Should you be in to Brainwashing?

Brainwashing Students

Let’s focus on how to get off to a fresh start…by brainwashing others. Whether you work with adults or younger students directly, this month’s issue may change your approach forever. You’ll learn why you should be in the business of brainwashing. Here’s what the research tells us…

The Research

Brainwashing is the altering of beliefs, knowledge or attitudes in the mind of another. The first of your two questions is, “Should I do brainwashing?” The answer is an emphatic, “Yes!” Second, “Why?” Humans live their lives and take actions based on their narratives. Our own narrative is the aggregate of our daily routines, habits and predictive decisions, actions, values and conversations we engage in. Humans are remarkably true to their own “story”. At school, the story that students create and identify with is especially important.

For example, research tells us that one of the single greatest factors contributing to student achievement (ranking in the top 3) is the student’s prediction (their likely path) of how they’ll do in school (Hattie, JA, 2009). This factor tells us that a student’s belief about their academic future is critical. This speaks to their optimism and hopes as well as their belief in their own capacity to learn and grow. Some students think they’re “stuck” at their present cognitive level. This “fixed mindset” is deadly. In addition, a separate factor – the student’s attitude, is also a moderately robust predictive factor, too (Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S., 2007). Taken together, these two factors can form either a significant asset or serious liability.

Teachers may think of a student as “sharp” or “slow” and these beliefs are typically counterproductive. Labeling students as either bright or “not showing much promise” changes outcomes (Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L., 1992). Teachers tend to favor those who show “more promise” and spend less time with the less promising individuals. In fact, the research shows that NOT labeling students to begin with is better, and it’s a powerful factor in student achievement (Hattie, JA, 2009).

These actions can be a liability when teachers or parents frequently make use of ability-related labels (“You’re smart” or “You’re a little slow”), or describe students as maintaining stable academic levels of performance over periods of time. This can implicitly convey maladaptive and lowered expectations of ability to children (Heyman, GD, 2008). Our prediction of our future does, indeed, change our beliefs and actions (Chang, 2001).

The strength of these two factors suggests that you can gain enormous “return on effort” by altering them. In other words, by altering a student’s prediction and attitude about how they’ll do in your class, your chances are high that their changed attitude will change how they achieve. While struggling teachers often notice or complain about student “attitudes”, one of the things that strong teachers do is to purposefully alter student perceptions of themselves.

Practical Applications

Our second question is, “How can I effectively change the minds of others?” First, be blunt! Tell your students explicitly, in plain English that “Your brain can change!” Let them know IQ is NOT fixed. Teach them that new learning can change the brain. Show them videos on people that overcame obstacles to change themselves (

Focus on things that the student can alter, such as a strategy, attitude or effort. Labels can become an asset when teachers shift their thinking to that of a variable (not fixed) asset dependent. Author of Mindset, Carol Dweck, says that the way to talk to students is critical (2006). Check out this You Tube:

She suggests that you say:

“You really studied for your English test, and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, outlined it, and tested yourself on it. That really worked!”

“I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it.”

“It was a long, hard assignment, but you stuck to it and got it done. You stayed at your desk, kept up your concentration, and kept working. That’s great!”

“I like that you took on that challenging project for your science class. It will take a lot of work–doing the research, designing the machine, buying the parts, and building it. You’re going to learn a lot of great things.”

Starting today, you can begin to alter one of the single biggest achievement factors. You can stack the deck in your favor. You can alter what students think about themselves! You can do that by the way you talk about learning, the brain and change. It’s just as, or even more, important for the staff to know this about themselves. Ensure that every single staff (without exception) understands that the brain can change (but not if the teacher does not change). This year, let’s focus on changing brains with a HUGE attitude upgrade. A better attitude means you’ll see more student effort. That will make all of our jobs easier!

In closing, whether you teach kids, serve as an administrator or staff developer, or are a parent of your own kids, you have an obligation to influence others. But if their brain is the same, there’s no change in behavior or attitude. Changing attitudes is the kind of change that will provide the greatest return. What is your plan for positive brainwashing your students this year?

Your partner in learning,

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

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