Chapter 3

Building Reality: The Social Construction of Knowledge

Sociologists at Work


Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson

Pygmalion in the Classroom

Self-fulfilling prophecies are powerfulóparticularly within social institutions. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson demonstrated the power of self-fulfilling prophecies in a school setting.1

The two researchers had spent much of their careers in education and had become increasingly concerned that teachers' expectations of lower-class and minority children were contributing to the high rates of failure among these students.

Such ideas were not without support. In the early 1950s sociologist Howard Becker had found that teachers in slum schools used different teaching techniques and expected less from their students than did teachers in middle-class schools.2

Rosenthal and Jacobson's experiment took place in a public elementary school in a predominantly lower-class but not impoverished community. At the beginning of the school year, the researchers gave the students an intelligence test they called "The Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition."

They told the teachers that not only did this test determine intelligence quotients (IQs), but it could also identify those students who would make rapid, above-average intellectual progress in the coming year, whether or not they were currently "good" students.

Before the next school year began, teachers received the names of those students who, on the basis of the test, could be expected to perform well. In actuality, Rosenthal and Jacobson had randomly picked these names from the class list. The test did not identify "academic spurters" as the teachers had been led to believe.

In short, any differences between these children and the rest of the class existed only in the heads of the teachers.

A second intelligence test was administered at the end of the year. Those students who had been identified as "academic spurters" showed, on average, an increase of more than 12 points on their IQ scores, compared to an increase of 8 points among the rest of the students. The differences were even larger in the early grades, with almost half of first- and second-grade spurters showing an IQ increase of 20 points or more.

Teachers' subjective assessments, such as reading grades, showed similar differences. The teachers also indicated that these "special" students were better behaved, were more intellectually curious, had greater chances for future success, and were friendlier than their nonspecial counterparts.

Rosenthal and Jacobson concluded that a self-fulfilling prophecy was at work. The teachers had subtly and unconsciously encouraged the performance they expected to see. Not only did they spend more time with these students, they were also more enthusiastic about teaching them and unintentionally showed more warmth to them than to the other students.

As a result, the special students felt more capable and intelligent. And they performed accordingly.

1Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. 1968. Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

2Becker, H. 1952. "Social class variations in the teacher-pupil relationship." Journal of Educational Sociology, 25, 451-466.


David Newman and Rebecca Smith. (Created September 14, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.