Building Reality: The Social Construction of Knowledge
Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson
Pygmalion in the Classroom
prophecies are powerfulóparticularly within social institutions. Robert Rosenthal and
Lenore Jacobson demonstrated the power of self-fulfilling prophecies in a school setting.1
researchers had spent much of their careers in education and had become increasingly
concerned that teachers' expectations of lower-class and minority children were
contributing to the high rates of failure among these students.
were not without support. In the early 1950s sociologist Howard Becker had found that
teachers in slum schools used different teaching techniques and expected less from their
students than did teachers in middle-class schools.2
Jacobson's experiment took place in a public elementary school in a predominantly
lower-class but not impoverished community. At the beginning of the school year, the
researchers gave the students an intelligence test they called "The Harvard Test of
They told the
teachers that not only did this test determine intelligence quotients (IQs), but it could
also identify those students who would make rapid, above-average intellectual progress in
the coming year, whether or not they were currently "good" students.
next school year began, teachers received the names of those students who, on the basis of
the test, could be expected to perform well. In actuality, Rosenthal and Jacobson had
randomly picked these names from the class list. The test did not identify "academic
spurters" as the teachers had been led to believe.
In short, any
differences between these children and the rest of the class existed only in the heads of
intelligence test was administered at the end of the year. Those students who had been
identified as "academic spurters" showed, on average, an increase of more than
12 points on their IQ scores, compared to an increase of 8 points among the rest of the
students. The differences were even larger in the early grades, with almost half of first-
and second-grade spurters showing an IQ increase of 20 points or more.
subjective assessments, such as reading grades, showed similar differences. The teachers
also indicated that these "special" students were better behaved, were more
intellectually curious, had greater chances for future success, and were friendlier than
their nonspecial counterparts.
Jacobson concluded that a self-fulfilling prophecy was at work. The teachers had subtly
and unconsciously encouraged the performance they expected to see. Not only did they spend
more time with these students, they were also more enthusiastic about teaching them and
unintentionally showed more warmth to them than to the other students.
As a result,
the special students felt more capable and intelligent. And they performed accordingly.
1Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. 1968. Pygmalion
in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
2Becker, H. 1952. "Social class variations
in the teacher-pupil relationship." Journal of Educational Sociology, 25,
David Newman and Rebecca Smith.
(Created September 14, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.