Why high expectations alone are not enough…

Expectations. Noun. Plural a belief that someone will or should achieve something.

As teachers, it’s easy to say we have high expectations. High expectations of behaviour. High expectations of uniform. High expectations of attainment. But what do we mean by this? And is it really enough? This blog explores how we can maximise the impact of our expectations.

The expectations teachers have of their students inevitably effects the way that teachers interact with them, which ultimately leads to changes in the student’s behaviour and attitude. The work of Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen (1968) shows that teacher expectations influence pupil performance. They found positive expectations influence performance positively and they described this phenomenon as the Pygmalion Effect.

The language we use to address students. The way we communicate and model our expectations. The relationships we build to foster trust. The explanations of why we do things this way. The excellent learning and teaching which allows pupils to thrive. The success they achieve, which motivates them to persevere. And the relentless drive from staff for pupils to achieve their potential, all contribute to buy in of these expectations.

Conversely, when we lower expectations, students also respond. But in contrast, when we lower the bar, they often in turn meet that bar, leading to poorer performance. This is known as the Golem effect. Labelling pupils. Setting classes. Expecting less from some learners. Accepting lower standards of uniform or behaviour. Very quickly expectations are diluted.

The trouble with expectations, particularly low expectations, is that they are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Very quickly, students learn to believe they will never be anything other than the ‘lowest reading group’ or that they’ll never have the chance to be in the football team because it’s only for the top pe students. Or the sense of disappointment and upset when academic success is not realised. And when expectations are not met, there is often a tendency for disappointment, anger or even shame. As teachers, we need to manage that. We are experts at finding learners’ individual strengths. Of drawing out the thing that allows them to shine. The area which gives them hope and an opportunity to meet high expectations. Once they experience that, they are hopefully moving in the right direction. Over communicating expectations, sharing them again and again, and modelling how we expect learners to meet them is another helpful way in encouraging young people to meet these beliefs.

Expectations are like a curriculum. We need to teach expectations. If we expect pupils to enter our room calmly and get straight to work on a ‘Do Now’ task, we need to teach learners how to do this and explain WHY this is a purposeful and important start to lessons. If we expect all pupils to wear uniform, then we share WHY this is important for equity and we have contingency measures in place to support learners who may experience difficulty with this by providing uniform items they may be without. Lowering standards is not the answer in my opinion. Instead, encouraging pupils to buy into these expectations as the norm, because we explicitly share the benefits and then supporting them to do so through modelling, practise and putting supports in place to help meet them.

Another consideration should be that expectations are realistic and achievable. Having the expectation that all pupils will achieve 5 highers, is simply not fair, pragmatic or in anyone’s best interests. It will only lead to disappointment and perhaps shame of not meeting this expectation. Despite excellent learning and teaching, all pupils are individuals and are on their own very personal learning journey. Instead, insisting that all pupils try their best at all times, and reach their own potential, is feasible and encourages high standards.

In teaching, we are all well aware that nothing is black or white. There obviously needs to be an element of understanding on occasions when expectations are not met. To dig deeper, to see the bigger picture and understand the context. Then, it is vitally important to put the support in place to allow young people to experience success in meeting the expectation.

Ultimately, as part of a school community, buy into the values and our collective expectations is vitally important to ensure a sense of shared ownership, team spirit as well as fairness. I’d encourage you to consider your own expectations this week – I’ve found it helpful to explore what shapes my values with regard to expectations. As always for me, it’s the dichotomy of ensuring our expectations encourage the very best from learners, whilst caring personally and challenging directly to support individuals to meet these expectations when this proves difficult.

Have a great week everyone. We are nearly there!

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