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The self-fulfilling prophecy

Teaching strategies

The self-fulfilling prophecy: applications for the classroom

Self-fulfilling prophecy – refers to the way humans change their behaviour to meet the expectations of others.

A teacher working with multiple individual in a computer lab.

Also known as the Pygmalion effect, the self-fulfilling prophecy refers to how easily a person is influenced by the expectations of others – even if that expectation is based on a false belief. The effect can be negative or positive. Students who are expected to achieve a high score often work harder to meet those expectations regardless of whether they are middle or high achievers. Teachers also often place low expectations on students with behavioural issues. Subsequently, they are often less motivated, they are off task more often and they receive lower scores. The self-fulfilling prophecy can take seconds or even years to take effect. Here is an example:

  • A teacher thinks that all Chinese students are good at maths.
  • The teacher signals to Chinese students that high marks are expected.
  • The Chinese students eventually believe that they are good at maths and put in more effort.
  • Due to the additional effort, the Chinese students score better at maths.
  • The teacher sees that Chinese students score better, and the initial belief is confirmed.
  • The cycle continues each time the teacher works with Chinese students.

Here are some common beliefs that begin the self-fulfilling prophecy circle of effects:

  • A teacher believes that boys are better at computers than girls.
  • A teacher believes that ‘Johnny’ is not very smart.
  • A teacher believes that ‘Sarah’ is not destined for university.
  • A teacher believes that ‘Toby’ will struggle with reading his whole life.
  • A teacher believes that ‘Rachael’ will not achieve academically as she prefers practical, hands-on activities.
  • A teacher believes that ‘Alex’ (who has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) will misbehave daily.
  • A teacher sets low academic expectations for students from indigenous cultures.
  • A teacher believes that all students in the class are high achievers.
  • A teacher believes that all students in the class are low achievers.

Teachers often place low expectations on students with behavioural issues. Subsequently, they are often less motivated, they are off task more often and they receive lower scores.

Setting high academic expectations for all students is known to be one of the most effective strategies in improving students’ performance.i This applies to all students regardless of their previous achievements – raising the bar even for high-flyers can help them to reach new heights previously thought unimaginable. Low-achieving students also benefit from high expectations provided they are reasonable and achievable. Teachers can set high expectations in a number of ways, such as setting SMART goals, repeatedly telling students that they can achieve, and not assuming that attributes out of their control precludes a person from academic achievement (attributes include race, culture, ethnicity, family background, socio-economic status, gender, behaviour, current level of skill, language, disabilities and disorders).

Low-achieving students benefit from high expectations provided they are reasonable and achievable.

Circular diagram demonstrating a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to negative or positive consequences.

The self-fulfilling prophecy takes time but can have either negative or positive consequences.

The self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon can have significant long-term effects. For example, a teacher believes that Johnny is good at computers because she sees him on the computer every day (even though he is just playing games). She believes that mostly males become IT technicians which is reinforced by the fact that all 3 technicians at the school are male. Over a period of 6 months, the teacher repeatedly tells Johnny that he “is” good at computers (also due to the fact that the teacher is not tech savvy so she can’t accurately assess Johnny’s actual skill level). The teacher does this by asking Johnny to help other students when they have IT issues. Johnny has no idea how to fix the problems, but he is happy to help as he gets out of doing schoolwork for a few minutes. Johnny proceeds to type each problem into Google to find the solution. It does not take long for Johnny to believe that he actually is good at computers, much to his own surprise (and the teacher keeps saying it, so 'maybe' it's true).

Johnny starts to think that ‘IT is his thing’ and begins learning more in his spare time. The following year Johnny enrols in a computer course as an elective. The teacher sees Johnny in the computer class which confirms her belief that Johnny is good at computers. This experience also teaches the teacher that she is really good at ‘reading’ students and ‘predicting’ what they will do when they grow up. Johnny eventually becomes a network technician for his entire career in spite of the fact that he originally had no interest or skills in IT whatsoever. Johnny now tells people that ‘it’s just something he was always good at in school’.

Hint: confirmation bias is when a person looks for information that confirms their beliefs while ignoring anything that contradicts their belief. For example, a person searches online for the benefits of drinking green tea but does not search for or read anything about the negatives of drinking the green tea. When teachers and students confirm their initial beliefs, they may simultaneously ignore contradictory evidence. In the example above, the teacher ignored or dismissed the fact that Johnny was just playing mindless games as that didn’t confirm her belief – she chose to concentrate on the fact that Johnny was sitting at a computer – a fact that confirmed her belief.

Foot notes:

  1. Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

About the author

Image of the managing director of FTTA.

ADAM GREEN

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of FTTA, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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