Illustration of wrestling student

Engagement, Teaching, Well-being

“I Believe in You”

The Rosenthal Effect in schools

“Fitton, you baby.”

I can still remember the nasal voice and twitchy mustache of my Grade 9 wrestling coach as he derided me, and the way he emphasized the luscious double “B” in “baby.” I’d arrived at wrestling practice sick, knowing how important it was to my coach that we attend regularly for the team. I’d asked woozily if I could watch practice from the bleachers.

I wish I could tell you that his words inspired my immune system to leap into action and triumph like the Miracle at Dunkirk. Instead, I felt gutted. His infectious words meant that within the year, I’d quit the wrestling team. Twenty-three years later, his words served as a powerful inoculation against the use of negative semantics in my own classroom.

Many people can vividly remember their own short but powerful instance of a time when someone believed in them – or not. Maya Angelou’s wisdom is visceral: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

Lighting the fire

One October staff meeting, our admin team presented a graph that became the reason I get out of bed each day. As the data appeared on a PowerPoint, our principal congratulated us on the results of the previous year’s Ministry of Education Learning Survey of students at our school. He pointed out that when asked “How many adults at your school care about you?” 69 percent of our students reported, “Two adults or more.”

A few staff members stifled a yawn; others finished their grading. Sedation washed over the faculty like the warm hug of a narcotic – but my reaction was volcanic.

A good news story? I felt angry. Worse: ashamed. Nearly one in three – 162 kids – were walking through our front doors feeling that hardly any adults in the school cared about them. That’s five to six full classrooms of students disconnected from adults, possibly for four years of their academic experience. That’s not education. That’s a prison sentence.

But the data was a call to action.

In 2021, the survey is asking a new question: “Are there two adults in the building who believe you will be a success in life?” Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert, two professors from the University of British Columbia, had urged our district to explore this question. It’s a subtle but seismic semantic shift: Adults can care about a person and not believe in them. Belief is related to “care” and “connection,” but is something akin to a combination of both on steroids. It’s a three-for-one deal!

Using psychology as a catalyst for change

In Give and Take, Adam Grant reminds readers of the Rosenthal Experiment. Elementary teachers were told by Harvard researchers Rosenthal and Jacobsen that they had a class with several “Bloomers.” These were students who could make 15 to 20 percent gains in achievement during the year.

It was a ruse. But as a result, the teachers developed a mindset where they believed in their students. Then the magic happened. When teachers thought their students had high potential, their teaching methods and approach ensured that the kids made significant academic gains. Interestingly, the research was replicated by Dov Eden in the Israeli military. As Adam Grant (2013) reports, these “high potential” students and soldiers were viewed by their instructors differently. When they made mistakes, their instructors believed they simply needed coaching or had made an error that was not indicative of incompetence. Teachers were generally warmer and spent more time with these identified pupils.

The power of the self-fulfilling prophecy – the Rosenthal Effect – should be revisited in our schools. As a best practice, schools would encourage teachers to consciously adopt the mindset that all students have high potential. Indeed, this paradigm shift is championed in Kaser and Halbert’s Spirals of Inquiry, by George Couros in The Innovator’s Mindset, and by Adam Grant in Think Again. Ultimately, their ideas around education seem to distill into creating meaningful relationships with students that demonstrate that their teachers believe in them.

The shift to believing in kids can have a 15 to 20 percent positive impact on students academically. Isn’t it time that we educators applied it with efficacy and intentionality? Without duping faculty, could schools adopt the Rosenthal Effect mindset consciously? Let’s work together to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that will positively alter the experiences and lives of our students! Today, will you consciously find something to nurture and believe in, with every student you teach?

Illustration: Dave Donald

First published in Education Canada, September 2021

Meet the Expert(s)

Photo of Jeff Fitton

Jeff Fitton

Teacher Organization, School District #67 Okanagan-Skaha

Jeff Fitton is a passionate teacher who believes in the infinite capacity of his students and seeks to create innovative educational experiences. He is also a loving father and husband who enjoys reading, the outdoors, and volunteering.

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