Pygmalion and Positivity in English Learning

March 2013

In the 1913 play, Pygmalion, a linguistics professor called Henry Higgins, and his friend Colonel Pickering, make a wager on the outcome of a social experiment involving a poor London flower girl called Eliza Doolittle. Higgins attempts to refine Eliza into a lady of polite society, mainly through accent reduction. The transformation is eventually achieved, thus vindicating the classic socialist belief that people are created equal and that environmental disadvantages can be eliminated through education.

This story has lent its name to the ‘Pygmalion Effect’ in psychology and education, whereby children who are given high expectations will tend to perform above the average, while those who are labelled negatively and set low goals will likewise do poorly and end up below the level they are capable of. Maybe this phenomenon could be succinctly summed up with the words,

If you say something often enough, people will begin to believe it.

The pygmalion effect is something I have noticed rather a lot and it leads me to the conviction that in language learning especially, one’s attitude is far more important than aptitude. For this reason I believe that teachers ideally have to be motivators and confidence builders more than anything else. I think it is self-evident that our powers of enthusiasm and inspiration are more vital than technical abilities or experience. Like good language learners, good teachers are made, not born.

Positive feedback loop
“Virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature; but by our nature we can receive them and perfect them by habituation.” ~ Aristotle


We are born equally. Ok, some people are tall, some may have higher IQs, some are different colors. That doesn’t mean anything, especially because physical traits cannot really be changed. The reality is that we are basically all the same and all capable of achieving anything we wish to — given the right circumstances. The only differences that are worthy of note are the opportunities we have been given and the cultural pressures we have lived under.

The main problem is that people tell themselves all sorts of stuff that doesn’t help them. And more importantly, society tells people all sorts of stuff that doesn’t help them. This negativity we get starts early on and it inhibits us from achieving what we can in life and actualizing our true nature.

Drawing hands
“Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut


Setting up to fail

I see negativity in education all the time, which is both a shame and an irony, because education is the place where negativity should be least welcome. I see teachers writing off students, and students writing off teachers. Sometimes people want others to fail, even if they don’t admit it to themselves. We like to create self-fulfilling prophecies to justify our own thought processes and attitudes. People have subjective reactions to things that don’t reflect the truth or the way things should be done. It’s not so bad when these subjective reactions are positive but when they are negative, then it’s not conducive to learning and progress.

That’s why we get cognitive dissonance. Such irrational and self-defeating thoughts are unhealthy and don’t help the situations in which we live and work. And thus to correct the balance, I prefer to have my own conscious cognitive biases that weight favour in the hands of the students, to give them that advantage that they really need and to eschew my subjective perceptions as a teacher. This adjusted attitude may not always be the reality, but sometimes we have to go beyond the reality to do what’s right for those concerned. Indeed to create a new reality. As such, the way I view teaching is that:

— There are no broken people.

— There are no bad students, only bad teachers.

— When students stumble or don’t understand, it’s almost always our fault.

But again, these are still admonitory and negative sentences, so here are some more positive beliefs that give the learning environment a good footing and ignite the pygmalion effect:

— People do better when they are monitored.

— People do better when you tell them they are great.

— People do better when you say they can do it.

— People do better when you believe in them.

— People do better when they have a positive role model.

— People do better when they have goals, even if they miss them.

— People do better when they have the courage to have a go, even if they fail.

Crystal ball
“Life is largely a matter
of expectation.” ~ Horace


Defining the labels

The labels we use have a strong effect on our reality and often we don’t think to define and re-evaluate them. Can our labels be distorted and absolute, and unfair and wide of the mark in the heat of our normative, emotional, and perhaps unrelated pique? Yes. And can they be detrimental to students progress and outcomes? Yes. And do subjective reactions cloud true judgement? Of course.

The killer attitude

This is where the two areas of the scientific and the emotional get conflated. We can become so cynical when teaching and observing the world that we become cynical in other aspects of life — constantly querying everything, and this flows over into how we view students. We end up seeing the worst in them and seeing them as hopeless, when the truth is that no one is truly hopeless.

There is plenty of place in education for cynicism when it comes to critical thinking and examining the world. But in my opinion, there is not a place for cynicism in building students’ confidence and assessing their potential, nor in assessing goals, curriculum, and activities.

Can a task seem impossible when viewed cynically? Can a task seem stupid or too difficult if you haven’t had someone show you, or it’s the first time you have done it? Does a task seem worthless if everyone else says it is? Does a task seem impossible when viewed as a whole rather than broken down into a series of smaller tasks? Of course. But this represents a singular opinion in a point in time, not the actual truth of the matter. Education ought to be about focussing on what can be done for the benefit of the learner, not what you can’t do and or what you haven’t been able to do in the past.

How can the Pygmalion Effect be used in ESL?

Four ways as I see it.

  1. Hold people up as an example to the rest of the class. Let students teach their peers and demonstrate their skills to the class without embarrassment or humility.
  2. Don’t hold people back from authentic sources. Even if the language is beyond their full grasp, let them tackle it anyway.
  3. Talk to students without too much moderation. Realize that it’s not a bad thing if 10% of the language you use is lost on them — it challenges them and makes them stronger listeners.
  4. Be open regarding expectations and criteria. Don’t give false praise but don’t be sparing with encouragement — both specific and general. Remind them of realities but give them the belief that these are achievable.

It is ultimately ‘the challenge’ that is necessary to make stronger characters out of people, because outside in the real world, a knowledge of facts or an ability to speak correct English is not going to take you half as far as good interpersonal skills and an understanding of emotional values. So surely it’s preferable for us to view the classroom as a microcosm of the real world and lift learners’ horizons by lifting their expectations.