“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.” Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion


A person’s place in society is in large part a matter of how he or she is treated by others—and this should not be regarded as revealed truth. George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion shows Eliza Doolittle’s remarkable transformation, due to Professor Higgins’ beliefs (i.e., expectations of her). With the above quotation, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conclude their 1968 publication, PYGMALION IN THE CLASSROOM, contending that ‘students’ intellectual development is largely a response to what teachers expect and how those expectations are communicated’ (Kathleen Cotton and Karen Reed Wikelund, 1989, found on, date of access: 29/03/03). Although Rosenthal and Jacobson’s seminal work was very well received by educationalists and other scholars, few educators actually understand exactly how to use the Pygmalion effect or self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP) as a purposeful pedagogical tool to convey positive expectations and, even more importantly, to avoid imparting negative expectations. 


The original Pygmalion study involved giving teachers false information about the learning potential of certain students in grades one through six in a San Francisco elementary school. Teachers were told that these students had been tested and found to be on the brink of a period of rapid intellectual growth; in reality, the students had been selected at random. At the end of the experimental period, some of the targeted students—and particularly those in grades one and two—exhibited performance on IQ tests which was superior to the scores of other students of similar ability and superior to what would have been expected of the target students with no intervention. These results led the researchers to claim that the inflated expectations teachers held for the target students (and, presumably, the teacher behaviours that accompanied those high expectations) actually caused the students to experience accelerated intellectual growth. 


Few research studies in the field of education have generated as much controversy among educators and researchers as Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study. Theorists argued about the psychological validity of “expectancy effects.” Researchers set up attempts to replicate Pygmalion’s findings. And in the popular press, articles began appearing which used the Pygmalion findings as a springboard for the claim that perhaps “Jimmy can’t read” because his teachers don’t have faith in his abilities and don’t encourage him, particularly if he is poor or a member of a minority group. Other articles gave teachers and parents the message that they could improve children’s school performance dramatically by communicating high expectations to them. 


In the years since the original Pygmalion study was published, a great many additional studies have been conducted. Several investigators (Snow 1969; Thorndike 1968; Wineburg 1987) have examined Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study and found technical defects serious enough to cast doubt upon the accuracy of its findings. Some replication experiments seemed to confirm the Pygmalion findings, and others failed to do so. Other researchers conducted studies which sought to identify the ways that expectations are communicated to students. Meanwhile, the popular press, for the most part, continued to treat the Pygmalion findings as gospel and sometimes cast aspersions on America’s teachers for the failure of some children to learn, claiming that teachers’ low expectations were either creating or sustaining the problem. Whether one is inclined to accept or doubt the findings of the Pygmalion study and other research supporting “self-fulfilling prophecy” effects, it is clear that educators and the general public were and still are very interested in the power of expectations to affect student outcomes.


Expectations and beliefs are part and parcel of our lives; a life shorn of expectations—no matter how false the latter may be—is a life which is not worth living. For many of us, our beliefs are so ingrained, so part of us, that we confuse belief with reality. In the Middle Ages, seafarers believed the world to be flat, so they navigated along the coastlines, fearful of coming to a sudden precipice and falling off the earth. Astronomic observations gradually convinced some that this was not so, despite the opposition of religious believers (Maite Galan and Tom Maguire, personal communication). 


But what characteristics influence expectations? SFP research (Good, 1987) shows that teachers form expectations of and assign labels to people based upon such characteristics as body build, gender, race, ethnicity, given name and / or surname, attractiveness, dialect, and socioeconomic level, among others. Once we label a person, it affects how we act and react toward that person. “With labels, we don’t have to get to know the person. We can just assume what the person is like” (Oakes, 1996: 11). For instance, research (Brylinsky & Moore, 1984; Collins & Plahn, 1988) is clear that when it comes to a person’s body build, mesomorphs, those with square, rugged shoulders, small buttocks, and muscular bodies are “better” than both ectomorphs, those with thin, frail-looking bodies, and endomorphs, those with chubby, stout, bodies with a central concentration of mass. Among other expectations, mesomorphs are predicted to be better fathers, more likely to assume leadership positions, be more competent doctors, and most likely to put the needs of others before their own. 


