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Teacher expectancies: overdue for contemporary research
Research into teacher expectancies was a hot-bed back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. I can’t believe
that the issue is resolved- so if you can track down any recent work please
Research into teacher expectancies suggests that teachers often pre-judge the
likely attributes of their learners based on false indicators: the consequences of
this pre-judging of learners may have real and serious influences on their
The seminal summary of research on the impact of teacher expectancies was published by
Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) in their book Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher expectation
and the pupil’s intellectual development. (Rosenthal’s Pygmalion Effect has since been found to be
significant in many interpersonal contexts).
A key Rosenthal and Jaconson finding:
Back to Dennis...
In an important paper in the Journal of Education, Harari and McDavid (1973) concluded that,
“people, like inanimate objects are often ‘judged by their labels’.” Research by Hartman et al (1968)
revealed that those with unusual first names were more likely to be diagnosed as psychotic than
matched individuals with common names. Richard Wiseman comments on this, highlighting a
statement from the researchers, “A child’s name is generally a settled affair when his first breath is
drawn, and his future personality must then grow from within its shadow”.
Harari and McDavid (1973) conducted a fascinating study on
the expectations teachers held on the ability of students-
based solely on their first names.
A collection of student essays were given to teachers to
grade, with a range of student names being used as the
treatment. The names had been carefully selected based on
assessments of ‘desirability’.
The results were clear- bias was obvious in the awarding of grades, with ‘preferred’ names
gaining higher grades (for the same piece of work) than other ‘less preferred’ names.
Interestingly, the same test was conducted with undergraduate students doing the marking- and
no significant effects were found whatsoever. Harari and McDavid speculated that teachers
accumulate these stereotypical expectations and biases over time- through their training and
their teaching career.
Garwood (1976) produced some research with a similar focus. He collected and analysed a set of
data on 11-12 year old learners. His findings, “...suggest the possibility that children bearing first
names which teachers consider desirable may have better self-concepts and higher achievement
scores than students whose first names are considered undesirable by teachers”.
Garwood concluded (way back then) that there
needs to be a targeted response at the
The unfortunate consequences of unfounded
teacher expectancies are potentially too large
Garwood made a number of recommendations
to education programmes, (click the image to
the right). Have teacher training courses
adapted in response?
Ugly kids = dumb kids?
Dusek and Joseph (1983) conducted a meta-analysis on other factors that influence teacher
A scary finding- teachers may influence the achievement of their learners through their
interpersonal behaviour towards them- behaviour based on teacher expectancies of ability
generated by the names learners have been given, their
attractiveness, and their social class.
It seems amazing that something as irrelevant as ‘good looks’ could
influence perceptions of a learner’s ability. Dusek and Joseph state
however that, “the results of the meta-analysis lead to the conclusion
that facial attractiveness is a determinant of teacher expectancies for
both academic performance and social/personality attributes”.
It’s not anyone’s fault in particular- it seems as though we are to a degree ‘hard-wired’ in our
perceptions. We make our minds up too easily based on unlinked data.
Smith et al (1999) examined the influence of film on expectations linked to beauty.
They commented that:
Their paper is well worth a read. They show that attractive people were found to be rated by
audiences as more romantically active, morally good, intelligent and more likely to live happy
lives than less attractive people. Their second study showed that people who had watched
attractive ‘heroes’ in films achieve great things, rated attractive ‘applicants’ for hypothetical
research positions as ‘more intelligent’ than less attractive applicants with identical CVs. (This
was not the case for people who had watched movies with more ‘average’ looking actors playing
the lead roles.)
The findings of Smith et al (1999) demonstrate that the media has a significant influence on our
association of looks with unrelated character attributes like intelligence and ability. As a
profession then, teachers need to be concious that associations can be forced upon them, and
that those associations can be very damaging if accepted without evidence.
Teacher training and CPD- again
The Pygmalion Effect has shown us that teacher expectancy can have a significant bearing on
learner achievement, both positively and negatively- and that teacher expectancies can be
influenced by all manner of irrelevant variables.
The importance of training teachers to recognize the fallacy of, and to avoid adopting such
assumptions about learners based on erroneous characteristics is vitally important.
The paucity of contemporary research on teacher expectancies is of concern and generates a
couple of questions for me:
Is the problem solved?
Does rigorous teacher training and on-going CPD effectively stop our profession from
making the teacher expectancy mistakes of the past?
I welcome your views.