Have you have heard of the psychological phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect? With such great influence on the children you interact with, for educators, this effect could be of particular interest in supporting positive learning behaviours.
In 1964 Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal worked with an elementary school principal, devising a test that was administered to students to help predict academic blooming. Teachers in each classroom were told that a small group of students were set to experience a bloom of intelligence over the coming year. At the end of the year, those students identified by the test did, in fact, increase their performance significantly in comparison to the other students.
However, what the teachers did not know was that the test was false and the students were merely randomly selected. Even though the teachers never told the students of their predictions to smarten up, the teachers naturally approached these students with higher expectations. This led these children to think differently about themselves leading to better performance.
Many have attempted to replicate the results of this experiment, finding that higher expectations of students were only effective when they were subconsciously driven. Teachers who knew they were taking part in an experiment did not get the transformative results. It seems that if we believe the ‘truth’ of a students potential is really less than the expectations were are attempting to cultivate, the results cannot be effective.
Early education has a strong emphasis on cognitive development for school readiness. I cannot forget the desperate post of a loving mother in an online support group who was seeking ideas to help her child who did not seem to be speaking in complete sentences as fast as her peers. While only three years old, the child had already seen a multitude of specialist tutors (after ruling out any medical or developmental complications), at the cost of thousands of dollars. The child was coached daily in rigorous drills and activities to increase her performance with no results. The mother was at her wit's end, sure that the slow development predicted a lifetime of difficulties ahead.
I can empathise with her concern. I remember when my friend’s child (then two years old) pointed to the moon saying clearly “Look, mummy, it’s a half a moon.” My child, (then three years old) could not speak like that, saying simply “ook ook moon!” But I was unworried, believing that she possessed her own kind of intelligence and that everyone develops at their own pace. I continued to speak to her as I would any other person without watering down my language for her comprehension. My expectation was that I could support her wherever she was and that she would flourish in her own time. Now just a few years later she has a vocabulary and contextual understanding to rival many adults and is performing well in advance of the expected levels for her age in reading and writing.
I wonder, what would have been the result of her development had I been concerned? If I had worried and taken her to specialists, focusing on the issues rather than acknowledging her natural abilities? I have the feeling that, no matter how well-intentioned, my concern would have affected her expectations of her abilities and her sense of self. Subjective wellbeing, positive learning behaviours and cognitive development are intrinsically linked, and we often equate our academic performance with our feelings of self-worth.
It can be difficult, as a parent or an educator, to ignore the ‘markers’ that would set our attention on alert for potential issues. It even seems sensible to do so, feeling that we cannot even help before identifying and admitting there may be a problem. But ironically, this is far more likely to solidify the issues we have determined. Our expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And this applies to all our relationships in life. Studies have shown this effect to apply in business, at home and in our communities.
Some expectations are bred into us in the name of safety. Not allowing children to navigate their own way outdoors, using only plastic cutlery and dishes, cautioning them from carrying or holding younger siblings. There are a million little ways we subconsciously undermine children's expectations of themselves 'for their own protection'. Then we are surprised when these children grow up and seem to be incapable of basic life skills.
So if our expectations are so easily biased and influenced then how can we use the Pygmalion Effect to our benefit?
What we can do is educate ourselves on the possibilities. In the past experts operated under the idea that I.Q, academic and even behavioural potential are determined by factors such as genetics or economic status and tend to remain fixed throughout life. Our expectations can, therefore, remain low and we are far less likely to behave in ways that support the flourishing of others.
However, new research into science and psychology are consistently revealing that conditions we had once believed were fixed limitations are now known to be open to transformation.
Neuroplasticity means the brain has the ability to form new connections. The influence of our expectations can help shape the development of others. Brain scans have shown that decreased brain function can be purposefully regenerated. Change is possible, and that is an overarching expectation that we can use to influence our expectations of others.
Perhaps when relating to others, we can ask ourselves- what expectations do I have for this person? Am I influenced by my preconceived notions of gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status? Can I intentionally open myself to higher expectations when interacting and would I behave differently to this person if I did so?
Emotional and cognitive development is fluid and can be influenced by positive relationships. The way we engage with children, our attentiveness and focus, our non-verbal cues and our patience in hearing their opinions all send the same message: you are intelligent, capable and what you think is worth sharing.
“The bottom line is that if we expect certain behaviours from people, we treat them differently — and that treatment is likely to affect their behaviour.” - Robert Rosenthal.