Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pygmalion Today

The October 28, 2009 edition of "Education Week" has an interesting article by Joanne Yatvin titled "Rediscovering the 'Pygmalion Effect' in American Schools". Yatvin is a professor at Portland State University in Oregon, and a former school principal.

The article recalls research from more than 40 years ago on the impact of teacher expectations on student performance. As you may recall "Pygmalion" is a Greek myth about a sculptor who creates a statue of his ideal woman. Pygmalion treats his creation like a real person and gives her the name, "Galatea". Eventually, Galatea comes to life and "happily ever after" follows. Researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson chose to call their book, "Pygmalion in the Classroom".

In the experiment teachers were told a new test had been developed that could predict which students would show an academic spurt in performance. Teachers were given the names of the students that were soon to blossom. In truth, the group of predicted achievers were a randomly selected group. This group of students was tested at the end of a year and again two years later. The students showed significant intellectual and academic performance gains in both years.

Subsequent research confirmed that an educator's expectations concerning a student has a positive impact on his/her achievement.

However, Joanne Yatvin contends this positive concept has been corrupted in the current environment: "The discrepancy between the Pygmalion researchers' concept of high expectations and that of today's reformers stems from the multiple meanings of the word 'expectation'. To the researchers, it meant the power of belief to influence the behavior of others. To the reformers, it means the power of authority to exact compliance from underlings."

The abuse of "expectations" has negatively changed the entire school environment according to Yatvin. "Schools are meant to be wellsprings of vigor, interest, exploration, growth, and illumination. Rigor, the word so often used by reformers to describe what schools should emphasize, is more properly the companion of harshness, inflexibility, and oppression. It is time to change the current conception of high expectations back to its original meaning."

As this blog has often lamented, in the pursuit of accountability we are killing off all that is creative, good, and enjoyable about educating and being educated. Or as William Wordsworth said, "Our meddling intellect mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things. We murder to disect."

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