The Pygmalion effect: the power of high expectations

To raise the bar or not to raise the bar? To have high expectations or not to have high expectations? This has been a constant discussion topic in many schools. Many believe in order to be inclusive one should lower the expectations to suit the student’s ability while others strongly disagree. Some even confuse it with differentiation as they think giving students work that they can complete as per their ability is differentiation. I strongly disagree, I believe in The Pygmalion Effect (Rosenthal,1987). which simply states that high expectations lead to better achievement levels hence low expectations will lead to low performance.

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The Pygmalion Effect (source: https://my.wealthyaffiliate.com/)
Image source: https://my.wealthyaffiliate.com/

This is very true for higher secondary students, they tend to reciprocate the teachers’ approach towards setting expectations and then they perform accordingly. A simple experiment I do is announce that the upcoming test will be very challenging, and surprisingly students come better prepared and perform better than those tests taken casually or informally. Another example is the students’ approach towards formative assessment and summative assessments, they usually do well in summative as the expectations are higher.

Teaching for so many years, I have always set high expectations for student outcomes and designed challenging assessment tasks, sometimes this does not go down very well with many stakeholders in education as some believe that expectations should be as per student ability. Hence I always suffered the conflict whether I should raise the bar or lower it to suit the student’s ability. I never got a clear answer and the conundrum grew until I read about The Pygmalion Effect.

I will briefly highlight the key factors that helped me resolve my conflict regarding expectations. The article Being honest about the Pygmalion Effect, (Ellison, 2015) explains that various researchers have observed when managers have high hopes for their employees, the workers become more productive; when military instructors believe trainees have superior skills, the trainees perform better. The pygmalion effect states that high expectations lead to better achievement levels, hence I strongly promote this strategy in my classroom.

Furthermore, there are seven ways teachers can change their expectations by watching, listening, engaging, experimenting, meeting, reaching out and reflecting (Pianta, 2003). Ironically the last step is most effective, to reflect on the whole process by questioning our personal experiences. This is very insightful if I apply this in my context, I do work better as a teacher if my supervisor has positive expectations of me, hence I should apply the same to my students. This has been a learning curve in terms of setting expectations for students. Hence by following the seven steps teachers can set a high standard without having to worry about the outcomes. But this requires training since teachers need to ensure that the expectations are made challenging for every student at their individual level, it requires deep knowledge of both approaches to learning and differentiation.

In summary, even though the strategies for improving student self-efficacy have been under the spotlight for the past decade, it has not reached its fruition as teachers are neither expected nor trained to set high expectations. In many schools, usually, the expectations are kept low in order to have a greater number of students and low turnover. This has become an ethical dilemma hence must be debated extensively to put together a set of rules and procedures to promote student self-efficacy.

 Ellison, K. (2015). Being honest about the Pygmalion Effect. Retrieved from http://discovermagazine.com/2015/dec/14-great-expectations

Rosenthal, R. (1987). “Pygmalion” Effects: Existence, Magnitude, and Social Importance. Educational Researcher, 16(9), 37-41. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1175728

Pianta, R.C. (2003). Handbook of Psychology  Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/0471264385.wei0710

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