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By Thom Markham

In medicine, the placebo effect is well known, but still mysterious. Through some unknown connection between mind and body, placebos produce changes in brain states, immune systems, blood pressure and hormone levels. Although most of us think of a placebo as a sugar pill, in fact it’s any intervention in which beliefs produce measurable changes in physiology, and thus performance.

Here’s a typical example: When adults enter a flight simulator and take on the role of Air Force pilots flying a plane, their eyesight improves 40 percent more than adults who just “pretend” to fly a plane in a broken simulator. Something in the belief system shifts the body.

Results from research into the growth mindset tell us that placebos have finally hit the classroom. When students are informed that it’s possible to improve their IQ, they respond by improving their IQ. A simple message of possibility opens the door to an improvement in brain function. When distance-learning students in west Texas used an avatar from Second Life to attend virtual meetings, their new personas gave them permission to change their behavior. They turned into noticeably different and more attentive students than in person.

What’s the takeaway from the placebo phenomenon? More than anything, the results tell us that beliefs matter, perhaps much more than we realize. In many cases, the chief message of placebo research is that focusing on using the mind and beliefs to power up the brain and body is the key to better learning in the future. This approach requires that we take more seriously the latest research showing that intentional, placebo-like interventions also work.

This “open” placebo research is the realm of positive psychology, mindfulness, studies on kindness and so forth. That is, powerful, positive beliefs openly transmitted to others result in positive thinking, brighter attitudes, a greater sense of well-being and other indicators of a more alert, resilient, and balanced individual. While it’s difficult to track the corresponding brain changes, we can be sure that a student exhibiting these qualities is NOT in a flight or fight, stressful mode. Rather, the brain is freed to invent, solve and investigate.

To get at this kind of depth in teaching is not difficult, except for the awkward fact that education has yet to escape the “empty vessel” metaphor. We continue to insist that filling up students with information constitutes good learning. That’s why moving to a more inquiry-based, personalized and student-driven system — the face of the future — feels slow and fitful. But every teacher can begin to import this new thinking into the classroom by conveying the primary message that relationships matter in ways that far exceed our prior beliefs. Here’s why:

The invisible connection. Beliefs and attitudes are transmitted through words, body language and facial expressions. But that’s the obvious part, and it’s increasingly clear that connections go deeper than science can capture. Neuroplasticity studies show that the brain is a dynamic organ in constant flux, and is exquisitely responsive to nuance. Neuronal networks are being built or discarded in the course of one conversation. The neurons themselves each contain 2-3 feet of DNA that control gene expression, meaning that culture and conversation ultimately have permanent effects on the brain. And the deeper work on consciousness by leading scientists points to ever-changing quantum activity at the subcellular level generated by beliefs and thoughts.

Positive, sincere beliefs matter. This is territory virtually unexplored in education, but the latest research is clear: The body and brain respond favorably to care, sincerity and unconditional acceptance, which are relayed through the heart and vagal system to the brain. So it’s not enough to smile (fake smiles don’t work, anyway) and say the right words unless you believe them wholeheartedly. Inquiry and innovation rely on a high-functioning brain activated by care and acceptance.

The Fifth “C” is critical. Currently, we intend to deliver the Big Four 21st century skills (collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity) much like we teach the photosynthesis cycle or the causes of the Civil War. They’re outcomes of an instructional process. This is magical thinking. These skills are deeply rooted in attitude, confidence, empathy, openness, and curiosity — the province of character. How do we move upstream, get as close to the source as possible and elicit these qualities?

Studies on resiliency point the way. Resiliency is commonly viewed as an antidote to stress or an intervention for at-risk students. But in a chaotic, 21st century world, resiliency becomes a broader term that encompasses balance, persistence and awareness. And the research is clear: These aspects of character are evoked in students through a strong mentor relationship with an adult who cares, listens and offers nonjudgmental coaching and feedback.

In other words, if we want to get to skills, we’ll have to start with personal strengths. That means that 21st century teachers must put powerful, positive relationships at the center of their mission.

Thom Markham is a psychologist, school redesign consultant and the author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators. Find many more resources on his website, www.thommarkham.com or tweet him @thommarkham.

  • squirreldancer

    Your model of neurophysiology, DNA and human physiology is unlike any that I have ever heard in any biology class. I’d be a little worried about learning causing DNA mutation, and in any event, the effects wouldn’t be seen until the next generation.
    This all reminds me of “The Power of Positive Thinking” from 40 years or so ago. I wonder how many 21st century things are rehashed from the primitive days of the 20th century?

  • Kayla Burrow

    Nice to see the science backing up this work! This blog makes me think of the Pygmalion effect too. I was just reading about it in the classroom here. http://www.edutopia.org/blog/pygmalion-effect-communicating-higher-expectations-ben-solomon

  • Elizabeth Rubenstein

    I LOVE the 5th C!!!!

  • Raya

    “When students are informed that it’s possible to improve their IQ, they respond by improving their IQ” – I couldn’t find any scientific backing of this. The study mentioned atually states that general verbal and non-verbal abilities are closely linked to sensomotor skills invovled in learning and that possibly IQ can change during teenage years.
    Can you give me some feedback on that? Thank you!

    • Justin

      Check out Carol Dweck’s research.

  • Clyde Gaw

    …and what does the measuring of children’s intellectual growth utilizing numerical values do to their malleable minds and identity?

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