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High expectations – How students can benefit from the ‘Pygmalion effect’

Collage photo showing a figure wearing a smart uniform with a statue's head in place of a human head

If we show students how much we believe in them and their abilities, they’ll typically rise to the occasion, asserts Matt MacGuire…

Matt MacGuire
by Matt MacGuire
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I first heard about the ‘Pygmalion effect’ about 10 years ago while teaching at a successful school. I love a bit of Greek mythology, so it’s an idea that was always going to stick with me.

Sculptor-king Pygmalion sculpts his ideal version of womanhood from ivory. He falls in love with his statue, and prays to the goddess Venus to bring the statue to life. Venus obliges.

In the field of psychology, the term ‘Pygmalion effect’ describes a phenomenon whereby people (or in our case students) perform better when we have higher expectations of them. Our expectations are the ivory statue; students’ subsequent performance is the beautiful statue brought to life.

Recognition of the Pygmalion effect in relation to teaching and learning was embedded in the ethos of my old school. Throughout everything we did ran the belief that the children could, and would be successful, resulting in something of a virtuous cycle.

We already had fantastic exam success year on year, so it was easy for teachers to believe that the students would be successful. This genuine belief led teachers to proceed as if success were inevitable, which in turn inspired confidence among the students – who then succeeded.

While there were many factors at play, I firmly believe that this self-fulfilling prophecy aided by the Pygmalion effect was an important one.

Pygmalion positivity

Looking back, I see now how this ‘Pygmalion positivity’ was manifested in three key ways: high expectations of conduct, high expectations of effort and positive predictions.

The phrase ‘high expectations’ needs some unpacking. This wasn’t characterised by a zero tolerance approach to behaviour (though that does have its place, and has proven to be effective in recent years at a number of academy schools). Rather, it was characterised by an approach that effectively said to the students, ‘I’m on your side, and I know you can and will do this’.

Perhaps ‘genuine belief’ is a better way of putting it than ‘high expectations’. After all, it was Pygmalion’s belief that brought his beautiful Galatea to life – not his behaviour management.

Teachers believed that students could behave like respectful citizens of our school. One way of indicating this was through the simple act of smiling, after our headteacher told us to smile at students in the corridors. This seemed a little odd at first, particularly to those of us who didn’t have a naturally ‘smiley’ disposition, but the effect of this little routine was profound.

Students smiled back, but more importantly, students came to like and respect their teachers. After all, it’s lovely when people smile at you, isn’t it? Doesn’t it make it easier to believe that those doing the smiling are on your side? That they believe in you?

I think Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby’s smile says it best: “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life … It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Lift your students up with a smile like Gatsby’s.

The ‘warm-strict’ approach

Alongside this ‘positively friendly’ approach, we maintained a gentle, yet emphatic approach to sanctioning behaviour. In the corridors, for example, I’d say “Your shirt has come untucked,” rather than “Tuck your shirt in now”. The aim was to show how we believed students wanted to do the right thing. I’d then record the sanction, but it wouldn’t lead to a consequence unless the same student’s shirt was found untucked three times that day.

In the classroom, harnessing the Pygmalion effect involves maintaining a similar belief that students will do the right thing in their behaviour. At my current school, we’ve recently focused on tackling apathy and inactivity in lessons – students who ‘fail to launch’ when lessons get underway, or who put their heads on their desk.

We seek to proactively prevent apathy through near-constant teacher circulation when students are working (not during teacher explanations). This communicates to students that we care about the work they’re producing, and that they can’t hide their passivity from the teacher.

If necessary, we’ll intervene using a ‘warm-strict’ approach. The teacher makes it clear that the work has to be completed, with no compromise – but that they’ll do everything they can to jump-start the struggling student. This might involve an alternative explanation, a sentence starter or additional resources.

My favourite way of getting passive students started is to write an opening sentence for them, before drawing a line further down the page. I’ll then say, “I bet you can get down to here in five minutes”, which usually works. The student lives up to my belief in them, often thanks to those useful words, ‘I bet you can.

Rewind, reteach

When teachers believes that students can, students themselves tend to pick up on this and believe they can. But let’s be clear about something – I don’t believe in magic.

There’s no way a student can do something simply because they believe they can. All a Pygmalion approach can ultimately do is afford students the confidence to apply their existing skills and knowledge. As their teacher, you can’t do a poor job of preparing them for a particular task and then simply cross your fingers and believe in them.

If you genuinely believe that students can’t do a task you’ve planned for them, then stop. You’ve messed up. Don’t put them through 60 minutes of failure for no reason. Rewind. Reteach. Prepare them for success.

Instead, gauge the difficulty level of your content carefully, provide the right level of scaffolding and plan for supported practice that achieves a high level of success. You need your students to believe they can, so don’t set them a test that will prove they can’t.

Also, don’t allow any students to struggle and fail throughout an extended assessment task, even if the rest of the class are doing well. If that one student can’t do something, then they need your help. So intervene and support them.

Don’t allow students to internalise a sense of failure, even if they’ve brought the situation upon themselves through inattention, lack of preparation and effort. You don’t want them to reproduce this in the exam hall, so show them they can do it. Believe in them when they don’t believe in themselves.

The Golem effect

Finally – and perhaps contentiously – I believe we should err on the ‘Pygmalion’ side when allocating target grades, issuing predictions and even when reporting on attainment. That’s because the the Pygmalion Effect has an evil inverse known as the ‘Golem effect’ – the idea that students will similarly perform in line with lower expectations.

If we set targets that are too low, or give out attainment grades that are too harsh, we dampen hopes and aspirations for higher grades. We leave our students feeling their potential in a subject is lower than they thought. Duly deflated, they then lose enthusiasm, expend less effort and ultimately make less progress.

We have to be responsible, particularly when predicting GCSE grades. We must be careful not to build unrealistic hopes, but – and I appreciate this is anecdotal – in 15 years of teaching, I’ve yet to see my slightly positive, optimistic predictions do any harm. I have, however, seen students deflated and discouraged by the Golem effect.

It feels good to be Pygmalion. Believe in your students and bring them to life.

Matt MacGuire is an assistant headteacher; this article is based on a post originally published at his blog, Ten Rules for Teaching

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