issue 164 - October 1986
Why children fail
Schooling can develop potential - or crush it.
Nury Vittachi uncovers a mysterious force that
determines why some children succeed and others fail.
Scene: any classroom, any two children playing, First child: 'I can tell what you are going to say next.' Second child: 'What?' First child: '"What."' (Both dissolve into fits of giggles.)
There's nothing new about this phenomenon: the self-fulfilling prophecy. We've all heard about the TV news crews that go in search of sensation - and find that the presence of their camera inspires it. Or tales of stock market tipsters who let it be known that they expect certain market movements, and thereby cause them. These stories pivot on the same point: one person's prediction about another's behaviour becomes accurate simply by virtue of the prediction having been made.
But it's not just when people are speculating on the future that self-fulfilling prophecies have a powerful effect. An increasing number of studies are showing that people who purport to be dealing with cast-iron 'facts', whether educationalists, scientists, politicians, researchers or journalists, have actually found the results they are looking for. Sometimes they 'see' selectively what they want to see. In other cases, they actually bring about the results they are there to record.
There is far more at stake here than a simple grouse that they are not exacting enough in their work. For what happens when such self-fulfilling prophecies invisibly permeate the 10,000 hours of education which, in the West, shape each member of tomorrow's society? Are the huge number of children whom the education system labels as 'successes' or 'failures' being marked for life by teachers who are influencing them to live up or down to the teachers' own expectations?
One of the most penetrating examinations of this phenomenon was a series of delightfully sneaky experiments on the experimenters by Robert Rosenthal.1 He told teachers in the US that he had given their pupils a new type of intelligence test which would pick out 'bloomers' and 'spurters' in the classroom - i.e. children whose potential was about to flower. He and his associates then picked on one in five children at random, passed their names on to the teachers and quietly sidled out of the classroom. The teachers were told on no account to let on to the children that they were extra-bright. The tests were repeated at various intervals through the year, to see if the teachers' heightened expectations of the selected children had borne fruit. They had. Bloomers had bloomed and spurters had spurted. The teachers' unconscious expectations had been fulfilled.
Rosenthal had built up to the study by other experiments. For example, he cheerfully told blatant lies to researchers informing them that they would find particular rats easier to train to perform simple tasks in return for food - and the researchers as cheerfully produced detailed charts showing he was right.
It was thought that the researchers' more frequent handling of the 'clever' rats might have gone some way towards helping their results. But that was not a factor in the following experiment. Two American scientists did similar tests using researchers and the worm planaria - one of the lowest organisms to have a rudimentary brain, and possibly among the least cuddly animals in the world. The researchers were told: these worms over here have been trained to turn in response to stimuli, while those over there have not. In practice, just as the researchers expected, the 'educated' worms turned far more elegantly - though of course they had had no previous training at all.
An angry and deservedly famous book spotlighting the negative consequences of the self-fulfilling prophecy was William Ryan's Blaming the Victim.2 Ryan looked at the subtle shift in attitudes towards people who were poor and black in America during the late 1960s. It's a period generally thought of as liberal and relatively enlightened, but Ryan believed the shift was only from naked racism to unconscious racism.
Ryan tells of a black woman friend who was worried because her bright daughter was apparently not progressing well in reading. She went to see the teacher, who smiled reassuringly and said: 'Don't worry. Donna is doing very well, for this neighbourhood.' Those ominous words - 'for this neighbourhood' - gave the game away; by reading badly, she was doing fine. No more was expected of her.
Ryan argues that liberals have merely replaced the barbaric notion of genetic racial inferiority with a subtler fallacy, which goes like this: 'Blacks are not born inferior: their cultural values have made them inferior.' Either way the black child is labelled by the white community as intrinsically inferior - and the white community is able to turn a blind eye to its gross failure to provide equal educational and social opportunities. It's a sophisticated form of apartheid.
Has much changed since Ryan's day? Apparently not. Depressing news comes from a report published this summer after a five-year study of educational achievements among London's schoolchildren. Called The Unequal Struggle, the report statistics which are continually presented to us as 'hard facts', there is a changing and hard-to-measure human factor, which we need to perceive if we are going to go anywhere near getting the whole story. If such an element is clearly demonstrable in statisticians' conclusions on unemotional experiments with worms, then it must contribute to a far greater extent to the way in which we grade and label children - especially if they are black, poor, and female.
Nury Vittachi is a freelance joumalist and sub-editor who lives in London.
1 Pymalion in the classroom edited by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson.
2 Blaming the victim by William Ryan.
3 The Unequal Struggle by Dr Aston Gibson, 1986