Great Expectations: The Pygmalion Effect

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The expectations teachers have of their students inevitably effects the way that teachers interact with them, which ultimately leads to changes in the student’s behaviour and attitude. The work of Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen (1968) shows that teacher expectations influence pupil performance. They found positive expectations influence performance positively and they described this phenomenon as the Pygmalion Effect.

This is a piece of research every teacher should know.

The Golem Effect

The theoretical counterpart to the Pygmalion Effect is the Golem Effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance. As Rosenthal and Babad (1985) note: “When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur.”

In Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s study, teachers were told that randomly selected students were about to experience an intellectual growth spurt. Over time, these students actually experienced a significant boost in performance because of the teacher’s expectations. The following video explains more:

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. Further research has supported Rosenthal’s original conclusion, that teacher expectations can have a substantial effect on students’ scholastic performance.

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? It has recently been reported that labelling children ‘average’ harms their GCSE grades. The GL Assessment report, The Lost Middle, urges teachers and parents to refuse considering any child to be ‘average’.

Poppy Ionides, an Educational Psychologist who contributed to the report says,

A large body of evidence suggests long-term benefit from a ‘growth mindset’ in which children believe in the possibility of cultivating their abilities. This feeds perseverance and resilience; failures are seen as opportunities to learn rather than diktats of inescapable ineptitude; those who start ‘average’ have the ability to be all but. Schools have the power to influence children’s mindset.

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? Having great expectations of everyone is crucial and we need to be wary of falling into label traps. Although there is there is no substantive evidence that Einstein ever made the following statement, it’s certainly a truism:

Setting The Bar High: No Excuses

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 line manager set you low targets for this academic year?

  • 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!

In my 100 Ideas: Outstanding Lessons book, 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. No Excuses sets the benchmark high for individuals teachers to have very high-expectations of themselves, as well as their students.

Ask yourself:

  • 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?

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.

6 thoughts on “Great Expectations: The Pygmalion Effect

  1. Geoff Petty at and Mike Gershon at provide great resources free on AfL, differentiation, thinking skills that are brilliant in designing courses, CPD and independent research.

    There’s also the work of Carol Tomlinson demonstrated in a freely available ppt online at

    I would also cite recent contributions from a certain Ross ‘someoneorother’ and John Tomsett, Stephen Tierney and Tom Sherrington as great sources? However, the gist of differentiation is surely high expectations, challenge and relationships?

    And from a students perspective, Tomlinson’s questions are as pertinent today as ever;

    What would the answers to these learner questions be in your classroom?

    Will I be affirmed in this place?

    Will people accept me here—find me acceptable?
    Will I be safe here as I am?
    Will people listen to me and hear me?
    Will someone know how I’m doing and how I’m feeling?
    Will they care? Will people value my interests and dreams?
    Will my perspectives be honored and acted upon?
    Will people here believe in me and in my capacity to succeed?

    Can I make a contribution in this place?

    Will I make a positive difference in the work that goes on here?
    Do I bring unique and important abilities to the work we need to do?
    Can I help others and the class as a whole do better work and accomplish more important things than if I weren’t here?
    Will I feel connected to others through common goals?

    Will I grow in power here?

    Is what I learn going to be useful to me now as well as later?
    Will I learn to make choices that contribute to my success?
    Will I understand how this place operates and what is expected of me here?
    Will I know what quality looks like and how to achieve it?
    Is there dependable support here for my journey?

    Do I see purpose in what we do here?

    Do I understand what I’m asked to learn?
    Will I see meaning and significance in what we do?
    Will what we learn reflect me and my world?
    Will the work engage and absorb me?

    Will I be stretched and challenged in this place?

    Will the work complement my abilities?
    Will it call on me to work hard and to work smart?
    Will I be increasingly accountable for my own growth and contribution to the growth of others?
    Will I regularly achieve here things I initially think are out of my reach?

    (Tomlinson, 2003)

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