: Ignore students who would pass the tests no matter what. Step Two: Ignore students who would fail the tests no matter what. Step Three: Ignore students who were too new to the district that their scores would not count toward funding incentives. The remaining “bubble” students were the only ones deemed to be worthy of the teacher’s attention.

Wow. And that’s the system taking a major shit on human beings. Now, let’s move on an explore some other ideas.

Human brains love to categorize things. As a matter of routine we make snap judgements, thin slice and judge books by their cover, in spite of the old adage that says we can’t. It’s something that we do.

How can this sort of thing manifest itself?

One of my favorite researchers of all time is Dr. Ellen Langer. She wrote the book Mindfulness which is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. (If experiments like the ones I’m about to describe interest you, go find this book and read it. You’re in for a treat.)

In one of her experiments, two women were given three tasks. First, they were asked to individually solve arithmetic problems. Then they were given labels at random – “boss” and “assistant” – and asked to solve anagrams as a team. Finally, they went back to solving arithmetic problems individually again.

What do you think happened? The person given the “boss” label solved more math problems than she initially had in phase one of the test. The person given the “assistant” label solved less math problems.

Holy shit. Think about that. These were just words assigned to people in an experiment. I would imagine, as such, that they’d have much less power than the real life labels we take on each and every minutes of our lives. What a mind fuck!

It doesn’t end there. There have been other experiments involving teachers and students. In the experiments groups of students were randomly separated into two groups. One group of students was labeled “gifted” or as having high IQs and the other group of students was not. The label of “gifted” was communicated to teachers. The results were dramatic. Consistently the groups labeled as “gifted” performed higher than the control groups.

The label was affecting the teachers. It turned out that when dealing with students they thought were gifted, teachers interacted with their students differently. They looked at the students more often. They smiled and nodded at them more. They taught more content, set higher goals, called on them more frequently and give them more time to answer.

This sort of phenomenon, where people place greater expectations on others which leads to greater results is known as the Pygmalion effect.

Another example of the powerful effect of labels is the famous Stanford prison experiment. In this case, in addition to labels, the structure of a setting (a prison) powerfully manifested to such a degree that the two-week experiment had to be terminated early after six days.

The mind can be a strange thing. I’d like to close out this post with two more examples of Dr. Langer experiments.

Langer, a social psychologist and teacher, has written a book, this is actually her fourth on mindfulness but first on health, that is philosophical in part, and practical throughout. It is based on many of her studies and those conducted with her students. One classic study Langer conducted had senior citizens, some of whom were in nursing type facilities spend a week living as though it was 1959 again, wearing the type of clothes they wore then, doing things like carrying their own suitcases, which they hadn’t done in years, bringing photos of who they were then and “acting as if” they were their younger version, again. A week later, most were actually livelier, stronger and healthier, they expressed more vitality and took more interest in life than they had in years. (Source.)

And, excerpted from Dr. Langer’s web site

In the 1970s my colleague Judith Rodin and I conducted an experiment with nursing home residents. We encouraged one group of participants to find ways to make more decisions for themselves. For example, they were allowed to choose where to receive visitors, and if and when to watch the movies that were shown at the home. Each also chose a houseplant to care for, and they were to decide where to place the plant in their room, as well as when and how much to water it. Our intent was to make the nursing home residents more mindful, to help them engage with the world and live their lives more fully.

A second, control group received no such instructions to make their own decisions; they were given houseplants but told that the nursing staff would care for them. A year and a half later, we found that members of the first group were more cheerful, active, and alert, based on a variety of tests we had administered both before and after the experiment. Allowing for the fact that they were all elderly and quite frail at the start, we were pleased that they were also much healthier: we were surprised, however, that less than half as many of the more engaged group had died than had those in the control group.

Dramatic results, eh? My advice is to be mindful about your brain. You never know what it might be doing to you.

11 responses

  1. Wow. Those experiments are amazing. I think I’ll look up that book when I’m at the bookstore tomorrow. Thanks!


    1. The book is chock full of mind blowing stuff like that. Please let me know if you read it! I guess you could say it is a book loosely about not acting like a zombie. 🙂


  2. Oh, totally unrelated – getting a Roku box very soon (being shipped as I speak). Can’t wait to set it all up and cut our Direct TV bill in half.


    1. Awesome! I believe you will love it! I look forward to hearing what you think!


  3. When I was put in the stoner science class (Botany), I definitely toned down my usual interest. I learned what I had to for tests and didn’t bother “getting interested.”

    In truth, it wasn’t “cos” it was the stoner class but because I’d been switched to THAT LEVEL or shut out from the higher levels. I was labelled and accepted it, gratefully. “Oh, good. Nap now.”

    I was the unofficial editor of the school newspaper (assist, technically, but everybody knew I did the editor job–I couldn’t have the title due to a long, political story; our photographer “wore” the title editor — odd but you have to do what you have to do) and I worked my ARSE off. Did I care about the school newspaper? Nope. But the fact that I’d been given the job (not title) editor meant I needed to step up.


    1. Interesting. So from your perspective you think you had a label that changed how you were treated? Very interesting.

      I find myself doing my best at things I don’t care about, too. It’s a curse, I think.


  4. There were 2 labels there: both “dumbed down.”

    In the one case, because I was put in the “dumber” class, I didn’t bother as hard. I mean…everyone else was stoned.

    In the other case, everybody in that room knew it was done to escape the ire/ censorship of the principal/ administration. I had already been black-balled (literally every article I wrote — for a grade, too, not just because they were my beats in the paper) returned from the principal’s office with a red circle and a slash through…MY NAME. The by-line.

    There’s a reason for that which is long and I don’t like to speak/ write publicly about it. People wouldn’t believe it for one thing. Point is, I was not allowed to be published, no matter content. So, I was “given” the role editor but never given credit. This allowed me to silently do my job without having admin come in and shut down the paper (for no reason other than “hating” me).

    It was decided by the teacher/”sponsors” of the newspaper class/ journalism club. I didn’t exactly mind but my name never appeared as editor.

    I worked harder than anybody else and it had nothing to do with my title that time.


    1. Oh, and if that latter part makes no sense, it’s cos it was a crazy situation.


    2. That sounds bizarre, even for a high school. I’d love to hear the story sometime. It sounds pretty evil to me.

      Me? I got A’s in every class where I was interested in the subject. If I wasn’t interested, then it was a struggle. It wasn’t a problem of intelligence, it was a problem of effort. As in I’d give none.

      One of my biggest regrets is not going full throttle in all of my classes, not just the ones I liked.


  5. Gee, we start our standardized testing this Tuesday. I’ve got a lotta reading to do! I did tell my class, (which includes a GATE – Gifted and Talented Cluster) that the principal is counting on THEM to raise the school’s API score.

    Unfortunately, it’s true that teachers are told to focus students who have a shot at hitting the coveted “Proficient” band width. The others – well, let’s just say that we’re expected to cut our losses.

    It’s all rather ridiculous. Sometimes I look out over these kids and think, “Crap! I’m going to own their score!” I could pound Knowledge in some of their heads with a jackhammer and they’d still bubble in the wrong answer because they’re in a hurry to go to recess. Argh!


    1. In the video, when forced with the consultant’s advice, the teacher responds, “This isn’t why I wanted to teach” or something like that.

      Good luck with the testing!

      And yes, it’s true. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. That must be frustrating on teachers. I was a gifted student in one of my classes and I skipped a lot, forcing my teacher to give me some F’s. Even I knew I was squandering an opportunity and breaking his heart. I was such a dumb ass back then, and I really did care about him.

      I need a life do-over.


Bringeth forth thy pith and vinegar

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: