ERIC Identifier: ED426985
Publication Date: 1998-12-00
Author: Tauber, Robert T.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Teaching and Teacher Education Washington DC.
Good or Bad, What Teachers Expect from Students They Generally
Get! ERIC Digest.
Most teachers know a little bit about the Pygmalion effect, or the idea that
one's expectations about a person can eventually lead that person to behave and
achieve in ways that confirm those expectations (Brehm & Kassin, 1996).
Everyone who has seen George Bernard Shaw's play PYGMALION or viewed the movie
MY FAIR LADY remembers Eliza Doolittle's remarkable transformation, due to
Professor Higgins' beliefs (i.e., expectations of her). Although first widely
presented to educators in Rosenthal and Jacobson's PYGMALION IN THE CLASSROOM
(1968), few educators understand exactly how to use the Pygmalion effect or
self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP) as a purposeful pedagogical tool to convey
positive expectations and, maybe even more importantly, to avoid conveying
How many of you think that you are reasonably good judges of character? With
years of teaching experience under your belt, are you more often than not able
to size up students correctly? Occasionally you are wrong, but most often you
are correct. Right? Many teachers believe that they can judge ahead of time,
sometimes by just a glance the first day of school, how certain students are
likely, over time, to achieve and behave.
Try the following exercise (Tauber, 1997). Pretend that you are not reading
an article designed to make you more sensitive to the power of teacher
expectations. Jot down the first descriptive thoughts that come to your mind
when you think about the following kinds of people. Be honest. No one but you
will see what you write.
Generally, what descriptors might you use to characterize:
a teenager from a family that has strong and vocal Democratic (or Republican)
a significantly overweight teenage girl;
a primary school student from an affluent family who is an only child;
a middle school student whose two older siblings you had in class several years
ago--each of whom was often a troublemaker;
an Asian boy who is the son of a respected university math professor;
a teenage boy who is thin, almost frail, and very uncoordinated for his age.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS ARE LASTING IMPRESSIONS
In spite of your
best efforts to resist predictions regarding these students and their academic
and/or behavioral future, did you catch yourself forming expectations--even
fleetingly? If your answer is "yes," then the self-fulfilling prophecy probably
is set in motion.
The basis of the SFP is that once a student has been pegged ahead of time as,
say, a "troublemaker," "nonscholar," or "likely to be self-centered," the
chances are increased that our treatment of this student will, in effect, help
our negative prophecies or expectations come true. Here the SFP would work to
the detriment of the student. On the other hand, we could peg a student as
"cooperative," "a scholar," or "likely to be a self-starter," thus increasing
the chances that our treatment of him or her will convey these expectations and,
in turn, contribute to the student living up to our original positive prophecy.
In this case, the SFP would work to the student's benefit. Teachers, more often
than not, get from students what they expect from them!
As a case in point, if you were a teacher and you had a student perform
significantly better on a test than you would have predicted, would you look
first at alternative reasons why this happened before admitting that you may
have misjudged the child's capabilities? Would you be tempted to rescore the
student's exam, believing that you must have made an error? Would you try to
recall who was sitting next to this student when the test was administered and
then check his or her exam for any all-too-obvious similarities in
answers--i.e., the student in question must have cheated?
If, as Wagar claims, "The ultimate function of a prophecy is not to tell the
future, but to make it" (1963, p. 66), then each time teachers size up or size
down a student they are, in effect, influencing this student's future behavior
and achievement. This is an awesome burden for educators to carry. The burden
can be lessened if educators better understand the SFP and then remain diligent
in trying to control it.
HISTORY AND MECHANISMS OF THE SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY
term "self-fulfilling prophecy" was first coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton
(1948). As part of his explanation of the SFP, Merton drew upon the theorem: "If
men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (Thomas,
1928, p. 257).
The following five-step model explains how the SFP works:
The teacher forms expectations.
Based upon these expectations, the teacher acts in a differential manner.
The teacher's treatment tells each student (loud and clear) what behavior and
what achievement the teacher expects.
If this treatment is consistent, it will tend to shape the student's behavior
With time, the student's behavior and achievement will conform more and more
closely to that expected of him or her.
