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Running the rat race and keeping expectations high!

I’ve spent some time over the last few weeks revisiting lots of great research linked to developing high quality pedagogy, specifically thinking about the approaches that will help us close the gap between disadvantaged and non disadvantaged learners. As school leaders, we know there is no simple answer and it has been an educational priority for over 20 years. The work of Robert Coe (2014), ‘What makes great teaching?’ and  ‘Effective classroom strategies for closing the gap in educational achievement for children and young people living in poverty, including white working-class boys’ produced by C4EO still resonate but as I was working alongside heads, in target setting meetings, I was struck by the importance of work that is often overlooked around leader and teacher  expectations, sometimes referred to as the Pygmalion effect.

In 1968 two researchers,  Rosenthal and Jacobsen argued that teacher expectations influence student performance. 

When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985)

Rosenthal was an experimental psychologist at the University of California, Riverside. In his experiment with rats,  he labelled rat cages to indicate that the rats inside were either very smart or unintelligent. In fact, both groups were just standard laboratory rats.  He  presented the rats to his researchers, assigning them to either the smart or unintelligent group. The  researchers’ task was to run their rats through a maze over the course of a couple of weeks and record their progress. The impact of the researchers’ view of the rats was significant, with the group assigned the ‘smart’ group significantly outperforming the intelligent group in the maze activity. 

Rosenthal observed; “So when the experimenters thought that the rats were really smart, they felt more warmly towards the rats. And so they touched them more gently.” They repeated the experiment on children at Oak School with an IQ test. Again teachers were led to believe that certain children  were high achieving, and other children  were not. In reality, the test had no such predictive validity. As in the rat experiment there was a marked difference in the performance of the children labelled as high attaining.

How might these findings translate into our interactions and perceptions of children? After all, we would all say we have high expectations of all and it’s certainly peppered across educational organisations websites, including my own! Yet evidence tells us that disadvantaged pupils, and others from minority groups do better on tests than on teacher assessments (Christodoulou, 2015a) and we all have sensed the ‘ripples’ of either ‘high’ or ‘low’ expectations that can permeate from classrooms and schools.

The same principles can also apply to our staff and leadership teams which we can either improve or stifle as a result of our expectations and beliefs: if you believe someone will perform poorly, you make it almost impossible for them to exceed your expectations. If you believe someone will perform well, you set them up for success and make it easier for them to exceed your expectations.

I have questions rather than answers!

Do teachers and leaders in your organisation know about the expectancy effect?

Is it part of the collective vision? Perhaps we need to revisit it as part of one our 4Cs – challenge.

Do you challenge stereotyping ‘chat’ about  children, families and staff members?

Food for thought as we run our own rat race.

Kate Davies 🙂