The Power of Expectation

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The power of expectation on the part of parents and educators can have a strong influence on young learners, especially those who struggle with reading. How so? We will start with the story of a horse.

In 1911, a curious German psychologist named Oskar Pfungst investigated a special horse named Clever Hans. Clever Hans could perform near-miraculous feats of reading, spelling, and working math problems for his owner, math teacher Wilhelm von Osten. This horse was an international sensation; far and wide, eager readers sought news of his latest performance that indicated human-level intelligence.

So sensational were the horse’s performances—stomping out answers with his hoof—that a team of experts examined the horse and his owner and could find no sign of prompting by the owner. The horse’s responses appeared to be genuine.

Enter psychologist Oskar Pfungst. Through a series of careful experiments and observations, Fungst came to a very different conclusion, and it’s one that may be of interest to today’s educators.

Pfungst concluded, in short, that what you expect is what you get. And that humans provide subtle, unintentional clues via body language that telegraph to the other participant what their expectations are.

Let me explain. When the participants asked the horse a question, they immediately looked at Hans’ foot for the answer. And here’s the thing: every single participant had a subtle shift in their demeanor as the horse approached the correct answer. The depth of their breathing changed, or they held their breath, or their eyes shifted from focus on the hoof to the horse’s eye or raised their head slightly in anticipation of the correct answer. As Pfungst stated, there was “a high degree of tension of expectancy.”

He continued, “The state required for a successful response was not the mere passive expectation that the horse would tap the number demanded of him nor the wish that he might tap it, but rather the determination that he should do it. An inward ‘thou shalt,’ as it were, was spoken to the horse. This affective state was registered in consciousness in terms of the sensation of tension in the musculature of the head and neck, by intraorganic sensations, and finally by a steadily rising feeling of unpleasantness. When the final number was reached, the tension would suddenly be released, and a curious feeling of relaxation would ensue.”

Pfungst concluded that because horses are intelligent and observant creatures, Hans had learned to respond to the body language cues of the people asking him questions and alter his hoof responses accordingly.

The Power of Expectation in Education

To connect the dots between Clever Hans and education, we have to look at later research done on the power of expectation in 1968 by Rosenthal and Jacobsen. Rosenthal, a Harvard professor, had done other research in 1963 that pointed to the fact that the information biases and expectations of testers in a laboratory setting impacted the results and performance of the participants in those tests. He was concerned about how much this type of influence could have on students’ potential performance in the classroom.

Photo of a subheading on the page of a book that reads "What we expected." It is highlighted with orange highlighting and the highlighter is also visible in the photo. The power of expectation can affect learner outcomes.

To sum up his conclusions, when teachers had an expectation (impressed upon them randomly) that a student was of higher intelligence, this expectation altered the way they related to the student in subtle ways that contributed to the fullest potential of the student. Conversely, when a child was deemed not to be gifted, this expectation also subtly altered the way the teacher responded to the student. The way teachers treated both groups of students was unintentional and unconscious.

Later research confirmed and deepened our understanding about the power of teacher expectations. Once again, researchers observed that teachers unconsciously communicate higher expectations to the students they believe have greater potential. A study conducted by Chaiken, Sigler, and Derlega (1974) consisted of videotaping teacher-student interactions in a classroom situation in which the teachers had been informed that certain children were extremely bright (these students had been chosen at random from all the students in the class).

Careful examination of the videos indicated that in many subtle ways, teachers favored the students identified as brighter.

How? They smiled at these students more often, were more patient, made more eye contact, and responded with more favorable reactions to these students’ comments in class. Researchers also noted that when educators have high expectations for students, those students are more likely to enjoy school, to receive more constructive comments from teachers on their mistakes, and to work harder to try to improve.

A hand writing on a chalkboard with arrows pointing in opposite directions. One arrow reads "Expect" and the other reads "Results." The power of expectation can affect learner outcomes.

Such studies indicate that teacher expectancies—while not the only determinant of a child’s performance in school—can have a powerful effect on a student’s long-term potential and sense of self.

As we all work toward providing optimal learning opportunities for today’s kids, this information is a sobering reminder that what we expect is what we get. When nurturing struggling readers, it is crucial to examine ourselves for personal bias or lowered expectations and to root those out. Why? Because, as sure as Hans was a horse, our kids will pick up on those subtle differences in our expectations.

Thank you for reading about the power of expectation and education. For a thorough discussion of dyslexia, you may enjoy the second edition of my award-winning book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio. In addition to facts on testing and accommodation, my book gives you the tools to provide the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require. The second edition has the same great content as the first edition but now contains a very helpful bibliography and index and an exciting new cover.

Cover of the book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Don M. Winn.

And to learn more about how every student best learns to read, you may also enjoy Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, by reading specialist and shortlisted World Literacy Award nominee Faith Borkowsky.

Cover of the book Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent's Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention by Faith Borkowsky.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.