‘In life we often get what we expect, not what we deserve.’ (Tom Bennett, 2011).
When writing about high expectations, it would be difficult not to refer to Rosenthal and Jacobson’s famous ‘Pygmalion’ study in which teachers in an American high school were told that their students had taken a test of ‘potential ability’ and a number of their students had scored highly. Although there was no actual test, the impact on those students’ achievement was notable as a result of their teachers’ changed response to them. They stopped accepting these students’ poor responses to questions and started to demand higher standards of work. They were more encouraging and gave those students more feedback on how to improve. Although there have been a number of studies attempting to debunk Rosenthal and Jacobson’s theory, there seems to be a lot to support the idea that a teacher’s interactions and relationship with a student can be hugely influential on their progress. ‘One consistent finding of academic research is that high expectations are the most reliable driver of high student achievement, even in students who do not have a history of successful achievement’ (Doug Lemov, 2011).
One of the challenges teachers face is ensuring that they have high expectations for all of the students they teach. So often teachers fall into the trap of expecting less of low ability sets in terms of work produced or letting students complete poor quality homework because they have worn the teacher down by repeatedly not handing work in. If students see evidence of low expectations, that’s all they will aspire to and may produce work that does not reflect their abilities thus leading to lower achievement.
Throughout the academic year but particularly in September, I try to set expectations high with regards to behaviour and quality and quantity of work. Sometimes, however, this takes time to take hold. In John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers (2011) he compares learning to building a brick wall – it takes time to put each brick into place in order for it to hold strong. This is the same for expectations to me; every lesson should reinforce those high expectations so that students gradually get to know who you are as a teacher. You want to be the teacher with the reputation for not giving up and the one who won’t accept poor quality work or bad behaviour. The challenge, Hattie argues, is when students don’t have the same high expectations in every subject and with each teacher who teaches them. To be genuinely impactful, we should expect excellence in our students with regards to their potential, attitude, work ethic and behaviour.
This is not be confused with simply telling students to have what Prof Carol Dweck refers to as a ‘growth mind set’, something that seems to have been embraced by so many working with children today. I recently had the opportunity to visit a number of primary schools with my daughter who is due to begin in reception in September. In every classroom of one particularly high achieving school, there were posters encouraging students to ‘reach for the stars’ and that they weren’t there ‘yet’ but they would be. After speaking to a number of teachers in the school, it became clear that they felt it was not enough to simply have high expectations and assume that students would automatically meet them; it takes time to create an environment where students feel comfortable in the knowledge that failure provides opportunity and that it is a natural part of the learning process. It is the teacher’s role to provide learning experiences where students receive differentiated scaffolds in order to allow them to succeed without removing challenging content or doing the thinking for them. With our trainees at Mid-Essex Initial Teacher Training, I like to refer to an analogy I came across some time ago of how best to teach a child to ride a bike; the nature of the support, scaffolding and differentiation we give can be like the choice between giving a child stabilisers or providing them with a balance bike. It can either remove the most crucial, central tricky part of our subject from the task, or put it centre stage.
In a review of interventions that aim to raise student achievement focusing on aspirations completed by The Education Endowment Foundation, there was little evidence to suggest that there was much impact: ‘Evidence suggests that most young people actually have high aspirations, implying that much underachievement results not from low aspiration itself but from a gap between the aspirations that do exist and the knowledge and skills that are required achieve them’. It is crucial that we don’t overlook the work and the effort that is required to equip students with the skills to be able to reach their potential including carefully chosen teaching methods that challenge and enable success rather than simply aim to motivate.
In the recent past, I have found myself apologising for the challenging content of some of my lessons; I wanted to rush over the tricky parts so that my students wouldn’t feel flustered or put off by the level of challenge. I noticed, however, that this wasn’t the case with the top set groups I was teaching. With these students, I was pitching my lessons high with the knowledge that many able students are motivated by the complexity of a piece of work. Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion (2011) argues that we should aim to build a climate in our classrooms where students embrace and enjoy challenge and will be motivated by it. This should be the case regardless of ability. In Making Every Lesson Count (2015), Allison and Tharby refer to the ‘struggle zone’, a place where students will feel low stress but still have to think and work hard in order to complete the task set for them. It is up to us to motivate students through the content of our lessons whilst ensuring that we support students with judiciously chosen scaffolds in order to get them to a place where they can tackle more complex material with confidence.
Students need to have high aspirations for what they can achieve so therefore your modelling of work should reflect this. Showing a bottom set year 11 group an example of a piece of work that is poorly spelt, misses the point and doesn’t have any development of ideas may reflect their abilities before they have learnt anything but isn’t going to show them how to get better. They need to see excellent examples of writing so that they can see what can be achieved with support, scaffolding and feedback. In Making Every Lesson Count, the authors claim that with appropriate models, high expectation and challenge, time and teacher intervention in the form of frequent feedback, students can produce the type of work that we want them to.
‘All children are apprentice craftsmen. They should be encouraged to hone and refine their work with pride and diligence until it reaches excellence’ (An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftmanship with Students, 2003, Ron Berger).
MEITT Course Tutor and English Teacher
Notley High School