In management, the two most important secrets to success and productivity are: (1) the Pygmalion effect, and (2) the Galatea effect. The former focuses on performance expectation while the latter stresses the importance of on-going well-supported performance improvement. This article focuses on the Pygmalion effect – the power of expectation.
By definition, expectations are “a set of informed and/or uninformed predictions” that we hold of our own and others” behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Expectations are useful in regulating our day-to-day experiences, in dealing with people, and in understanding our subjective social world.
However, expectations could also lead to negative outcomes if relied on heavily without constant and deliberate awareness and monitoring of the same. Often, our predictions (expectations) bring to us what want to see in others and not necessarily what they truly intend to manifest. Regardless of how they are used, expectations play a great role in managing our own and others’ interpersonal interactions and these in turn determine our everyday performances.
Experiment with rats
In 1963, social psychologist Robert Rosenthal and his colleagues set up experiments collect empirical data on the power of expectation. Their research was called the study of “expectancy effect” or “self-fulfilling prophecy”. They randomly assigned rats into two groups, termed maze-bright and maze-dull. These rats were then given to two randomly selected college undergraduate students who took care of one group of rats each. The students only knew the rats as being either bright or dull. They were not aware of the fact that the rats were all the same.
When these students brought their respective rats back and tested them on the maze trials (ten trials over five consecutive days), the results indicated that the bright rats nearly doubled the dull rats in maze performances.
While there were no real differences in the intelligence of the two groups of rats, the bright rats did better because the college students who were responsible for them communicated high expectations through tactile and kinesthetic cues and these impacted the rats’ performances. The opposite is true about the dull rats. They underperformed because the students who were responsible for them communicated despondency and did not trust that the rats could produce anything of worth. They did so through their non-verbal cues.
Shocked by his findings, Robert Rosenthal designed another experiment to test the working of the expectancy effect with children and their teachers. If positive high expectation improved the performance of rats, could the same effect be seen, even more forcefully among students in learning? With this question in mind, Rosenthal assigned student-subjects to teachers (experimenters), a few of which were supposedly “early bloomers”. By this he meant that the few early bloomers have the potential of excelling exceedingly greater than their classmates. But the truth is – all the student-subjects were of the same IQ level before the experiment began (in fact they were chosen to be part of the study because they possessed similar IQs).
After a few weeks, a post IQ test was administered to all the student-subjects; It was found that the supposedly early bloomers scored two standard deviations higher than the rest of the class on an intelligence test. This indicates a 50% increase in IQ score among the students for whom teachers had held high positive expectations.
High/low expectation class
What does a class with high or low expectation look like? Expectations are communicated verbally and non-verbally. The following table indicates the type of things that could be expected when a class of students experience either one or both.
Positive high expectation
Negative low expectation
Verbal cues (what teachers say and believe in)
·“I am excited about teaching grade three; I know they are going to be marvelous”
·“I know you can do it; here, let me help you…”
·“you always upset me Lucy”
·“I knew you’d fail – you always do!”
·“Oh no… not grade three, they are so dull. I don’t want to teach them!”
Non-verbal cues (what teachers do and communicate through tactile and kinesthetic means – more subtle)
·Paying attention to all students
·Asking questions to all students
·Involving students in decision making
·Helping and supporting through challenges in learning and other aspects of schooling
·Negotiating rather than imposing
·Smiling and maintaining eye-contacts
·Paying attention only to the bright students and deliberately neglecting the weaker ones
·Asking questions challenging questions to bright students and very easy ones to weaker students
·Let students struggle and fail in difficult task
·Separate bright students from weaker ones through seating arrangements, class grouping, etc.
·Use frowns, disgust, anger as a weapon to hit students down
What do you want?
Teachers get what they want from their students. If they expect high performance, responsible citizenship, critical and creative thinking, generation of new knowledge and solutions – they would communicate these in a variety of ways to students. These will serve as positive stimulation for students to become motivated about being their best and performing well. When students sense and become convinced that their teachers have given up on them and expect them to be good for nothing, they will deliver the exact same thing – at least they are not disappointing the teachers and their predictions. The choice is ours to make. Let us choose to believe in and value students. Let us intentionally decide to stop ridiculing and de-valuing them.
