Regarding "Dull Rats"

For the record, I love rats.

For the record, I love rats.

If you’ve been listening to the various NPR Podcasts recently, you’re aware that there is a new one coming at you. Called “Invisibilia,” it has been getting the full-court NPR rollout on the various flagship shows, with whole episodes of “This American Life” and “Radiolab” devoted to previewing some of the initial pieces. I haven’t loved them all equally, but the story that ran on “This American Life,” entitled “Batman” was interesting for several reasons that I won’t get in to here, and one that I will. And that one deals with rats.

In the early 1960’s Robert Rosenthal and Reed Lawson published the results of a study they did involving rats. There was nothing special about the rats at all. They were all “Standard” lab rats, in a style very much like the photo that accompanies this post. But only Rosenthal and Lawson knew this, because they took the rats and randomly assigned them to two groups. One group was ostentatiously and publicly labeled as “Bright Rats,” and the other group was similarly labeled “Dull Rats.” This accomplished, various subjects were asked to put the rats through a series of the kind of rat tests that you imagine when you think about testing rats (mazes and such).

The result of this? The Bright Rats significantly outperformed the Dull Rats. Which is to say that the labeling of the animals as more or less capable had a tangible effect on the performance of those animals. They performed to their expectation.

This is not a phenomenon localized to rodents (for anyone interested, Dweck provides a pretty extensive rundown of the ways that labeling can limit people here). If you are a teacher, you’re probably well familiar with the toxic effects that certain kinds of labels have on the ability of certain kinds of students. Or at least, I hope that you are. It’s easy, as the job takes its more grinding turns, to fall in to thought patterns that limit what we think a particular group of students is capable of. But at the end of the day, I think we owe it to our students to move beyond these kinds of assumptions as to what they can do, and push them to continually work to improve. What’s more, I think we need to truly believe that they can.

If we don’t, I have to think we wind up with a class full of "Dull Rats".