Saturday, January 20, 2007

On Merit & Discrimination: Pygmalion in the Classroom

In 1960s, Robert Rosenthal, currently a Professor of Psychology at Univ of California, along with and Lenore Jacobson had conducted a series interesting experiments about what a teacher - and his/her beliefs, hopes, biases and prejudices - can do to a student.

The findings of their unsettling study finally got published as a book: The Pygmalion in the Classroom
...and have been replicated more than 350 times since then....

The experimental design was simple:

Randomly select a groups of students, and group of teachers. Tell the teachers that they are going to teach some of the brightest of the brains in the school.

The Result: The students out-performed their batch, even though they had no "real" differentiating "merit".

Rosenthal's studies were about the schools, so one issue that begged the questions:
does this apply to higher education?

Apparently, it does, as he shared the example of the juniors he teaches:

    "I ask them to define a research problem, search the literature, design an experiment and come in with results all in one semester. Now nobody can do all that in one semester. I can't do that in one semester, but these are juniors: they don't know it can't be done; so they all do it. They do amazing things."
The reverse of this self-fulfilling prophesy was also true - i.e., if the teachers perceived students as below average, their perfomance was also below average...

Some other later studies also identified the reasons for such perceptions (which are quite relevant to contemporary Indian acadmic environment) for such perceptions - and therefore, lower performance among students:

  • Sex. Lower expectations are often held for older girls--particularly in scientific and technical areas-- because of sex role stereotyping.

  • Sociao-Economic Status. Teachers sometimes hold lower expectations of students from lower SES backgrounds.

  • Race/Ethnicity. Students from minority races or ethnic groups are sometimes viewed as less capable than Anglo students.

  • Type of School. Students from either inner city schools or rural schools are sometimes presumed to be less capable than students from suburban schools.

  • Appearance.The expense or style of students' clothes and students' grooming habits can influence teachers' expectations.

  • Oral Language Patterns. The presence of any nonstandard English speaking pattern can sometimes lead teachers to hold lower expectations.

  • Messiness/ Disorganisation. Students whose work areas or assignments are messy are sometimes perceived as having lower ability.

  • Readiness. Immaturity or lack of experience may be confused with learning ability, leading to inappropriately low expectations.

  • Halo Effect. Some teachers generalize from one characteristic a student may have, thereby making unfounded assumptions about the student's overall ability or behavior.

  • Seating Position. If students seat themselves at the sides or back of the classroom, some teachers perceive this as a sign of lower learning motivation and/or ability and treat students accordingly.

  • Negative Comments about Students. Teachers' expectations are sometimes influenced by the negative comments of other staff members.

  • Outdated Theories. Educational theories which stress the limitations of learners can lead to lowered expectations.

  • Tracking or Long-Term Ability Groups. Placement in "low" tracks or groups can cause students to be viewed as having less learning potential than they actually have.

    Rosenthal's book ends with a quote from GB Shaw's play "Pygmalion":

      ..."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."
    ...perhaps - as the so-called "issues" of reservations, quota and merit, etc. become increasingly a reality in India - Rosenthal's studies put the issue/choice in a nutshell:

    It all depends on....
    How do you treat Eliza Doolittle?
    ... As a "lady" or as a "flower girl"?!!!

    Rosenthal Lecture
    Expectations & Student Outcomes
    Pygmalion In The Classroom
    "Proper" English & Reservations-of-a-Different-Kind
    Quota/Reservations: More ""Reserved" than Others

    gaddeswarup said...

    There was an interesting article in 'IndiaTogether':
    detailing Hoff and Pandey experimentsin U.P. which seem to support the ideas in this post.

    Prometheus_Unbound said...


    Was having a rather low day in office. Thank God I checked your blog. I don't have data, but sometimes I see the same phennomennon in my sales team. Sometimes just saying that we will do it and appearing upbeat about their sales pushes them up.


    euterpeah said...

    glad to have found your blog.
    good stuff.

    sabu mangalasserril said...

    I am a teacher myself and found the post to be quite amazing...It changed my viewpoints all together madhukar..thanks for the post..kindly (when time permits,) see my blog and comment on it too...

    JC said...

    perhaps - as the so-called "issues" of reservations, quota and merit, etc. become increasingly a reality in India - Rosenthal's studies put the issue/choice in a nutshell
    apart from the things anyone can pick up
    hmm...there is another dimension to this issue. When you join an institute of higher education you are expected to know a few things. Like the ability to effectively converse in English, Logical and Analytical ability, General awareness etc. maybe the effort, resources and time needed by a disadvantaged student whose development has been stunted due to the "Pygmalion effect" to pick these up are hard to justify when they could be spent on a more deserving candidate.
    in a nutshell is a top down (primary vs higher education) approach justified?

    Madhukar said...

    thanks!... actually, I had visited your site earlier.... dont know how I got diverted to that link... found it interesting. I thought that his link will really interest you:

    since from your earlier posts on XL blogs, I know that you are one of the "anonymous" and "deserving" students of this institutes, this is the 3rd invitation from my side

    let's meet up - and we will get to know whether the so-called English-speaking, deserving candidates really do have the 'logical and analytical ability' and 'general awareness'.... and more impotantly, have the courage to not be anonymous (that is a life-skill - to take ownership of one's idea!!)

    Anuja said...

    very interesting post!