As the new school year springs – or lumbers! – into life, I have been thinking about the beliefs I have about my students. Like all dedicated teachers, I would vehemently argue that I have the highest expectations for each and every student I teach. How dare you suggest otherwise!
But do I really? And more to the point: is it possible for any teacher to have genuinely high expectations of every student?
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, shares the following experiment. Participants were given this question:
An individual has been described by a neighbour as follows: “Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.” Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? (P6)
Did you go for librarian? I thought so. So did I. Your associative mind made it impossible to avoid this immediate assumption. Yet, as Kahneman reveals, there are twenty male farmers for every male librarian. (These statistics come from the United States, but I imagine that the ratio is not too dissimilar over here in the UK.) Statistically, it is more likely that Steve is a farmer even though his description matches our stereotypical understanding of a male librarian. Human thinking, Kahneman shows us, is prone to making judgements through a reliance on heuristics (rules of thumb that take the place of deeper thinking). The heuristic in this case was that a male library attendant is ‘meek and tidy’ and a male farmer is not. Judgements are immediate and implicit and they will form our expectations before we are even aware of them.
Now let’s segue to this morning as I slouched at my desk and put together some seating plans for this year’s classes. Some of the classes I had taught last year and some were new to me. I was looking through a list of names when I came upon ‘Ryan’. Now consider the fact that I had never met Ryan before and I had no data or information to go on: Ryan needs to sit near me at the front, I thought. A couple of minutes later, I came to the name Benedict. Benedict will be fine – put him at the back.
Now in my teaching career I have taught a few Ryans – one or two of them have been a little on the tricky side, but the majority have been paragons of virtue. As for Benedict? Well, I have never taught let alone met a person by that name! Yet his name made me smile – internally, at least. The tragic, brutal truth was that my initial expectations of both children – before even a photo, prior data or target grade; before even a glimpse of their brimming 12-year-old faces – were beginning to form implicitly, beyond my control. Kahneman also describes the priming effect: when we are exposed to a stimulus it can subconsciously influence our response to another stimulus. In this case, their names led to the first stirrings of an implicit judgement of their character and ability.
A little later in the day, I caught myself at it again. A year 10 student had surprised me in her summer GCSE English literature exam by performing better than expected (see, there’s that word again…). I was marking a piece of her creative writing from the back-end of last term and, low and behold, I was noticing things about her work I had never noticed before. Yes there’s a real fluency here. A lovely turn-of-phrase in this sentence too. My response to her work was transforming favourably in light of my new understanding of her. This time, an unexpected letter next to her name had raised my future expectations of her. Would I have read her work through the same filter if I she had not achieved that grade I wonder?
Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s study, 1968, into the Pygmalion Effect is one all teachers should know about. Teachers were told by researchers that a group of students were expected to be ‘spurters’ (an interesting turn-of-phrase I know!) over the coming year and should make significantly more progress than their peers. In fact, these students were chosen at random. The findings were shocking: these students really did make more progress than their peers even though they had no ostensible advantages. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: teacher expectation had had a genuine impact on learning. Rosenthal and Jacobsen posited four reasons for this: teachers create a warmer climate for those they believe to be more academically able; teachers teach more material to these children than they do to those they label as ‘dumb’; teachers also give them more chance to respond verbally; and teachers give them more feedback. See the following video for more information:
Coupled with this is the fact that ‘self-reported grades’ comes out as the top ‘effect size’ in John Hattie’s meta-analysis. In effect, this relates to students’ expectations of themselves – they are remarkably good at predicting how well or badly they will perform in a future test. Hattie states: “Our job is to never meet the needs of kids…our job is to help kids exceed what they think they can do.” Our job as teachers, then, is not only to raise our own expectations, but crucially to raise students’ expectations of themselves. Presumably, these self-expectations are formed from a hotchpotch of factors including teacher expectation, parental expectation, peer expectation and previous academic success. To disrupt and readjust these often entrenched presuppositions is no mean feat. Watch Hattie speaking about this here.
It might be a KS2 score or a letter next to a name (L, M, H), it might be a word in your ear from a form tutor, it might be an uncharacteristically sloppy first piece of work or it might simply be the expression on a face… over the next couple of weeks you will, consciously and subconsciously, form hundreds of expectations based on the information in front of you. It would be impossible not to. Schools face a tricky dilemma. It seems intuitive to share as much helpful prior information about students as possible with teaching staff, but might this militate against the success we want our students to achieve through the unwanted side-effect of crystallising expectations at too early a stage?
I am usually one of life’s cynics, apart from in one domain. Despite what statistical evidence and common sense tell me, every season I expect Tottenham to win the league. This year my view was augmented by the fact that I had sound evidence that our new manager, Mauricio Pochettino, would build a tremendous, world-beating team spirit. (A former student of ours, a professional player at Southampton – Pochettino’s previous club – had shared with us the manager’s ability to generate a great team spirit and a winning mentality.) It seems strange, however, that this type of optimism rarely finds its way into my thinking about students.
And so, fighting back the expectation-whispering devils as best I can, I will try my hardest to put the data to one side and begin the year with unlimited optimism.
Related post: Reflections on a successful student
Postscript – It would appear that, after a little extra reading, the Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s research into the Pygmalion Effect showed quite modest effects. I may have been guilty of hyperbole in my description of the study. However, this does not detract from the main argument of the post: that we should be wary of jumping to assumptions about students too quickly. Follow the link in the comment from dodiscimus below.