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Over the past few years, there are very few teaching concepts that have caught my attention as much as the impact of teacher expectations on students. At first glance, you would think expectations are a trivial factor. After all, expectations are a mindset, not a practice. Just having higher expectations, does not necessarily dictate any changes in actual teaching. However, there is a growing abundance of research showing that just believing in our students, can be one of the most impactful things we can do. John Hattie’s meta-study has shown that believing students are capable of success has an ES of 1.29, making it one of the all-time highest factors on his list (Hattie, 2017).


Research on education and expectation has actually been a point of interest for many scholars over the past several decades. Rosenthal and Jacobson did a series of seminal education experiments in the 1960s that all showed a benefit to teachers holding high expectations and beliefs for their students. In the most famous of these experiments, they administered IQ tests to students and then gave randomized fake results back to their teachers. The students who received the fake positive IQ tests went on to outperform the other students in their class.  In one experiment Rosenthal and Jacobson even replicated their results on rats. They pooled groups of researchers together, to train rats. They told one set of researchers that the rats they were working with had below-average intelligence, and another group of researchers that the rats they were working with had above-average intelligence. The rats in the second group out-performed the rats in the first group.

Researchers since Rosenthal and Jackson have observed that “high-achieving students received teacher actions and opportunities that supported their achievement (e.g., teachers asked them more challenging questions and stayed with them by providing clues when they initially responded incorrectly). In contrast, low-achieving students received less stimulation” (Thomas, 3). All of this research supports Emile Durkheim’s classical “Labelling Theory”. Durkheim proposed that labels create the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that interacts both with the labeller and the labelled. According to his theory, labels can change the expectations and thus the behaviours of both parties. In the classroom context, a student labelled “unintelligent” might not believe in themself, and therefore try less hard. Whereas their teacher, might mark them more harshly and provide them with less high-intensity instruction. Moreover, if the student labelled unintelligent fails, both parties might assume this was just a natural result of the student’s ability. 

Over the last 60 years, research into expectations has been inextricably linked to race. As scholars and activist have pointed out, the sub-conscious bias and racism could negatively impact the expectations teachers have for racialized students and consequently the results of those students. Black students, for example, are significantly more likely to be labelled as having a learning disability than a white student (Gold, 2). “For example, in 2002-2003, African-American students were three times more likely to be labelled mentally retarded (intellectually disabled) and 2.3 times more likely to be labelled emotionally disturbed than all other racial-ethnic groups combined” (Ibid). Considering, that there is no biological determining factor that could explain these differences, these differences have to be the direct result of racism, likely both institutional and sociological. 

Overall, if we look at research on special education, it appears clear that the movement as a whole has been positive for education. Special education movements have advocated for inclusivity, and research has shown a clear academic benefit. John Hattie, for example, puts the impact of special education programs as having a high yield impact size of .77. (Hattie, 2017). However, when we look at the research, on labelling, and expectations, it becomes quite clear that the impact of teacher expectations has a higher overall impact than the impact of special education programming. This is not to say that we should abandon the special education movement or all identifications. As the labelling of students with special needs is litigiously integral to the current special education system. As labels provide students access to extra resources and legal protections. 

However, it is only with the design of the current special education framework, that makes these labels litigiously necessary. If special education supports and protections were available to all students, as they were deemed necessary by parents and teachers, these labels might be less of a necessity. While these labels do hold the potential to help students, it is also undeniably true, that labels run the risk of creating negative self-fulfilling prophecies for students. I would therefore argue, the fewer labels a special education system needs to run, the less potential downside that system would have.

Personally, I have seen the power of expectations and labels, first hand, within my teaching career. When students are struggling, there is a natural response for teachers to try and find externalities to blame. The easiest externality is always the student. When a student is succeeding we want to take the credit and when a student is failing we naturally want to blame the student or some other factor. Personally, the first time I tried RTI, was around the first time, I started learning about the power of teacher expectations and mindset. This led to me taking full responsibility for my students learning, for the first time in my career. I took on the assumption that all of my students were capable of learning and therefore that I was fully responsible for both their success and their failure. This meant, that when a student struggled, instead of telling myself, it was the student’s fault, I asked myself, what I could change to better help the student. This very quickly, transformed how I taught. It turned my teaching from an imitation of my previous teachers, into an ever-growing process and the results were powerful. With time my teaching looked radically different, but so did my results. To this day, I firmly believe that believing in your student’s ability to succeed is one of the easiest and most powerful ways you can improve your teaching. After all, the only thing that is really changing is your mindset. 

Written by Nate Joseph
Last Edited 2021-04-11

Good, Thomas L., et al. “Expectation Effects: Pygmalion and the Initial 20 Years of Research                1.” Educational Research and Evaluation, vol. 24, no. 3–5, Apr. 2018, pp. 99–123, doi:10.1080/13803611.2018.1548817.

S, Skaggs. (2016). Labelling Theory. Encyclopedia Brittanica. Retrieved from <> .

Gold, M. E., & Richards, H. (2012). To Label or Not to Label: The Special Education Question for African Americans. Educational Foundations, 26(1/2), 143–156.

J, Hattie. (2018). Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement. Visible Learning. Retrieved from <> .

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