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The Pygmalion Effect

Originally published on October 17, 2018

Happy Thursday!

It is not uncommon in the education profession to hear educators talk about the ability to garner success with those who are willing to put in the effort. In this case, when referring to “those who are willing” the people who are spotlighted are the students. If students are willing to put in the effort, then the teacher is able to achieve amazing results. The onus is on the student as the agent of change.

While there is no argument that there must be a certain level of investment from the student, not everyone would agree that the student is where the primary agent of change resides. Michelangelo is quoted as saying, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” In other words, it is not the marble’s responsibility to show the sculptor the statue that it can be to. Rather it is the sculptor’s job to find the statue. Though none of us is literally a sculptor, we are all figuratively working with others in a manner like a sculptor. We work with teachers and students and it is our responsibility—not theirs—for us to unlock what is possible. At least this is the argument that Robyn Jackson makes in her book Never Work Harder than Your Students.

In her examples she references the story of Pygmalion. This is the story of Professor Henry Higgins who takes the cockney woman, Eliza Doolittle, and transforms her from a low-class woman to one of high society. He works with her not because he sees potential in her that is exceptional; he works with her because he believes in his own ability to unearth the potential of anyone. This is not about the student, this is about the teacher. “Pygmalion is not about a professor’s or a sculptor’s blind belief in his subject; Pygmalion is about the professor’s and the sculptor’s blind belief in their own talent” (Jackson, p. 83).

This connects back to the last Letter on the difference between standards and expectations. Remember, “The difference between an expectation and a standard is that the standard is the bar and the expectation is our belief about whether students will ever reach the bar” (p. 80). We so often believe that the burden of the student’s ability to ever reach the bar is on the skills that the students come to us with. Jackson contends that the expectation about the student’s ability to succeed is really on whether or not the teacher believes in his/her ability to get the student to the standard.

Notice the pattern here. First, the professor and the artist begin with a piece of raw material and a vision of what they can do with that raw material. They then set out to work. Once they have finished, they fall in love with their creation because it exceeds even what they believed they could do. We want to fall in love before we have created anything. We are waiting to believe in our students before we get to work. That’s not the way the Pygmalion effect works. The professor and the artist begin by having a vision of what it is they will create. They go to work believing that they will end up with a masterpiece, not because the raw material they are working with has some innate potential, but because of the power of their own ability to create a masterpiece. (Jackson, p. 84, emphasis in the original)

I know that as you’re reading this you are likely to be conflicted. On one hand you want to say “Amen!” and applaud this line of thinking that highlights the value of the adult and the work that the adults does with the student. On the other hand, you want to say “Wait just a minute! There are children who come to us with deficits that make it difficult (sometimes impossible) to meet the standard. You’re oversimplifying this.” To which I say, hold that thought. Jackson shares thinking on this that allows us to explore this. For now, however, I ask that you reflect on what would be possible if we embraced the Pygmalion effect. How would your interactions look if you believed in your own potential to unlock other’s success? What about your teachers? What would it take to get there?


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