The best learning takes place when students have a positive feeling toward
a task, as that enables them to use what they already know
As children enter into the classroom, the most common _ yet unrealistic _ expectation teachers have is for the youngsters to take their seats, sit quietly, and wait for the next instruction. Not only is the expectation unrealistic, it is impractical.
Students are social beings, so by nature they crave to establish communal connections with one another the moment they see each other. The seating arrangements in classrooms reflect this interactive component of student life. Nevertheless, the actual social interaction (in the form of talking about academic or non-academic matters) is systematically discouraged to make way for learning.
The real world
Imagine sitting all alone on a bench in a recreational park. Because you are by yourself and the bench is still spacious, someone comes along and sits next to you. For a moment, there is complete silence in the air. This is a good silence. It is an indication that both you and the other person are thinking hard about ways to break the ice and start a conversation.
This example shows that by nature, humans like to engage in the enterprise of social interaction, in response to anything that remotely resembles a social interactive situation. Talking and interacting with another yield many psychological and accompanying physical benefits. Hence, it is a biological, psychological, and sociological survival tool that humans have always used.
Warming-up in the classroom
Students go through a variety of experiences at home the previous day and night. They get excited about sharing some of these with their classmates the next day at school. They even plan on it! Most often, the first and most appropriate opportunity they get to do this is in the class, before a lesson begins, or just after a lessons ends.
How should a teacher deal with this situation? Should he/she ask students to “Keep quiet!” and expect them to go about their business as learners? Or should he/she be concerned about decorum and discipline, and ignore the fact that students do want to interact and socially connect before they begin plunging into the process of learning?
I answer the question by saying it is wise and appropriate to allow students to talk about anything they are interested in before beginning a lesson. There are times that I enter into my classroom, and contrary to conventional practice, announce, “I want all of you to turn to someone nearby and talk to that person about your weekend.” Of course the noise level goes up; but this helps to make students emotionally prepared to follow through the day’s lessons. It takes only five or so minutes.
I soon realized that every time I allowed students time to talk about something non-academic before abruptly thrusting a lesson upon them, they were more relaxed, positive, and geared up for learning.
Sometimes the whole class talks about a specific issue, or events of the previous day or week. This becomes a more interesting and energizing discussion and leads the whole class into a thinking mode. Students loosen up and contribute their opinions and ideas without hesitation. There is no right or wrong answer. They can be themselves and express their emotions and thoughts without the fear of evaluation.
Consequently, students quickly realize the teacher is interested in an issue they are concerned about. The gap between the teacher and students is significantly reduced, and a neutral, stimulating, positive platform for teaching and learning is created. Students feel comfortable to take an active role in the learning process without feeling like they were being pushed or forced.
What brain research teaches
Studies in brain processing (storing and retrieving information) reveal that there is a strong connection between reason (cognition) and the three-pronged elements required in learning _ emotion, activity, and meaning.
Scientists have discovered that the same areas of the brain that are involved in processing emotion are also involved in processing memory. The connection is so strong that reason, emotion, and bodily sensations and functions affect each other at neurological levels.
Emotion activates attention (focus), the primary and most vital component of any learning or information processing act, which then triggers the short-term and long-term memory, and eventually makes the overall learning process possible. In other words, learning does not take place at an optimal level in the absence of emotional arousal. Apart from being responsible for initiating and activating cognitive processes, emotions are also responsible for behavioral responses of individuals.
Since the relationship between emotion, cognition, and motion is real, it is necessary for teachers to get students to first become emotionally involved, before initiating teaching and learning.
When students are emotionally captivated in the initial stage of learning, the chances of them paying attention is significantly increased. Increased attention enables students to be engaged (mentally and physically) and hence gain maximum benefit from the issues discussed.
The more emotionally engaged a student is, the more likely he/she is to learn. Furthermore, having positive and favorable feelings toward a task (academic or non-academic) helps students to feel that they have done the task well. In contrast, when they experience negative and unfavorable feelings toward a task, they experience difficulty.
