That people rise to expectations has been an idea that has been transformed into a clichÃ© suitable for a motivational poster, but according to Alix Spiegel of NPR, research going back as far as 1964 has shown that it is very much true — at least when it comes to teachers' expectations for their students.
Robert Rosenthal, then a professor at Harvard University, devised an ingenious test that allowed him to prove that when teachers expect more of certain students — even if students have no talent to distinguish them from their peers — they still show a marked uptick in achievement.
The test was set in a San Francisco-area elementary school. Teachers were asked to oversee a standard IQ exam administered to their students that was disguised as a test meant to show which students were more likely to experience an intelligence "bloom." After the exam, Rosenthal picked several kids from each class at random and told their teachers that they were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ. Then he stepped back and watched what happened.
After two years of observation the results were unambiguous: the students who were expected by their teachers to increase their IQ actually increased their IQ. But the question remained: What was the mechanism that drove their unexpected improvement?
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.
"It's not magic, it's not mental telepathy," Rosenthal says. "It's very likely these thousands of different ways of treating people in small ways every day."
Even now Rosenthal is quick to point out that the improvements didn't come about as a result of some kind of undefinable force. It was a sum of very small actions taken by teachers over the period of days, months and years. These conclusions give rise to questions about how we might harness this expectation-achievement link to improve academic outcomes of kids.
Or, as Spiegel puts it, how do we help teachers set their expectations of their students high enough to help them achieve? For answers, she turned to the experts at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and turned herself over to Robert Pianta.
Pianta, dean of the Curry School, has studied teachers for years, and one of the first things he told me when we sat down together was that it is truly hard for teachers to control their expectations.
"It's really tough for anybody to police their own beliefs," he said. "But think about being in a classroom with 25 kids. The demands on their thinking are so great."
It doesn't mean people haven't tried. The most frequently-used approach entails communicating with teachers and trying to convince them to see their students in a different light. But Pianta has tried a different path as well, aimed at retraining the teachers out of behaviors that are driven by faulty assumptions.