Tuesday, April 19, 2011

the pygmalion effect

Teach For America has us do a 5-week training course, which they call "Institute" before we're sent off to our placement regions. They've also assigned some pre-Institute work that I recently decided I should probably start to work on.

So far, it's all been really interesting material. It's making me reexamine my own preconceived notions about children of color and children who come from low-income backgrounds. I'm sure the personal reflection I've done has only uncovered the tip of the bias-iceberg in my being; I'm almost certain I won't realize how deeply rooted some of my biases are until I actually confront some of them in a real-world setting, e.g. the classroom.

Something I wanted to share was an excerpt by educational researcher and sociologist, Sonia Nieto, referring to a study conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson, which completely changed (or should have changed) the way educators approach their teaching style:

The term self-fulfilling prophecy, coined by Merton in 1948, means that students perform in ways in which teachers expect. Their performance is based on subtle and sometimes not so subtle messages from teachers about students’ worth, intelligence, and capability. The term did not come into wide use until 1968, when the classic study by Rosenthal and Jacobson provided the impetus for subsequent extensive research on the subject. In this study, several classes of children in grades one through six were given a nonverbal intelligence test (the researchers called it the “Harvard Test of Influenced Acquisition”), which researchers claimed would measure the students’ potential for intellectual growth. Twenty percent of the students were randomly selected by the researchers as “intellectual bloomers,” and their names were given to the teachers. Although their test scores actually had nothing at all to do with their potential, the teachers were told to be on the alert for signs of intellectual growth among these particular children. Overall these children, particularly in the lower grades, showed considerably greater gains in IQ during the school year than did the other students. They were also rated by their teachers as being more interesting, curious, and happy, and thought to be more likely to succeed later in life.

In thinking over this excerpt, I took things beyond just educational expectations we set for children and began to wonder how often I limit myself because of my own low expectations for myself or even worse, how often I limit those people in my life because of my low expectations for them (or complete lack thereof). The weight of this strikes me pretty forcefully because I am usually such a pessimist (something I've really tried to work on these past several years). Now I'm wondering how often my pessimism has not only been just irritating, but how often my pessimism has led me to expect the worst of people and hindered their true capacities for personal growth.

In relation to all of these thoughts, I do want to mention the idea of genuineness--the teachers in the Rosenthal and Jacobson study really believed that these "gifted" students were bound for success. Their belief that these students would succeed was a genuine one that led them to act in a certain way. I don't want to merely profess to believe that I have high expectations of my (future) students and the current people in my life. I think this is an important distinction because unlike belief, profession of something is no guarantee to action. In fact, I would say that merely professing, especially in regards to something like this, would do more harm than good.

Identifying realities like these is the "easy" part; it's the changing part that's difficult.

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