Great Expectations

In 1965, Harvard professor of social psychology Robert Rosenthal and San Francisco elementary school principal Lenore Jacobson conducted an experiment. They gave the children in Jacobson’s school (the majority of whom were from lower-class households) a standardized IQ test, but rather than reveal what the test actually was, they told teachers that the test was The Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition–an impressively titled, though entirely fabricated, exam which they claimed was able to predict which children were going to excel intellectually and which were not.

The school’s teachers were then given a list of results identifying approximately twenty percent of each class as “bloomers”–meaning that these were the kids that teachers should expect to be stars. The researchers designated the bloomers and non-bloomers entirely at random, without consideration of even their actual IQ test sores.

Rosenthal and Jacobson retested all of the children eight months later with the same IQ test and discovered something shocking: those students who were randomly designated as “bloomers” showed an increase in IQ scores beyond those of the other students. In other words, while there was nothing to distinguish between the bloomers and the rest of the children other than what the teachers believed, the teachers’ expectation of excellence became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

When asked to describe the students in their classes, the teachers raved about the bloomers. They were seen as smart, interesting, likable, affectionate, and more likely to succeed. This was probably to be expected. However, when asked to describe the other students, things became much more surprising. Naturally, many of the other children also made some gains in their IQ scores in spite of their teachers’ expectations. However, as Rosenthal puts it, “The more the control group children gained in IQ the more they were regarded as less well-adjusted, as less interesting, and as less affectionate.”*

The phenomenon Rosenthal and Jacobson discovered–later named the “Pygmalion effect”–reveals how much expectations can affect development. What teachers expect of students influences how they treat them–in both conscious and unconscious ways–which has a large impact on their learning. When a teacher believes a student to be smart, or capable, or talented he will likely put more time and effort into helping that child develop. He will speak to and treat that child differently–even if he doesn’t mean to–than he would a child from whom he expects far less. And, as we see from the Pygmalion experiment, the different treatment makes the belief self-fulfilling (and as a result, no doubt, reinforcing).

The effect of teacher expectations is not limited to academic achievement. We find in sports science, such as in the research on “relative age effect“, that what adults believe about the children in their care can hugely shape–both positively and negatively–athletic development and performance as well.

Teachers, coaches, and parents, then, have a responsibility to view children–all children–as capable of excellence. Trying to differentiate between the children we teach–even if only in our own minds–as more or less “brilliant”, or more or less “athletic”, or more or less “talented”, serves only to limit the kids on the losing side of those designations and has far more to do with our own biases than with reality–though reality will become quickly shaped by those biases.

As one of the “fathers” of the Soviet School of fencing, Vitaly Arkadiev, once put it: “If a child comes to us asking to learn, we have a moral obligation to say yes.” Our obligation begins with our expectations.

*From Rosenthal’s The Pygmalion Effect and Its Mediating Mechanisms in Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of Psychological Factors on Education, edited by Joshua Michael Aronson.