What do you expect?

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For the most part, I believe that kids tend to rise or fall based on the expectations of the adults in their life. 

Last year, I was reminded of the book, ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’ when I attended a workshop by James Nottingham.

The book describes an experiment carried out in a US elementary school to test this “expectation” hypothesis. In the experiment, Rosenthal and Jacobson tested the intelligence of all of the students at an elementary school. Then, they randomly selected 20 percent of the students – without any relation to their test results – and reported to the teachers that these 20% of students were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and should “bloom” in their academic performance come the year’s end.

At the end of the year, the researchers came back and re-tested the students. Those labeled as “intelligent” children showed significantly greater increase in the new tests than the children who were not singled out for the teachers’ attention.

This means that,

“the change in the teachers’ expectations regarding the intellectual performance of these allegedly ‘special’ children had led to an actual change in the intellectual performance of these randomly selected children.”

The experiment only focused on favorable or positive expectations and their impact on intellectual competence, but common sense tells us that lower/negative expectations could also lead to a corresponding decrease in performance. The authors say, 

“There are many determinants of a teacher’s expectation of her pupils’ intellectual ability. Even before a teacher has seen a pupil deal with academic tasks she is likely to have some expectation for his behavior. If she is to teach a ‘slow group,’ or children of darker skin color, or children whose mothers are ‘on welfare,’ she will have different expectations for her pupils’ performance than if she is to teach a ‘fast group,’ or children of an upper-middle-class community. Before she has seen a child perform, she may have seen his score on an achievement or ability test or his last years’ grades, or she may have access to the less formal information that constitutes the child’s reputation.”

The bottom line is, teachers’ expectations matter, that student labeling is often done very early on in a child’s education, and often with very little or arbitrary/biased opinions. In doing this teachers can, consciously or unconsciously, reinforce existing class, ethnic and gender inequalities.

And it’s not just teachers – kids will rise or fall based on the expectations of the adults in their life.

Which way will the kids in your life go?

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