• Question: As a teacher I often hear myself telling a student that I have higher expectations of him/her than s/he does! With so many outside influences on a child that are beyond our control, how big an impact can expectations of a teacher (or ethos of a school) actually have?

    Asked by eerussell to Anna, Catriona, Daniel, Katherine, Michael on 10 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Catriona Morrison

      Catriona Morrison answered on 10 Apr 2015:

      Ok, I’m a psychologist, but no teacher, but a mother of teens also, so I am constantly battling with what the right message is to put across. I think teachers are hugely influential in inspiring children and helping them fulfill their potential. I see this with university students too: they are easily distracted, and there’s a lot going on in their lives, but when they recognise that their teacher believes in them it more often than not inspires a real drive to do well.
      So my belief is that teacher/school and the ethos they propagate are key impacts on learning.

    • Photo: Anna Simmonds

      Anna Simmonds answered on 15 Apr 2015:

      I agree with Catriona that teachers play a key role in inspiring and encourage students and helping them to reach their potential.

      The Pygmalion effect is used to describe the fact that people live up to others’ expectation of them and tend to do better when expectations are higher. In the education domain it’s sometimes referred to as the ‘Rosenthal effect’, following a study by Rosenthal and Jacobson in the 60s in which teachers were told that certain students in their class had been assessed as “academic bloomers” who would do very well during the academic year. These “bloomers” had actually been selected at random, but the teacher expectations worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy and those students averaged significantly greater improvement than students in the control group. However, this effect was observed only in early grades and not in older children and the study has been criticised with claims of flaws in the research methods.

      Other research has shown that teacher behaviour towards students for whom they have low expectations can be barrier to learning. For example, in a paper in 1983, Brophy gives examples such as teachers waiting less time for low-expectancy students to answer questions, or being more likely to give the answer than probe an inaccurate response, teachers giving less attention to low-expectancy students, calling on them less frequently, seating them further away from teachers and offering less learning material to them. (PDF of the (scanned typewritten 1980s style!) paper here: http://education.msu.edu/irt/PDFs/ResearchSeries/rs119.pdf)

      So although there are many outside influences beyond the control of a teacher, it seems that teacher expectations do have an impact on learning, even if the expectations are not explicitly communicated to students.

    • Photo: Katherine Weare

      Katherine Weare answered on 16 Apr 2015:

      Agree with both of the other answers which give the research base for this optimism. Your belief in them is absolutely vital – keep at it!