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mindLook After Your Mind No. 11
Great Expectations

There is a story in educational circles that two newly qualified English teachers were each given a Year 7 class when they took up their posts at the same secondary school. Teacher A was given a set 2 group (higher standard), while Teacher B was given a set 4 group (lower standard). Both teachers followed the syllabus and the children produced work in line with their perceived ability.

It was only at the end of the term that an important administrative error was discovered - which was that the wrong set numbers had been attached to those teachers’ class lists. In other words, Teacher A was actually working with set 4 pupils and teacher B was in fact working with set 2 pupils. This suggested that what the teachers expected to receive from the children was what they got. Once teacher A was told that her group was really set 4 standard (though they had been producing set 2 work), she decided to continue teaching them as if they were set 2. However, very quickly the quality of the children’s work declined to set 4 standard.

The implications of this incident are that expectations influence performance. In teacher A’s case, even though she decided to treat her pupils like a set 2 group, because she knew that they were ‘really’ set 4 standard, this knowledge was conveyed subliminally to the children, who responded accordingly.

The psychologist Robert Rosenthal and school principal Leonore Jacobson heard about this incident and decided to test the idea. They visited a number of primary schools and told teachers that on the basis of some tests they had carried out, certain pupils were ‘late bloomers’, that even though they seemed to be of average or low ability now, they would improve quickly very soon. In fact the children were selected at random, but because their teachers had been primed to expect improvement, the way they taught affected those children such that the quality of their work improved.

Rosenthal and Jacobson wrote up their findings under the title ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’, now considered to be a classic piece of psychological research in education. Their work proved that positive expectations have a powerful influence on the way people perform, and that conversely negative beliefs can be detrimental to what others may achieve. This not only applies to schoolchildren of course, but to all of us.

Click here to read more articles in the series 'Look After Your Mind' by Steve Bowkett

Steve Bowkett.
Issue 407
December 2018

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