Because steps 3 through 5 are a repetition of steps 1 and 2, only the first
two steps will be elaborated.
TEACHERS FORM EXPECTATIONS
expectations--often during the very first day of school. If first impressions
are lasting impressions, then some students are at a definite advantage, while
still others are at a definite disadvantage.
What characteristics influence expectations? SFP research (Good, 1987) shows
that teachers form expectations of and assign labels to people based upon such
characteristics as body build, gender, race, ethnicity, given name and/or
surname, attractiveness, dialect, and socioeconomic level, among others. Once we
label a person, it affects how we act and react toward that person. "With
labels, we don't have to get to know the person. We can just assume what the
person is like" (Oakes, 1996, p. 11).
For instance, research (Brylinsky & Moore, 1994; Collins & Plahn,
1988) is clear that when it comes to a person's body build, mesomorphs, those
with square, rugged shoulders, small buttocks, and muscular bodies are "better"
than both ectomorphs, those with thin, frail-looking bodies, and endomorphs,
those with chubby, stout, bodies with a central concentration of mass. Among
other expectations, mesomorphs are predicted to be better fathers, more likely
to assume leadership positions, be more competent doctors, and most likely to
put the needs of others before their own.
With respect to attractiveness, the adage "beauty is good" prevails whether
in storybooks or in real life. All things being equal, beautiful people are
expected to be better employees--most likely to be hired, given a higher salary,
and to advance more rapidly than their ugly-duckling counterparts. Beautiful
people are perceived (expected) to make better parents, be better public
servants, and be more deserving of having benefits bestowed upon them. The
overall pattern of ascribing positive attributes to attractive people, including
students, is the norm (Kenealy, Frude, & Shaw, 1988).
Finally, one's given name, often the first thing that we know about someone,
can trigger expectations. Johnny Cash, in his song, A BOY NAMED SUE, knew the
power of expectations, and research confirms it. Certain social handicaps are
thrust upon the child who carries a socially undesirable name. In the United
States, primarily white, middle-class females continue to teach diverse student
bodies that less and less resemble the teachers themselves--i.e., in color,
race, ethnicity. When minority students, who by far possess the more unusual
names (at least in the eyes of teachers), come to class, teachers cannot help
but be influenced.
The self-fulfilling prophecy works two ways. Not only do teachers form
expectations of students, but students form expectations of teachers--using the
same characteristics described above (Hunsberger & Cavanagh, 1988).
TEACHERS ACT ON EXPECTATIONS
Different expectations usually
lead to different treatments. How does one person convey his or her expectations
to another person? Rosenthal's Four-Factor theory, described in the
often-recommended training video, PRODUCTIVITY AND THE SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY:
THE PYGMALION EFFECT (CRM Films, 1987), identifies climate, feedback, input, and
output as the factors teachers use to convey expectations.
CLIMATE: the socioemotional mood or spirit created by the person holding the
expectation, often communicated nonverbally (e.g., smiling and nodding more
often, providing greater eye contact, leaning closer to the student).
FEEDBACK: providing both affective information (e.g., more praise and less
criticism of high-expectation students) and cognitive information (e.g., more
detailed, as well as higher quality feedback as to the correctness of
higher-expectation students' responses).
INPUT: teachers tend to teach more to students of whom they expect more.
OUTPUT: teachers encourage greater responsiveness from those students of whom
they expect more through their verbal and nonverbal behaviors (i.e., providing
students with greater opportunities to seek clarification).
These four factors, each critical to conveying a teacher's expectations, can
better be controlled only if teachers are more aware that the factors are
operating in the first place. Even if a teacher does not truly feel that a
particular student is capable of greater achievement or significantly improved
behavior, that teacher can at least ACT as if he or she holds such heightened
positive expectations. Who knows, the teacher very well may be convincing to the
student and, later, to himself or herself.
Longitudinal studies support the SFP hypothesis
that teacher expectations can predict changes in student achievement and
behavior beyond effects accounted for by previous achievement and motivation
(Jussim & Eccles, 1992). Teachers who effectively use the self-fulfilling
prophecy can, and should, help students become their own Pygmalions.
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