What teachers believe, their pupils achieve


As part of my research for my thesis on the MA Sociology of Education I have been reading through studies which explore how teacher expectations impact on pupils’ learning. The study which has most caught my attention is that classic of the Sociology of Education, – one that any A-Level Sociology student will be familiar with – Rosenthal and Jacobson’s ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’.

I will outline this ground-breaking yet controversial study, in the hope that teachers today can appreciate the utility of its insights, before thinking a little about why phenomena such as the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and ‘ideal pupil’ ought not to have slipped so conclusively from the research and the teacher imagination.

Rosenthal and Jacobson built upon research conducted by Rosenthal under lab conditions. Rosenthal presented his psychology students with a laboratory experiment in which they were given a maze and a rat, and their job was simply to train the rat to find its way out of the maze. Rosenthal’s hidden innovation was that half of the psychology students were told they were working with a ‘high-ability’ rat, bred specifically for its cognitive ability. The other half of researchers were told they were training dumb rats, of regular rat-like ability. In fact the rats were randomly allocated into the two groups, with no cognitive difference between them.

Gradually, the pattern developed whereby the rats who has been designated randomly as ‘high-ability’ became able to complete the maze quickly and effectively. The ‘low ability’ rats did not, with some of the rats unable even to begin making their way through the maze. The only difference was in the expectation that had been planted in the researcher’s heads, and the outcomes were vast.

Rosenthal wanted to test this hypothesis with human subjects, but obviously, this is far more difficult. The conditions are not as controllable, and human interactions are – by their nature – more complex. Nonetheless, they managed to conduct the experiment, published as ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’, which opened up many questions about the extent to which teacher expectation structures pupil performance and pupil identity.

Rosenthal and Jacobson, with the informed but secret consent of the Superintendent, entered a San Francisco primary/elementary school under the guise of psychological researchers who had developed a diagnostic assessment to identify pupils who would be ‘spurters’. These spurters were not necessarily high or low attaining, but they were pupils who – they claimed – were scientifically proven to be entering a period of heightened retentiveness for learning. These ‘spurters’ Rosenthal and Jacobson claimed, would demonstrate accelerated learning. Having made all of the children complete an assessment of reasoning, the researcher randomly assigned the lavel of ‘spurter’ to about 5 children per class, and casually dropped it into conversation with teachers that “Oh, if you were wondering, the spurters from your class’s assessments were Jessica, Jason, Michael and Brendan’.

Like with the rat experiment, the researchers had presented information to the teachers (of pupils/of rats) that some of their subjects (children/rats) were particularly high ability, and some were not. This was the only variation.

Rosenthal and Jacobson returned to measure the children on a range of measures throughout the following year – IQ, reasoning, verbal abilities – and they found out that the ‘spurters’ had recorded extremely disproportionate accelerated learning. The acceleration was particularly pronounced for the youngest of pupils, aged 5-6, who recorded 15 point increases in their IQ.

Rosenthal and Jacobson point to the impact of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ being in action – the idea that ‘what teachers believe, their pupils achieve’. The crucial element of this was not that teachers expectations caused learning outcomes to increase. More than this: teacher expectations changes teacher interactions, and they also shaped pupils’ self-perceptions of their own abilities, which in turn led to accelerated learning. At the time, Rosenthal and Jacobson pointed to how their artificial playful study caused greater increases in pupil attainment than the targeted policies focused on raising the attainment of underprivileged children in the state!

There are certainly ethical pitfalls with this study – one has to question the morals of introducing these expectations which could, arguably, be said to have been detrimental to those pupils who were not identified as spurters. Just because research has slightly dubious ethics, this does not mean its insights are not valid and deeply interesting.

I personally view the Pygmalion in the Classroom study as a precursor in the vein of thought which is known through the research of Carol Dweck and her ‘Malleable Intelligence’ theories. In a cheeky way, Rosenthal and Jacobson undermine the often consecrated idea of fixed intelligence.

What is the relevance of this now, then? And what is the relevance of this study for me and my own teaching and research?

First of all, it should lead teachers to be sceptical about the extent to which information about pupils is passed on between teachers. Children gain a biography throughout their school careers and a child who acquires a negative reputation in Reception may carry that with them until Year 6. A key mode for this transmission of expectation/stigma, is the annual ‘Handover Meeting’ in which teachers pass on information deemed valuable about their pupils to their next teacher. Whilst this is only ever a professional exchange, it is curious to think that by ‘saying’ a certain child struggles to concentrate, maybe we are setting up the ‘expectation’ that they will not concentrate. The Rosenthal and Jacobson study illuminates that expectations do not rest in the teachers head, but they permeate his/her actions. Maybe it would be more democratic for pupils if teachers did not hand on general information in this way – this would allow children to reinvent themselves, and not be prisoners to their former actions.

And in terms of research then, and why this is useful now… The idea of labelling theory and self-fulfilling prophecies has fallen conclusively off of the research radar. In preparing for my thesis, I have had to back into the early 1970s before I find coverage of these research questions in the Anglophone context. I am a firm believer that the road less travelled is the road worth travelling, and the questions that are not asked are perhaps not being asked for a reason. Academic sociology of education has moved gradually away from the interactions between teachers and pupils, focusing instead on systems and policies, and this has perhaps led to interactionist approaches falling off of the radar.

It is worth re-examining the focuses of 1970s Sociology of Education, such as Rosenthal and Jacobson, in order to shape our research agenda and our reflective practice as teachers.


4 thoughts on “What teachers believe, their pupils achieve

  1. This is very interesting indeed – and something I have observed in a completely unscientific and emotional way, both as a teacher and a parent.
    It’s the focus of this blog here : http://www.notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/whats-in-a-name and the idea that our preconceptions of people lock them into certain modes of being is a major theme in most of what I write.
    I explore it again here: http://www.notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/nobody-puts-my-baby-in-a-corner
    It’s satisfying to see you exploring these ideas, especially after the explosion of labelling we have seen if our children in recent years.

    1. Thanks Nancy.
      This one got shot down on Twitter on account of it not being replicable, and about its poor design but I definitely think study should be made of how teachers’ subjective biases towards/against individual pupils, for whatever reason, is something in need of research.
      I’ll check out those two posts and pleased this topic resonates!

      1. I think a way to tackle it is to get people thinking about the preconceptions they hold about children with SEN. We all like to think that we take people as we find them, but we don’t, and our preconceptions colour what we are likely to give children to do.
        I think you have it absolutely right – I never like to look at levels, or school reports etc, until I have had a chance to get to know the children I teach on their own terms first.
        It is helpful if I know of any pre-existing conditions, but only in as much as it aids my understanding of them if they have processing problems and don’t instantly leap to do my bidding!
        That said, having a child with a condition like Down Syndrome has given me a much subtler understanding of the expectations we have of children, and the question of realistic/unrealistic expectations is one that is never very far from my mind, or, in the past, in my interactions with his mainstream school.
        It’s an eternally fascinating subject to me – but, I agree, to test this in some sort of classroom experiment would be testing the bounds of morality…I shall have to rely on emotive insights gleaned from my own experience. 😉

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