Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Researchers have long known that students respond to teachers’ expectations of them. Now, according to a recent story on National Public Radio, Robert Pianta of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, is examining whether focusing on teacher behavior, rather than simple verbal instruction to change teachers’ attitudes, yields better results. Pianta’s work builds on a 1964 experiment, in which Robert Rosenthal of Harvard administered an IQ test to children and told teachers that it predicted that several children, chosen at random, were poised to take big intellectual leaps.

“As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids really did affect the students. ‘If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,’ he says,” NPR reports. “But just how do expectations influence IQ? As Rosenthal did more research, he found that expectations affect teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: They consistently touch, nod and smile at those kids more. ‘It’s not magic, it’s not mental telepathy,’ Rosenthal says. ‘It’s very likely these thousands of different ways of treating people in small ways every day.’”

Pianta gives an example of how teachers’ attitudes affect their behavior. Take, for instance, a teacher who believes boys are disruptive.

“I ask a question in class, and a boy jumps up, sort of vociferously … ‘I know the answer! I know the answer! I know the answer!’” Pianta tells NPR. “If I believe boys are disruptive, and my job is control the classroom, then I’m going to respond with, ‘Johnny! You’re out of line here! We need you to sit down right now.’ ”

The likely result, Pianta says, is that the boy will become frustrated and disengaged and then escalate his behavior – which, in turn, will validate the teacher’s belief that boys are disruptive.

“But if the teacher doesn’t carry those beliefs into the classroom, then the teacher is unlikely to see that behavior as threatening,” NPR reports. “Instead it’s: ‘Johnny, tell me more about what you think is going on.’ … But also, ‘I want you to sit down quietly now as you tell that to me,’ ” Pianta says. “These two responses,” he says, “are dictated almost entirely by two different interpretations of the same behavior that are driven by two different sets of beliefs.”

How, then, to help teachers get from the first response noted above to the second? Pianta set up an experiment to examine whether changing teacher behavior leads to changed attitudes. In his research, he has divided teachers into two groups. The control group received standard verbal instruction about the role of expectations and attitudes. The other group received intense behavior training. They were regularly videotaped and received personal coaching from trainers who had watched the videos and now offered alternate behaviors for the teachers to try. The beliefs of the teachers in the experimental group changed more than the beliefs of teachers in the control group.

“It’s far more powerful,” Pianta says, “to work from the outside in than the inside out if you want to change expectations.”