The Pygmalion Effect and the Golem Effect -- how do teachers’ expectations affect their students?

Having a teacher who has high or low expectations of you is likely to affect how you perform in school. Some famous studies have been carried out on this question—but how useful are they today? 


The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect is when a teacher has high expectations of a student and this causes the student to achieve more. It’s named after a 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw, in which a poor flower girl is transformed into a society ‘lady’ through the interference of a teacher. Shaw’s play was named after a Greek myth, in which a man falls in love with a statue he has carved and, as a result of his love, it turns into a real woman.

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson carried out a study in 1968 in California, in which they told some teachers that a group of students were ‘late bloomers.’ This supposedly meant that these students were going to make more progress in the next year than their classmates. The teachers thought the researchers had based their conclusions on a psychological test -- but in reality, the students had been chosen at random.

The effect of telling the teachers this information was surprising. They started to treat the students they thought had greater potential differently and, as a result, the students felt different to their classmates, even though they didn’t know anything about the test. Rosenthal identified four ways in which the teachers changed their behaviour towards these so-called ‘late bloomers’:

1.    Climate: This means the teachers were ‘warmer’ (nicer) to the students chosen by Rosenthal and Jacobson than they were to the other students in the class.
2.    Input: The teachers taught the chosen students more information than the rest of the class.
3.    Response-opportunity: The teachers called on the chosen students more than others to answer questions in class -- and they let them speak for longer.
4.    Feedback: The teachers gave the chosen students more praise for a good answer and more feedback on how to improve a poorer answer. They expected more of them, so they believed that this feedback would be more effective than feedback given to other students.

Even though this study gave some interesting results, it would be unlikely to be carried out again today. This is because it would be considered unethical to lie to teachers and to impact the progress of students for the sake of research.

The Golem Effect

The Golem Effect is the opposite of the Pygmalion Effect. It shows how a teacher who considers a student to have low potential can lead to lower academic performance from that student. It’s named after the golem, a creature in Jewish mythology, who can be magically brought to life. Like the Pygmalion myth, the golem legend shows that the things we create -- just as teachers help mould the futures of students -- can be affected by the way we view them.

Robert Rosenthal from the Pygmalion study teamed up with Alisha Y Babad in 1982 to investigate this. This time, the teachers rather than the researchers chose the students whom they thought had lower potential. The teachers who believed most strongly in their own low expectations of a student (the so-called ‘high-bias’ teachers) were most likely to cause that student to perform poorly as a result of treating them in a negative way. 

What next?

These studies have been -- and still are -- really influential in showing teachers how important it is to have high expectations of every student. But they aren’t without their problems. They were only done in one particular place and had some ethical issues too.

So, what do you think? How much impact does a teacher's expectations have? And how can we reduce the Golem Effect so that school is a better place to learn for everyone?