#Pygmalion teacher, expectancy-effect by @TeacherToolkit

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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‘Students’ progress can be hindered and limited by expectation’. How accurate is this statement in your own experience? In your own school? Or with colleagues you know elsewhere?

Blog reference: Pygmalion is a play by George Bernard Shaw, named after a Greek mythological character. It was first presented on stage to the public in 1912. Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility…”

I have been wanting to write this article since the day I first (and finally) met Paul Dix in June 2013. I  know most of you may already know Rosenthal’s work, and I make no excuses, that the vast majority of the content is quoted from various sources of work; but, I do hope that it serves as food-for-thought, for all teachers and as a reminder for the academic year ahead.

This posts covers a mixture of teacher-expectations; student-perception and self-reflection for the teacher. It offers research, practice and pedagogy for the reader.

Are students hindered and limited by your expectations?

The “expectancy-effect’, can be limited by the student’s perception of themselves; their functional-unit at home; or via the classroom teacher and their high-expectations of students. We all know, that the fundamental difference to a student’s ability at school and their general well-being, is from the support of, a ‘Good’ teacher.

Never stop developing:

On the 21st June 2013, I finally got to experience the delights of Paul Dix (@PivotalPaul) and his inspiring behaviour training days at our very own school. We have been working incredibly hard as a staff body, developing and embedding strategies over the past 18 months, to raise expectations of behaviour and make decision-making more consistent. This has involved a complete overhaul to our behaviour policy; a revised school code of conduct; a set of non-negotiables for all staff; tailored teacher-strategies to suit in/experienced staff and streamlined systems of accountability. Even our recent training days have included 50-100 students on-site, involving them in establishing their own behaviour policy to set expectations across the entire academy. But, as with most, if not all school priorities, this journey is far from complete …

Paul Dix - @PivotalPaul


Paul Dix (Pivotal Education) introduced to our staff, a range of still images. The pictures challenged our preconceptions. He then introduced to the staff, the #Pygmalion expectancy-effect. This was the work of Rosenthal: The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect.

“The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform.[1] The corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance.[1] The Pygmalion effect and the golem effect are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy, and, in this respect, people will internalize their positive labels, and those with positive labels succeed accordingly. Within sociology, the effect is often cited with regard to education and social class.” (Wikipedia)

Setting the bar high:

I have always wanted my students to exceed my expectations. As with most teachers, I feel let down when I let my guard slip and fail to mark their work; or see sanctions through to completion; follow-up praise and reward; or fail to act with articulacy and accuracy when teaching day-to-day in the classroom. What I mean by this, is when my lessons are not quite up to scratch and I settle for ‘I can do this better next time!’ You can read more about ‘Where I’ve failed as a teacher?’, here.

Teacher Expectancy

Without going into too much about MIndset, I would not be where I am today, if I was not encouraged to be reflective in my own practice (and others). I would not be the teacher I am today, without making mistakes. Or being encouraged to take risks and feel supported in what I wanted to achieve with my own students. This is par for the course in teaching. However, any teacher will tell you, you need time.


Time to grow. Time to practice. Time to establish who and what you are in the classroom. Time to be reflective and supportive. Time to plan lessons; time to mark books and provide feedback; time to see rewards/sanctions through to completion. Time to embed successful practice into any classroom … But, how much time should we give a teacher?

Will a teacher in their 1st year of teaching, have as high a set of expectations, as a teacher in their 5th, 10th or 20th year of teaching?

Does it matter?

Could inexperience be counter-balanced by (high) expectancy?

Fundamentally, high-expectation is what informs your planning; delivery and student outcomes. This cannot be allowed to be restricted by having low standards. Can you imagine if your appraiser (line manager) set you low targets for this academic year? Or if they did not observe you? Did not scrutinse the quality of marking in your students’ books and provided you with feedback? Or worse, told you that they did not have high-expectations of you?! Berated the reputation of the school or the leadership team? How would you perform thereafter?

Yes. I thought so …

It does happen, but do you allow it to continue?

Photo Credit: Ravages via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ravages via Compfight cc

One chance:

  • Students do not get a second chance.
  • You may be able to teach the same lesson next year, but your students will never have ‘that’ lesson again.
  • Your students will have less opportunity to act on feedback as the academic year moves forward. Tomorrow is too late.
  • There is no time like now; set the benchmark high, and do everything you can to reach it.
  • Do all you can to challenge where and when it doesn’t happen!

