The Pygmalion Effect

I first heard about the Pygmalion Effect about ten years ago, teaching at a successful school. I love a bit of Greek mythology, so this idea was always going to stick with me. Sculptor-king Pygmalion sculpts his ideal version of womanhood from ivory. He falls in love with his statue and prays to the goddess Venus to bring the statue to life. Venus obliges. In psychology, the Pygmalion effect is the name given to the phenomenon in which people (students) perform better when we have higher expectations of them.

“Symbolically, the students’ actual performance is the beautiful statue brought to life.”

Our expectations are the ivory statue. Symbolically, the students’ actual performance is the beautiful statue brought to life. A Pygmalion approach to everything teaching and learning was embedded in the ethos at my old school, before any of us had heard of that sculptor’s name. In everything we did, we believed that the children could and would be successful. It was something of a virtuous cycle. We already had fantastic exam success year on year, so it was easy for the teachers to believe the students would be successful. This genuine belief led teachers to proceed as if success were inevitable, and this inspired confidence in the students. And then, guess what? They succeeded. There were lots of factors at play, but I think the Pygmalion self fulfilling prophecy of success was certainly one of them.

“Perhaps ‘genuine belief’ is a better phrase than ‘high expectations’.”

Looking back, I think that Pygmalion positivity manifested itself in three main forms: high expectations of conduct, high expectations of effort and positive predictions. The phrase ‘high expectations’ needs some interrogation here. This absolutely wasn’t characterised by a zero-tolerance approach to behaviour (although I am not criticising this – it has its place and has proven effective in recent years at a number of academy schools). Rather, it was characterised by an approach that said to the students ‘I’m on your side and I know you can and will do this’. Perhaps ‘genuine belief’ is a better phrase than ‘high expectations’. It has the right connotations. After all, it was Pygmalion’s belief that brought his beautiful Galatea to life, not his behaviour management.

First of all, teachers believed students could behave like respectful citizens of our school. One way this manifested itself was through smiles. Our headteacher told us to smile at the students in the corridors. It might seem a little odd at first, if you don’t have a naturally smiley disposition, but the effect of this little routine was profound. Firstly, students smiled back, but more importantly, students liked and respected their teachers. Isn’t it lovely when people smile at you? Doesn’t it make it easier to believe that those people are on your side? That they believe in you? I think Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby’s smile says it best:

“He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Lift your students up with a smile like Gatsby’s. “Eternal reassurance” and an “irresistible prejudice in your favour”. Let’s give that to our students and they will know we are on their side!

“In my experience, this belief comes to life.”

Along with this positively friendly approach to students, we maintained a gentle but certain approach to sanctioning behaviour. In the corridors, I would say “your shirt has come untucked” rather than “tuck your shirt in now”. This meant I believed my student wanted to do the right thing, and he could hear that first hand. I would record the sanction, but this wouldn’t lead to a consequence unless the shirt was untucked three times that day. So, the first part of being Pygmalion is believing that the students want to do the right thing. In my experience, this belief comes to life.

Being Pygmalion in the classroom means maintaining one’s belief that students will do the right thing in their behaviour – but that they can and will build on this through successful learning in the classroom. Recently, at my current school, we have focused on apathy and inactivity in lessons. Here, we are talking about students who fail to launch at the start of the lesson, or students who put their heads on their desk or in their hands. We proactively seek to prevent apathy through near-constant teacher circulation when students are working (not during teacher explanations). Circulating around the room achieves a lot: it tells students that we care about the work they are producing, it shows students that they cannot hide their passivity from the teacher and it allows us to monitor the work produced. It is such an easy win and there really is no excuse for a teacher sitting at the desk when they could be circulating. Through circulation teachers can quickly identify any students who aren’t completing their work: we intervene using a warm-strict approach. Simply put, this means the teacher makes it clear that the work has to be completed. There is no compromise there; however, teachers will do everything they can to jump start the struggling student. They can offer another explanation, write a sentence starter for the student or provide additional resources. My favourite way to get a passive student started is to write an opening sentence to create some endowed progress, before drawing a line further down the page. Then I say “I bet you can get down to here in five minutes”. Usually, this works. The student lives up to my belief in them. It’s the phrase “I bet you can” that usually works here. If not – well that just means they need more support or encouragement. It’s never fruitful to leave a student to fail.

“I don’t believe in magic.”

At the core of being Pygmalion in the classroom is believing in the students’ abilities to successfully complete the task at hand. When the teacher believes the students can, the students pick up on this and they believe they can. But let’s just take a second to be clear about something: I don’t believe in magic. There is absolutely no way a student can do something just because they believe they can. It doesn’t matter how much you sing “I Believe I Can Fly” – you still shouldn’t go leaping off any tall buildings. Rather, a Pygmalion approach is more likely to afford students the confidence to apply their skills and knowledge. You, the teacher, can’t do a poor job of preparing students for a particular task and then just cross your fingers and believe in them. If you genuinely believe that students can’t do the task you have planned for them – if the class is about to fail an assessment and you know it – then stop. You’ve messed up. Do not put them through 60 minutes of failure for no reason. Rewind. Reteach. Prepare them for success. Gauge the difficulty level of your content carefully, provide the right level of scaffolding and plan for supported practice that achieves a high level of success. You need the students to believe they can. Don’t set them a test that proves that they can’t! Certainly, don’t leave a single student to struggle and fail throughout an extended assessment task, even if the rest of the class are doing well. If they can’t do it, they need your help. Intervene and support. Do not allow that student to internalise a sense of failure, even if they brought this situation upon themselves through inattention, lack of preparation and effort. You don’t want them to repeat this in the exam hall. Show them that they can do it. Believe in them when they don’t believe in themselves.

“The evil brother of the Pygmalion Effect is the Golem Effect.”

Finally, and perhaps most contentiously, I believe we should err on the Pygmalion side when allocating target grades, predictions and even reports of current attainment. The evil brother of the Pygmalion Effect is the Golem Effect. The idea here is that students will perform in line with your lower expectations too. If we set targets that are too low, or we give current attainment grades that are too harsh, we dampen hopes and aspirations for higher grades. We leave our students feeling that their potential in the subject is lower than they thought. Deflated, they will lose enthusiasm, expend less effort and ultimately make less progress. We have to be responsible here, especially when making predictions about GCSE and A level grades. We mustn’t build unrealistic hope. However, and I know this is anecdotal, in my fifteen years of teaching, I have never seen my slightly positive, optimistic predictions do any harm – but I have seen students deflated and discouraged by the Golem effect.

It feels good to be Pygmalion. Believe in them and bring them to life.


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