The Pygmalion Effect: How positive expectations help transform your students

7 minutes
Written by: Rosa Castillo

Think back to your time as a student; do you remember your Pygmalion? I’m sure you have fond memories of one teacher in particular who always believed in you and encouraged you to give your best.  If you’re a teacher, you’re probably familiar with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy or the Pygmalion effect. If not, allow me to explain what it’s all about.

No doubt you’ll agree with me that there is nothing more beautiful than discovering the talent that lives inside each of the little characters you have in your class and helping them develop their full potential.  There’s a magic formula for making a self-fulfilling prophecy come true. Pay close attention: all you have to do is mix a good helping of expectations with a dash of attitude. It’s simple. The key to promoting someone’s growth and development is to charge our expectations with good wishes and maintain motivation over time.

Read on to find out how to become the Pygmalion your students will always remember.

The origin of the myth of Pygmalion

In case you were wondering, the origin of this name is in Greco-Roman mythology. This myth was popularized by the Roman poet Ovid in his literary work Metamorphoses. It is the story of the king and sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with one of his creations: the sculpture of Galatea.

Pymalion had long been hoping to marry. He was looking for the perfect companion. And he found none as perfect as Galatea. Eventually he gave up as he couldn’t find anyone of flesh and blood with whom to share his life. Frustrated by the situation, and without much hope, he prayed to the goddess Aphrodite to bring his beloved creation to life.

You know what they say, hope is the last thing you lose. Aphrodite, moved by his pleas, took action so that Pygmalion could see his greatest wish fulfilled: his work of art came to life. Galatea, who was now real, became Pygmalion’s companion. His expectations had won out. 

What is the Pygmalion effect?

In psychology and pedagogy, the Pygmalion effect refers to the potential influence of one person’s belief on another person’s performance.  And that is precisely what Lenore Jacobson and Robert Rosenthal sought to demonstrate in 1966. To do this, they carried out a study on the Pygmalion effect in the field of education, based on the mythical tale. 

The research consisted of conducting a series of intelligence tests on a group of students. After these tests, the teachers received a list of names of randomly selected students who were expected to perform at a high level. This group was referred to as academic bloomers.

By now you may well suspect: all the students had the same aptitudes, regardless of whether they were on the ‘high achievers’ list or not.  And yes, the teachers were also unknowingly part of the experiment, as their positive expectations would have a significant influence on the performance of their students.

What conclusions were drawn from the experiment?

  1. The effectiveness of the Pygmalion effect depends on the teacher’s self-esteem: having good self-esteem as a teacher contributes to improving students’ self-esteem. Be the best Pygmalion for yourself and you will be the best Pygmalion for your students!
  2. A teacher’s positive and realistic expectations favorably influence the performance of their students. So it’s time to be a real positive Pygmalion!
  3. A teacher’s positive and realistic expectations help to create a better working environment in the classroom, where participation and teamwork are encouraged. You have the power to create an environment of development and growth!

Use this template to talk to your students about the importance of developing good self-esteem.

Work on your students’ emotional wellbeing with this template. They’ll learn how to identify and manage their emotions. The greater the self-awareness, the better the impact on self-esteem. 

The Pygmalion effect in the classroom: Best practice examples

Now that you know what Jacobson and Rosenthal’s experiment consisted of and what their main conclusions were, it’s time to find out how we can apply this to our teaching. Ok, I know what you’re thinking. No one is going to give you a list of your class’s academic bloomers. And there’s no need!

It’s simple: all you have to do is apply the right situational leadership. To be able to guide your group and create significant learning experiences, you need to know the group well, and know each of the individual students that make it up.

To do so, find out about their hopes and interests, what motivates them, what they’re passionate about, and also figure out what their possible limitations may be so that you can help them overcome them. This is very important for promoting their positive self-image.

As Einstein once said:

 ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid’.

Here are some examples of best practices that will help you be a great Pygmalion:

Be clear on what expectations you want to convey 

To do this you need to know your student profile very well: know what they like and what motivates them, as well as what things they’re good at. Your goal is to encourage their development by creating positive and realistic expectations, adapted to the characteristics of your group.

The importance of a good attitude

Being a teacher with high self-esteem is a massive step towards guaranteed success. Teachers who show attitudes of acceptance, respect, and appreciation for themselves are in a better position to enable their students to develop their own positive self-image. In short, a good attitude will help students to excel.

Use positive language

Positive language is the perfect accompaniment to a good attitude. Being conscious of the words you choose to communicate each day is fundamental. The way we speak both to ourselves and to others has the power to change our minds. This occurs due to the neuroplasticity of our brains. And if we apply this concept to a classroom context, you can imagine the result.

Eliminate inherited cognitive biases

Cognitive biases are interpretations we make of reality based on our experiences: how others treat us and what they think (or rather, we think they think) about us. You will notice that these types of interpretations usually have a strong subjective component.

How can we correct this in the classroom? To begin with, discard any misinformation you have about your students. Try to remove anything that may negatively influence both their behavior and academic performance. In essence, avoid ‘grading’ them before the fact according to the characteristics or qualities that you assume each student possesses.

 Keep the flame of your vocation alive

Teaching is a very rewarding profession, and one of great responsibility. Try to remember each day what drove you to become a teacher. It’s important to keep your motivation high, though it may not always be easy.

5 key ways to foster a positive self-image in your students

Now that you know how to be the Pygmalion teacher you want to see in the world, it’s time to recap. Here is a list of the 5 keys to developing your students’ positive self-image:

  1. Raise your expectations of your students, and trust that their performance will rise to meet them.
  2. Make sure your students know that you believe in them, and in their ability to do things well.
  3. Pay attention to language: using positive language benefits the teaching and learning process.
  4. Help them grow: give them responsibilities, tasks, and projects that help them excel.
  5. Teach them the importance of making their own decisions.

Can the Pygmalion effect apply to 3rd level education too?

Of course it can! However, applying the theory of the Pygmalion effect in higher education can be a challenge for teachers. 

In addition to combining teaching with research work, they face the challenge of creating motivating content, and generating greater participation in the classroom, without forgetting the importance of promoting the positive self-image of adult learners.  Don’t worry, Genially is here to help you.

One of the most worrying situations for students is the fact that they often don’t know how or where to steer their professional careers once they finish their studies. What’s more, let’s not forget that in this stage of nerves and uncertainty, they are also facing the preparation and presentation of their final exams and papers

The feeling that someone is there to guide you and motivate you to find your path makes everything much easier. We recommend using this template to help your students put together a professional interactive resume to take with them out into the working world.

How can Genially help you be a good Pygmalion?

This will help you boost your students’ talents and skills:

  1. Generate meaningful and motivating learning experiences: enrich your classes with interactive content designed for the digital world. Remember: we are visual beings!
  2. Promote the development of their power skills: this will allow them to enhance their future employability and develop their professional careers successfully.
  3. Promote teamwork: they should learn assertive communication strategies, with the objective of improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the group.

If there is one thing we know for sure, it’s that a brain that is excited learns more and learns better. So keep innovating and creating. Get to know your students and create positive expectations. There’s no doubt about it: you’re going to be a great Pygmalion!

Rosa Castillo
Rosa Castillo
Content Creator Trainee
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