Teacher Labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy #class notes

Labelling theory holds that if a teacher labels a pupil a certain way, they will accept that label and it will become true.

The labels which teachers give to pupils can influence the construction and development of students’ identities, or self-concepts: how they see and define themselves and how they interact with others. This in turn can affect their attitudes towards school, their behaviour, and ultimately their level of achievement in education.

self fulfilling prophecy

Labelling refers to the process of defining a person or group in a simplified way – narrowing down the complexity of the whole person and fitting them into broad categories. At the simplest level labelling involves that first judgement you make about someone, often based on first-impressions – are they ‘worth making the effort to get to know more’, are you ‘indifferent to them’, or are they to ‘be avoided’.

According to labelling theory, teachers actively judge their pupils over a period of time, making judgments based on their behaviour in class, attitude to learning, previous school reports and interactions with them and their parents, and they eventually classifying their students according to whether they are ‘high’ or ‘low’ ability, ‘hard working’ or ‘lazy’, ‘naughty’ or ‘well-behaved’, ‘in need of support’ or ‘capable of just getting on with it’ (to give just a few possible categories, there are others!). (*See criticism one below).

According to a number of small-scale, interpretivist research studies of teacher labelling, the labels teachers give to students are sometimes based not on their behaviour but on a number of preconceived ideas teachers have about students based on their ethnic, gender or social class background, and thus labelling can be said to be grounded in stereotypes.

A closely related concept to labelling theory is the that of the self-fulfilling prophecy – where an individual accepts their label and the label becomes true in practice – for example, a student labelled as deviant actually becomes deviant as a response to being so-labelled.

Labelling theory is one of the main parts of social action, or interactionist theory, which seeks to understand human action by looking at micro-level processes, looking at social life through a microscope, from the ground-up.

Classic studies on teacher labelling in education 

Most of the work of labelling theory applied to education was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Three classic works, summarised below include:

  • David Hargreaves (1975) Deviance in Classrooms
  • R.C. Rist (1970) Student Social Class and Teachers’ Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Ghetto Education
  • Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom (the ‘famous’ self-fulfilling prophecy experiment!)

David Hargreaves: Speculation, Elaboration, Stabilization

Hargreaves Deviance in Classrooms

David Hargreaves et al (1975) in their classic book ‘Deviance in Classrooms’ analysed the ways in which students came to by typed, or labelled. Their study was based on interviews with secondary teachers and classroom observation in two secondary schools, focusing on how teachers ‘got to know their students’ entering the first year of the school.

Teachers have only a very limited idea about ‘who their students are’ as individuals when they first enter the school, based mainly on the area where they came from, and they thus have to build up an image of their students as the school year progresses. Hargreaves et al distinguished three stages of of typing or classification:

  1. Speculation
  2. Elaboration
  3. Stabilisation

In the first stage, that of speculation, the teachers make guesses about the types of student they are dealing with. The researchers noted that there were seven main criteria teachers used to type students:

  • their appearance
  • how far they conformed to discipline
  • their ability and enthusiasm for work
  • how likeable they were
  • their relationship with other children
  • their personality
  • whether they were deviant.

Hargreaves et al stress that in the speculation stage, teachers are tentative in their typing, and are willing to amend their views, nevertheless, they do form a working hypothesis, or a theory about with sort of child each student is.

In the elaboration phase, each hypothesis is tested and either confirmed or contradicted, and through this process the typing of each student is refined.

When the third stage, stabilisation, is reached, the teacher feels that ‘he knows’ the students and finds little difficulty in making sense of their actions, which will be interpreted in light of the general type of student the teacher thinks they are. Some students will be regarded as deviant and it will be difficult for any of their future actions to be regarded in a positive light.

Labelling and Social Class

A lot of the early, classic studies on labelling focused on how teachers label according to indicators of social class background, not the actual ability of the student. 

Research in one American Kindergarten by Ray C. Rist (1970) suggested that the process of labelling is not only much more abrupt than suggested by Hargreaves et al, but also that it is heavily influenced by social class.

Rist found that new students coming into the Kindergarten were grouped onto three tables – one for the ‘more able’, and the other two for the ‘less able’, and that students had been split into their respective tables by day eight of their early-school career. He also found that teachers made their judgments not necessarily on any evidence of ability, but on appearance (whether they were neat and tidy) and whether they were known to have come from an educated, middle class family (or not).

Labelling Theory and the Self Fulfilling Prophecy 

Self Fulling Prophecy Theory argues that predictions made by teachers about the future success or failure of a student will tend to come true because that prediction has been made. Thus if a student is labelled a success, they will succeed, if they are labelled a failure, the will fail.

