Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Pygmalion Effect

Auguste Rodin


He lifts up both his hands to feel the work,
and wonders if it can be ivory,
because it seems to him more truly flesh. --
his mind refusing to conceive of it
as ivory, he kisses it and feels
his kisses are returned. And speaking love,
caresses it with loving hands that seem
to make an impress, on the parts they touch,
so real that he fears he then may bruise
her by his eager pressing.
                                 ~Ovid, Metamorphosis

Throughout most of my academic life I was a good student in the most common usage of that term: I managed pretty good grades. I did receive a few clinkers here and there, but for the most part I was a solid A-B student. During my sophomore year in high school, mom convinced me to take a typing class, because, she reasoned, it would help me when I had papers to write for college. Fair enough, I thought, but on our first day of class, the teacher, a seasoned typing teacher, told us, "If you're a boy, the best grade you can expect is a C. Your fingers are just too big and clumsy."

Well this was news. I'd never been told anything other than "the sky's the limit." Recalling this today as a middle class white man, I can see how much that was a function of simply being a white male, but at the time I treated it as a novel experienced. There were no particular expectations on me and I lived up to them, not only receiving and C, but doing the quality of work and giving an effort that barely deserved a C. 

This is a very obvious example of a very well-researched phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect, named for the mythological sculptor who loved his statue so much that the gods brought it to life. In Harvard researcher Robert Rosenthal's famous experiment, he discovered that if he randomly labeled some lab rats "bright" and others "dull," his graduates students would consistently turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy when it came to running a maze. Even though there was actually nothing special to distinguish the two groups of rats, the "bright" ones actually performed as if they were brighter, twice as well as the "dull" rats, while the "dull" rats, in turn, performed as if they were dull. This phenomenon has been shown to be true for humans as well, especially when it comes to teachers who both consciously and unconsciously cause their students to fulfill their predetermined expectations.

A few days ago, I wrote about the power inherent in our position as educators. Well, this is one of the greatest powers we wield: the ability to create these kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies, even if we don't issue grades to the children in our care. Our expectations of them tend to become the reality. If we think all boys are rowdy, then they probably will be. If we think all the girls will be catty, that's what you'll tend to see. And if we believe, even at a subconscious level, that an arbitrary trait like skin color is a natural limitation to what a person is capable of doing, then we will limit them. This is why our reflective practice is so important. If we don't take the time every day to think deeply about what we are doing, what we believe, the challenges we are facing, the successes we have had, the individuals in our care, then we risk using our power to impede rather than to, as I hope is our goal, support every child to achieve their highest potential.

I was not inherently smarter than my classmates any more than I was an inherently "average" typist. The adults in my life expected me to be smart and so, by the measures they used to judge that, I showed them what they expected to see. On the other hand, just one adult thought that I might turn out to just be average and to this day I struggle with my touch typing: a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. And even with this clear hindsight, I still I don't work on my typing speed today because part of being average was learning to not care if I was anything more.

Children deserve adults who strive to identify their prejudices and to then set them aside, an act that can be easier said than done, but like with anything else, we get better at it with practice. It requires a commitment to honesty, sometimes painful honesty, and a desire to change. If we aren't willing or able to bring that to our self-evaluation, then we create the kinds of self-fulfilling prophesies that stunt and even ruin lives.

This power we have as educators is not our power. It belongs to the children. When we return it to them, we empower them to take their own future in their own hands and, as the mythological Pygmalion did, bring it to life.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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