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The self-fulfilling prophecy is the process by which one’s expectations of other people lead those people to behave in ways that confirm those expectations. The term “self-fulfilling prophecy” was coined in 1948 by Robert K. Merton, who drew upon W. I. Thomas’s well-known dictum: ”if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Wineberg 1987). The Thomas theorem suggests that the meanings of human actions are not inherent merely in their actions. Rather people attribute meanings to those actions, and the meanings have consequences for future actions.
In education, the self-fulfilling prophecy illuminates the ways that teacher expectations influence students’ behavior and academic outcomes. This is also known as the Pygmalion effect after the publication in 1968 of “Pygmalion in the Classroom” by Richard Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. In their study, Rosenthal and Jacobson created different teacher expectations and showed that students who were falsely identified as ”spurters” – those who were expected to show an academic spurt” (Rosenthal & Jacobson 1968: 66) – made significantly greater gains in IQ scores than did those who were not identified. Thus, Pygmalion established a positive relationship between teacher expectations and students’ intelligence, confirming the existence of the educational self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ray Rist’s ethnographic study in 1970 was the earliest sociological study of the educational self-fulfilling prophecy. A striking finding in Rist’s study was that the teacher formed expectations during the first days of kindergarten. The teacher then assigned her students to groups based on student’s socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds, not on their academic ability, and treated each group differently. She gave more freedom and encouragements to students in the highest SES group, but more criticisms and restrictions to students in the lowest SES group. Students in the highest SES group could get physically closer to the teacher, and eventually they received more instruction and showed better performance than did students in the lowest SES group.
Both Pygmalion and Rist’s study sparked controversies as researchers searched for evidence to support or refute the prophecy. By the 1980s there were about 400 experiments and meta-analyses. However, many studies failed to replicate earlier findings, and this led other researchers to investigate why these studies did not observe the teacher expectancy effects. Later studies, for example, revealed that the timing of “expectancy induction” was critical for the formation of teacher expectations in experimental studies (Raudenbush 1984).
Since the 1970s, our knowledge about the self-fulfilling prophecy has greatly increased both in the US and abroad. Studies conducted in England, New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea, among others, support the notion of the educational self-fulfilling prophecy (Tauber 1997: Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A Practical Guide to Its Use in Education). More recently, the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy was also applied to the settings beyond the classroom. These include work organization, judicial settings, substance uses, delinquencies, and health care.
- Raudenbush, S. (1984) Magnitude of teacher expectancy effects on pupil IQ as a function of the credibility of expectancy induction: a synthesis of findings from 18 experiments. Journal of Educational Psychology 76: 85-97.
- Rist, R. (1970) Student social class and teacher expectations: the self-fulfilling prophecy in ghetto education. Harvard Educational Review 40, 411—51.
- Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom. Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, New York.
- Wineberg, S. S. (1987) The self-fulfillment of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Educational Researcher 16, 28-44.