I recently found myself watching My Fair Lady, a movie that won eight Oscars in 1964. I’d seen most of it before – it was one of those movies that would be on television from time to time when I was growing up – but I don’t think I’d ever sat through the whole thing (it’s really long). Though the songs are catchy and it's visually stunning, I was surprised by how many times I said, yikes and eww as I watched it in 2022. The gender roles, the stereotypes, the casual allusions to domestic violence. It was a lot to take in along with the rain in Spain.
Also, Professor Higgins is lousy at feedback.
Quick plot summary for anyone who hasn’t watched the movie or read Pygmalion: Professor Henry Higgins is a phoneticist who places a bet with his friend, Colonel Pickering, that he can transform a low-class flower girl into a duchess by teaching her to speak and act properly. It does not hurt that the flower girl is Audrey Hepburn.
In any case, Professor Higgins may be a linguistic expert, but with regard to teaching and feedback, he makes some rookie mistakes.
The timing of feedback matters. When students are acquiring new information or skills (task acquisition), immediate feedback is helpful. As noted by Hattie and Clarke in Visible Learning Feedback: “Our starting point is the importance of feedback happening, where possible, during the learning rather than after” (p. 81). It makes sense. Students who endlessly practice the wrong moves are no closer to closing the gap between where they are and the learning goal than if they’d made no effort at all. Professor Higgins, meanwhile, has Eliza Doolittle repeat vowels, words, and phrases over and over again in the exact same (incorrect) way until a furious and exhausted Eliza finally refuses: “That's what I said: Ahyee, E, Iyee, Ow, You. I've been syin' them for three days, and I won't sy them no more!” Later in the learning process – when students are past learning the surface information and have moved into deeper understanding - it can be helpful to delay feedback. Students need time to grapple, struggle, and retrieve information. Being too quick with feedback at that stage can rob them of opportunities to develop their own strategies for solidifying knowledge and recognizing and correcting errors. (Luckily for Professor Higgins, after weeks of mispronouncing her vowels, Eliza is suddenly and miraculously able to speak like the Queen.)
Mistakes should be celebrated. As I noted in the blog a few weeks ago, our classrooms need to be places where students feel safe to be themselves, express themselves, and take chances. Taking chances means making mistakes. For many students, sailing through a task is the most comfortable place to be because they have mistakenly come to believe that being “smart” means always getting the right answers; the less effort required, the smarter they believe themselves to be. But when we’re sailing through a task, we aren’t learning. Real learning only happens when our brains are active, engaged and struggling. In classrooms where mistakes are cause for disapproval, shame, or ridicule, students are far more likely to stop trying than to redouble their efforts and struggle. Professor Higgins, of course, gets very lucky again. He calls Eliza an ungrateful guttersnipe and snaps and thunders and threatens - “No, no, no, no. Have you no ear at all?” and “Stop! Say: A, E, I, 0, U!” - and Eliza sticks with him anyway. She even, by the end of the film (not the play), seems to be developing romantic feelings for him. Yikes.
External rewards (or punishment) make for ineffective feedback. Apparently, no one told Professor Higgins of the array of research that shows the negative correlation between external rewards and task performance. In his article, The Risks of Rewards, Alfie Kohn notes that, “At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing (Kohn, 1993).” Professor Higgins tries a different tack:
“Eliza, you are to stay here for the next six months learning how to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist’s shop. If you’re good and do whatever you are told, you shall sleep in a proper bedroom and have lots to eat, and money to buy chocolates and take rides in taxis. If you’re naughty and idle you will sleep in the back kitchen among the black beetles and be walloped by Mrs. Pearce with a broomstick.”
Kohn also addresses threats: “Punishment, even if referred to euphemistically as ‘consequences,’ tends to generate anger, defiance, and a desire for revenge.” Eliza, in fact, sings verse after verse of the revenge she’ll take:
Just you wait, 'enry 'iggins, till you're sick,
And you scream to fetch a doctor double-quick.
I'll be off a second later
And go straight to the the-ater
Oh ho ho, 'enry 'iggins, just you wait!
Despite all of his feedback missteps (not to mention extraordinary arrogance), Professor Higgins gets something right: he hears and remembers Eliza’s own intrinsic goal. She wants very badly to work in a florist’s shop and have a better life than the one she’s living. Eliza’s commitment to that goal is the only thing that begins to explain putting up with Professor Higgins.
In our classrooms, too, it’s worth remembering that our students’ commitment to the goals really matters. Though Professor Higgins skipped over building a relationship with Eliza, in real life, that work is essential. When we start by building warm, authentic relationships with students, we can begin to understand their true interests, passions, and goals. Those insights can help us collaborate with students and develop shared purpose. When students are able to work on things they care about, like Eliza Doolittle, they have the power to amaze us.