With respect to attractiveness, the adage “beauty is good” reigns supreme both in storybooks and in real life. All things being equal, beautiful people are expected to be better employees—most likely to be hired, given a higher salary, and to advance more rapidly than their ugly-duckling counterparts. Beautiful people are perceived (expected) to make better parents, be better public servants, and be more deserving of having benefits bestowed upon them. The overall pattern of ascribing positive attributes to attractive people, including students, is the norm (Kenealy, Frude, & Shaw, 1988). 


Finally, one’s given name, often the first thing that we know about someone, can trigger expectations. Certain social handicaps are thrust upon the child who carries a socially undesirable name. In the United States, primarily white, middle-class females continue to teach diverse student bodies that less and less resemble the teachers themselves—i.e., in color, race, ethnicity. When minority students, who by far possess the more unusual names (at least in the eyes of teachers), come to class, teachers cannot but be influenced. The self-fulfilling prophecy works two ways. Not only do teachers form expectations of students, but students form expectations of teachers—using the same characteristics described above (Hunsberger & Cavanagh, 1988).


It is a truism that in low-achieving schools, staff members generally view their students as being quite limited in their learning ability and do not see themselves as responsible for finding ways to raise those students’ academic performance. Low achievement levels are usually attributed to student characteristics rather than the school’s managerial and instructional practices. 


How does a teacher convey his or her expectations to the students? Rosenthal’s four-factor theory, described in the training video, PRODUCTIVITY AND THE SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY: THE PYGMALION EFFECT (CRM Films, 1987), identifies climate, feedback, input, and output as the factors teachers use to convey expectations. 


CLIMATE: the socioemotional mood or spirit created by the person holding the expectation, often communicated nonverbally (e.g., smiling and nodding more often, providing greater eye contact, leaning closer to the student). 


FEEDBACK: providing both affective information (e.g., more praise and less criticism of high-expectation students) and cognitive information (e.g., more detailed, as well as higher quality feedback as to the correctness of higher-expectation students’ responses). 


INPUT: teachers tend to teach more to students of whom they expect more. 


OUTPUT: teachers encourage greater responsiveness from those students of whom they expect more through their verbal and nonverbal behaviours (i.e., providing students with greater opportunities to seek clarification). 


These four factors, each critical to conveying a teacher’s expectations, can better be controlled only if teachers are more aware that the factors are operating in the first place. Even if a teacher does not truly feel that a particular student is capable of greater achievement or significantly improved behaviour, that teacher can at least act as if he or she holds such heightened positive expectations.


Let us now have a look at the relevant literature with a view to identifying the ways in which high expectations are conveyed to students.


  • Setting goals which are expressed as minimally acceptable levels of achievement rather than using prior achievement data to establish ceiling levels beyond which students would not be expected to progress (Good 1987) 
  • Developing and applying policies which protect instructional time, e.g., policies regarding attendance, tardiness, interruptions during basic skills instructional periods, etc. (Murphy, et al., 1982) 
  • Developing policies and practices which underscore the importance of reading, i.e., written policies regarding the amount of time spent on reading instruction daily, use of a single reading series to maintain continuity, frequent free reading periods, homework which emphasizes reading; frequent sharing of student reading progress with parents, and strong instructional leadership (Hallinger and Murphy 1985; Murphy, et al. 1982) 
  • Establishing policies which emphasize the importance of academic achievement to students, e.g., minimally acceptable levels of achievement to qualify for participation in extracurricular activities, regular notification to parents when academic expectations are not being met, etc. (Hallinger and Murphy 1985) 
  • Having staff members who hold high expectations for themselves as leaders and teachers, taking responsibility for student performance (Brookover and Lezotte 1979; Edmonds 1979; Hallinger and Murphy, 1985; Murphy, et al. 1982) 
  • Using slogans which communicate high expectations, e.g., “academics plus,” “the spirit of our school,” etc. (Newberg and Glatthorn 1982) 
  • Establishing a positive learning climate, i.e., a sense of order and discipline that should pervade both noninstructional and instructional areas (Edmonds, 1979; Newberg and Glatthorn 1982; Murphy, et al., 1982) 
  • “Insistent coaching” of students who are experiencing learning difficulties (Good 1987; Taylor 1986-87)


Good and Brophy’s (1980) study on how teacher expectations affect student achievement seems to be a very good description of the process:


  1. Early in the school year, teachers form differential expectations for student behaviour and achievement. 
  2. Consistent with these differential expectations, teachers behave differently toward various students. 
  3. This treatment tells students something about how they are expected to behave in the classroom and perform on academic tasks. 
  4. If the teacher treatment is consistent over time and if students do not actively resist or change it, it will likely affect their self-concepts, achievement motivation, levels of aspiration, classroom conduct, and interactions with the teacher. 
  5. These effects generally will complement and reinforce the teacher’s expectations, so that students will come to conform to these expectations more than they might have otherwise. 
  6. Ultimately, this will affect student achievement and other outcomes. High-expectation students will be led to achieve at or near their potential, but low- expectation students will not gain as much as they could have gained if taught differently.


