Readers may recall a post from a while back on a study that looked at experimenter effects on rat performance. Basically, the assumption that rats would do better/worse in a maze had a statistically significant effect on the outcome of rat-maze testing even though there was no actual difference in the populations of rats used in the tests. I had remarked in that post that perhaps similar dynamics are at work as regards the students that we work with. Turns out I was not wrong.
Here’s a readable summary of the work in question:
The original research of Rosenthal and Jacobsen focused on an experiment at an elementary school where students took intelligence pre-tests. Rosenthal and Jacobsen then informed the teachers of the names of twenty percent of the students in the school who were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and would bloom academically within the year. Unknown to the teachers, these students were selected randomly with no relation to the initial test. When Rosenthal and Jacobson tested the students eight months later, they discovered that the randomly selected students who teachers thought would bloom scored significantly higher.
I’m sure it’s a function of what I teach, but it’s good to know that I have an external thing to point to the next time I get pissed off when someone tells me that their population of students is not capable of doing the things that my population of students does (a line that comes up with some frequency when discussing what happens in my Honors- & AP- level courses). Of course, that’s not to suggest that it’s not quite a bit easier to get a population of highly “primed” students to perform to higher expectations. I shudder to think what it looks like in places where folks have decreed that expectations should be high, but have done nothing to put the supports in place that students need to meet those expectations. One imagines that a good bit of the difficulty that is had in these type of circumstances is due to exactly this sort of disconnect. Still, it’s nice to know that educating students is so sensitive to the perspectives of the educators who are involved. If it were some other way around, I imagine despair would be a wholly appropriate response.