Stephen Louw

My students don't even try!

The power of expectations

There is a radio show in the States called 'A Prairie Home Companion', which is set in a fictional hamlet in the mid-west called Lake Wobegon. Sadly, this month was Garrison Keilor's final broadcast of the show, which has been running since we were all small children.

Anyway, for those who don't know it, the closing words of every episode go something like "Well, that's all from Lake Wobegon, where the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the all the children are above average."

Who wouldn't want to live in Lake Wobegon? Imagine having a class full of children who are above average! In fact, if you have taught 3/1 in a school where the children are streamed, you have had a class of children who are above average. But for every 3/1, there is a 3/14. For every above-average student, there has to be an equal and opposite below-average student. That is what statistics dictates. Lake Wobegon, unfortunately, is only fiction.

Below-average students

So we have to accept that there are above- and below-average students. This class is hardworking and clever, and that class is not so hardworking and clever.

During my training as a teacher, we were told never to call a student stupid. Or lazy. Or bad. Or any other such pejorative. It seems like a sensible prescription, right? Criticize the behavior, not the person. But then how do we describe the children in 3/14?

Hang around a group of teachers and it's not long before you'll hear something like 'Oh, Poom's so thick. I just ignore him', 'Those girls at the back are so bitchy, all they do is disrupt the lesson', or perhaps on an even broader sweep, '3/14 are so weak, none of them really care about studying English'.

Is this kind of labeling a problem? Why? What about labeling a child 'clever' or 'gifted'? Can you do that, or is that bad too? And if you can, why can you apply positive labels and not negative ones?

The IQ test effect

In the late 1960s, psychologists Rosenthal and Jacobson became interested in this. In one of his studies, after conducting an IQ test at a primary school, he told teachers which of the students were 'bloomers' (or high-achievers) based on the results. The teachers were told that these individual students were 'ready to bloom', and would likely show some impressive intellectual progress.

In reality, it wasn't true: the children had been chosen randomly and their IQ scores were no more or less intelligent than the rest of the students in the class.

Rosenthal followed up later with more IQ tests on these children and found, incredibly (and rather controversially), that the random group of children who had been named 'bloomers' had made significantly greater improvements in their intellectual development than the rest of the children in the class. The children who had been labeled bloomers had bloomed!

The power of expectation

Why had this happened? Telling the teachers that certain children were 'gifted' created an expectation in the teachers of these children's performance. The children, somehow or another (I'll come back to this 'somehow or another' thing), then performed in accordance with this expectation: a self-fulfilling prophecy. This phenomenon has come to be known as the Pygmalion effect.

And so it must be for negative expectations. Students pick up on a teacher's expectation of low achievement, and somehow or another (there it is again) conform to it with low performance that confirms the original expectation. This is called the Golem effect.

This expectancy effect is, then, at least one of the reasons why labeling is so problematic for educators. But how does it work? When we say something like 'Poom's so thick', it seems like it can't make any difference because Poom isn't in the room to hear us say it. Here's that 'somehow or another': just by thinking that he is thick leads to subconscious cues that give away our expectation, and the expectation turns to reality.

What are the subconscious cues? In the Pygmalion studies, it seems that there are subtle differences in how the teachers deal with students who are identified as high achievers - more confidence-building praise, more questions directed towards them, greater wait-time after a question is asked, more constructive feedback.

Where a teacher's expectations are higher, there are changes in lesson content, difference in classroom management strategies, even greater teacher enthusiasm. With the Golems, subtly the opposite - less patience, lower trust, fewer questions.

And what about 3/14? These are not the students that can responsibly be labeled high-achievers, right? Well, as a teacher, I need to accept that not all my students can be above average. For those in 3/14, it's important that I don't give up on them - they are quicker to go off task and they do not like reading, but they have an amazing zest for life that the 3/1s sometimes lack, and are incredibly amused by one another's company.

I need to work from where they are at, not where I want them to be. Importantly, I need to actively avoid labeling them (even in my mind) with any negative expectations that they can reward me by living down to.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


Are we going to try and make these theories apply in Thai schools?

