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3:44 pm
Mon September 17, 2012

Teachers' Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 8:52 am

In my Morning Edition story today, I look at expectations — specifically, how teacher expectations can affect the performance of the children they teach.

The first psychologist to systematically study this was a Harvard professor named Robert Rosenthal, who in 1964 did a wonderful experiment at an elementary school south of San Francisco.

The idea was to figure out what would happen if teachers were told that certain kids in their class were destined to succeed, so Rosenthal took a normal IQ test and dressed it up as a different test.

"It was a standardized IQ test, Flanagan's Test of General Ability," he says. "But the cover we put on it, we had printed on every test booklet, said 'Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition.' "

Rosenthal told the teachers that this very special test from Harvard had the very special ability to predict which kids were about to be very special — that is, which kids were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ.

After the kids took the test, he then chose from every class several children totally at random. There was nothing at all to distinguish these kids from the other kids, but he told their teachers that the test predicted the kids were on the verge of an intense intellectual bloom.

As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers' expectations of these kids really did affect the students. "If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ," he says.

But just how do expectations influence IQ?

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."

So since expectations can change the performance of kids, how do we get teachers to have the right expectations? Is it possible to change bad expectations? That was the question that brought me to the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, where I met 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."

Still, people have tried. The traditional way, Pianta says, has been to sit teachers down and try to change their expectations through talking to them.

"For the most part, we've tried to convince them that the beliefs they have are wrong," he says. "And we've done most of that convincing using information."

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.

For years, Pianta and his colleagues at the Curry School have been collecting videotapes of teachers teaching. By analyzing these videos in minute ways, they've developed a good idea of which teaching behaviors are most effective. They can also see, Pianta tells me, how teacher expectations affect both their behaviors and classroom dynamics.

Pianta gives one very specific example: the belief that boys are disruptive and need to be managed.

"Say I'm a teacher and I ask a question in class, and a boy jumps up, sort of vociferously ... 'I know the answer! I know the answer! I know the answer!' " Pianta says.

"If I believe boys are disruptive and my job is control the classroom, then I'm going to respond with, 'Johnny! You're out of line here! We need you to sit down right now.' "

This, Pianta says, will likely make the boy frustrated and emotionally disengaged. He will then be likely to escalate his behavior, which will simply confirm the teacher's beliefs about him, and the teacher and kid are stuck in an unproductive loop.

But if the teacher doesn't carry those beliefs into the classroom, then the teacher is unlikely to see that behavior as threatening.

Instead it's: " 'Johnny, tell me more about what you think is going on ... But also, I want you to sit down quietly now as you tell that to me,' " Pianta says.

"Those two responses," he says, "are dictated almost entirely by two different interpretations of the same behavior that are driven by two different sets of beliefs."

To see if teachers' beliefs would be changed by giving them a new set of teaching behaviors, Pianta and his colleagues recently did a study.

They took a group of teachers, assessed their beliefs about children, then gave a portion of them a standard pedagogy course, which included information about appropriate beliefs and expectations. Another portion got intense behavioral training, which taught them a whole new set of skills based on those appropriate beliefs and expectations.

For this training, the teachers videotaped their classes over a period of months and worked with personal coaches who watched those videos, then gave them recommendations about different behaviors to try.

After that intensive training, Pianta and his colleagues analyzed the beliefs of the teachers again. What he found was that the beliefs of the trained teachers had shifted way more than the beliefs of teachers given a standard informational course.

This is why Pianta thinks that to change beliefs, the best thing to do is change behaviors.

"It's far more powerful to work from the outside in than the inside out if you want to change expectations," he says.

In other words, if you want to change a mind, simply talking to it might not be enough.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. School is here again, which means teachers are teaching.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Excuse me. You're wasting your time if you can't pull it together.

MONTAGNE: And that piece of tape, which you're going to hear a lot in this next story, is part of an effort to improve teaching. Psychologists have been trying to understand the basic elements of good teaching, for years. And today in "Your Health," NPR's Alix Spiegel is going to look closely at one of those elements - the effect that teacher expectations can have on students.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: To understand the anatomy of an expectation, it's good to start with Robert Rosenthal because he's the guy who first tried to dissect it. He began this work at a school out West.

ROBERT ROSENTHAL: It was south of San Francisco. They had a lot of Latino kids there. That was their large minority population.

SPIEGEL: Now, what Rosenthal was trying to figure out, was what would happen if you told teachers that certain kids in their class were destined to succeed. How would that expectation affect things? And so he decided to trick the teachers at this school. What he did was, take a normal IQ test...

ROSENTHAL: It was the standardized IQ test, Flanagan's "Test of General Ability." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The correct name of John Clemans Flanagan's book is "Tests of General Ability."]

SPIEGEL: And he dressed that test up as a different test.

ROSENTHAL: The cover we put on it, we had printed up on every test booklet, said "Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition."

SPIEGEL: Then he told the teachers that this very special test had the very special ability to predict which kids were about to be very special; that is, which kids were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ.

ROSENTHAL: The kids that were going to bloom intellectually.

SPIEGEL: Rosenthal then tested all the kids in the school, chose some of them totally at random, and told their teachers that the test had showed that these kids were destined to bloom. After that, Rosenthal waited to see what would happen. And what happened was that those teacher expectations of rising IQs? They really affected the kids.