Allowing students to talk to each other about non-academic matters, before or in-between lessons, is an appropriate teaching practice. Instead of depriving students of their basic social need to interact and feel good about being connected with one another, teachers may consider taking a more progressive approach in harnessing the emotional gains that accompany such a practice.
The best learning takes place when a positive feeling toward a task enables students to use what they already know, motivates them to extend that knowledge and build on it, even to the extent of constructing new knowledge. Casual talking with peers allows students to experience a positive emotional arousal, which serve to improve their own learning. This is true at psychological, as well as, neurological levels.
Having attended many seminars and workshops, I have come to recognize that a learning session could be exciting or boring. It could also be frightening and overwhelming, especially when there is a vast disparity between a speaker’s frame of reference and that of the participants.
Almost always, participants in a learning session become disheartened by not being allowed to experience a sense of control over the process and the overall environment of learning.
While attempting to control something or someone is seen as not very healthy, experiencing a sense of control is crucial to human existence. An individual who does not feel that he is in control of things will constantly fear the next possible event in his life. This relates directly to a sense of efficacy – the belief that one can effect positive changes in and around himself.
The belief in the ability to accomplish something is more important than the ability itself. This explains why people can sometimes teach themselves a new trade or trick even though no one expects them to be able to do so because they are not perceived to have the necessary abilities.
Individuals with a high level of efficacy believe in their potential to accomplish a task. The strong belief motivates them to do everything possible to gain mastery. Mastery, in return, brings about a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, progressing into a feeling of being in control as mastery affects, and is affected by, achievements.
Like other needs, the need for control over one’s own environment and life experiences is necessarily a basic psychological need that empowers an individual to become confident in accomplishing challenging tasks in life. Without it, one feels disempowered. Disempowerment is the leading cause for frustration, underperformance and lack of interest or motivation.
Case in point
Notice the facial expressions, body language and willingness to strike and keep a conversation among passengers in an airplane that is about to take off from a particular destination for another. One could conclude that most passengers would look resentful and uptight. I have travelled by air many times and this is the pattern that I have observed on all flights.
However, the opposite is true for the same passengers when the airplane is about to land at the destination (arrival). As the airplane approaches the terminal, people stand up, smile at each other, talk more, and present a more pleasant and positive aura compared to when they started. Why is this so?
The answer lies in the fact that passengers don’t feel a sense of control over their journey. In their minds, they have placed their lives in the hands of pilots and flight attendants whom they don’t know well enough to trust.
This is a good example of when the “sense of control” is completely taken away from individuals and the only way to feel a certain amount of control is by knowing more about the journey, getting updates from the pilot, walking around in the airplane, and, for people like me, sitting by the window to make sure that we are still flying.
The moment an airplane lands at its destination, the passengers experience an exhilarated sense of freedom that comes from the feeling of being in control of their own safety. They become happier because they are able to deliberately choose how safety is defined and pursued.
Application for learning
In the classroom, ensuring that students experience a sense of control over their learning is an essential ingredient for success. I have seen many students who initially possess zero ability but shoot up almost instantly when they are allowed to be in control of their own learning. There are several ways to make this a possibility:
Incorporate students’ voice into teaching: Listen to students and take into consideration what they have got to say about what to learn, how to learn, and how to assess learning. When students’ voices are heard, and when their suggestions are gratefully incorporated into teaching, they feel on top of things.
Focus on mastery: Although students differ in abilities, they are similar when it comes to needing to experience a sense of control. One sure way to help students feel in control of learning is by helping them gain competency in lessons.
Often, this would imply providing individual attention to a struggling student. While teachers may argue that this is difficult and impractical, we should not forget that a jump-start (short-term cognitive scaffolding), rather than a long haul of direct instruction, is sufficient to empower a child.
Provide opportunities for problem-solving: Students who are engaged in problem-solving (academic or non-academic) become independent thinkers, responsible citizens and sensitive human connectors. These characteristics provide room for personal growth and an expansion for the sense of being in control of oneself and one’s life experiences