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The Pygmalion Effect: The Story Of The Self Fulfilling Prophecy In Education

A painting of Pygmalion and his statue, inspired by the ancient Pygmalion myth. The Pygmalion Effect was named after this myth
Pygmalion by French Painter Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1786
“One's expectations about a person can eventually lead that person to behave and achieve in ways that confirm those expectations.” 
-Dr. Robert T. Tauber in Good or Bad, What Teachers Expect from Students They Generally Get!

Joey's Story And How It Lead Me To Discover The Pygmalion Effect 

Today I want to share an amazing story about an experience I had tutoring algebra for summer school a while back. I met a Student who taught me a lot more than what I could’ve possibly taught him. For the sake of privacy, let’s call him Joey. 

When I first met Joey, I watched him work on the same math problem over and over again with no signs of quitting even though he kept getting the same question wrong. His perseverance fascinated me, so I introduced myself and offered to guide him through the problem. 

His eagerness to learn impressed me right off the bat, and I got the impression he would end up being a star pupil. Week after week we worked together, and he maintained the same drive and focus he had the first day. 

One day I finally commented on how driven he seemed to complete his work. Joey shared with me that his mother died from cancer when he was very young. Neither of his parents finished high school, but it was his mother’s dream to see him graduate.

Joey said his father was a plumber and frequently worked 60 hour weeks, but could still barely pay the bills. Joey needed to pass the summer class to graduate, and said he wanted to get his diploma so he could get a better job because it killed him to see his dad so unhappy. 

From that day forward, I committed myself to ensuring he would pass. I taught him how to understand some of the most challenging topics in algebra such as matrices, logarithms, and exponential functions.

On the last day of the class, Joey passed the final test, and thus passed the class! After all the students left that day, I stayed after to help clean up. The head teacher in charge told me he was amazed at how Joey performed on the test in spite of his disabilities. What disabilities? I thought in disbelief. 

The teacher went on to explain that Joey was diagnosed with learning disabilities, and that the “experts” said he would likely never be able to do math. I was absolutely shocked to hear this, because I literally had no idea about this the whole time I worked with him!

If he had learning disabilities that were supposed to prevent him from learning math, then how was he able to solve problems with matrices, logarithms, exponential functions, and other difficult algebra concepts, with ease after some lessons? 

In fact, I actually thought he picked these topics up faster than some of the other students. While this question was very puzzling, there was an even bigger, and perhaps scarier question that came to my mind as well: 

If I had been told before I worked with him that he had learning disabilities instead of after, would I have still have had such strong faith in him that he could master the material? Or would I have watched him struggle with a math problem several times, told myself he’d never be able to do it (remember, the “experts” themselves said he couldn’t), and then moved on to someone else?

I have since tried my best to find an answer to these questions. While these are admittedly some pretty big questions that I don’t think anyone will ever be able to answer, the best explanation I’ve ever been able to find is the concept of “teacher-fulfilling prophecies.” 

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies In Education, AKA "Teacher-Fulfilling Prophecies"

Please note before reading any further that I am FAR from an expert in psychology; my knowledge is strictly limited to a few classes I took in undergrad, and some self-studying on my own. If any psychology experts out there are reading this, please try not to be too hard on me! 

I sincerely believe that if you read what I have to say, compare it to your own personal experiences, and really think hard about these ideas, you’ll likely come to agree that there’s a lot of truth to what I’m going to talk about in this post. I strongly encourage you to read up on the research studies I will cite, and possibly even do some research on your own to help you decide for yourself whether or not you agree!

Have you ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy? A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a person unknowingly holds an expectation that causes a prediction to come to fruition. Consider a soccer player who has high Expectations for his own performance in an upcoming game. He works hard at practice, and spends extra time perfecting his skills on his own. The player then goes on to play very well in the game. This is an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many are at least somewhat familiar with this concept. However, less are familiar with teacher-fulfilling prophecies, and our goal is to shed some light on them in this post.

The premise of the teacher-fulling prophecy is that teachers’ expectations can (and often do) have a major impact on students, either positively or negatively. The idea is that teachers perceive intelligence and academic potential differently for each student, and form expectations based on these perceptions, which are reflected in the teacher’s interactions with students. In turn, this causes differential performance among students in such a way that fulfills the teacher’s prophecy. 

In other words, when the teacher perceives a student as being a certain way, it can powerfully influence the student to act in accordance with the teacher’s expectations. When the teacher then sees the student behaving in this way, it confirms their original perceptions in their mind.

