NQT Special: What do high expectations actually look like?


The Pygmalion Effect dictates that the higher your expectations of your students, the better they will perform – but what do ‘high expectations’ actually look like in practice? Matt Bromley advises.


‘When people say you’re dumb, you feel dumb, you act dumb... but when you’re on top and you’re told you can do no wrong, you can’t. You have the classroom in the palm of your hand, and you go.” A student recounting his experiences of Jane Elliott’s classroom (as made famous by the blue-eyed/brown-eyed experiment).

One trait more than any other holds the key to being a successful NQT: having high expectations of your students. Let me explain...

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted research in the 1960s which showed that when teachers expected an enhanced performance from their students, their students’ performance was indeed enhanced. Their study supported the hypothesis – known as the Pygmalion Effect and named after a sculptor from Greek mythology who fell in love with one of his statues (Galatea) – that reality can be positively or negatively influenced by other people’s expectations. In other words, the higher the expectations you have of somebody, the better they perform.

Rosenthal and Jacobson’s research involved students in a Californian elementary school. They started by giving every student a covert IQ test. Without disclosing the scores, they gave the teachers the names of about 20 per cent of students chosen at random and told them that these chosen few were expected to do better than their classmates.

At the end of the study all the students were tested again using the same IQ test. Every student had increased their IQ scores. However, the chosen 20 per cent (chosen at random, remember) showed statistically significant gains. This led Rosenthal and Jacobson to conclude that teachers’ expectations actually influenced student achievement. Or, to put it another way, teachers’ biased expectancies affected reality and created self-fulfilling prophecies.

But why should this be? Well, Rosenthal believed that a teacher’s attitude or mood positively affected his or her students because a teacher paid closer attention to so-called “gifted” students and treated them differently when they got stuck. For example, they were more willing to be patient and offer help when “gifted” students struggled because they believed that these students had the capacity to improve.

This led Rosenthal to predict that teachers subconsciously behave in ways that facilitate and encourage their students’ success. In other words, teachers perpetrate the Pygmalion Effect: when they have high expectations of their students, their students perform well.

It follows, therefore, that having high expectations of students is not only a nice thing to do, it actually leads to improved performance. But saying and doing are two very different things. After all, what do high expectations actually look like in practice?

High expectations

Well, as with most teaching strategies, having high expectations is simply about establishing a set of clear rules and routines. Doug Lemov shares a few such routines in his book, Teach Like a Champion.

For example, Mr Lemov says that teachers who have high expectations operate a “No opt out” policy. In other words, a teaching sequence that begins with a student unable to answer a question should end with the same student answering that question as often as possible.

Mr Lemov also says that teachers who have high expectations always insist that “Right is right”. In other words, they set and defend a high standard of correctness in their classroom. For example...

  • They use simple positive language to express their appreciation of what a student has done and to express their expectation that he or she will now complete the task. For example: “You’re almost there. Can you find the last piece?”

  • They insist that students answer the question they have asked not a different question entirely. These teachers are clear that the right answer to any question other than the one they have asked is, by definition, wrong.

  • As well as insisting on the right answer, teachers with high expectations insist that students answer the right question at the right time. They protect the integrity of their lesson by not jumping ahead to engage an exciting right answer at the wrong time.

  • These teachers insist their students use precise, technical vocabulary.

Mr Lemov says that teachers who have high expectations “Stretch it”. In other words, a sequence of learning does not end with a right answer; these teachers reward right answers with follow-up questions that extend knowledge and test for reliability. 

For example, they ask how or why, ask for another way to answer, ask for a better word, ask for evidence, ask students to integrate a related skill, and/or ask students to apply the same skill in a new setting.

Mr Lemov says that, for the teachers who have high expectations of their students, “format matters”. In other words, it is not just what their students say that matters but how they say it. To succeed, students must take their knowledge and express it in the language of opportunity.

Students’ attitudes

As well as having high expectations of our students, we should insist that our students have high expectations of themselves, because only by believing in yourself and in your own ability to get better will you actually do so. So what does this look like in practice?

First, students should have a growth mindset and believe that they can get better at anything if they work hard. This means having a thirst for knowledge, this means accepting that work needs to be drafted and redrafted, and this means following the maxim that if it isn’t excellent, it isn’t finished (never settling for work that is less than their best). This also means setting aspirational goals for themselves and expecting to achieve them.

Second, students should embrace challenge and enjoy hard work because they know it will help them to learn. This means actively engaging in lessons and readily accepting any new challenges that are presented. It also means exerting a lot of effort and engaging in deliberate practice. It means pushing themselves in lessons, practising something over and over again, and regarding additional study opportunities such as homework as an important way of consolidating and deepening their learning rather than as an onerous chore. 

Third, students should seek out and welcome feedback. They should value other people’s opinions and advice and use it to help them improve their work. Feedback should be given and received with kindness in a manner that is helpful and not unduly critical, and yet it should be constructive and specific about what needs to be improved.

Fourth, students should be resilient. By being resilient – not giving up easily when things get hard – they will overcome obstacles. Moreover, they will be happy to make mistakes because they know they will learn from them. In practice, this means that students ask good questions in order to further their learning, this means students always try and solve problems for themselves before asking others for help.

Finally, students should be inspired by other people’s success. They should seek out examples of great work, discovering what makes it great then using this knowledge to inform their own work. They should take collective responsibility for the work of the class and have a vested interest in everyone’s success. 

This means that students support each other and encourage each other to succeed. This means that students work well in groups and are confident expressing their views and sharing their ideas. This means that students are good at giving each other feedback that is – as I say above – kind, specific and helpful.


The Pygmalion Effect is good for NQTs because it gives new teachers a reason to believe that having high expectations of their students actually helps them to perform better. But here’s a word of warning...

The opposite of the Pygmalion Effect is the Golem Effect – if we expect our students to perform badly, chances are they will. Both the Pygmalion Effect and the Golem Effect have their downsides: they are self-fulfilling prophecies in part because they encourage us to find evidence that supports our expectations regardless of whether or not such evidence exists. 

In other words, we are in danger of interpreting students’ performances in line with what we think they will achieve rather than accurately and based on evidence. If we have high expectations of a student then we are more inclined to think they are performing well, irrespective of whether or not they actually are. Equally, if we have low expectations of a student we are eager to find evidence that they are performing badly and seize on the slightest sign of it.

This is sometimes called the observer-expectancy effect and is the situation by which a researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to unconsciously influence the participants of an experiment. 

Confirmation biases such as this can lead to the experimenter interpreting results incorrectly because of their tendency to look for information that conforms to their hypothesis, while overlooking information that argues against it.

So as an NQT you should have high expectations of all your students because this will encourage them to perform better. Moreover, it will help them to develop high expectations of themselves, and if they believe in themselves they are more likely to succeed.

But beware of false prophets: use empirical evidence to help you determine a student’s actual performance; be attuned to your natural tendency to find evidence that supports your beliefs, regardless of whether such evidence is accurate or fair.

  • Matt Bromley is an experienced school and college leader, an education writer and consultant. He is currently the group director of teaching and learning for a large FE college and multi-academy trust. You can find out more at www.bromleyeducation.co.uk. You can follow him on Twitter: @mj_bromley. His latest book is called TEACH and is available in paperback and ebook from www.solutionsforschool.co.uk.
CAPTION: High expectations: The statue of Galatea in Catherine Park in St Petersburg, Russia. Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who fell in love with the statue he had carved



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