Raise Expectations, Increase Learning – Tapping the Pygmalion EffectBy Teachers.Net News Desk
Beth Bruno, Ed.M., M.A.
From the Archives
A parent sent me the following unforgettable letter: “I have been outraged by the low expectations for success that seem to be prevalent for students who struggle to learn. I have been driven by my rejection of those low expectations. I am not employed as a Special Educator, nor do I hold a degree in Special Education, but I am a “special educator” as my son’s mother and committed advocate.
“After years of struggle in the elementary and middle schools, a comment made by a school psychologist when our son was in the 8th grade has been burned into my memory. ‘I think we can all agree,’ this specialist said, ‘that your son will not attend a competitive college.’ “I fought to keep him in college prep courses; I fought to get him speech services; I fought to get him access to assistive technology; and twice I have enlisted the help of attorneys to make it happen. “Well, he’s a high school senior now.
Things are not perfect, but they are much better than they would have been if I had just gone along to get along. He has chosen to seek a degree in soil science and has been accepted at Michigan State University, the University of Rhode Island and the University of Massachusetts. He is still waiting to hear from four other schools. We know there is a long way to go, but we’ve made it our business to be aware of the rights and responsibilities that go along with being a post secondary student with a Learning Disability.”
This mother’s letter reminds me of a research study I read many years ago. In a classic experiment done in the late 60’s, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jackson worked with elementary school children from 18 classrooms. They randomly chose 20% of the children from each room and told the teachers they were “intellectual bloomers.” They explained that these children could be expected to show remarkable gains during the year. Results: The experimental children showed average IQ gains of two points in verbal ability, seven points in reasoning and four points in overall IQ.
The power of expectations may work against students with special needs, because these students carry labels derived from test scores that some teachers and parents might think “justify” reduced expectations. But that same information might also lead parents and educators to develop compensatory strategies to help a child set and meet high expectations by an alternate route. The process of setting expectations for children is tricky, because teachers and parents don’t want to push a child to achieve beyond his or her capabilities and then see that child stop trying due to fear of failure. Best practices dictate that teachers and parents take the time to get to know each child as an individual, so that all three the parent, the teacher and the child — can set realistic expectations by adjusting to individual needs during the learning process.
Additional resources on this topic: Raising Expectations to Improve Student Learning Self-fulfilling prophecy: The Pygmalion Effect Teacher Expectations Raise Student Achievement About the author Beth Bruno is a freelance writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience in mental health and education. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. in Psychology in 1966. She continued her education at Harvard University (Ed.M. in Educaton, 1967) and Yeshiva University (M.A. in Clinical Psychology, 1976). Beth has served as Chair of the Psychology Department for the Special Children’s Center in Ithaca, New York, and has worked as Adjunct Instructor at Tompkins-Cortland Community College.