The Learning for Life Partnership

The Pygmalion Effect - having high expectations of everyone

Can a teacher’s expectations make or break progress?


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.

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.

Watch this video to find out more about the study:

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.

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.”

Just Average

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.

Poppy Ionides, an Educational Psychologist 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 key stage? Having great expectations of everyone is crucial and we need to be wary of falling into label traps.

Fundamentally, high-expectation is what informs your planning; delivery and student outcomes. This cannot be allowed to be restricted by having low standards.

Ask yourself:

  • Are there students in my class for whom I have a lower expectation of their chances of success growing into a productive valued adult alongside their peers?
  • How is this lower expectation affecting the way I'm teaching the students?
  • Is there a peer colleague or a senior colleague I can talk to about this to help me believe in these students’ capacity?
  • How might I change my approach to teaching to reflect this higher expectation, so that I can unlock each student’s capacity and self-belief?

Here are a few practical tips to help you leverage the Pygmalion Effect in the classroom:

  • Encourage students by showing them examples of others like them who succeeded.
  • Provide opportunities for students to practice what they’ve learned, so they can see how much they have accomplished.  
  • Never forecast failure in the classroom. If you know a test is particularly difficult, tell your students that the test is difficult but that you are sure that they will do well if they work hard to prepare.
  • Do not participate in gripe sessions about students. Teachers who gripe about students are establishing a culture of failure for their studentsand their own teaching.
  • If you genuinely believe that your students cannot perform the assignment, postpone the assignment and re-teach the material.

Every kid needs a champion

Rita Pierson, a teacher for 40 years, once heard a colleague say, "They don't pay me to like the kids." Her response: "Kids don't learn from people they don't like.'" A rousing call to educators to believe in their students and actually connect with them on a real, human, personal level.