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Pygmalion Goes to Church?

The crPygmalion statueoss-fertilization of the different areas of my life is part of what makes my life so delightful these days. I teach college and I do professional executive coaching (which involves a lot of secular coaching reading, some of it great and some of it ‘woo-woo”) and I’m involved in ministry. The intersection of those worlds continually finds one informing the others.

The latest example of that is an article in the journal “The National Teaching & Learning Forum.”  There was an article back in 1999 that was recommended by Tal ben-Shahar.  As part of my continuing education for my coaching, I am viewing a video series “Positive Psychology,” which is a taping of ben-Shahar’s popular class on at Harvard University (one of the most popular courses in the history of Harvard).

ben-Shahar discusses the study, “Pygmalion in the Classroom” which was a study and a book done in 1968.  It has been widely discussed (and widely misinterpreted).  Basically the study examined the effects of teacher’s expectations on student performance.  The original studies centered on elementary students.  From the article in NTALF:

Simply put, when teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged a variety of ways.  In the famous Oak School experiment, teachers were led to believe that certain students selected at random were likely to be showing signs of a spurt in intellectual growth and development.  At the end of the year, the students of whom the teachers had these expectations showed significantly greater gains in intellectual growth than did those in the control group.  (“Pygmalion in the Classroom” National Teaching & Learning Forum.  Vol. 8, No. 2 (1999), p. 1)

The reason I pursued the article was (besides the evidence it shows for positive psychology) that in one of the schools for whom I teach, the student population is predominantly made up students who have failed in previous academic environments.  They are all adult learners and almost all of them have barely passed high school.  They have poor study skills and while most are highly motivated (at least initially) they do not have a track record that gives them self-confidence in an academic environment. (For example, I had an extended conversation this morning by phone with a student who is not passing my class and says that she “knew” she wouldn’t pass from Day 1.  The reality, from my perspective however, is that the work she has done has mostly been good and with a few adjustments she should not have any trouble passing my class in the weeks that remain.  We’ll see if my conversation with her convinced her).

The school I teach for is very strict about the guidance and mentoring that we are to do. Our e-mails to students are monitored and counted.    The extra-classroom contact we have with students is required, and also monitored and counted and becomes a part of our performance evaluations.  The exact wording that we use is critiqued.  When I initially hired on, we were told that if we did not have a specific percentage retention rate (determined by whether they signed up for another class after they completed mine), we would be terminated.  (While that is technically true, there are other factors that come into play, as you will evidence below).

Despite that, the success rate is fairly low.  I have had one class that had 100% failure rate.  (I am not alone in that). And while the students are ultimately responsible for their success or failure, it bothers me that the success rate isn’t higher.  And unfortunately, I know that I “expect” many of my students to fail…and so they do.  I am trying to think through how to change how I view their potential.

The Pygmalion article goes on to say that instructor expectations are not limited to elementary schools (as some critics have charged).  Studies have shown that expectations of college instructors also has a significant effect on student performance.  At the college level, however, a big factor is that what is expected determines what is assigned.

Again from the NRALF article:

“When you think your students can’t achieve very much, are perhaps not too bright, you may be inclined to teach simple stuff, do a lot of drills, read from your lecture notes, give simple assignments calling for simplistic factual answers.” (“Pygmalion”, p. 2)

OK, this isn’t an education blog.  It is a ministry blog.  But I suspect you know where I am going with this.  What do our expectations as Christian leaders have on both the congregations we lead as well as the disciples we mentor?

I’ve been around the church long enough (all my life) to…
…have heard plenty of conversations about the low preconceptions that Christian leaders bring to their congregational members, to church staff, to elder boards, and to preachers.
…know the low expectations (high hopes, perhaps, but low expectations) we place on new disciples.
…to know the low expectations that congregational members have that preaching will have any effect on their lives.
…to know the low level of financial commitment that we expect congregational members will be willing to give.

If you are familiar with “The Law of Attraction”, that is NOT what I am talking about.  The Pygmalion effect is scientifically observable fact.

And yet, I fear that the church has been incredibly crippled by the expectations of her leaders.

What are your thoughts?  I would like to have dialogue.

  • Am I just blind to the high expectations that Christian leaders have?
  • While the Pygmalion effect has been shown to be true in education over and over, is there some reason why it would not be true in the church?
  • Are you aware of any studies that have been done in the church tracking the Pygmalion effect?  (Could such studies be even done ethically?)
  • What relation does the pervasiveness (objectivity spoiler-alert!) of the “new reformed theology” that has swept the American church over the past couple of decades had in limiting our expectations of what is possible in the lives of believers and in churches?

Share with me your thoughts…

1. Pygmalion refers to the Greek myth of a sculptor who carved a beautiful statue.  It was so beautiful that he fell in love with it.  His love for the statue led him to make sacrifices to the goddess Venus, who granted life to the statue.  Under the kisses of Pygmalion, the statue became soft and warm and came to life.  The myth is the basis of the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts”, which then became the basis of the musical “My Fair Lady”.

2. The picture for this post is a statue by Étienne Maurice Falconet “Pygmalion & Galatee” (1763)

3. You can find the article “Pygmalion in the Classroom” here.

Attitude, Coaching

3 Comments to “Pygmalion Goes to Church?”

  1. Can you expand on your final question for the sake of clarity? It seems to me that generally the few “new reformed” churches that I’ve had contact with actually tend to have higher expectations on their members than other churches. So I’m curious where you’re coming from with the question.

    • I think it comes down to their view of the effects of salvation. The higher expectations are more rule based than anticipating that believers are actually able to exhibit more of God’s power and light in their lives because they are indeed changed beings. My observation is that they don’t take seriously the concept that we are “new creatures in Christ.” They so hold to a misguided concept of “total depravity” that they believe (in application, if not in pure theology) that man’s depravity is greater than God’s power to redeem.

      My observation is that they still view believers as “sinners” instead of new creatures. (A concept that is totally unknown in the New Testament–nowhere are believers after conversion called “sinners”*). If believers are still “sinners” than our expectations of them must be low because what do sinners do? They have to sin because that is who they are. But if we are new creatures in Christ, we can grow to live on a higher plane. I am not talking moral perfection …I don’t believe that will come until we are with Christ, but we can have a higher level of expectation because we truly believe that Christians are new creatures and able to live at a more godly plane.

      What thoughts does that prompt?

      *The two passages where Paul calls himself a “sinner” (“I am chief of sinners”) refer to Paul’s pre-conversion state because of his horror at what he had done to the Church before his Damascus Road experience.

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