Lessons from school: The Pygmalion effect revisited.
In response to the blog post “I trust you”, Rajesh Makhija wrote;
“Elango, very well written. In many such cases, the Pygmalion effect also comes into play, thus promoting behaviors in the intended direction”
The Pygmalion effect – aha! It brought back memories of an incident in school. I think this was in 7th grade; we had a new boy in class. He was a really big, but gentle boy. He did not know a word of English and looked like a rabbit caught in the glare of the headlights in the middle of jungle road.
He was of course not welcome. The whole class pounced on his inability to converse. What a misfit he was! He was a big guy so all the taunts were quiet, in the back. The boy grew distant; he did not seem to make progress, each day he seemed to drag himself to class.
Our class teacher noticing this, chose a few of us and made us take responsibility for certain specific areas of improvement. I was given English; another was made his buddy in hostel and so on. I was struggling, even after weeks of perseverance and patience he was making no progress. I was tiring and soon became frustrated. I started avoiding him, but pride wouldn’t let me go. I confided in my favorite teacher my struggle. She told me all I have to do is tell him that he will do well and be proud of every little move. As only a child can, I scampered off with this new idea only to see myself fail yet again! I went back to her, she said she will think about this and talk to me the next day.
Next day she called me at the end of her class and asked me to walk with her to the staff room. She apparently had pulled him aside and spoken to him to discover that I had created so much performance pressure that he was tongue-tied. She suggested that I forget my English lessons and just be friends with him. We would both figure it out anyway. We started hanging out together, initially saying nothing just sharing our food, playing in the breaks and sharing notes i took in class. Suddenly we figured he was an ace in basket ball. As long as he was with me I would not lose those paired basket ball sessions we had! Suddenly he grew in confidence from learner he became teacher and before we knew he was picking up spoken English and end of the year he moved out of my tutelage. We stayed friends through school but as equals and lost touch as went our ways to make our life.
Suddenly reading Rajesh’s note brought back those memories and the early lessons. I clearly remember the first rejection, struggle, warm friendship and the joy of seeing somebody learn and excel. But on careful scrutiny I realized had I totally relied on expectation setting, the story would have ended, yes, but I doubt the happy ending.
My friend would definitely have mastered the language, but the journey would not have been as memorable. The theory of the Pygmalion Effect is definitely true. But I feel the corollary to the theory is often forgotten. Set expectations, but also watch the ecosystem you create.
Even when you want to teach, look to learn and you will teach. Somehow people open up to your teaching when they know you are also learning from them. People want to know that they have something to offer, it makes them more receptive. This is what happened when I figured out my friend’s basket ball skills and he realized I could learn from him.
While your expertise bags you the job, it may actually create performance pressure for the learner. Being humble, patient and sometimes laughing at some of the mistakes you made when you started will help. That is why sometimes failed players are better coaches than the most successful players.
When somebody elses’ learning becomes your personal success it becomes your ego. If it is their success that you are looking out for, it is less about you and more about them.
Don’t get so caught up with the end that you stop enjoying the journey. The minute the focus shifted to being friends in addition to the English classes, we reached the end thoroughly enjoying the process.
BTW the Pygmalion comment was a trigger i don’t know the theory well to be able to say if my interpretation is right. So please do not look at this as a purist Pygmalion effect commentary but another story triggered by Rajesh’s comments with hopefully some lessons.
Have fun and leave your comments.