“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t – you’re right.”

Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to have taught a number of students with a mix of learning disabilities. These students have taught me a lot about patience and perseverance, and about the importance of self-belief.

What I’ve noticed with these students is that the younger ones (usually < 10 years old) seem to live completely obvious to the fact that they are different to everyone else, but the older ones feel ashamed and limited by their difference.

I’ve come across a number of different studies that document the effect of labeling on the subsequent performance of these individuals. Many of these studies involve children, and demonstrate quite starkly the impact that expectation – both internal and external – can make to how someone will perform.

The quote from Henry Ford – “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right” – is not an exaggeration of the point.

It’s been shown that randomly allocating students to the ‘smart’ group and the ‘average’ group will yield significantly lower performance (in tests .etc) of the students in the ‘average’ class than the students in the ‘smart’ class, even though the students were allocated completely at random.

This phenomenon is widespread and it really cautions the danger of attaching labels to people in a negative way. Not only does the internal expectations change – the feeling that you’re not as competent or as good as others – but also the external expectations as well. The Pygmalion effect is an example of where higher expectations placed on people consistently result in better performance. This is due to a number of different aspects, one including the fact that people who expect more from someone might behave differently towards them (for example, teachers going out of their way to encourage or help a ‘gifted’ student), or interpret the behaviour of that person different (they might look to external reasons for poor performance, rather than attribute it to the person themselves).

So while there’s a frenzy of trying to be ‘hush hush’ and sensitive about those who might be expected to underperform, on the flip side is a view that there is much to be gained in expecting the better from people.

I love the following video by psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl that I think captures the essence of this idea – “If we take man as he is, we make him worse, but if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”


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