Friday, October 12, 2012

The Importance of Expectations

A study from 1964 was mentioned on NPR recently and caught my attention (in connection with a much more recent study). The half-century old study reminded me of the story educators often hear about a teacher who sees numbers beside her students' names and assumes they are their IQs. These IQs are quite high and, as a result, she works hard to challenge these students. Turns out the numbers were actually their locker numbers. But she doesn't learn that until the students have succeeded beyond everyone's expectations. (I believe this story is apocryphal but the message behind it seems pretty sound.)

So, this study from 1964 involved telling teachers that a test their students were taking predicted which students were about to make large intellectual gains. They were then given random names as students who had been identified by this test. Shockingly enough those students went on to make great gains.
As Rosenthal did more research, he found that expectations affect teachers' moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: They consistently touch, nod, and smile at those kids more.
This did not surprise me at all (maybe because this study was done nearly 50 years ago?). I recognize how I respond, in small ways, differently to students based on what I expect from them. It is something I try hard to control.

The more recent study is being done at the Curry School at the University of Virginia. Researchers there have realized that past attempts to change this dynamic have involved trying to change teachers' beliefs.
But Pianta has a different idea of how to go about changing teachers' expectations. He says it's not effective to try to change their thoughts; the key is to train teachers in an entirely new set of behaviors.
I know I am actively trying to change my own thoughts and beliefs about students. Is it possible for me to do so in a way that would not be possible for an outsider? I am, also, trying to change my behavior whether or not I can change my beliefs. I think UVA has it right here, the behavior is the key. Possibly changing the behavior of the teachers will result in changing beliefs.

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