Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Rosenthal and Jacobson publish Pygmalion in the Classroom

This year, Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard University professor, and Leonore Jacobson, a Principal of an elementary school in San Francisco, published 'Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils' intellectual development', which eventually would become a classic in the sociology of education. Put simply, the main argument of the book is that the expectations that teachers have about their students' behavior can unwittingly influence such behavior. This influence, or self-fulfilling prophecy, could have a positive or negative impact. In other words, when teachers expect students to do well, they tend to do well; when teachers expect students to fail, they tend to fail.

The concept of self-fulfilling prophecy had been introduced to the sociological debate by Robert Merton in a seminal essay published in the Antioch Review in 1948. In that article, Merton described a self-fulfilling prophecy as a three-stage process beginning with a person's belief (false at the time it is held) that a certain event will happen in the future. In the second stage this expectation, or prophecy, leads to a new behavior that the person would have not undertake in the absence of such expectation. In the last stage the expected events actually take place, and the prophecy is fulfilled. One of Merton's examples was the collapse of a solid and solvent financial institution, the Last National Bank, in the early 1930s. The process began with the belief, false at that time, that the institution was at the verge of bankrupcy. That led to a massive withdrawal of savings by panicked depositers, which in turn led to the actual collapse of the bank.

Rosenthal and Jacobson borrowed the term 'Pygmalion effect' from a play by George Bernard Shaw ('Pygmalion') in which a professor's high expectations radically transformed the educational performance of a lower-class girl. 'Pygmalion in the Classroom' describes an experiment carried out in an elementary school (which the authors call Oak School) to test the hypothesis that in any given classroom there is a correlation between teachers' expectations and students' achievement. In the experiment, Rosenthal and Jacobson gave an intelligence test to all of the students at an elementary school at the beginning of the school year. Then, they randomly selected 20 percent of the students - without any relation to their test results - and reported to the teachers that these 20% of students were showing "unusual potential for intellectual growth" and could be expected to "bloom" in their academic performance by the end of the year. Eight months later, at the end of the academic year, they came back and re-tested all the students. Those labeled as "intelligent" children showed significantly greater increase in the new tests than the other children who were not singled out for the teachers' attention. This means that "the change in the teachers' expectations regarding the intellectual performance of these allegedly 'special' children had led to an actual change in the intellectual performance of these randomly selected children" (p. viii).

The teachers were also asked to rate students on variables related to intellectual curiosity, personal and social adjustment, and need for social approval. In what can be interpreted as a 'benign cycle,' those average children who were expected to bloom intellectually were rated by teachers as more intellectually curious, happier, and in less need for social approval.

For ethical reasons, the Oak School experiment only focused on favorable or positive expectations and their impact on intellectual competence, but it is reasonable to infer that unfavorable expectations could also lead to a corresponding decrease in performance. Often, these negative expectations are based on appearences and other factors that have little to do with actual intellectual ability:

    There are many determinants of a teacher's expectation of her pupils' intellectual ability. Even before a teacher has seen a pupil deal with academic tasks she is likely to have some expectation for his behavior. If she is to teach a 'slow group,' or children of darker skin color, or children whose mothers are 'on welfare,' she will have different expectations for her pupils' performance than if she is to teach a 'fast group,' or children of an upper-middle-class community. Before she has seen a child perform, she may have seen his score on an achievement or ability test or his last years' grades, or she may have access to the less formal information that constitutes the child's reputation. (p. viii).

Rosenthal and Jacobson's study and subsequent research (see below) confirmed that teachers' expectations matter, that student labeling is often done on arbitrary and biased grounds, and suggested that through the hidden curriculum teachers can, consciously or unconsciously, reinforce existing class, ethnic and gender inequalities. This is done by creating a classroom atmosphere in which some students are systematically encouraged to succeed whereas others are systematically disencouraged, reproducing in the classroom the social cycle of advantages and disadvantages. It also implies, conversely (and this has important policy implications), that a change in teachers expectations can lead to an improvement in intellectual performance from those who are usually expected to achieve the least.

Although many people had suspected for years that teachers' expectations have an impact on students' performance, 'Pygmalion in the classroom' was one the first studies providing clear evidence to document this hypothesis. If we agree, based on this evidence, that a relation between teachers' expectation and the performance of certain students, then a subsequent question arises: How, specifically, do teachers influence a higher achievement of those average students arbitrarily labeled as 'intellectually superior'? In other words, what are the specific classroom mechanisms by which a teacher's expectations actually translates into a gain in performance? Because the Oak School experiment did not attempt to examine this issue, it did not provide conclusive evidence on this, but suggested that a combination of subtle changes in teaching strategies and communication patterns (e.g. teachers paying more attention and giving more encouragement and positive reinforcement to the children from whom more gains were expected) took place during the academic year and played an important role in effecting student performance.

'Pygmalion in the classroom' was followed by many other school-based studies that examined these mechanisms in detail from different perspectives. Prominent among the works on this subject conducted by U.S. scholars are "Student social class and teacher expectations: the self-fulfilling prophecy in ghetto education" (Ray Rist 1970), "Social class and the hidden curriculum of work" (Jean Anyon 1980), "Keeping track: How schools structure inequality" (Jeannie Oakes 1984), and "Failing at fairness: How America's schools cheat girls" (Myra Sadker and David Sadker 1995).

Although Rosenthal and Jacobson's work has received several methodological and theoretical criticisms, their pioneering and imaginative research on the Oak School certainly opened a 'black box' in the empirical study of equality of educational opportunity, and provided a lasting contribution to the field.


Merton, R.K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy. Antioch Review, pp. 193-210.

Rosenthal, R., and Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils' intellectual development'. New York: Rinehart and Winston.


DS Home Page     Back to Index     Suggest or Submit a Moment

© 1996-2002 Daniel Schugurensky. All Rights Reserved. Design and maintenance by LMS.
Last updated on May 26, 2002.


  Number of visits to the 1960s