The reasons for this are as follows (you might call these the positive effects of labelling):

  • teachers will push students they think are brighter harder, and not expect as much from students they have labelled as less-able.
  • Building on the above point, a positive label is more likely to result in a good student being put into a higher band, and vice versa for a student pre-judged to be less able.
  • Positively labelled students are more likely to develop positive attitude towards studying, those negatively labelled an anti-school attitude.
  • The above may be reinforced by peer-group identification.

It follows that in labelling theory, the students attainment level is, at least to some degree,  a result of the interaction between the teacher and the pupil, rather than just being about their ability.

A classic study which supports the self fulfilling prophecy theory was Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) study of an elementary school in California. They selected a random sample of 20% of the student population and informed teachers that these students could be expected to achieve rapid intellectual development.

They tested all students at the beginning of the experiment for IQ, and again after one year, and found that the RANDOMLY SELECTED ‘spurter’ group had, on average, gained more IQ than the other 80%, who the teachers believed to be ‘average’. They also found that the report cards for the 20% group showed that the teachers believed this group had made greater advances in reading.

Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that the teachers had passed on their higher expectations to students which had produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Criticisms of the labelling theory of education

  1. Negative labelling can sometimes have the opposite effect – Margaret Fuller’s (1984) research on black girls in a London comprehensive school found that the black girls she researched were labelled as low-achievers, but their response to this negative labelling was to knuckle down and study hard to prove their teachers and the school wrong.
  2. Given the above findings it should be no surprise that the Rosenthal and Jacobson research has been proved unreliable – other similar experimental studies reveal no significant effects.
  3. Labelling theory attributes too much importance to ‘teacher agency’ (the autonomous power of teachers to influence and affect pupils) – structural sociologists might point out that schools themselves encourage teachers to label students – in some cases entry tests, over which teachers have no control, pre-label students into ability groups anyway, and the school will require the teacher to demonstrate that they are providing ‘extra support’ for the ‘low ability’ students as judged by the entry tes.
  4. One has to question whether teachers today actually label along social class lines. Surely teachers are among the most sensitively trained professionals in the world, and in the current ‘aspirational culture’ of education, it’s difficult to see how teachers would either label in such a way, or get away with it if they did.

More Recent Research on Labelling Theory 

Waterhouse (2004), in case studies of four primary and secondary schools, suggests that teacher labelling of pupils as either normal/ average or deviant types, as a result of impressions formed over time, has implications for the way teachers interact with pupils.

Once these labels are applied and become the dominant categories for pupils, they can become what Waterhouse called a ‘pivotal identity’ for students – a core identity providing a pivot which teachers use to interpret and reinterpret classroom events and student behaviour.

For example, a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘normal’ is likely to have an episode of deviant behaviour interpreted as unusual, or as a ‘temporary phase’ – something which will shortly end, thus requiring no significant action to be taken; whereas as a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘deviant’ will have periods of ‘good behaviour’ treated as unusual, something which is not expected to last, and thus not worthy of recognition.


This post has been written primarily for A-level sociology students, although it will hopefully be a useful primer for anyone with a general interest in this subject.

Labelling Theory is one of the main theories taught as part of the education module, and it is one of the main ‘in-school process’ students need to understand, alongside banding and streaming and student subcultures.

Students can also use this material to illustrate some of the key ideas of social action theory more generally when they study social theory in more depth in their second year.

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Sources/ Find out More

  • David Hargreaves (1975) Deviance in Classrooms
  • R.C. Rist (1970) Student Social Class and Teachers’ Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Ghetto Education
  • Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom (the ‘famous’ self-fulfilling prophecy experiment!)
  • Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives.

Evaluate the view that differences in educational achievement between social groups are the result of factors and processes within schools (30)

This question is relevant to the Education module within A-level sociology.

Students may get this or a similar question in the Education section of Paper One: Education with Theory and Methods.

The way to answer any question on ‘groups’ is ideally to give equal weight to all of social class, gender and ethnicity.

What is below is some notes on the kind of material you could include in this essay.


