Magic Dust

I love stories. We use them to work through our context in the world, they serve to transform lives and some of them are even true. I have worked in leadership development for a number of years and like many others I have used the metaphor of the frog remaining in a pan of water unaware of the slowly rising temperature until it is too late. I have recently discovered that this is an urban myth. I am slightly relieved to discover that a group of biologists were not creating a sadistic consommé.

Probably my favourite of these stories is that of the American high school class that were so badly behaved that two teachers resigned rather than teach them. Eventually, in desperation, the principal, decided to bring in a teacher who had actually failed at an earlier interview at the school. Further, he kept the truth from her. A month later he did a classroom observation. Surprisingly, the lesson and pupil progress were excellent. He complimented the member of staff who in a rather self – effacing manner attributed the success to the class to the able children that she had been given. She opened a file with a list of student names and numbers ranging from the low 120s to the mid 140’s. An aghast principal exclaimed that these were not IQ scores but locker numbers. The teacher had erroneously expected high performance and taught to that expectation and more importantly the children delivered.

There are many versions of this story which probably indicates that like the boiled frog it might be another urban myth. Such stories do not go away, they generate a momentum because of the way they resonate with us. Perhaps we see this as a narrative about how things might be.

So, is there something that can take us beyond the Disneyland view of education? There is an interesting, though ethically repugnant piece of research by Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968), The Pygmalion Effect. In fact publications on the area of teacher expectations and pupil achievement usually loop back to this venerable paper.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen research was conducted in a San Francisco elementary school. The students involved took intelligence pre-tests before being taught.  Rosenthal and Jacobsen informed the teachers of the names of twenty percent of the students who had been tested and were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth”. The teachers were told that these pupils would make significant progress in the following year. In fact, this group had been selected randomly with no reference to the initial test. When these students were tested eight months later, they had actually performed according to the fallacious predictions.

Babad (1977) a researcher associated with Rosenthal and Jacobsen did explore the impact of deprecating messages to pupils. His work published in 1977 entitled Pygmalion in Reverse indicated that negative messages lead to self-limiting beliefs. This has been dubbed ‘The Golem Effect’.

Smith (1998: 82-83) records the experience of an 11 – 18 Surrey Comprehensive. A newly appointed deputy headteacher was allocated a year 10 mathematics set to teach. It was in fact set four out of five sets. At the half year point the deputy head was disappointed that the band of marks for the set was not as good as she had hoped for. In fact, they were much higher than the department was expecting and equal to those in set 2. The deputy head had mistakenly thought that she was teaching set 2 and not set 4. The pupils had performed in line with her higher expectations. When the facts came out there was some slippage in the subsequent test.

What immediately strikes me is that much of the work cited is somewhat historical and frequently linked to Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968). If there is truth in this, it must warrant further contemporary research.

In some ways, this edges towards the work of Dweck (2012) around the growth mindset promoting a view of learning that is transformational through dedication and hard work. It is not however a pedagogical synonym. Learning does not benefit by encouraging a fixed mindset for learners, communicating the view that they ‘are where they are’. I am suggesting that there is something more, where teachers connect with students and disrupt self – limiting beliefs. Many people will reference an individual who has scattered ‘magic dust’ on their lives and enabled a global learning journey to take place rather than a cognitive commute. Just perhaps, teacher expectations might trump pedagogy in securing polychrome learning.


Babad, E. Y. (1977). “Pygmalion in reverse”. Journal of Special Education11 (1): 81–90. Texas, Hammil Institute

Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfill your potential. London, Constable & Robinson Limited.

Rosenthal, R.; Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Smith, A (1998) Accelerated Learning in Practice.  Stafford, Network Educational Press.

Professor Max Coates, School of Education Doctorate Teacher

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