Tests Distort Our Image of Human Potential

scantronThere is a proven relationship between human thought and its effect on people and society.  This relationship is best summed up by the Thomas theorem which is succinctly stated as follows:

“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.

The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. W.I. Thomas and D.S. Thomas. New York: Knopf, 1928: 571-572

The existence of this relationship has been firmly established and widely studied.  Its interplay and effects are known by a variety of names: The Thomas theorem, a self-fulfilling prophecy, behavioral confirmation, the “Clever Hans” effect, the placebo effect, the Pygmalion effect, the Golem effect, the observer-expectancy effect, white hat bias, the woozle effect, the Tinkerbell effect, consensus reality, and pluralistic ignorance, to name just a few.

Discover magazine recently published an article entitled, “Being Honest About the Pygmalion Effect,” which explores the fascinating history of this phenomenon in education since first demonstrated in the 1960s by Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal.  Applied to education it describes the phenomenon of students rising to meet the image held of them by their teachers.  Like Pygmalion’s statue, the students come to life intellectually and developmentally if the teachers believe they are capable of it.  So why do we need to be “honest” about this miraculous effect as Discover tells us?  More on that later.

Rosenthal gave an IQ test to students at an elementary school in California disguised as a test to predict intellectual “blooming.”  He then gave teachers the names of students the test supposedly predicted would show unusual intellectual gains over the academic year.  Follow up IQ testing confirmed his predictions.  The students identified to the teachers as bloomers bloomed.  Only then were the teachers told the truth.  The “bloomers” were selected at random without regard to how they did on the initial IQ test.  In other words, the bloomers bloomed because their teachers believed they would, not because a test predicted it.

As Discover reports, Rosenthal and his study “survived an extraordinary storm of controversy to become one of the most inspiring and widely cited breakthroughs in the history of psychology.”  In 1978 Rosenthal co-authored a report summarizing 345 experiments on this effect and concluded “the reality of the phenomenon is beyond doubt.”  According to Discover, “The critics eventually quieted down, and the Pygmalion Effect became dogma.”

The only catch, and this is a huge catch, is that the Pygmalion Effect supposedly cannot be replicated in the classroom without, in the words of Discover, “first telling lies.”  What lies?  Lies that cut to the quick of our education system.

Rosenthal tricked the teachers into believing that the test revealed intellectual potential in certain students. The test predicted no such thing but teachers internalized the false message and subconsciously treated those students as the bright and curious learners that they already were and presto – that’s who they became.  Rosenthal proved that what matters isn’t the test but what the teacher believed the test results revealed.  As Rosenthal puts it:

The experimental treatment for these children, then, consisted of nothing more than being identified to their teachers as children who would show unusual intellectual gains.

In other words, the results of this experiment call into question the entire edifice of an education system centered around testing.  Rosenthal proves that the crucial component is cultivating a high image of the student.  By using a test to cultivate the high image and then exposing the test as false, Rosenthal unintentionally revealed the fatal flaw at the heart of our education system.  Tests are meaningful only because teachers believe they reveal something meaningful about the student.

Discover claims that “most U.S. teachers are at least vaguely familiar with the findings at Spruce Creek Elementary School and wouldn’t be so easily duped.”  But Rosenthal proved that it is we who are duping ourselves into defining students as “good” or “bad” based on the results of tests.  We should cultivate a high image of all students without tests that label “winners” and “losers” based on a very specific skill sets that hardly measure the whole worth of a human being.

Testing, grading, and other public marks of success or failure make it next to impossible for teachers to broadly internalize the high student image necessary for a healthy Pygmalion Effect to function.  Undoubtedly many teachers skillfully and consciously treat every student as a unique and capable learner.  But even if years of poor student assessments don’t pierce a teacher’s high image they almost certainly harm the student’s self-image thus destabilizing the Pygmalion Effect because the student may not believe the teacher is being honest about their potential.

Research is now doubling down by studying the subtle behavior shown by teachers who have internalized a high image of their students so other teachers can be trained to act similarly.  Rather than cultivate what presumably would be a naturally high student image (and do away with the assessments that undermine or distort it) we are researching ways that teachers can manipulate their body language to convey a positive image they may not possess thanks to testing.

The Discover article does, however, contain this tantalizing snippet that reveals a potential path to cultivating a healthy Pygmalion Effect:

[Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia] videotapes his teachers to help make them aware of the little winces, shrugs and frowns through which they subconsciously speak volumes.  More generally, Pianta has been encouraging the instructors to communicate higher expectations by turning over some of the control in the classroom to the kids: letting them work in teams on independent projects, for instance, instead of simply lecturing.  That’s a risky proposition for many educators, but with a little real-time encouragement and trial and error, teachers usually see that their students are capable of more than they may have imagined.

Turning over control to the students is risky because educators rise and fall on the testing along with their students.  But it’s a risk worth taking.

Rethinking assessments would clear the landscape for a healthy Pygmalion Effect to take root in the classroom of every teacher who honestly believes in their students – i.e. most of them.  This is honestly “being honest” about the Pygmalion Effect.  After all, teachers become teachers because they have a high image of students in the first place.  Poor test results slowly erode the high image which Rosenthal proved is crucial.  Not only does it undermine the Pygmalion Effect it undoubtedly contributes to the angst and anguish of well meaning teachers who fundamentally believe in their students but have to reconcile that belief with the “truth” supposedly revealed by an onslaught of assessments.

At a Sudbury school, staff members (and other students) gladly don the “teacher hat” when called upon to fulfill that role.  As teachers they easily cultivate a healthy Pygmalion Effect because the school is founded on principles that hold each student in the highest image.  According to Dan Greenberg, one of the founders of the namesake Sudbury Valley School:

“The fundamental premises of the school are simple: that all people are curious by nature; that the most efficient, long-lasting, and profound learning takes place when started and pursued by the learner; that all people are creative if they are allowed to develop their unique talents; that age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group; and that freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility.”

Staff members embrace this philosophy and internalize an image of each student that has nothing to do with testing.  Just like Pygmalion’s statue, a Sudbury student comes to life as the naturally curious, self-motivated, creative, uniquely talented and responsible individual everyone believes them to be.


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