The Power of Perspective: How Changing the Way We Think About Students Affects Their Performance in the Classroom

A teacher’s perspective greatly influences the experience and success of the individual’s in their class. Where one teacher might describe a class as “unruly,” another might describe the same group of students as “energetic,” and just this sort of distinction can make the difference between student improvement and student devolution. The power of positive thinking and high expectations, especially on the diverse classrooms of today, is a vast pool of educational power that is tapped much less than it should be.

But how can a teacher adjust her attitude towards student behavior, especially if that behavior is having an undeniably negative effect? In the blog “Reframing: Seeing Students in a New Way,” Dr. Richard Curwin explains the great power and potential in “reframing” our perceptions of student behavior. He claims, “The truth is, we don’t act on what children do, we respond to the name we give it.” The name we give to the student and his/her actions can influence the student profoundly, so it’s important to choose the name that results in the better outcome.

Curwin gives the following example: “Thus, we have the freedom to choose any name that leads to the best possible outcome. Is a student who sticks to his view ‘resolute,’ meaning that he doesn’t quit when things get tough? Or is he ‘stubborn and out to get me’?” Either way the student will end up learning about himself, and while in one case the lesson will be an encouraging one that could bring the student to develop the more positive aspects of “resoluteness,” the other will hurt the student’s self-image and could contribute to misbehavior in the future.

Research further supports the idea that a teacher’s perceptions influence a student’s performance, and not just behaviorally. The blog “How Will Students Perform? Depends on Teacher’s Expectations,” written by Alix Spiegel, provides powerful evidence for the effectiveness of high expectations on individual students. Spiegel cites a 1964 study by researcher Robert Rosenthal who didn’t mind using a little deception to collect his data. He visited a few teachers and asked them to give their students basic test similar to an IQ test. He told the teachers it was an aptitude test recently designed by Harvard to predict rapid gains in IQ. When the tests were finished and the teachers returned the results, Rosenthal pretended to analyze the results and then randomly selected a few students in each class to be the ones who passed the test with flying colors. Informing the teachers of which students these were, he told them to expect rapid progress over the next year of studies. Read “How Will Students Perform? Depends on Teacher’s Expectations” for researcher Robert Planta’s seven ways teachers can change their expectations.

Teachers who fine-tune their classroom expectations will find that they are not only empowered, they also empower their students to step up and fill new expectations. It’s hard not to expect more of someone when you’ve made an effort to truly understand her for who she is, and once you’ve seen how special each of your students are, they’ll see it themselves.

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