At the chalkface: High expectations

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

He bounced a board duster off my bonce, a long-recognised method of improving numeracy. He then suggested I was a “cretin”. He would have been sacked these days. I still can’t add up.

We are regularly presented with research from the university of the Bleedin’ Obvious. One such piece from the 60s is oft-quoted even now, more than 50 years later.

It’s called Pygmalion in the Classroom and concerns teacher expectation. It discovered that high expectations are good and low expectations are bad.

“When teachers expected that certain children would show greater intellectual development, those children did show greater intellectual development,” they conclude. Well, knock me down with a feather.

The researchers falsely told teachers that some of their students, chosen at random, had been identified as potential high achievers. Guess what? They achieved highly. The control group didn’t. They achieved less.

There you go.

We do know this. I’ve known it since I became a teacher in 1967. Positive reinforcement was the big thing. It was a reaction to the negative 1950s. My grammar school was especially grim. Most teachers had PhDs in negative reinforcement.

They relished discouragement and withering insult, accusing us of either acute sloth or irreversible stupidity. Or both.

This had a most deleterious effect on our performance. My French teacher “Chunk” accused me of gross indolence. Not so. I was just phenomenally useless at the subject. He was flogging a dead duck and eventually admitted that he “would have been better off teaching a vegetable”. I embraced a cabbage-like stupidity. Quelle surprise!

Mathematics was even more problematic. Mr Johnson only did brutal negative reinforcement.
“You’re stupid! What are you Whitwham?” “Stupid, sir.”

He bounced a board duster off my bonce, a long-recognised method of improving numeracy. He then suggested I was a “cretin”. He would have been sacked these days. I still can’t add up.

In the O level art exam I took an early bath. “Go home!” said the teacher looking at my etchings with derision. So it went.

Still, I suppose it’s a good thing the report finds that high expectations are so beneficial, especially in the
current climate. It’s unfortunate that it concentrates too narrowly on the academic. The whole child needs continual encouragement. Only rarely do pupils need negative shock treatment. Most need a fantastic amount of praise, just for surviving our measuring culture where a sense of failure is pervasive.

We must celebrate what they can do, not what they can’t. Too many lives are one long insult, one long negative reinforcement. Their little victories are enormous.

“You’re the first person who’s said I’m any good at something,” a 10th year boy once told to me.

Imagine.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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