ROSENTHAL: If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly over the first year, those kids gained more IQ.

SPIEGEL: So next, Rosenthal wanted to know how. How did this impact on IQ happen? So they did more research and over time discovered that expectations affect teachers' moment-to-moment interactions with kids. Say Billy is believed to be stupid, and the teacher asks Billy a question...

ROSENTHAL: And Billy doesn't answer quickly. And so you say, well, OK. Helen, you tell us what the right answer is. Not much time was given to Billy to answer. On the other hand, if Billy's one of the kids for whom there's favorable expectations, and there's a long pause before there's an answer, it's almost as though the teacher were thinking, wow, Billy is sure a thoughtful kid; and gives more time to reply.

SPIEGEL: Teachers also give the students that they expect to succeed more approval, and more specific feedback.

ROSENTHAL: The teachers say, oh, no, that's not quite right, Johnny. You had it almost right, but - and then Johnny is taught what the quite-right answer would be.

SPIEGEL: Essentially, in a thousand small, almost invisible ways, teachers teach kids they expect to succeed, more. And they're also warmer - they smile, touch and nod to those kids more.

ROSENTHAL: It's not magic; it's not mental telepathy. It's very likely these thousands of different ways of treating people in small ways, every day.

SPIEGEL: So since expectations can affect the performance of kids, how do you get teachers to have the right expectations? Is it possible to change the bad ones? That's the question that brought me to the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, where a man named Bob Pianta told me just how hard it truly is, for a teacher to control the expectations that they have.

BOB PIANTA: It's really tough for anybody to police their own beliefs, right? But think about being in a classroom with 25 kids. The demands on their thinking are so great.

SPIEGEL: Pianta says traditionally, the way that we have tried to change teacher expectations has been through talking to them.

PIANTA: For the most part, we've tried to convince them that the beliefs may be wrong, and we've done most of that convincing using information.

SPIEGEL: But Pianta has a different idea of what to do. And for him, the very first step is videotape.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Excuse me. You're wasting your time, and your grade, if you can't pull it together.

SPIEGEL: Maybe you recognize that clip from the beginning of this piece. It's one, tiny example of the thousands of hours of video that Pianta and his colleagues have collected of teachers teaching.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: Decimals and fractions, they have ways that they are similar. You with me so far?

SPIEGEL: By analyzing these videos, the Curry School has been able to look really closely at how teacher expectations and beliefs affect classroom dynamics. Pianta gives me just one, very specific example.

PIANTA: Let's say that I have a belief that boys are disruptive, and they need to be managed.

SPIEGEL: When I carry that belief into a classroom, it subtly colors my interactions. So say I ask a question, and a boy tries to answer.

PIANTA: He jumps up sort of vociferously and starts, you know, wanting to be involved in the - you know - I know the answer! I know the answer!

SPIEGEL: Now, if I believe boys are disruptive, and my job is to control the classroom...

PIANTA: Then I'm going to respond with - you know - Johnny, you're out of line here. We need you to sit down right now. And in fact, we're going to call on the person next to you.

SPIEGEL: Which will likely make the boy frustrated; cause him to escalate his behavior, which then just confirms my beliefs. It's a loop. But let's say I don't have these beliefs. I encourage him.

PIANTA: Johnny, tell me more about what the - what you think is going on in the weather. But also, I want you to try to sit down quietly now, as you tell that to me.

Those two responses are dictated almost entirely by two different interpretations of the same behavior, that are driven by two different sets of beliefs.

SPIEGEL: So to find out the best way to change bad beliefs, Pianta recently did a study. He took a group of teachers, assessed their beliefs about children; then gave a portion, a standard pedagogy course, which included information about appropriate beliefs; and a portion, intense behavioral tutoring.

During my visit, I sat down with Sharon Deal, a staff member involved in that tutoring. And she pulled up a series of videos of one teacher she'd worked with. Deal can't release her name. She's one of many teachers who volunteered for their study. Deal and the woman had worked on many things, including how to respond to a boy in the class who was often disruptive. And in the early sessions, you can see the teacher being reactive. Here's that tape again.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Excuse me. You're wasting your time, and your grade, if you can't pull it together.

SPIEGEL: But as time goes by, you see her using different techniques to manage the class. And the dynamics start to change.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: I'm going to show you my way, maybe another way, how to answer questions. But if you come up with your own way, like Precious just did - I didn't even think of this, OK? That's...

SPIEGEL: In particular, there's a striking evolution with the boy. The boy, Deal tells me, was fidgety; needed to move. And the teacher figured out a way to actually harness that quality. Deal shows me a video where the class is playing a math game, and the teacher has that boy standing at the blackboard. He's keeping score.

SHARON DEAL: The student's in the flow of the class, and no longer derailing the class.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Let's go team - our team was Hot Tamales.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Hot Tamales - they gained two points.

SPIEGEL: So after training like this, Pianta and his colleagues went back and measured the beliefs of the teachers again. And what he found was that the beliefs of the trained teachers had shifted way more than the beliefs of the teachers given the standard informational course. And so to change beliefs, Pianta thinks, the best thing to do is change behavior.

PIANTA: It's far more powerful to work from the outside in than from the inside out, if what you want to do is change expectations.

SPIEGEL: In other words, if you want to change a mind, simply talking to it might not be enough.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.