Based on the Dutch Early Years Blog written by Annemiek Hoppenbrouwers.
In 1968, two American teachers (Robert Rosenthal and Leonore Jacobson) performed an experiment with the children in their school . At the start of the school year, all children took an IQ test. Roughly 20% of the children scored rather high and showed high developmental potential. They communicated the test results with the teachers of the children, but with one manipulation: the 20% highest test scores of children were randomly attributed to the children in the classrooms. The results? At the end of the school year all children that were perceived by the teachers as the ‘high potential’ children improved significantly. This effect became known as the Pygmalion effect.
Pygmalion: allowing others to grow by believing in them
Pygmalion was an ancient Greek sculpturer. He loved and simultaneously feared women. Therefore, he created a sculpture of the perfect woman at which he look whenever he wanted. However, the sculpture was so perfect, that he fell in love with ‘her’. When he met the goddess of love, Aphrodite, at a party she allowed him one wish. He wished a woman just like his sculpture and with the power of Aphrodite, his sculpture became alive when he got back home and kissed her. Within the field of pedagogy and education, the symbolism of this myth got the following meaning: we can bring others to life with our expectations.
The Pygmalion effect can be of great influence for children that grow up in disadvantaged circumstances. Research shows that social mobility for these children is quite low. If you are born in poor conditions, you are likely to stay in poor conditions throughout your adult life. The neighborhood and circumstances you are born into are thus of great impact on your chances in life. Research shows that in poor neighborhoods there is more unemployment and criminality, there are more (mental) health issues and children often get advised by teachers to attend lower secondary education tracks .
In several European countries children go to different levels of secondary or higher education. For some countries (such as the Netherlands) the judgement of the primary school teacher plays a big role in the educational career of children as they give parents advice on what kind of educational track children should enroll in. Unfortunately, we see that the advice for children from disadvantaged families is usually lower than for their peers. However, there is little evidence that children from more advantaged families are also more intelligent. Therefore, differences in school advice can be explained by teacher expectations.
All teachers form expectations about their students. These expectations are based on a variety of student characteristics: gender, ethnic and cultural background, academic prestation, socio-economic status. Teachers communicate their expectations back to students, mostly in implicit ways. For instance, if they have higher expectations of students, these students get more often turns to speak, they get asked harder questions and receive more help when they provide wrong answers. It goes the other way around too. If teachers have low expectations of children, these children get less opportunities to speak. When they give wrong answers, teachers are prone to think that it is to hard for them and they shift their attention to other children.
This kind of teacher behavior is seldom intentional, but it happens nonetheless. Moreover, it already starts at a rather young age. Especially young children are sensitive for these signals as they form expectations about themselves and their behavior based on signals from the environment. As such, research shows that it is very important that teachers have high expectations of children. A large study with over a million students even shows that teacher expectations is the strongest contributor to academic prestation of children. The second strongest predictor was children’s own expectations about their learning abilities, which again is influenced by teacher expectations .
How can you support equal opportunities?
The expectations you have of your children (implicitly) impact your behavior towards them. Be aware that having low expectations of children has consequences for their opportunities in life. At the other hand, having high expectations of disadvantaged children can help with creating equal opportunities. However, it is not easy to be aware of all your explicit and implicit expectations of children. Below you will find some steps and tips to help you get a grip on your expectations and teacher behavior.
- Reflect on yourself and your classroom. Of which children do you have high expectations? Or low expectations? Talk about it with your colleagues. Do they share your expectations or do they have different ones? And can you explain what your (similar or different) expectations are based on? Consider characteristics such as gender, background, physical appearance, socio-economic family status, etc.
- Pay attention to your behavior towards the children. How do you react to children you have high or low expectations of? How often do you give them turns to talk? What kind of language do you use? How much time or effort do you use to help children understand? If you have the opportunity, ask a colleague to observe you in the classroom. Others often spot more patterns in your behavior than yourself.
- As a final step, try to experiment with different behavior. Adjust your behavior for the children you have low expectations of. Give them more positive feedback than usual. Don’t back down if they don’t know an answer to hard questions, but help them searching for the answer. Do not expect results from this change right away. It will take children some time to adjust the expectations they have already formed about themselves. But children are flexible and will likely react positive to the change.
If you follow these steps, you will add to a lifetime of equal opportunities for all children!
 Rosenthal, R., Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectations and pupils’ intellectual development. New York, NY: Holt.  Dibi, B. (2021). Van een dubbeltje een kwartje worden? De wijk bepaalt. Website: www.kis.nl  Hattie, J. (2014). Leren zichtbaar maken. Goes: Bazalt.