Ask a School Psychologist|
by Beth Bruno, Ed.M., M.A.
The Pygmalion Effect
A parent sent me the following unforgettable letter:
"I have been outraged by the low expectations for success that seem to be prevalent for students who struggle to learn. I have been driven by my rejection of those low expectations. "I am not employed as a Special Educator, nor do I hold a degree in Special Education, but I am a "special educator" as my son's mother and committed advocate.
"After years of struggle in the elementary and middle schools, a comment made by a school psychologist when our son was in the 8th grade has been burned into my memory. "I think we can all agree," this specialist said, "that your son will not attend a competitive college." "I fought to keep him in college prep courses; I fought to get him speech services; I fought to get him access to assistive technology; and twice I have enlisted the help of attorneys to make it happen.
"Well, he's a high school Senior now. Things are not perfect, but they are much better than they would have been if I had just gone along to get along. He has chosen to seek a degree in soil science and has been accepted at Michigan State University, the University of Rhode Island and the University of Massachusetts. He is still waiting to hear from four other schools. We know there is a long way to go, but we've made it our business to be aware of the rights and responsibilities that go along with being a post secondary student with a Learning Disability."
This mother's letter reminds me of a research study I read many years ago. In a classic experiment done in the late 60's, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jackson worked with elementary school children from 18 classrooms. They randomly chose 20% of the children from each room and told the teachers they were "intellectual bloomers." They explained that these children could be expected to show remarkable gains during the year. Results: The experimental children showed average IQ gains of two points in verbal ability, seven points in reasoning and four points in overall IQ.
How can this possibly work?
In "Pygmalion in the Classroom," l968, Rosenthal replies, "To summarize our speculations, we may say that by what she said, by how and when she said it, by her actual facial expressions, postures and perhaps by her touch, the teacher may have communicated to the children of the experimental group that she expected improved intellectual performance. Such communication together with possible changes in teaching techniques may have helped the child learn by changing his self concept, his expectations of his own behavior and his motivation, as well as his cognitive style and skills."
The power of expectations may work against students with special needs, because these students carry labels derived from test scores that some teachers and parents might think "justify" reduced expectations. But that same information might also lead parents and educators to develop compensatory strategies to help a child set and meet high expectations by an alternate route.
The process of setting expectations for children is tricky, because teachers and parents don't want to push a child to achieve beyond his or her capabilities and then see that child stop trying due to fear of failure. Best practices dictate that teachers and parents take the time to get to know each child as an individual, so that all three the parent, the teacher and the child -- can set realistic expectations by adjusting to individual needs during the learning process.
Yes, we educate our children in schools and in groups, but we must never let any child become so anonymous in a group that we lose track of that child's individual needs and aspirations. National pressure on teachers to meet externally imposed standards further complicates the picture for teachers who are interested in setting standards according to individual student needs and abilities. Optimally, educators will find ways to help students meet minimal standards, yet also support student potential to reach beyond minimums for personal excellence.
Self-fulfilling prophecy: The Pygmalion Effect:
Raising expectations to improve student learning:
Successful detracking in middle and senior high schools:
Beth Bruno email@example.com
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