Rosenthal and the Pygmalion Effect

2 February 2017

Educational quality has been a concern for educators, parents and students for a long period of time. When the Coleman Report was published (Coleman, Campbell, Hobson, McPartland, Mood, Weinfeld, & York, 1966) an interpretation was made that differences in teachers and their behaviors had little to no impact on student performance. Rather the impact comes from teacher’s expectations of their students. Teacher expectations are inferences’ (based on prior experiences or information) about the level of student performance likely to occur in the future (Brophy & Good, 1970; Good & Brophy, 2000).

Historical Background For 30 years it has been known that some teachers act differently around those students who they believe to be more or less capable (Brophy & Good, 1970). The debate on self-fulfilling prophecies in the educational context has discussed in the social (Merton, 1948) and psychological sciences (Clark, 1963). In the late 1960s and 1970s social scientists and policy makers began arguing or the power of the environment in impacting human performance and learning. Also, the mid-1960s was a decade where low intelligence did not need to be tolerated which was generated largely by Skinnerian behaviorism.

Rosenthal and the Pygmalion Effect Essay Example

Rosenthal (1985) provided a thorough review of early research on expectancies including Ebbinghaus’ (1885/1913) observation that early trials in an experiment can be a cause of self-fulfilling prophecies and Rice’s (1929) classic study of how researcher’s beliefs influenced interview responses about the causes of poverty. The Pygmalion Project A landmark experiment, called the Pygmalion Effect, performed by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in 1968 describes this impact. This theory is also known now as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rosenthal (1968) noted that the classic experiment will speak to the “question of whether a teacher’s expectation or her pupils’ intellectual competence can come to serve as an educational self-fulfilling prophecy” (p. vii). This theory was classic because it sparked a large-scale research interest in the self-fulfilling prophecy. The Pygmalion project took place in the elementary school where Lenore Jacobson was principal. The Oak School was situated in a “somewhat run-down section of a middle sized city” (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968b p. 9), later to be revealed as South San Francisco.

About 17% of the students were Mexican, the only minority group. For each of grades 1 through 6 there were three classrooms because the school used an ability-tracking system that placed children in a slow, medium or fast classroom depending on whether their scholastic performance (mainly reading) was below average, average, or above average. In May 1964, the teachers at Oak School were asked to administer a test to all children in grades K through 5 (pretest).

Each teacher administered the test to their class. However, the teachers were not told the true name of the test or that it was an intelligence test, the Tests of General Ability (TOGA, Flanagan, 1960). Instead, they were told it was a test from Harvard University that predicted academic “blooming” or “spurting” by most of the pupils who performed well on the test. To implement the charade, the cover of the TOGA was replaced by a cover with the name of the test from Harvard: Test of Inflected Acquisition.

Additionally, each teacher was given an information sheet explaining that the primary interest of the Harvard study was in children expected to “show an unusual forward spurt of academic progress…within the next year or less” (Rosenthal and Jacobson, p. 66). At pretest there were 305 children in the control group and 77 in the experimental group, and at that time the timetable for two of the three future testing sessions was divulged to the teachers. A final testing, scheduled for 2 years after the May 1964 pretesting, was not mentioned.

During the summer of 1964, 20% of the students were chosen at random as potential “bloomers. ” This amount to an average of five students in each of the eighteen classrooms, while the remaining children where served as controls. At the start of the fall semester, a sheet of paper was distributed to each of the eighteen teachers listing names of who would be in the teacher’s class that year and who had scored in the top 20% of all Oak School pupils on the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition.

In January 1965, the students were again administered the TOGA and again at the end of the school year in May 1965. In May 1966, the children were given the test for the final time, but by their new teachers who presumably did not know which children had been designated bloomers. In sum, the study was designed to measure “whether those children for whom the teachers held especially favorable expectations would show greater intellectual growth than the remaining or control-group children” (p. 68) when tested roughly 5 months , 8 months and 20 months after experimental treatment began.

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