Pygmalion effect

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The Pygmalion effect is a self-fulfi lling psychological phenomenon. Picture: https://www.lotstoread.com/

Albert Einstein, the physics genius, failed his entrance exam and even his father considered him to be a major failure up. Thomas Edison’s teacher once called him addled. Today, education experts discourage the use of any such labels, no matter how mild. Here’s why.

What is the Pygmalion effect?

Pygmalion effect has its origins in the ancient Greek mythology. Pygmalion was an extraordinary sculptor who fell in love with an ivory statue of his own making. He asked the gods to give him a wife like his statue. The god granted him his request, resulting in the statue coming into life.

Today, the Pygmalion effect is well known in the field of Psychology. Central to the Pygmalion effect is the idea that higher expectations lead to higher performance. Our belief about another person’s abilities influences our actions towards that person.

In turn, that person interprets our behaviour and responds accordingly.

Can science prove the Pygmalion effect?

Many teachers in Fiji, through their Education Psychology course, might be familiar with that famous and fascinating experiment done in the 1950s at the Harvard University by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson.

In an Elementary school in California, they randomly chose 20 per cent of students from the student population, but they did not tell this to their teachers. Instead the teachers were told that these students were designated as late bloomers based of some psychological tests. That these students may not be showing any academic success yet, but they were expected to bloom in the next eight months or so.

What ensued was quite phenomenal. In a very short period of time, the teachers began to treat these students very differently than the others.

They would create a warmer climate and teach them more challenging materials.

In turn, these students began to think of themselves differently and in the end they actually performed significantly better than the other students.

These children were transformed by the teachers’ positive expectations.

Conversely, Jane Elliott’s study in the 1960s showed that the opposite was also true. When teachers held negative expectations of their students, this belief led the students to think of themselves as inferior, thus achieving lower outcomes.

The Pygmalion effect is better known as the selffulfilling prophecy. The power of the Pygmalion effect has been studied in other settings such in prison classrooms, military training programs and even in the corporate world. After meta-analysing more than 500 studies, Rosenthal concluded: “When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur”

How do you behave towards your students?

Here’s an introspective question for teachers. Do you behave differently towards your students based on your expectations of them? Of course we do, and most of the time we are probably unaware of our own actions. We are all guilty of that because after all it is an inherent human behaviour.

Are there “weak” and “bright” students in your class? Who do you generally choose when you ask a question in class? Which student do you normally pick to answer higher order questions? Who would you give a greater “wait time” to respond?

Research tells us that if we have already labelled students, then we are almost defi nitely going to behave differently towards them albeit unconsciously.

The challenge for us then is how can we teachers use the lessons of the Pygmalion effect in our classroom today? How can we use our “expectations” to influence student outcomes? How do we apply these studies?

At fi rst, the answer might seem straight forward. Increase our expectation and everyone will achieve higher, right? Say, if I am a maths teacher, should I expect everyone to get a 100 per cent? Or should Gareth Baber, during the Tokyo Olympics, have expected everyone in the Rugby 7s team to score a try?

How to incorporate Pygmalion research into teaching?

Of course not. Rosenthal believes that is not the best application of this research because it is not always the case you could provide equal support and challenges to everyone in a group. And very rarely are we going to see equal outcomes across the board.

His advice is we shouldn’t attach any label. The label we should use for all students is “learner”.

As teachers, we must genuinely look at all of our students as learners and consciously remove any negative labels from our own minds. This will not only change our behaviour, but also the message we portray to students. Research tells us that this will have a profoundly positive effect on them which in turn will bring about action that will match their belief.

It totally changes the way of thinking. You might be better at maths than me but we can both get better at maths. You might be more artistic than me, but we’re both learners. We can both get more artistic if we practice. That word “learner” holds the student more accountable.

As teachers, if we believe that every one of our student and the people around me are learners, then we can no longer put them into different compartments and limit their beliefs. I cannot tell a student you cannot do maths. Or you are not a leader.

At the same time, we need to be practical. Just because we treat everyone as learners doesn’t mean all your students are going excel in maths or Physics or Art. But the nature of our conversation with them changes. You can say to students: “Look, you and I both know that mathematics may not be your best subject, but mathematics is a skill. And skills are built. It’s going to take some practice and some struggle and experimentation but if you do the work, you can get better at maths and I’m here to help you”

That is a far more effective approach than telling someone what they cannot do. The notion of a “learner” is not some fanciful idea either. In fact, scientists have proved that our human brain is massively plastic at any age.

Plasticity of our brain means that everyone has the capacity to learn, to become better at everything.

We can all be learners regardless of our age.

Psychologist Michael Merzenich says “I can tell you whatever you think your limits are you’re wrong.

You can be better next week a little bit but in a year you can be a lot better”.

That is the lesson from the Pygmalion effect.

That is the essence of a growth mindset.

  • NAVNEET SHARMA is the curriculum leader of the online platform (www.myteachersfi ji.
    com). He has taught in various schools in Fiji and now teaches in Melbourne, Australia. The views expressed in the article are his and not of this newspaper. Comments are contributions are invited via this email: bula@myteachersfi ji.com.
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