The Pygmalion Effect and the Power of Positive Expectations:

Here is a video (6 mins.) which “describes Rosenthal’s Pygmalion effect. Teachers are told that randomly selected students were about to experience an intellectual growth spurt. These students actually experienced a significant boost in performance because of the teacher’s expectations.”

Rosenthal’s Work on Expectancy Effects:

There is no question, that labelling can have a tremendous effect on the way a person is perceived and treated by others. Being ‘labelled’ can cause many forms of expectancy. Imagine if you were labelled gifted and talented as a child; or special needs? If you truly understood what the definition meant, would it have made a difference to you as a child?

Do you really plan for gifted and talented students; and students with additional needs in ‘every’ lesson? Do you expect the best outcomes for all of your students; even the students who are labelled? Defined? Pigeon-holed? Do you have high-expectations for everyone?

How do you know? How would you provide this evidence in your own lesson-planning; your marking; your schemes of work; your monitoring of other teachers in your department?

Robert Rosenthal has done a great deal of research on these so-called expectancy effects.

Purpose of the study?

“… Perhaps the most famous case of an experimenter expectancy effect is the case of Clever Hans. Rosenthal and Fode (1963) attempted to demonstrate this phenomenon in the context of controlled laboratory research. In one of his early experiments, he tested the effects of experimenter expectancy on maze-running performance. He had two groups of students test rats, wrongly informing them either that the rats were specially bred to be “maze dull” or “maze bright.” In reality, all rats were standard lab rats, and were randomly assigned to the “dull” and “bright” conditions. The results showed that the rats labelled as “bright” learned the mazes more quickly than those labelled as “dull.” Apparently, students had unconsciously influenced the performance of their rats, depending on what they had been told.

Rosenthal reasoned that a similar effect might occur with teachers’ expectations of student performance.”

General procedure:

“Rosenthal and Jacobson tested children at Oak School with an IQ test, the Tests of General Ability (TOGA) at the beginning of the school year. This test was used because teachers were likely to be unfamiliar with it, and because it is primarily non-verbal, and not dependent on skills learned in school (i.e., reading and writing). In order to create an expectancy, the teachers were informed that the test was the “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition,” which served as a measure of academic “blooming.” Therefore, teachers were led to believe that certain students were entering a year of high achievement, and other students were not. In reality, the test had no such predictive validity.

Eighteen teachers at the school were informed of the students in their classes who had obtained scores in the top 20% of this test. These students were ready to realize their potential, according to their test scores. What the teachers didn’t know is that students were placed on these lists completely at random. There was no difference between these students and other students whose names were not on the lists. At the end of the school year, all students were once again tested with the same test (the TOGA). In this way, the change in IQ could be estimated. Differences in the size of the changes for experimental and control group children could serve as an index of any expectancy effect.” (Source)

Results and Discussion:

“Rosenthal and Jacobson’s results demonstrated expectancy effects. There was a marked difference in IQ test score gains. Students who had been labelled as “ready to bloom” showed greater gains than those who had not been labelled in this way …

Rosenthal and Jacobson’s results demonstrate a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy. Students believed to be on the verge of great academic success performed in accordance with these expectations; students not labelled this way did not. Later research has supported Rosenthal’s original conclusion, that teacher expectations can have a substantial effect on students’ scholastic performance.”

Rosenthal-Jacobsen study:

“Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968[2]) report and discuss the Pygmalion effect in the classroom at length.[3] In their study, they showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from some children, then the children did indeed show that enhancement.

The purpose of the experiment was to support the hypothesis that reality can be influenced by the expectations of others. This influence can be beneficial as well as detrimental depending on which label an individual is assigned. The observer-expectancy effect, which involves an experimenter’s unconsciously biased expectations, is tested in real life situations. Rosenthal posited that biased expectancies can essentially affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies as a result.”


In my 100 Ideas: Outstanding Lessons book, I discuss in chapter (Idea) 94 a “motto to establish an ethos for outstanding” teaching. I elaborate on teacher-expectancy and how a ‘No Excuses’ philosophy can be a superb mantra for raising your own and students’ expectations of performance in the classroom.

