How to have high expectations in your classroom

Written by: Andy McHugh | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier/MA Education

We have known it for a long time – when teachers’ expectations of students are high, they achieve better outcomes. Andy McHugh looks at how we can raise our expectations right now

Doesn’t it feel great when you are complimented on your achievements? You are reminded of your love for what you do and you feel inspired to go on and achieve even more.

Perhaps this is the key to unlock the potential of our underperforming students. Realistically though, on its own, it is probably not enough. Kindness without rigour actually does students a disservice and allows them to drop below what they might otherwise have achieved. So, rather than prematurely raising a glass to toast the success of our students, we might instead raise our expectations.

The idea of raising expectations to improve outcomes is not a new one. In 1968, a study showed that when teachers expected an enhanced performance from their students, their students’ performance was indeed enhanced

The students were not, in fact, aware that they had begun to aspire to something greater. However, they did go on to achieve a much greater degree of success. The positive change in students’ expectations of themselves, caused by a positive change in their teachers’ expectations of them was significant. This has become known as the Pygmalion Effect (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968; see also SecEd, 2014).

The reverse has also been found to be true and is known as the Golem Effect (Rosenthal & Babad, 1985). This was where students given lower aspirations went on to achieve less than they otherwise would have done. As the research notes: “When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur.”

The trouble is, you cannot just raise expectations without there being a downside. Students who are given targets that they see as unobtainable can be hard to engage. Tasks that students perceive as too challenging will often be left incomplete, or at best completed to a poor standard. Students need to see their aspirations as achievable and this is a tricky balancing act to perform, even for experienced teachers.

Additionally, unreasonably high expectations of students can create problems for teachers too. Most of us, at some point, have been taken aback after noticing a particular student’s “aspirational” target grade.

Up and down the country, staffroom conversations end with comments like, “he’s never going to get a Grade 8 in a million years!” (and it is usually a “he”, have you noticed?). Teachers old and new nod sagely, as if they know something that the data does not show.

They might be right, of course. But every time? I doubt it. We should be mindful of the all-too-easy cynicism when it comes to setting our expectations of certain students. So, here are some practical strategies you could consider when trying to raise expectations.

High challenge

Set a high level of challenge while telling students you expect them to achieve “full marks”. This can have a jarring effect on some students, as they are not used to hearing it. But if you can explain to them how to get full marks on one small task, they will be able to see that it is possible. Follow this up by giving them the experience of scoring highly and often – aim for an 80 per cent success rate (this is according to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction).

That might mean that you do not set a very high level of challenge early on. Hold your nerve here – it is okay in the short-term. In order to raise expectations, you also need to raise students’ self-confidence and this only occurs when students are used to frequent success. Dial-up the challenge once the students can handle it academically (and emotionally).

Independent learning

Have a strategy for independent learning, or else it will not happen. Many students flounder when it comes to directing their own education. For this reason, it is often helpful for students to have their independence supported a little (at least at first).

This sounds like an oxymoron, I know. But when it comes to independent learning, students often do not know what they are looking for, where to find it, or what to do if they ever get hold of the right material.

Having a wider reading list can be a great place to start. Homework menus can also be useful, although care should be taken so that homework is meaningful and not just a selection of token activities that do not make a difference (for more on effective homework, see SecEd, 2019).

Another way to support independent learning can be via a shared resource folder, using Dropbox or Google Classroom, where students can share their independent resources with each other. This collaboration can really pay dividends when it comes to students supporting each other.

Crucially though, students need to see independent learning as central to their studies, rather than as an add-on. There should be no opt-out. Scheduling a weekly or fortnightly session (even just for 10 minutes) to explore what students have researched is an effective way to make this part of students’ routines. They will come to expect it and the extra depth and breadth of their subject knowledge will help boost their confidence further, making them more resilient so that they can push themselves when under greater levels of challenge.

Collaborate

Students are much less likely to challenge your high expectations of them if they see students in other classes also being held to high expectations.

A department, faculty, or whole-school approach is, therefore, a better way to ensure that students buy-in to the challenge you set for them. On your own, you run the risk of just being seen as “the strict one”, or worse, “the one who has no clue”.

Setting

Ditch “ability” sets and use mixed ability/mixed attainment classes. Why? Nothing lowers a student’s expectations like being excluded from the top set. The problem is, however, that not all students can, by definition, be in the top set. This should set off extremely loud alarm bells.

The risk of demotivating students before they have even entered the classroom is very real. Placing students instead into mixed classes removes the stigma. It enables students to think that they can be the best, without the constant reminder that there exists an elite group to which they do not belong.

Bring parents on board

For many students, their expectations of themselves come from home, not school. Conversations around school work can often lead to anecdotes about parents’ own experiences, which can sometimes influence a student’s own expectations of themselves.

This can be positive, especially when they want to live up to their parents’ own successes, but the reverse is also true. With the best intentions, parents can give their children permission to fail by highlighting their own past failures.

While, at first glance, this can be comforting, the end result can actually be damaging. Students might end up thinking that they no longer have to try when the chips are down: “Dad said that he was rubbish at physics too and he ended up all right.”

By reminding parents of the influence they can have on their children’s self-perception, or simply by encouraging parents to celebrate hard work and success, we might avoid the cause of much underachievement.

Broaden students’ experiences

We have all been there, looking for ways to “engage” our students by reaching for resources that crowbar football-related tasks into an unrelated curriculum, for example. While we might be doing it for the right reasons, it may actually compound the problem. Students often struggle due to a lack of worldly experience. They cannot draw the analogies that other, more culturally aware students can.

So, instead of directing them back to their limited and restricting past experiences, the solution is to broaden their horizons by exposing them to completely new information. In doing so, we are trusting students with a genuine challenge; one that might just give students that confidence to keep persevering, as they begin to make more connections between ideas.

This network of connections is where new ideas stick. The more pieces of information you can add to the network, the easier it is to add further pieces. But ultimately it begins with the teacher trusting students with brand new ideas, as often as possible.

Conclusion

There are so many other factors which impact on our expectations of students. While we might feel uncomfortable admitting it, teachers can often unconsciously stereotype by gender, socio-economic status, accent and dialect, or physical appearance.

The lesson here is not to ignore those things, but to be mindful of our attitudes to them when we set our expectations for students. The evidence is clear: when we do better at setting high expectations for students, they succeed on a much greater scale.

Further information & resources

  • Rosenshine: Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know, American Educator, Spring 2012: http://bit.ly/2ZpbIqW
  • Rosenthal & Babad: Pygmalion in the Gymnasium, Educational Leadership, 1985: http://bit.ly/2p2HYmZ
  • Rosenthal & Jacobsen: Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.
  • SecEd: Research analysis: Getting the most out of homework, September 2019: http://bit.ly/2n4cv3c
  • SecEd: What do high expectations actually look like? November 2014: http://bit.ly/1yYy6V6


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