  • There are significant differences between class, gender, ethnic groups in terms of educational achievement
  • The idea that processes within school explain these differences is associated with Interactionism and especially labelling theory
  • Interactionists argue micro processes such as interactions between pupils and teachers, subcultures and issues of identity explain these differences rather than structural factures or home background/ socialisation and material differences Teacher Labelling
  • Howard Becker (1960s) argued middle class teachers have an ideal pupil and use this as a standard by which to judge all pupils. Positive labels were given based on things such as smart appearance and language (links to elaborated speech code), not intelligence. This gave MC pupils positive self-esteem (1960s) WC pupils negative
  • Rosenthal and Jacobsen argued labels can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy – where if a teacher doesn’t expect much of a student, they internalise the label and it becomes true. If the above is true, it will explain why WC pupils underachieve in education compared to MC pupils.
  • Labelling theory has also been used to explain why girls do better than boys – John Abraham (1980s) found that teachers thought typical boys were lazy and typical girls studious, thus they expected more of girls and encouraged them more than boys
  • It has also been applied by David Gilborn (1990s) to explain why African Caribbean children underachieve – he found that teachers thought black boys were more aggressive, and so this explained why they were 4* more likely to be excluded than white boys, which relates to underachievement.
  • A criticism of labelling theory is that there is limited evidence of it – all of the above studies are based on small samples and so unrepresentative, we can’t generalise from them.
  • A second criticism of labelling theory is that it is deterministic – students are not as passive as it suggests – not every student is effected negatively by a negative label for example, some try harder to prove the teacher wrong (Fuller’s research on black girls 1980s).
  • A third criticism of Labelling theory applied to education is that blames those in power, in this case teachers, for the failure of underachieving groups, arguing they are biased, the problem with the theory today is that teachers are probably amongst the least sexist/ racist/ classist professionals of all, and they are amongst the most well-trained at avoiding discrimination.

Pupil Subcultures

  • It has been argued that pupil subcultures are a response to in-school processes such as teacher labelling – with both pro and anti-school subcultures forming within schools. Peer groups reinforce positive or negative attitudes towards school, thus helping to explain levels of educational achievement. HOWEVER, much of the research actually suggests that although this is an in-school process, a lot of the attitudes that lead to subcultures emerging come from home background.
  • ‘Lad subcultures’’ have been blamed for the underachievement of boys. This linked to hegemonic (dominant ideas about) masculinity – stereotypically, ‘real men’ succeed without trying, and so there is pressure to not work in school. Verbal abuse is one way these peer groups reinforce such dominant masculine identities. Boys who try hard at school may be accused of being ‘gay’, for example.
  • To evaluate, this is especially true for working class boys, less so for middle class, but even MC boys tend to hide their efforts at school work from their peers. It will also be less the case for older children (doing A levels for example).
  • Paul Willis in 1977 found that the white working class lads he followed formed an anti-school culture, gaining status by ‘having a laff’ because they couldn’t see the point in school. However this wasn’t so much to do with in-school factors, the lads actively wanted working class factory jobs and so didn’t see the point of education.
  • Similarly Tony Sewell found that black boys who formed anti-school subcultures brought their anti-school ‘hyper-masculine street culture’ from home, and he argued that out of school factors were really the cause of such subcultures.

Banding and Streaming

Banding and Streaming has been found to disadvantage both the working classes and some minority groups. Gilborn and Youdell (2007) point out that Black Caribbean children are overrepresented in the lower sets and are victims of ‘educational triage’ – such pupils effectively get ‘written off’ because they are perceived as having no chance of achieving A-Cs.

The Ethnocentric Curriculum

The ethnocentric curriculum (EC) might explain the underachievement of some ethnic groups – the EC is one which reflects the culture of one dominant group – for example the white majority culture in Britain – for example students have to study British history from the European point of view, use out of date textbooks that racially stereotype and some subjects having a narrow, white British focus.

To evaluate, the problem with the idea of the ethnocentric curriculum is that it cannot explain why so many ethnic groups do better than white children. It may be the case the Pakistani and Bangladeshi children feel marginalised by it, but they have caught up with white children in recent years and so achieve well in spite of ethnocentricity in education.

Moreover, schools in recent years have made huge efforts to be more multicultural – with RE and PSHE lessons and event such as ‘black history month’ doing a lot to raise awareness of diversity, so this has changed significantly.

Racism/ Institutional Racism

Crozier (2004) examined the experiences of racism amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils and found that the experience of racism from both the school system and other pupils led to a feeling of exclusion. The researchers discovered that Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils had experienced the following – anxieties about their safety; racist abuse was a lived experience of their schooling.

Some recent statistics also suggest that institutional racism is rife – black applicants are half as likely to be accepted onto teacher training programmes compared to white applicants (around 20% compared to 40% success rate). Professor Heidi Mirza, herself of African Caribbean origin, says there is evidence of discrimination within our education system today.

Overall Evaluations – Home factors – link to in-school factors!

  • Material deprivation — hidden costs/ exclusion// private schools.
  • Cultural deprivation – speech codes/ teacher labelling
  • Single parent families – banding and streaming
  • Policy – always favours the MC.


  • 90% of the difference comes from home background!

Signposting and Related posts 

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