This can be associated with a whole-school approach to standards. The #Pygmalion expectancy-effect can be attributed to teachers across the school; local-residents and parents who believe that a school is not currently capable of achieving the best outcomes for its students.

This can be detrimental to the success and generation of a school if not resolved collectively by all staff.

I know.

I have worked a school where this attitude is rife in teachers who do not believe students can do better than they are perceived.

At arms-length, this ripple-effect, or low-aspirational attitude (Idea 69 in my book) can be associated to school data published externally. If this data is not understood, the context can be incredibly hard to decipher. How many times have you – as a teacher – considered an application for a school, but have declined to proceed based on word-of-mouth reputation, or published examination results?

You only truly know how a school is performing is you walk through its doors.

I know.

I have worked a school where the #Pygmalion expectancy-effect exceeded the boundaries of the school. I had the same misconceptions myself. Local residents did too.

External #Pygmalion expectancy-effect:

When reading the Ofsted Dashboard, the data is analysed for the (your) school and compared with other schools of a similar intake. Of course, this criteria for making such a comparison, is Ofsted specific. For example, levels of progress; gifted and talented attainment….

Ofsted: Data dashboard

“The School Data Dashboard provides a snapshot of school performance at Key Stages 1, 2 and 4. The dashboard can be used by school governors and by members of the public to check the performance of the school in which they are interested.

The School Data Dashboard complements the Ofsted school inspection report by providing an analysis of school performance over a three-year period. Data can be filtered by key stage or by topic:

  • Expected progress
  • Attainment
  • Attendance
  • Closing the gap between disadvantaged and other pupils
  • Context

What type of information is covered in the School Data Dashboard?

Data are provided for Key Stages 1, 2 and 4. Measures include:

  • percentage of pupils reaching the expected level in key subjects (English, reading, writing, mathematics)
  • percentage of pupils attaining GCSE grades A* to C in key subjects (English, mathematics, science)
  • percentage of pupils making expected progress in English and mathematics
  • overall attendance at the school (percentage)
  • closing the gap measures (these measures look at the attainment and expected progress of disadvantaged pupils compared with other pupils).”

What do we mean by similar schools?

“Each school has its own group of ‘similar schools‘. These are defined as schools whose pupils arrived with a similar average level of attainment. For Key Stage 2 primary schools this will be the Key Stage 1 assessment results, for Key Stage 4 secondary schools this will be the Key Stage 2 tests and assessments. The measure does not take into account other contextual factors such as deprivation or levels of special educational needs, because these factors should already be reflected in the prior attainment of the pupils. Key Stage 2 schools are compared with the most similar 110 schools, for Key Stage 4 with the most similar 60. The similar schools group sizes were chosen by grouping those schools which had very similar pupil attainment on entry. The group sizes differ because, as a minimum number, all schools with the same prior attainment must be in the same group. This minimum number is larger for Key Stage 2. There is no similar school comparison for Key Stage 1 data.” (Ofsted source)

No Excuses:

No Excuses sets the benchmark high for individuals teachers to have very high-expectations of themselves, as well as their students. This can encompass everything, from the teacher professional standards, to achievement and day-to-day performance in the classroom.

  • Do you have the best interests of all your students?
  • Are you part of the collective vision?
  • Do you challenge any under-current gossip and inconsistency?
  • How is the #Pygmalion expectancy-effect viewed in your school?

We look forward to working with Paul Dix again in December 2013. Watch this fabulous video on Paul in action:


Here are some background slides to use for your own reference and perhaps share with your staff. They are taken from the sources listed below.


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7 thoughts on “#Pygmalion teacher, expectancy-effect by @TeacherToolkit

  1. I teach teachers (re mental health) and find it true there too. Most teachers I’ve met have a far better understanding of the issues I tackle than they give themselves credit for but are hugely lacking in confidence. My job is part skills building, part knowledge sharing but most importantly confidence building. When I express my confidence in teachers’ abilities to tackle the thorny issues I teach them about, they almost universally succeed in tackling them.

    (My 3 year old kids on the other hand, constantly exceed even my highest expectations… That is down to Carol Dweck I think)

      1. My kids out me to shame. I’ll not forget the day that I said ‘I can’t draw’ and Ellie, aged two at the time, assured me that I was still learning and just needed to try and try and try!

        All good thank you, trying to find time to finish my PhD write up (and failing!) how are things with you?

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