Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform

This is an NPR story describing something that seems obvious to me — that how teachers perceive a child’s potential can impact how that child actually performs academically.

Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal did some research that verifies this phenomenon, as described by NPR reporter Alix Spiegal here:

After the kids took the test, he then chose from every class several children totally at random. There was nothing at all to distinguish these kids from the other kids, but he told their teachers that the test predicted the kids were on the verge of an intense intellectual bloom.

As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids really did affect the students. “If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in I.Q., then increasingly, those kids gained more I.Q.,” he says.

But just how do expectations influence I.Q.?

As Rosenthal did more research, he found that expectations affect teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: They consistently touch, nod and smile at those kids more. (Read the full story here).

There’s more to the story of course, including how teachers can be trained to interact with students in ways that create higher expectations, along with a specific example about how teachers handle fidgety boys, of special interest to me, since I am homeschooling the third of three very active sons. (The oldest has graduated from college; the next oldest has recently transferred to university after graduating from community college).

There is a lot for parents to extrapolate from  in this story. Among homeschoolers, we know that one of the best parts of homeschooling is the quality interactions our kids can have with the adults they are around.

When I speak to groups about homeschooling, I frequently talk about how most homeschooling parents operate from a potential-based model rather than an outcome-based model. We can do that because as we’re homeschooling, we’re using a goal of maximizing potential rather than meeting a minimum standard.

I understand that schools don’t have this flexibility; they’re spending tax dollars, and the current presumption is that the responsible way to demonstrate that citizens are getting their money’s worth is to show  minimum achievement–the least that children should know.

Plus, a potential-based orientation in schools would get into all kinds of problems since some teachers, like some people in other professions and walks of life, harbor bias toward children in terms of gender, race, attractiveness, or economic status. We already know a bit about this in our society.

Rosenthal shows that  teachers can be trained to be more effective. I’d wager that so could coaches, dance instructors, scout leaders, youth group leaders, and, yes, parents.

Taking a shortcut by demanding certain outcomes with immediacy and fussing in frustration when a child can’t perform to that minimum doesn’t empower the child, who may need to master more skills, have more context, or feel more capable in order to move forward.

Further, a child who does not feel safe in trying to learn something new will be paralyzed. Kids get it when we communicate our low expectations–that we think they’ll make mistakes and get things wrong. We prove it to them with our criticism and negative vibe, whether that be in the gym, in the classroom, or at the proverbial kitchen table.

Learning in an outcome-based atmosphere with a teacher who has low expectations of you is a risky business. Too many children have to decide it’s not worth the risk to try to learn–in order to preserve some Self.

But combining high expectations with support and information for the child to do better allows the child to inch up the ladder of performance and comprehension. The child is encouraged by “the thousand invisible ways” a coach, teacher, or parent reflects his potential back to him.

In my days teaching physical skills–such as when I taught horse back riding–I found the best way to do this was to allow lots of practice, encourage self-reflection, provide information, and to raise the bar in exquisite coordination with a rider’s growing abilities. I don’t find that teaching writing, public speaking, or math is much different, whether that be to adult college students, small children, or teens.

So Rosenthal’s study brings us yet another one of those revelations where we say “of course,” and yet as a society, we’re a long ways from acting on what we know about human development.

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6 Responses to Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform

  1. My “duh” moment while listening to that piece was hearing that showing teachers how to change their behavior helped to change their attitude, as opposed to just lecturing the teachers on learning styles, expectations, etc.

    And it looks like NPR doesn’t use copy editors for its website. Maybe I should ask for a job there?

    • Yes, it was all I could do to NOT say “duh” as I was writing. And as for copy editing, that “effect” where “affect” should be was an NPR error, not mine, although I’m fully capable of making my own. I don’t know what else you might have seen. I will say, you can often see that NPR edits the text versions of their stories later. As to the content — yeah — the point you picked out is pretty amazing. I appreciate my wonderful teacher friends, our co-op teachers, and my kids’ coaches who do make every effort to instruct all their students with high expectations and warm engagement. It’s just hard for me to believe that this is…news.

  2. And — they have now changed “effect” to “affect.” Guess I’ll go change it in the quoted excerpt as well.

    I have also fixed the link. I hope.

  3. Miriam says:

    I liked this story when I heard it this morning.

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