Teaching Smart vs. Not LO13512

Eric Bohlman (ebohlman@netcom.com)
Wed, 7 May 1997 00:12:34 -0700 (PDT)

Replying to LO13478 --

On Mon, 5 May 1997, Michael Gort wrote:

> So how often do we classify students or colleagues as "slow learners" or
> "special needs" or unable to master a technique? And how often does that
> affect the way we view them, and the way they view themselves? How much of
> this is self-fulfilling prophecy?

Take a look at Robert Rosenthal's work on the "Pygmalion Effect." He
conducted an experiment where he administered a standard IQ-type test to
students in several classrooms, but told the teachers that it was actually
a special test designed to identify "bloomers," students who could be
expected to make signifificant gains in achievment during the school year.
Without looking at the scores, he randomly designated a certain percentage
of the students as "bloomers" and told the teachers their names. He then
re-administered the test at the end of the school year, and also
interviewed the teachers to get their impressions of the students'

He found (as he expected) that while all the students did somewhat better
on the second administration of the test, the ones he had labelled as
"bloomers" improved significantly more than the unlabelled students. He
also found that the teachers rated the "bloomers" as more interested in
their work and better behaved. In other words, the students rose to the
higher expectations their teachers had. He also found two surprises. The
first was that unlabelled students in classrooms that included labelled
students improved more than did students in classrooms without labelled
students. Apparently the higher expectations "rubbed off" on the
unlabelled students and improved the performance of entire classrooms.
The second was that the teachers' judgments of the unlabelled students who
had improved was *worse* than their judgments of the ones who didn't! The
students who improved contrary to expectations were often labelled as
troublemakers and their increased curiosity and interest were explained in
negative terms.

The basic lesson from Rosenthal's experiment is that in order for a group
with an appointed "leader" to improve its performance, the leader must
have high expectations for *everybody* in the group. If the leader has
low expectations for some members, they will "drag down" the others, and
members who do improve in spite of the low expectations put on them will
be effectively punished.

In the business world, it's common for managers to assume that a typical
workgroup has more slackers than achievers, or in the best case that there
are equal numbers of each (the assumption that the distribution of
performance can be described by a bell curve). This assumption is
damaging, for the reasons mentioned above, and it's also stupid because,
if it were true, it would mean that there was no correlation between
employees' performances and the criteria used to hire them. If the hiring
criteria predict job performance better than a coin flip, then they should
result in workgroups with more achievers than slackers. If they don't,
then why is the business wasting time and money trying to apply them?
Flipping a coin is faster and cheaper.

If the hiring criteria are in fact rational, and yet workgroups don't show
a predominance of achievers over slackers, than something in the
organization is taking achievers and turning them into slackers, and it's
a good bet that low expectations are part of it.


Eric Bohlman <ebohlman@netcom.com>

Learning-org -- An Internet Dialog on Learning Organizations For info: <rkarash@karash.com> -or- <http://world.std.com/~lo/>