As teachers in many countries meet new students for the beginning of a new term  or return to the same classes after a break, I often hear comments like those in the title of my post when teachers chat with teach other over lunch or during breaks. We all make these kinds of judgments not only about our students but about waiters, clerks in stores, bank tellers, taxi drivers and others who we meet. A big difference between making judgments about those we meet only once and our students is that what we say about our students influences our behaviors towards them since we continue to interact with them for months rather than the usual one off interactions with waiters, clerks, tellers, drivers, etc.

I was reminded of the potential danger of our initial impressions of students by some book reviews I recently read. In one book, the author showed that so called expert wine tasters changed their judgments of wine during their second and third tastings. They also rated wines with sophisticated labels or higher categories on the labels even if the wines were in fact not in the higher categories. In short, their initial impressions were not only inaccurate but inconsistent.

The other book review I read dealt with evaluations of musical competitions. Again, the judges changed their initial evaluations in subsequent sessions when they listened to the same music. The author of the study said in the conclusion that the judging of musical competitions is a bit of a lottery!

An analysis of the prevalence of shark attacks provides us with more evidence that our perceptions are often out of tune with reality. It is more likely that a person will be killed by being caught in a sinkhole or in a tornado than by a shark. Between 1990 and 2010 11 people were killed by sharks and 125 by tornadoes. Of course sharks are dangerous and if you swim in parts of Florida in particular you should heed the warning signs. But the perception that many of us have that sharks kill a great number of people is inaccurate.

If you commit a crime and have blond hair and blue eyes you more likely to be found not guilty than if you are black. or white with dark hair and eyes. The murder of Trevor Martin in Florida highlights the issue of how our initial impressions can have very negative effects.

As you can see, I have attached two photographs of two pieces of cloth. In the first one titled Context, most people think that the diamond in each piece of cloth in the center is a different color. When they see the same diamonds next to each other int he photograph titled Side by Side they see that in fact the colors are identical.

In our classroom, a student might seem lazy. In a club, the same student might be full of energy. The student who seems attentive might just be unconsciously pretending to seem attentive.

I realize that it seems natural to judge people all the time. But given the fact that many judgments we make of both wine tasting, musical competitions and potentials for accidents with sharks and the fact that colors we see are influenced by the context they are in, we should try to ignore our initial impressions of our students. If we can ignore our initial impressions we are likely to treat each student in a similar way. If we continue to base our treatment of students on our initial impressions we are likely to inhibit the growth of at least some of our students.




PS You might have to click the PDFs of the pieces of cloth a couple of times–context and side-by-side3 to be able to see them.