Have you heard about the rats?
There’s a study that was done where Bob Rosenthal, a researcher, took a group of regular, every day, average rats. The rats were divided randomly into two groups. He put signs labeling one cage of rats as “maze bright” and the other as “maze dull.” Each group, with the signs attached, was given to experimenters. Their goal was to teach the rats how to run through the same maze.
Here’s what happened: The rats that were labeled as “maze bright” learned that maze quickly. During the teaching process, the teachers that were working with them talked positively about them and were excited about their progress. Throughout the process, the teachers talked negatively about the “maze dull” rats and blamed their lack of ability for their slow progress. The “maze bright” rats did almost twice as well as the “maze dull” rats.
Remember, there was nothing different about the rats.
Rosenthal and his researchers found that there were subtle, almost imperceptible differences in the experimenter’s behaviors towards the rats. Small differences in the way that the rats were handled. The “smart” rats were handled more gently and guided to the correct paths through the maze because the teachers believed that they had the capacity to learn quickly and succeed. They were seen as capable, competent and valuable. Those perceptions and high expectations changed the way they were treated. Even more importantly, it changed their outcome.
A rat’s outcome was changed by someone’s expectation of him.
You’ve probably figured out that I’m not writing this because I care deeply about rats. As it turns out, these “expectation effects” are also seen in people, particularly in students. I recently listened to a podcast that discussed this topic (Invisibilia‘s How to Become Batman). In it, they talk about the rat study for a few minutes and they interview Carol Dweck, a researcher out of Stanford, who explains that the expectation effects exist on a continuum. So, for example, believing someone can fly isn’t going to make it happen, but believing students are intelligent actually increased their IQ scores.
It sounds unbelievable, right? It’s a powerful idea that we can change someone by thinking that something is possible…or not possible. Keep in mind, it works both ways.
High expectations involve some risk. As the “expecter,” we risk disappointment. We risk getting our hopes up “too high.” The beauty of expectations is that they are internal. We can set them as high as we want without putting pressure on anyone else, but they will feel our expectations in our interactions with them. Expecting that an individual with poor muscle control and coordination, severe dysarthria and the inability to reliably control his body will speak verbally doesn’t mean that it will happen.
However, let’s think about what will happen.
If you expected that individuals will speak verbally, you’d also expect that they understand what is being said around them. You’d talk to them, engage with them, explain what you were doing and narrate your day. You’d treat them as if you expected them to eventually be a conversation partner. Would you be disappointed if they didn’t start to speak verbally? Well, maybe, but you can refine your expectation to overcome the barriers that are impeding verbal speech.
You can raise your expectations.
You can expect those individuals to communicate using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Yes, you’d have to raise your expectations to believe that students could learn to communicate using AAC. You’d have to expect those students to learn a new language. You’d have to expect those students to remember where words are located and be able to translate what they want to say into the buttons that you’ve given them. You’d expect them to learn language and communication, without the luxury of verbal speech. You’d have to expect that they have a lot to say and they are waiting for someone to give them the words to find their way out of their maze of thoughts. You’d have to expect enough of yourself to believe that you are that someone.
Your thoughts about a child/student’s ability affects his/her outcome. High expectations are not the opposite of reality. There is evidence-based research: Expectations shape reality.
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You have the ability to change another person…for better or worse. Even if you feel like you presume competence, expect more. Let go of your fear of disappointment and consider the possibilities. Expect successful communication, social relationships and friendships, literacy, college, and employment because there’s no known end to the “expectation effect” continuum. Believing in someone can raise their IQ. Here’s to remembering to learn from rats.
Your expectations today can change someone’s outcome. Let today be the day that you raised your expectations.
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