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The invisibilia of educating human beings and rats

Category: Option E Educating

Submitted by on Sun 07/08/16 09:33

Imagine a rat. It's sitting in its cage, right there in front of you. Now answer this: Do you think that the thoughts you have in your head (right this instant) could influence how that rat moves through space?

You will probably say no. Most people do. They don't believe that their thoughts about the rat have any influence on the rat at all. However, they are wrong.

Early in his years of research, psychologist Robert Rosenthal did something pretty sneaky. He crept into his lab late one night and hung some randomly placed signs above rat cages. Some signs said that the rat in this cage was incredibly smart, and some said that the rat in this other cage was incredibly dumb. This had no actual bearing on reality: these rats were just your typical lab rats from your nearest lab rat store. 

The next day Rosenthal told a group of researchers that some were about to get some very smart rats and some were about to get some very dumb rats. These they would need to run through a maze. They would then record how well the rats performed. 

Off the experimenters went and carried out the experiments as per the guidelines and recorded the results based on specific measurements. 

The results? The 'smart' rats did almost twice as well as the 'dumb' rats. There was no doubt about it, the scores were the scores. 

When the researchers found out that Rosenthal had tricked them into believing that the rats were smart or dumb, no one believed it at first. What they eventually figured out was that the expectations that the humans had in their heads influenced a lot of small, almost invisible things that they did to the rats. They had an influence on thoughts, emotions and beliefs. For instance, if they believed a rat was really smart, they were warmer and handled it more gently, which was found to result in increased performance.

These are the silent, invisible forces (the invisibilia) that we don’t think often about. Attitudes shape behaviour and performance, assumptions influence results, beliefs affect outcomes, people affect other people.

In humans it is even more complex. When an individual believes that they are capable of achieving something, it does in fact improve their results. If they believe they can't, this limits their ability.

The role of the teacher is to help students get to this place and provide the right support, environment and steps in which to increase their learning outcomes. 

One of the ways Brisbane Adventist College does this is through the use of individual student SMART targets. Each factor in SMART is significant: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely.


Prompted by questions and assisted by teachers, students identify a long term goal and create a series of short term steps (or goals) that will help them get there. When they receive an assessment item back from their teacher, they pause to reflect on the practices that led to that result. At the end of each reporting period, the teacher and student review each learning goal, determine whether they were successful, and write new or subsequent goals for the new semester. If they've been unsuccessful, they come up with better strategies to help them reach their goal. 


When we have greater expectations of someone and provide the right support, we create room for educational 'stretch'. SMART goals provide a framework for this kind of expansion by recognising each student's starting point, spelling out strategies for success, building time and reflection into the process, and acknowledging the challenges that will pop up along the way. With the positive challenge that comes with SMART goals, children develop incrementally, in +1 steps. 

Learning does not occur in a vacuum and the humble rat reminds us of what we probably already suspected: that the 'invisibilia' that goes on behind the scenes has a huge impact on performance. Something we're learning more and more is that educators and parents can have an enormously positive influence if we work together. Senior English and Music teacher Krysten Rowe says this about using SMART goals in her classroom:

"I have several students who have completely turned the ship around so to speak in terms of their attitude and effort ... One such example is a student who achieved mostly Cs and Bs in 2015 but has achieved a straight ‘A’ standard across all tasks in 2016. Some of the students who've experienced the most positive impact also have parents who are engaged in their learning and regularly access SEQTA-Engage to be up-to-date with their child's goals, achievements and reflections."



For more on Robert Rosenthal's rat experiment and how attitudes can influence learning (including the incredible story of the blind man who clicks like a bat to find his way around), go to NPR's Invisibilia podcast, How To Become Batman.

AUTHOR: Debbie Cosier is an education blogger, teacher and parent. She has worked at BAC in the past and maintains strong relationships with the school. (


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