The largest myth about expectations is the Pygmalion myth. It is based on the ancient Greek myth by Ovid about a sculptor named Pygmalion who fell in love with one of his statues. He treated the statue as if it were a real woman – buying it flowers, calling it any manner of endearments, and even kissing it – until one day, it became a living, breathing woman.
Later, George Bernard Shaw wrote a play called Pygmalion where the lead character, Professor Henry Higgins, takes a poor woman selling flowers on the street, trains her in speech and the social graces, buys her new clothing, and eventually passes her off as a refined lady.
The argument goes that if you treat students as if they can reach high standards and achieve at high levels, they will rise to the level of our expectations – if only we would believe.
The idea behind this myth is that if we just believe that our students can achieve, our students will meet our expectations despite their background, skill level, or even their own motivation. It’s called the Pygmalion effect but unfortunately, this explanation of the Pygmalion effect is not consistent with the original Pygmalion stories.
You see, Pygmalion is not about the sculptor’s or the professor’s belief in their subjects; Pygmalion is about their belief in themselves.
Ovid’s Pygmalion doesn’t see a lump of stone and believe in it so much that it becomes a woman. He falls in love with the work of his own hands. Shaw’s Professor Higgins doesn’t fall for the potential he sees in Eliza (To the contrary. In fact, he sees very little potential in her); he is confident in his own ability to take anyone and turn them into an aristocrat. In both cases, the Pygmalion effect has little to do with the subject and everything to do with the architect.
What makes the Pygmalion effect so powerful in the classroom is not the dogged belief in our students’ abilities as we have been taught in our education courses. What makes the Pygmalion effect powerful is our belief in our own ability to take anyone, a poor Cockney flower girl, or anything, a cold hard lump of marble, and turn it into something so magnificent that we fall in love with it ourselves.
Notice the pattern here. First, the professor and the artist begin with a piece of raw material and a vision of what they can do with that raw material. They then set out to work. Once they have finished, they fall in love with their creation because it exceeds even what they believed they could do. We want to fall in love before we have created anything. We are waiting to believe in our students before we get to work. That’s not the way the Pygmalion effect works. The professor and the artist begin by having a vision of what it is they will create. They go to work believing that they will end up with a masterpiece, not because the raw material they are working with has some innate potential, but because of the power of their own ability to create a masterpiece.
The professor and artist begin with raw material and a vision of what they will create. Then they get to work believing that when they are finished, they will have a masterpiece. Their belief is not based on anything they see in their raw material; in fact, their belief persists in spite of the flaws of their subject. That’s because their belief is not based on some hidden value they see in their subjects; it’s based on what they can do regardless of what they find in their subject.
The same is true about us. Our expectations do no depend on the students or the teachers we serve. Our expectations depend on the reach of our vision and the strength of our belief in ourselves.