The Pygmalion Test

Sometimes reflective thoughts find us while we are exercising, or cooking dinner, or while we are trying to go to sleep.  And then, on occasion, they come from out of nowhere and slap us in the face.

I have been “Ann’s” reading teacher for several months.  She has quickly proven to be an excellent reader and a voracious learner.  After breezing through a book that is leveled for her grade, I placed Ann in more challenging text.  She is currently reading (or should I say “devouring”) a book that is approximately two years ahead of her grade level.  When discussing this with a colleague recently, she was shocked to hear about Ann’s success in reading, explaining that Ann has required reading intervention for the last few years.

My initial thought was, “Wow, Ann really has come a long way.”  Then that face-slapping reflection hit me.  If I had known that Ann came to me as a “struggling reader”, would I have unintentionally taught her differently?  Would I have taught down to her instead of up to her?  Would I have assumed she was not capable of handling the high level work she was now so successfully completing?

I vaguely recalled a research study done decades ago about the Pygmalion Effect (self-fulfilling prophecy).  In this study, teachers in a failing school were given names of students who proved through testing to be “bloomers”, identified as children who demonstrated strong intellect and academic aptitude.  Low and behold, at the end of the school year, each of the “bloomers” was succeeding, while their peers continued to fall behind.  It was at that point that teachers were informed that the project was fabricated– a myth.  The real goal of the experiment was to examine if teachers’ preconceptions and expectations would affect student success.  And they did.

We can reflect on the following questions throughout the school year to test our own Pygmalion expectations and assumptions:

  • What expectations do I have of this child?
  • Am I focusing on the student’s strengths (not weaknesses)?
  • Am I listening and paying close attention to this learner?
  • Do I emphasize his/her worth?
  • How am I communicating my expectations to this child through both verbal and non-verbal cues?  Do I set an encouraging mood by nodding, smiling, and giving sincere attention to this child?
  • Am I encouraging this learner to ask questions?
  • How is this child adjusting him/herself to my cues?
  • Am I calling on each learner equally (and not only on the students who I know will quickly supply the desired answer)?
  • Am I demanding high levels of thinking from all students?
  • Do I notice this child behaving or performing as I originally expected?

This reflection has led to my realization of the importance of knowing our children before we know their data.  In our data-driven society, the idea of beginning the school year “blind” of our students’ score reports may not be overly popular, but I wonder how many students’ potentials have not been met due to silent limits set by the teacher who, with all good intentions, didn’t want to push a “struggling” child too hard or too far.


About Corrie

I love learning, leading, collaborating, and reading. My goal as an elementary reading interventionist and an adjunct university reading instructor is to help my students discover the joys of lifelong literacy.
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