Monday, September 22, 2008

If only teachers could all be Pygmalions

40 Years ago, in 1968, the psychologist Robert Rosenthal and the principal of an elementary school Lenore F. Jacobson conducted their famous study to test the hypothesis if children would become brighter when expected to by their teachers. The study was conducted in 18 primary school classes from which 20% of the students were randomly chosen to be the "brighter" kids after they all had taken a non-verbal intelligence test which in fact was not taken into account to choose the children.
After 8 month the study apparently showed that a strong "interpersonal expectancy effect", also called "Pygmalion effect" or "Rosenthal effect" had influenced the attitudes of the teachers in a way that as a matter of fact, the randomly chosen kids showed intellectual gains than their non-chosen classmates.

Funnily enough, on this 40th birthday of the Pygmalion-in-the-classroom-study, Luxembourg has introduce standardized testing for third graders for the known reasons which there are, raise the standards after the disastrous PISA study results, accountability and better student's orientation (!). Funny also, that when years ago standardized testing was introduced at the end of the primary school, I said that this would only be the beginning and that it was just a matter of time until standardized testing would be introduced in lower grades. Now here we are. But as it took quite a few years, I can affirm that I was not at the origin of a self-fulfilling prophecy I made - at least I hope so.

For those who would like to get a short overview of the study by R. Rosenthal, here are his own words which I took the liberty to transcribe from the video below. This is a must read for all the teachers especially those in third grades in Luxembourg.

R. Rosenthal: "What we wanted to show was the extend to which teachers expectations could actually effect pupils intellectual performance, for example their IQ scores.
So what we did was, we tested everybody in the school with a test that pretended to be a test that would predict academic blooming - the so called Harvard test of inflected acquisition - and allegedly on the basis of that test but not really we gave each of the teachers in the school the names of a handful of children in her classroom that would get smart in the academic year ahead.

These kids names were taken out of a hat. We chose them by means of a table of random numbers. The children themselves did not know in any direct way that teachers were holding certain expectations for them. Teachers were told not to tell the kids and of course we didn't tell the children either. So the children never knew.

And then when we tested the children a year later we found that those kids who'd be alledgedly to their teachers be showing or going to show intellectual gains, in fact showed greater intellectual gains than did the children of whom we'd said nothing in particular. So the kids actually got smarter when they were expected to get smarter by their teachers.

We've come to feel that there are really four factors that operate in the mediation or communication of these self-fulfilling prophecies, especially in a classroom but not only in a classroom.

So what are these four things that teachers tend to do differently to kids for whom they have more favorable expectations?

The first factor is the climate factor. Teachers tend to create a warmer climate for those children for whom they have more favorable expectations. They are nicer to them. Both in terms of the things they say and also in the non-verbal channels of communication.

The other very important factor is the so called input factor. That one probably won't surprise anyone. Teachers teach more material to those kids for whom they have more favorable expectations. After all, if you think a kid is dumb and can't learn you are not going to put yourself out to try to teach him very much.

Two other factor though make a difference. One is the response opportunity factor, that is
kids get more of a chance to respond if the teachers expect more of them. They call on them more often and when they do call on them they let them talk longer and they help and shape with them the answers that the kids speak out - kind of working together to put the response out.

The last is feedback. The feedback factor works in this way: As you might expect if more is expected of the kid, the kid is praised more, positively reinforced more for getting a good answer out, but interestingly enough is given more differentiated feedback when they get the wrong answer.
One of the ways in which you can sometimes tell a little bit that the teacher does not have very high expectations for a kid is that the teacher is willing to accept a low quality response or won't really clarify what would have been a good quality response. Maybe because he or she feels well what's the use, the kid is not smart enough to profit from this additional clarification.

So those are the four factors climate, input, response opportunity and feedback."


Additional resources:

Covert Communication in Classrooms, Clinics, and Courtrooms
by Robert Rosenthal - Harvard University

T&C TOWER - Rediscovering the Pygmalion myth in today's education
Expectation stimulates the mind
(His conclusion lead to the title of this blog post. Thank you Lee Hyae-myung.)

Rosenthal, Robert & Jacobson, Lenore Pygmalion in the classroom (1992). Expanded edition. New York: Irvington

For details on the Pygmalion myth or the play by George B. Shaw, go to

1 comment:

  1. Thinking about this blog of the Pygmalion-effect, I realized, that the opposite effect will probably be true as well...If teachers expect, that students will not progress, it will probably be the case. To my opinion this way of the effect is even harder to cope with.
    Considering this, we can only congratulate the “Education Nouvelle” movement (GLEN, GBEN, …) around Europe, who created their schools under the main slogan “Tous capables!” (Everybody capable) - to learn!
    Of course it would be to easy, if the choice of a slogan would solve all our problems in school? But, even if the teachers working in these new schools will not be immune against these expectations about their students, they professionally stand up for and foster every student they encounter in their classroom. They believe that every student can construct new knowledge, skills and competences according to her/his potential. But is this not the job of every teacher to foster every student according to his potential?
    In opposition to this positive and professional attitude, the standardised tests are introduced in the schools of Luxembourg. These are praised as a mean to evaluate the school system and - through this - to increase the quality of this school system. However what is the gain of these tests for the school and especially for the students? How will the results affect the teachers and their way to teach?
    Moreover what interesting and valuable research could be done with all this energy, human resources and money put into the evaluation of the teaching going on in our schools? Wouldn’t it be more useful to do research on how children learn and how the teachers could foster their learning?


Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain