The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Believing in and Supporting Students is a Big Part of a Teacher’s Job

on October 14, 2017

Throughout this week I have been laid low by a terrible cold, so I wrote nothing. Today I don’t feel quite ready to innovate, but I also feel guilty about letting a week go by without  standing up for the things I believe in about education.  So, here’s a piece I posted more than a year ago that recalls an important research study done 40 years ago, and, incidentally, reflects what I strongly believe.


“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 “The Pygmalion Effect”, in a reference to a Greek myth and George Bernard Shaw’s famous play,“Pygmalion.” All three highlight 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.

 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, those 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 those 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 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 students

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One response to “Believing in and Supporting Students is a Big Part of a Teacher’s Job

  1. Frankey Jones says:

    Thanks for reminding me of this powerful study.

    Like

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