In George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion the professor helps a slattern by the name of Eliza Doolittle become an elegant lady. He does this primarily by treating her like a lady at all times until she begins to live up to his expectations of her. Goethe stated the principle this way: “Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he already were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be.”

A famous study in the classroom by Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard psychologist, and Lenore Jacobson, a San Francisco school principal, furnishes us with a good illustration of this. They asked the question: Do some children perform poorly in school because their teachers expect them to? If so, they surmised, raising the teacher’s expectations should raise the children’s performances as well. So a group of kindergarten through fifth-grade pupils was given a learning ability test, and the next fall the new teachers were casually given the names of five or six children in the new class who were designated as “spurters” with exceptional learning ability. What the teachers did not know was that the test results had been rigged and that the names of these “spurters” had been chosen entirely at random.

At the end of the school year, all the children were retested, with some astonishing results. The pupils whom the teachers thought had the most potential had actually scored far ahead, and had gained as many as fifteen to twenty-seven I.Q. points. The teachers described these children as happier, more curious, more affectionate than average, and having a better chance of success in later life. The only change for the year was the change in attitudes of the teachers. Because they had been led to expect more of certain students, those children came to expect more of themselves.

“The explanation probably lies in the subtle interaction between teacher and pupils,” speculates Rosenthal. “Tone of voice, facial expressions, touch, and posture may be the means by which—often unwittingly— teachers communicate their expectations to their pupils. Such communication may help a child by changing his perceptions of himself.


Almost Every Answer for Practically Any Teacher by Bruce Wilkinson