Effective Public Schooling—The Essential Element is Caring

Mar 22, 2013 by


By: Cheryl Williams, Executive Director of the Learning First Alliance

In the work that the Learning First Alliance (LFA) has undertaken over the past months in gathering data on public attitudes and perceptions of public education, one common assumption among the general public becomes clear:


  • Student success and teacher effectiveness are related to a single quality – caring

So, the public and educators alike believe that if teachers care about their students and the students with whom they work believe their teacher cares about them as individuals, the likelihood of learning taking place is high. This doesn’t imply that subject level knowledge and pedagogical skill aren’t important, it just states that those two characteristics don’t work effectively if the educator doesn’t care about the students he or she is working with.


Recently, I had a “connect the dots” moment when a colleague forwarded an article from the January-February, 2013, issue of the Harvard Magazine entitled “The Placebo Phenomenon,” by Cara Feinberg. It describes the research being done by Harvard Medical School associate professor Ted Kaptchuk, an acupuncturist by training with a degree in Chinese medicine from an institute in Macao. He and several colleagues from Harvard-affiliated hospitals created the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS) headquartered at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which is the only multidisciplinary institute dedicated solely to placebo study.


Several of Kaptchuk’s research studies are profiled in this article, and they document placebo treatments that actually resulted in the patients getting better, even some in which the patients knew they were taking placebos. But the study that connected directly to the data we had gleaned at LFA around student success in school was the one that documented the medical advantage of the “caring” physician.


The study took place in the early 2000’s in collaboration with gastroenterologists studying irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic gastrointestinal disorder accompanied by pain and constipation. The experiment split 262 adults with IBS into three groups: a no-treatment control group, told they were on a waiting list for treatment; a second group who received sham acupuncture without much interaction with the practitioner; and a third group who received sham acupuncture with great attention lavished upon them—at least 20 minutes of what Kaptchuk describes as “very schmaltzy” care (“I’m so glad to meet you”; “I know how difficult this is for you”; “This treatment has excellent results”). Practitioners were also required to touch the hands or shoulders of the patients and spend at least 20 seconds lost in thoughtful silence.


The not-too-surprising results were that the patients who experienced the greatest relief were those who received the most personal care…even though the treatment was a placebo. The more care people got, even if it was fake, the better they tended to fare. This experiment is one of the first to separate the components of what has been called the placebo effect.


For me, the leap to teacher effectiveness is not a big one to make. If the analogy of the placebo to teaching and learning is the quality and depth of instruction then there’s no constructive lesson from these medical experiments. However, if the analogy for the placebo is the student’s belief that he or she can learn then the analogy of the caring practitioner is an important one. We know that student motivation and belief in personal ability is a prerequisite for learning, and if a practitioner communicates that he or she cares about a particular student then the result is student success and commitment to lifelong learning.


So, as we commit to attracting the best young people to become educators, let’s not forget that academic rigor and love of learning are important, but just as important is the ability to care about the students with whom they work and to communicate effectively that caring.

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