The Power of Expectations

The Power of Expectations

In the 1960’s, a pair of researchers ran a curious experiment that forever changed what we know about the power of expectations. They told a group of teachers that some of their students had been identified as having the potential to become very high achievers and that these students would bloom over the course of the year. These students, were in fact, chosen completely at random. When the researchers returned at the end of the year, they found that these random students had, on average, made significantly more progress than their peers.

The impact of having high expectations came to be known as The Pygmalion Effect. In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a renowned sculptor. One day, Pygmalion carved a beautiful statue out of ivory. Upon seeing his work, he fell completely in love with it.  He loved his statue so much that it turned into a real life being. The Pygmalion Effect, therefore, is the term given to the phenomenon of people raising their achievement and living up to someone else’s high standards and expectations.  

The opposite of The Pygmalion Effect is known The Golem Effect, named after a mythical violent monster. This effect describes how having low expectations of someone can lead to them performing worse. A study on The Golem Effect in an education setting found that, having lower expectations had two consequences; the teachers reacted more negatively to the students and the students in turn performed worse.

We now know even more about the power of expectations since that seminal study fifty years ago. Here are five ways to maximise the power of expectations:

Distinguish Between Aspirations and Expectations

There is a subtle, but important distinction between aspirations and expectations. Aspirations are about wanting to be better, whereas expectations convey the belief that about the likelihood of succeeding. Raising expectations have been proven to help, the same can’t be said for aspirations.

The Education Endowment Foundation review on aspirations found that ‘interventions which aim to raise aspirations have little to no positive impact on educational attainment’. One of the reasons for this is many students already have high aspirations. The disconnect occurs in the gap between having these ambitions and the habits required to reach these lofty goals.

A recent study found that students who have high aspirations but low expectations are twice as likely to get less than 5 GCES at A*-C than their peers who have both high aspirations and high expectations. Sam Baars, Director of Research from LKMco says that ‘low expectations are far more widespread than low aspirations.  Teachers should arguably focus on whether their pupils believe they will do well, rather than on whether they want to do well."

Early is Better Then Later

Research suggests that the effect of expectations is most pronounced at the start of the school year or at the beginning of new tasks/topics. This is because students start with less preconceived notions of how they will fare and look for guidance on what is realistically possible for them to achieve. If students hear a positive external voice full of belief and conviction that they can succeed before their own self-doubt creeps in, this can be a big advantage.

Bring Parents on Board

Psychologists have calculated that on their own, high teacher expectations will only help a minority of students.  Parents clearly play a key role in shaping how students see themselves. A recent review on how parents can help their child succeed at school found that the biggest impact is achieved by having high expectations. By valuing education and expecting their child to succeed, conveys the message of both the importance and likelihood of success in school. 

As well as having high expectations for their children, other parental strategies have been found to help. These include having regular communication, helping form positive reading habits and having clear rules regarding homework and social time.

More Isn’t Always Better

A word of caution is needed when it comes to expectations. More is not always better.  As with most things in psychology, once your scratch below the surface you realise it is far more nuanced and messy than it first appeared.

Evidence suggests that when expectations are unrealistic, that is if they far exceed their child’s ability, this can lead to a downturn in academic performance. Furthermore, these excessive expectations can be a source of stress and anxiety for students. When it comes to expectations, it seems that the goldilocks rule applies – too little or too much and it is no good. Challenging but realistic seems to be a good guiding principle here.

Encourage Students to Have High Self-Expectations

Research suggests that how students think about themselves will have a big impact on how they behave. One fascinating study had some participants spend 5 minutes thinking about the attributes of a college professor, before answering questions from the game Trivial Pursuit. The results? These students answered more correct answers than those who had not been primed to think like a professor. Clearly, how you see yourself and what you expect to achieve, can have an impact on how you think and how much effort you put in.

For students who do not see themselves in a very positive light, it can be very helpful to create a growth mindset culture. This is the belief that students can improve by working hard and learning from their mistakes. This can be fostered by having students reflect on their processes, focus less on their natural ability and developing their self-talk.

Final Thought

It is difficult to flourish when no-one believes in you. No-one ever rises to low expectations or when the demands far outweigh your abilities. If expectations are pitched at the right level, that is both challenging and realistic, it can help students raise their performance and academic achievement. If the high expectations that staff have are aligned to those of the parents and the students themselves, are accurate and done at the beginning of a new topic, this creates a far higher chance of making a meaningful impact.

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This article was first published on The Guardian website on August 31st 2016. You can read it, alongside all of our other Guardian blogs here