I think first we need to be honest. The Thai education system sucks. It sucks long and hard and not in a good way. Most kids are not being educated in the western sense (or in any real sense) they're being conditioned.

They stand in lines in the morning. They sing the same songs over and over. They recite religious tosh and bow their heads to teachers and directors, etc, who are deluded in thinking they are significant or powerful. I'm not here to change that, but I have a brain and an opinion and am not afraid to observe this and say it. It's not being negative to point something out. How people infer that is up to them.

So, once we can muster up the courage to call a spade a spade; we can move forward in our jobs as 'TEFL instructors'. Yes, that's right. We are TEFL instructors. Your average teacher here does not have a PGCE. In fact, many don't even have a degree. What many do have is some sort of a TEFL certificate.

Going back to not calling students 'stupid' - I agree. It's kind of common sense, but at the level of TEFL teachers, many have to be reminded. We should always encourage our students, and we should always do our best. Younger students have this kind of sixth sense. They can spot a teacher who is genuinely nice and caring - and they can also feel something is not quite right with the "Hey, buddy! High-five on a sooooper dooooper job! 10 stars!" kind of teacher. kids can recognise overkill and the praise then becomes trite.

I don't have all the fancy qualifications and knowledge of a very qualified teacher. If i did, I wouldn't be teaching TEFL to 35 kids in class. What I do have is integrity and work ethic. I'm not a happy clappy teacher. Oh, I also have some years of experience in a Thai classroom. I know the system better than most. I know when to smile, nod and even give false praise to bosses who like to share their great ideas without having any real experience or knowledge of a 'Thai classroom'. Yes, not just any kind of classroom. This one for westerners is truly unique.

In this life, you gotta put your money where your mouth is if you wanna be genuinely taken seriously. Too many people nowadays are way too submissive at work. We tiptoe around our bosses and throw around compliments like a beachball at a Nickelback concert. This doesn't help us grow as people or teams. What we need is 'BS Man' (Karl Pilkington). Best superhero ever.

I speak confidently on this because I have years of experience in a Thai classroom. I can smell BS a mile away and despise the ego-driven bosses. My old Thai boss had many suggestions for me. Once you have the experience - you can filter BS way more easily. Then you can smile, nod, and say "I'll get right on with that" (while doing a Happy Gilmore's thumbs down raspberry).

I'm always willing to learn more. What I'd really love is for a very well-qualified and experienced teacher/instructor to show us how it's done in practice. Go back to the floor. Be a teacher in a real Thai government school for a year. Film it all. Apply these theories for real. See how it works out. That would be the holy grail for teachers here. That would be 'the' invaluable resource for new teachers and/or teachers without the credentials. Could make for a great documentary, also.

if the experiment works, great! If it falls flat on its face (which i think it would - no offence) great too. Work or not - it would create empathy and understanding from all sides.

By John, Bangkok (24th July 2016)

When I taught in a school, in 1 of my P6 classes there was a girl who was described as "slow". In this school, slow and special were both words that were used, and were generally a cover for special needs. The kids shouldnt have been there, but they were.

In this class, in my first class I asked this girl a question. She sat front middle, looked at me all the time, smiled, I thought it was a winner. "Teacher No Teacher, Special Teacher". Poor girl couldnt even write her name when it came to test time.

However, she was the loveliest, sweetest person little girl, and the class really protected her and tried to help her, but I think she was genuinely brain damaged in some way, so learning was impossible. The class let her copy as standard, so she didnt get in trouble missing work. If there was group work, the best students took her in and let her sit there. No one ever took the mick, laughed at her or belittled her.

When she gave me her work, I used to tick it, write Dee Maak in Thai, which made her day. Her little face lit up as she was so used to being useless, and it made my day too. She was trying her best, no trouble.

Realistically, without training and a proper program designed for her, there was nothing that I could do but make her happy, which I tried to do as much as possible. Teaching isnt all about academic achievement

By Rob, Bangkok (19th July 2016)

Another very well written, positive and thought provoking article from Stephen.

By Jack, In front of my computer (19th July 2016)

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