In IP&T 213, Foundations of Instructional Design and Assessment, Professor John Wilkinson emphasizes the ability teachers’ attitudes and expectations have to completely change the classroom environment and outcome. He describes attitude as the single most important teaching variable.
Attitude is defined as a way of thinking or feeling that affects a person’s behavior. As teachers, the attitudes we have about our students and curriculum affect our level of effort, decisions, actions, and expectations. When we have positive attitudes about our students, we will set positive expectations. What does it mean to set positive expectations? This means that we believe in the learner and that the learner CAN learn.
A study done by Harvard psychology professor Robert Rosenthal illustrated this point perfectly. Rosenthal randomly selected students from various classrooms and had them perform a fake psychological test. He randomly selected students from this group and told their various teachers that these students were predicted to succeed. Based on the information they were told, the attitudes and expectations teachers held about certain students changed. They started to treat these students differently. A year later, Rosenthal tested the students again. The results were astounding: the students he had told the teachers were predicted for success had progressed more than the other students in the study. We know this effect today as the Pygmalion Effect.
Because the teachers’ attitudes and expectations changed about certain students, they treated them differently, and these students rose to meet their expectations.
How exactly did the teachers treat these students differently? Rosenthal lists four things:
They created a warmer climate in their classrooms by encouraging or disciplining the student.
They taught more material. They believed the students could handle more information, so they provided access to more material than was necessary.
Students were given more response opportunities. Whenever they responded, they were allowed to discuss for a longer period of time.
Teachers gave students more effective feedback that provided specific praise, but also specific ways to improve.
These are four practices that we can all incorporate into our pedagogy and facilitate a more successful future for our students.
It might be hard for us to really believe that ALL students are capable of meeting our expectations and achieving academic success; however, perhaps we should take the advice of Audrey Hepburn: “Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible.’”
Who are we to say we fully know the limits of a student’s potential? Who are we to doubt that they will reach it? Our role as a teacher should be to never doubt or to give up, but to inspire new faith and encourage students to press forward in difficult paths. Our attitudes can create possibilities.