The author's model of the pygmalion effect and self fulfilling prophecy in education summarized in 4 boxes with arrows pointing from one box to the other.

Rosenthal, Jacobson, Teacher Expectation, And The Pygmalion Effect In The Classroom

Some of the earliest research into teacher expectation was carried out by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in 1968. Rosenthal and Jacobson wanted to see if creating expectations in teachers’ minds about their students’ achievement potential would affect the students’ actual achievement. 

The researchers gave students from kindergarten through fifth grade a standard intelligence test, but did not disclose the real results to the teachers. They randomly labeled about 5 students from each class as academic “spurters,” and said they were expected to outperform the other students. They then explicitly told the teachers who the so-called spurters were. 

At the end of the study, the researchers gave all students the exact same IQ tests, and found that the “spurters” showed a significant increase in their test performance. Rosenthal and Jacobson concluded from this study that when teachers have high expectations for intellectual blooming in certain students, it causes the blooming to manifest in reality.

In Teaching As a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, the authors said the following in reference to Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study:

“What we ‘see’ is a product of what we believe to be ‘out there.’ We see things not as ‘they’ are, but as we are. The case of the elementary-school children is quite similar [to a different experiment], but with an additional dimension. 

The teachers ‘perceived’ these children as intelligent because they were expecting to see ‘intelligent behavior.’ 

The teachers … ‘made’ the reality that was ‘there.’ But we can assume that once the teachers ‘made’ that reality, the children began to ‘make’ one of their own. 

The children modified their behavior in accordance with the positive expectations of their teachers.”

What Is The Pygmalion Effect?

The Pygmalion effect definition: The phenomenon whereby positive expectations placed on another, typically by someone in a position of authority, leads to an increase in the person's performance.

The Pygmalion Myth

The Pygmalion effect is named after the ancient myth of Pygmalion. According to the narrative, Pygmalion was a brilliant sculptor who made a statue of a woman from ivory, and then fell in love with the statue. Pygmalion became so infatuated with his woman statue that he went before Aphrodite—the Greek goddess of love—and wished for a real bride just like his beloved creation. Aphrodite granted Pygmalion’s wish, and Pygmalion returned home to find that the statue had become a living human, exactly as he had envisioned.

Where do teacher expectations come from? Studies show that some of the strongest impressions teachers form are based on physical appearance, I. Q. scores, characteristics of parents, characteristics of older siblings, and students’ general conduct and behaviors. 

If you have any doubts that teachers form impressions this way, try to put yourself into the shoes of a teacher and try this exercise! I’ve based it on an actual exercise Tauber used to educate teachers on the Pygmalion effect:


Try to read the descriptions of the students from the perspective of a teacher, and observe the first thoughts that come to mind in response. 

1. A teenager whose parents are very active and vocal members of the Democratic Party.

2. A teenager whose parents are very active and vocal members of the Republican Party.

3. A middle school student whose older siblings were frequent troublemakers in a class you had a few years ago.

4. An elementary school student who is an only child.

You probably found it was difficult to completely avoid forming expectations even if you tried your best to resist them! Forming these kinds of judgements about people is part of human nature, and we all do it to at least some degree! Studies have shown that teacher expectations arise naturally and unconsciously, which means it’s NOT THE FAULT OF THE TEACHERS! 

As the Rosenthal and Jacobson study shows, teacher expectations that lead to positive outcomes for the students are a great thing! However, in other cases, teacher expectations can unintentionally really hurt students!

As in the exercise above, suppose one of the students in a kindergarten class is an only child, and the teacher—knowing this ahead of time—forms the expectation that the child will be selfish and have trouble sharing. During recess, the teacher observes the child refuse to share her toys with another student, which confirms and strengthens the teacher’s expectation.

Now, it’s common knowledge that most kindergartners are still learning to share, and it’s therefore highly possible that the child’s unwillingness was simply a normal age/maturity related issue and had nothing to even do with that fact that she’s an only child. However, in the teacher’s mind, it further solidifies the negative expectations, which then effectively drives the student to continue to act this way.

Imagine starting a new class with a teacher who has already mentally categorized you as a “troublemaker” based on the actions of an older sibling, which you were in no way responsible for? The teacher expects the worst out of the student, and is thus quick to punish him or her at the first instance of wrongdoing. 

