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Published in Print: October 28, 2009, as Rediscovering the 'Pygmalion Effect' in American Schools


Rediscovering the 'Pygmalion Effect'

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"High expectations" is the mantra of today’s school reformers, who are convinced that the trouble with public education is that students have been allowed to slide by with little effort. Their version of high expectations is requiring college-preparatory courses, advanced subject matter, more-difficult assignments, and a longer school day and year for all students. They believe that research and the records of selected schools show that demanding more of students brings the desired results.

But do they understand the research, or know what successful schools really do?

The original research on teacher expectations tells a far different story from what today’s reformers are calling for. More than 40 years ago, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted an experiment in a California elementary school that produced what they called, in a reference to Greek mythology and George Bernard Shaw’s famous play, the “Pygmalion Effect”: the amazing transformation of an ordinary person into someone special. In their book Pygmalion in the Classroom, they described the study in detail and interpreted its lessons for education and other human interactions.

Quality education and student self-esteem are not mutually exclusive. We can have both, but not until we understand the essential nature of human behavior and learning.

The experiment consisted of giving false information to teachers about their students and then sitting back to see what happened. On the pretext of testing the reliability of a newly developed test to predict future student achievement, the researchers administered a traditional IQ test to all students at the beginning of the school year. Afterward, they reported to teachers, based supposedly on the tests, the names of students who were about to have a spurt in academic performance.

In reality, these students were a randomly selected percentage of the student body, and their scores showed nothing but their current IQs. At the end of the year, and again two years later, all students were retested, and the results showed that a significant number of the identified “spurters” had in fact made unusual intellectual and performance gains and maintained them over time. Teachers’ grades and written reports also recorded marked improvements in learning and behavior for most of these students.

Although the researchers did not examine what happened in classrooms that year, teachers’ written reports were clear about what did not happen: no extra time, no advanced curriculum, no individual tutoring, no differentiated instruction or assignments.

Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that what teachers gave their spurters—but not their other students—were unmistakable signals of their faith in them: smiles, nods of approval, more opportunities to ask and answer questions, and a kindly tone of voice. Teachers’ expectations of student success, and their unconscious communication of those expectations, made all the difference.

In its time, this study, along with its replications in three other schools and similar behavioral studies, garnered widespread and authoritative attention. Although there was some criticism of methodology and score interpretation, critics did not contest the researchers’ conclusion that the expectations in teachers’ minds were the determining factor in the success of the identified children.

Now, 40 years later, the reality of the “Pygmalion effect” stands unrefuted by further research, while it is supported by considerable evidence from classrooms where poor and minority children have made great strides in their learning because their teachers believed they would. It is also supported by countless stories of successful people who were struggling in school and life until some adult—a teacher, a boss, a family friend—saw something special in them and encouraged them to make the most of it.

The discrepancy between the Pygmalion researchers’ concept of high expectations and that of today’s reformers stems from the multiple meanings of the word “expectation.” To the researchers, it meant the power of belief to influence the behavior of others. To the reformers, it means the power of authority to exact compliance from underlings.

As a lifelong educator, I am not so starry-eyed as to think that believing in students is all that teachers and schools have to do to enable them to succeed. Every school needs a strong curriculum, high-quality materials, well-planned instruction, extra-help options, and meaningful assessments. But all those components should be calibrated to the ages, interests, prior learning, and physical and emotional capacity of the students at hand, not to the illusions held by so many pundits, business leaders, and politicians.

Quality education and student self-esteem are not mutually exclusive. We can have both, but not until we understand the essential nature of human behavior and learning, recognizing that schools must appeal to and support the strengths of students, not play on their fears and weaknesses.

Schools are meant to be wellsprings of vigor, interest, exploration, growth, and illumination. Rigor, the word so often used by reformers to describe what schools should emphasize, is more properly the companion of harshness, inflexibility, and oppression. It is time to change the current conception of high expectations back to its original meaning.

Vol. 29, Issue 09, Pages 24-25

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