Theories of Education

The symbolic interactionist theory


Symbolic interactionists limit their analysis of education to what they directly observe happening in the classroom.

They focus on how teacher expectations influence student performance, perceptions, and attitudes.


Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted the landmark study for this approach in 1968.

First, they examined a group of students with standard IQ tests.

The researchers then identified a number of students who they said would likely show a sharp increase in abilities over the coming year.

They informed the teachers of the results, and asked them to watch and see if this increase did occur.

When the researchers repeated the IQ tests at the end of the year, the students identified by the researchers did indeed show higher IQ scores.

The significance of this study lies in the fact that the researchers had randomly selected a number of average students.

The researchers found that when the teachers expected a particular performance or growth, it occurred.

This phenomenon, where a false assumption actually occurs because someone predicted it, is called a self‐fulfilling prophesy.

For example, the stock market may be stable with rising values.

If investors become afraid that the market will crash, however, they may suddenly sell their stocks, which causes the market to crash.

The crash occurred simply because investors feared it would do so.

Ray Rist conducted research similar to the Rosenthal‐Jacobson study in 1970.

In a kindergarten classroom where both students and teacher were African American, the teacher assigned students to tables based on ability; the “better” students sat at a table closer to her, the “average” students sat at the next table, and the “weakest” students sat at the farthest table.

Rist discovered that the teacher assigned the students to a table based on the teacher's perception of the students' skill levels on the eighth day of class, without any form of testing to verify the placement.

Rist also found that the students the teacher perceived as “better” learners came from higher social classes, while the “weak” students were from lower social classes.

Monitoring the students through the year, Rist found that the students closer to the teacher received the most attention and performed better.

The farther from the teacher a student sat, the weaker that student performed.

Rist continued the study through the next several years and found that the labels assigned to the students on the eighth day of kindergarten followed them throughout their schooling.

While symbolic‐interactionist sociologists can document this process, they have yet to define the exact process of how teachers form their expectations or how students may communicate subtle messages to teachers about intelligence, skill, and so forth.

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