Maybe some of you experienced something similar to either of these scenarios while going up! I wasn’t an only child, and I didn’t have any older siblings, so fortunately I never experienced them myself. Hopefully from these two examples, you’re starting to better understand how teacher expectations can negatively impact the student. Let’s again review the model:

The author's model of the pygmalion effect and self fulfilling prophecy in education summarized in 4 boxes with arrows pointing from one box to the other.

We’ve already looked at numbers 1 and 2, so we will next examine how a teacher’s differential expectation-based behavior can drive the student to act in-line with expectations. The best explanation for this is to consider how the teacher’s behavior impacts the child’s self-concept. In Teacher Expectation: Sociopsychological Dynamics, University of Calgary researcher Carl Braun said the following:

“It is safe to make the generalization that for many primary school children, the teacher’s credibility rating is high. She is the person who ‘knows.’ If she communicates to the child continuously that his performance is poor, this will undoubtedly influence his self-concept and the goals he strives to achieve.”

I agree 100% with Braun here. The teacher is in a position of authority relative to the young children, and thus the teacher’s evaluation is often very critical to their developing self-concepts. As a person grows from childhood into later adolescence and early adulthood, their abilities to use logic and reason become more developed.

If an older teenager or adult is told by someone that they are stupid, they have the ability to reject the idea completely using reason. In contrast, if a child is told they are stupid (even indirectly), by someone in a position of authority, 9 times out of 10 they will take the message to heart. 

What do I mean by being told indirectly they are stupid? I’m talking about non-verbal cues like tone, facial expressions, and body language, which often speak much louder to kids than words.

Here’s what former University of Illinois, Urbana professor Louis Rubin said in Facts & feelings in the classroom:

“The position taken here is that there is a close relationship between the teacher’s expectations for the learner, the teacher’s treatment (output) of the learner, and, ultimately, the child’s self-expectation. This expectation of self is inseparable from his self-image.”

Jane Elliott And Her Chilling Findings 

Both of these researchers seem to be telling us that the teacher’s treatment of the child plays a role in shaping how the child views him or herself. One social experiment conducted by a third grade teacher named Jane Elliott perfectly illustrates how a teacher’s authority can influence children’s behavior. In April 1968, Elliott made Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the “Hero of the Month” for her class. 

That same month, King was tragically murdered. Elliot devised a social experiment inspired by King’s death to teach her students about discrimination. Elliot divided the students into two groups: blue eyed students and brown eyed. 

That day, Elliot told her students that the blue-eyed children were superior to the brown eyed children. The blue-eyed kids got to eat first at lunch, and enjoyed a longer recess than the brown eyed kids, who were forced to wear collars around their necks. 

In addition to the collars, the brown-eyed kids were scolded verbally to make them feel inferior. The next day, Elliot had the groups completely switch roles, so that the brown-eyed group enjoyed the special privileges, while the blue-eyed students had to wear collars and were made to feel inferior.

Elliot was absolutely shocked by the results of her experiment. On the first day, the blue-eyed children who were treated as superiors literally adopted the behaviors of “superiors.” Model students who didn’t seem to have a mean bone in their body became hostile towards the brown-eyed group and apparently enjoyed discriminating against them. 

The brown-eyed students who were treated as inferiors literally adopted the behaviors of “inferiors;” they carried themselves as if they were defeated, and performed terribly on their school work. On the second day, the same behavior patterns were present, except that the brown-eyed group acted as the superiors, and the blue-eyed group as inferiors.

Read this chilling quote on Jane Elliott's experiment by William Peters:

“I have asked each class that has gone through this exercise why they believed me when I said that one group or the other was inferior. the answer has always been the same. They believed me because I was the teacher (Source: A Class Divided: Then and Now).”

Here’s another relevant quote by Braun:

“If the learner thinks of himself as inferior, his actions will tend to be those of an inferior person and will confirm to his teacher and peers that reasonableness of tearing him as inferior.”

What can we learn from this knowledge? If you are a teacher or tutor, try your best to set high expectations for all students! If you are a student, set high expectations for yourself regardless of what others think! Lastly, if you’ve ever had a bad experience with a teacher in school and could never figure out why, it may not have been all your fault! 

You don’t have to let the past stop you from achieving your goals in the future! Please remember the story of Joey, and remember the concepts I’ve shared with you today! As I said at the beginning, I am far from an expert on this topic, so feel free to agree or disagree wherever you see fit. Regardless of your viewpoint on this issue, this is undoubtedly a very serious and thought provoking topic!

This post first appeared on Test Prep Champions, please read the originial post: here

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The Pygmalion Effect: The Story Of The Self Fulfilling Prophecy In Education


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