A lot more can be said about this thorny subject. In short, we could say that expectations, as communicated schoolwide and in classrooms, can and do affect student achievement and attitudes. Even though for some researchers teacher expectations and accompanying behaviours have a limited effect on student performance, accounting for five to ten percent of student achievement outcomes, it is undeniable that high expectations are a critical component of effective schools. In everyday life, teachers bear the brunt of stimulating students’ intellect and affect; however, their expectations are as often as not instrumental in inhibiting their growth, e.g., by exposing them to material that is less interesting, giving them less time to respond to questions, and communicating less warmth and affection to them, or even by forming expectations based on irrelevant factors such as students’ socioeconomic status, racial / ethnic background, or gender. It is believed that this negative phenomenon, which has far-reaching educational, pedagogic and political implications, can be remedied more effectively, so to speak, if teachers avoid unreliable sources of information about students’ learning potential, e.g., social stereotypes, the biases of other teachers, etc.; set goals (for individuals, groups, classrooms, and whole schools) in terms of floors (minimally acceptable standards), not ceilings, and communicate to students that they have the ability to meet those standards; and of course if teachers emphasize that different students are good at different things and give them feedback, stressing continuous progress based on previous levels of mastery, rather than comparisons with statistical norms or other individuals.




  • Brookover, W.B. and Lezotte, L.W. (1979). CHANGES IN SCHOOL CHARACTERISTICS COINCIDENT WITH CHANGES IN STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT. Occasional Paper No. 17. East Lansing, MI: Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University.
  • Brylinsky, J. A., & Moore, J. C. (1984). The identification of body build stereotypes in young children. Journal of Research in Personality, 28: 170-181. 
  • Collins, J. K., & Plahn, M. R. (1988). Recognition, accuracy, stereotypic preference, aversion, and subjective judgment of body appearance in adolescents and young adults. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 17(4): 317-334. 
  • Edmonds, R. (1979). Effective Schools for the Urban Poor. Educational Leadership 37: 15-18. 
  • Good, T.L. (1987). Two Decades of Research on Teacher Expectations: Findings and Future Directions. Journal of Teacher Education. 38: 32-47. 
  • Hallinger, P., and Murphy, J. (1985). Characteristics of Highly Effective Elementary School Reading Programs. Educational Leadership, 52: 39-42. 
  • Hunsberger, B., & Cavanagh, B. (1988). Physical attractiveness and children's expectations of potential teachers. Psychology in the Schools, 25(1): 70-74.
  • Kathleen Cotton and Karen Reed Wikelund. (1989)., date of access: 29/03/03
  • Kenealy, P., Frude, N., & Shaw, W. (1988). Influence of children’s physical attractiveness on teacher expectations. Journal of Social Psychology, 128(3): 373-383. EJ 376 901 
  • Maite Galan and Tom Maguire (personal communication)
  • Newberg, N.A., and Glatthorn, A.A. (1982). INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERSHIP: FOUR ETHNOGRAPHIC STUDIES ON JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPALS. Executive Summary. Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania University.
  • Oakes, A. (1996). Labeling deprives you of the most fulfilling relationships. Daily Collegian, p. 11.
  • Snow, R.E. (1969). Unfinished Pygmalion. Contemporary Psychology 14: 197- 200.
  • Taylor, S.E. (1986-87). The Impact of An Alternative High School Program on Students Labeled ‘Deviant’. Educational Research Quarterly. 11: 8-12.
  • Thorndike, R.S. (1968). Review of Pygmalion in the Classroom. American Educational Research Journal 5: 708-711.
  • Wineburg, S.S. (1987). The Self-Fulfillment of the SelfFulfilling Prophecy.Educational Researcher 16: 28-37. 


Source: Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas