Just how easy is ‘high expectations for all’?

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Image: @jasonramasami

As the new school year springs – or lumbers! – into life, I have been thinking about the beliefs I have about my students. Like all dedicated teachers, I would vehemently argue that I have the highest expectations for each and every student I teach. How dare you suggest otherwise!

But do I really? And more to the point: is it possible for any teacher to have genuinely high expectations of every student?

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, shares the following experiment. Participants were given this question:

An individual has been described by a neighbour as follows: “Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.” Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? (P6)

Did you go for librarian? I thought so. So did I. Your associative mind made it impossible to avoid this immediate assumption. Yet, as Kahneman reveals, there are twenty male farmers for every male librarian. (These statistics come from the United States, but I imagine that the ratio is not too dissimilar over here in the UK.) Statistically, it is more likely that Steve is a farmer even though his description matches our stereotypical understanding of a male librarian. Human thinking, Kahneman shows us, is prone to making judgements through a reliance on heuristics (rules of thumb that take the place of deeper thinking). The heuristic in this case was that a male library attendant is ‘meek and tidy’ and a male farmer is not. Judgements are immediate and implicit and they will form our expectations before we are even aware of them.

Now let’s segue to this morning as I slouched at my desk and put together some seating plans for this year’s classes. Some of the classes I had taught last year and some were new to me. I was looking through a list of names when I came upon ‘Ryan’. Now consider the fact that I had never met Ryan before and I had no data or information to go on: Ryan needs to sit near me at the front, I thought. A couple of minutes later, I came to the name Benedict. Benedict will be fine – put him at the back.

Now in my teaching career I have taught a few Ryans – one or two of them have been a little on the tricky side, but the majority have been paragons of virtue. As for Benedict? Well, I have never taught let alone met a person by that name! Yet his name made me smile – internally, at least. The tragic, brutal truth was that my initial expectations of both children – before even a photo, prior data or target grade; before even a glimpse of their brimming 12-year-old faces – were beginning to form implicitly, beyond my control. Kahneman also describes the priming effect: when we are exposed to a stimulus it can subconsciously influence our response to another stimulus. In this case, their names led to the first stirrings of an implicit judgement of their character and ability.

A little later in the day, I caught myself at it again. A year 10 student had surprised me in her summer GCSE English literature exam by performing better than expected (see, there’s that word again…). I was marking a piece of her creative writing from the back-end of last term and, low and behold, I was noticing things about her work I had never noticed before. Yes there’s a real fluency here. A lovely turn-of-phrase in this sentence too. My response to her work was transforming favourably in light of my new understanding of her. This time, an unexpected letter next to her name had raised my future expectations of her. Would I have read her work through the same filter if I she had not achieved that grade I wonder?

Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s study, 1968, into the Pygmalion Effect is one all teachers should know about. Teachers were told by researchers that a group of students were expected to be ‘spurters’ (an interesting turn-of-phrase I know!) over the coming year and should make significantly more progress than their peers. In fact, these students were chosen at random. The findings were shocking: these students really did make more progress than their peers even though they had no ostensible advantages. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: teacher expectation had had a genuine impact on learning. Rosenthal and Jacobsen posited four reasons for this: teachers create a warmer climate for those they believe to be more academically able; teachers teach more material to these children than they do to those they label as ‘dumb’; teachers also give them more chance to respond verbally; and teachers give them more feedback. See the following video for more information:

Coupled with this is the fact that ‘self-reported grades’ comes out as the top ‘effect size’ in John Hattie’s meta-analysis. In effect, this relates to students’ expectations of themselves – they are remarkably good at predicting how well or badly they will perform in a future test. Hattie states: “Our job is to never meet the needs of kids…our job is to help kids exceed what they think they can do.” Our job as teachers, then, is not only to raise our own expectations, but crucially to raise students’ expectations of themselves. Presumably, these self-expectations are formed from a hotchpotch of factors including teacher expectation, parental expectation, peer expectation and previous academic success. To disrupt and readjust these often entrenched presuppositions is no mean feat. Watch Hattie speaking about this here.

It might be a  KS2 score or a letter next to a name (L, M, H), it might be a word in your ear from a form tutor, it might be an uncharacteristically sloppy first piece of work or it might simply be the expression on a face… over the next couple of weeks you will, consciously and subconsciously, form hundreds of expectations based on the information in front of you. It would be impossible not to. Schools face a tricky dilemma. It seems intuitive to share as much helpful prior information about students as possible with teaching staff, but might this militate against the success we want our students to achieve through the unwanted side-effect of crystallising expectations at too early a stage?

I am usually one of life’s cynics, apart from in one domain. Despite what statistical evidence and common sense tell me, every season I expect Tottenham to win the league. This year my view was augmented by the fact that I had sound evidence that our new manager, Mauricio Pochettino, would build a tremendous, world-beating team spirit. (A former student of ours, a professional player at Southampton – Pochettino’s previous club – had shared with us the manager’s ability to generate a great team spirit and a winning mentality.) It seems strange, however, that this type of optimism rarely finds its way into my thinking about students.

And so, fighting back the expectation-whispering devils as best I can, I will try my hardest to put the data to one side and begin the year with unlimited optimism.

 

Related post: Reflections on a successful student 

Postscript – It would appear that, after a little extra reading, the Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s research into the Pygmalion Effect showed quite modest effects. I may have been guilty of hyperbole in my description of the study. However, this does not detract from the main argument of the post: that we should be wary of jumping to assumptions about students too quickly. Follow the link in the comment from dodiscimus below.

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18 thoughts on “Just how easy is ‘high expectations for all’?

  1. These are three random thoughts in no particular logical order.
    This blog post on the Halo Effect is worth a read http://icingonthecakeblog.weebly.com/blog/the-halo-effect-in-english-education – although the post relates to issues around trying to identify what the best schools do (and the potential fallacy in trying this trick) it is an extension of the Kahneman ideas and the Pygmalion research.
    It’s a few years since I read Pygmalion in the Classroom. I’m claiming no significant expertise here but I think the findings have been regularly reported as much more dramatic than they were. I remember getting to the results and being very underwhelmed. There have been some unsuccessful attempts to replicate Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s results but also some supporting studies. This blog popped up on Googling and has references that will get you going if you want to pursue this further http://psu879bangor.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/pygmalion-in-the-classroom-the-ongoing-controversy/ On the other hand, the point in this blog about not prejudging the Ryan’s and Benedict’s is totally sound – never forget that quantitative studies don’t pick up irregular big impacts on individuals.
    I’m never really sure what to make of the ‘Self-reported Grades’ in Hattie’s meta-analyses. If I’ve understood it correctly, Hattie is suggesting that the self-reported grades studies indicate that if two groups of students are otherwise ‘identical’ but with one group self-reporting grades that are higher than the other group, then the former group will have better outcomes. However it is not clear to me how the studies show this (have a quick look at the abstracts listed here http://visible-learning.org/glossary/ ) nor whether it is really possible to isolate self-reported grades from prior attainment. Visible Learning for Teachers doesn’t mention self-reported grades anywhere, which seems odd for something right at the top of the list. I do still need to read the original Visible Learning and/or the relevant journal papers to try to understand better.
    Best wishes

    • Thanks for your comment. I will have a look at the links you have sent regarding the Pygmalion Effect – even if the effects are not so great, it remains true that our expectations of students have a huge effect on the decisions we make when teaching them.

      As for Hattie, I think his point is that we must attempt to break this link between students’ expectations of themselves and prior attainment. Quite how we do that is the hard bit.

  2. I think the challenge for the teacher is when a student develops an undistinguished plateau in their progress over a 2 year course (be it GCSE or A leve) to maintain the belief, the urging, and the search for alternative routes around the perceived obstacles in the road. But also – patience – in the face of external demands for evidence of target-driven development. These are marathons, we’re engaged in, not sprints – and it’s easy, after 18 months of plodding undemonstrative progress to give in to the ‘well that’s all they’re going to manage’. But I have grown used to seeing enough students begin to change in those last few months before the exams as the hook of the imminent arrival of exam destiny lifts them to recast their own aspirations. It’s how we’ve worked with them in the slumber-months that will determine, when the time comes, whether they feel ready to look to us for assistance & guidance (and not a little ‘technique’), or whether they shrug a ‘what’s the point’. It’s the students who say ‘thanks for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself’ who offer us our greatest value. It’s the teachers who know they have to keep their powder dry and the conditions supportive who seem to manage this most consistently. And it’s having a patience to realise that we, however much we enrich our teaching strategies, cannot drive the process according to our own timetable (or worse – that of line-manager demands for ‘powerful data trajectories’)- but that it will be driven by students themselves when they decide that their own aspirations should rise to a level they will need for the next chapter of their education. That’s when we can give them the most effective leg-up. And like leg-ups – sometimes they rise higher than they were anticipating.

  3. Our job as teachers, then, is not only to raise our own expectations, but crucially to raise students’ expectations of themselves – I shall remember this as I start writing my lesson plans. Thank you, interesting read.

  4. I have sometimes seen when some children are faced with high expectations , something puts them off and they do not reach those high expectations. Maybe they would have done much better if they had not been under so much pressure. Thanks .

  5. Reblogged this on The Savvp Journal and commented:
    “Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s study, 1968, into the Pygmalion Effect is one all teachers should know about. Teachers were told by researchers that a group of students were expected to be ‘spurters’ (an interesting turn-of-phrase I know!) over the coming year and should make significantly more progress than their peers. In fact, these students were chosen at random. The findings in shocking: these students really did make more progress than their peers even though they had no ostensible advantages. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: teacher expectation had had a genuine impact on learning. Rosenthal and Jacobsen posited four reasons for this: teachers create a warmer climate for those they believe to be more academically able; teachers teach more material to these children than they do to those they label as ‘dumb’; teachers also give them more chance to respond verbally; and teachers give them more feedback.”

    Due to my experience in both public and private school, and by experiencing several public schools in different states, I have truly seen a wide range of teachers. I have learned that teachers sometimes can be very, very biased, even when they think they are completely fair. I have watched smart students fail classes that should have been easy for them, only because the professor saw them in a different light than I. I’m not saying every professor is like this, – there are many amazing, life changing professors out there – but I have seen my fair share of both.

    For this reason, I believe the school system is completely flawed and, with no thanks to unions, some teachers coast through their careers making material harder for students to learn, only because they’re bitter about themselves or hold unconscious biases.

  6. Interesting read. I think there’s a lot of truth to the study about teacher perceptions/judgements, influencing student outcomes.
    I worked at an alternative HS for 14 years. The program was closed last June. We never read the student’s CA60 file (file that follows student throughout their K-12 education) before meeting them. We took them as they presented and treated all with the expectation that they could and would be successful. Then we learned their gaps and attacked them.
    It was a good approach to avoid pigeon-holing a child before knowing the whole person.
    Congrats on being FPd!

  7. I experienced this myself as the working class daughter of a divorced woman in a Catholic school. I topped the English exam for 5 years, never won the “English prize”. I received full marks for the external exam that I did for university entrance, so I never let it get to me. If this is the same John Hattie who was employed by UWA in 1994, I did his Educational Measurement class.

  8. Pingback: The dangers of differentiation…and what to do about them | Reflecting English

  9. All kids are different and rise and fall at different rates and times.We have to try and detect those falling fast and keep raising up those who may not want to rise up so high above their falling friends. Recognising the amazing but different potential in each child may help and get to know them.

  10. I think what is most important is not to set a specific standard of jobs which parents designate their children to pursue. We shouldn’t say, for example, “doctor, professor, engineer, are good jobs. Teachers, janitor, musician, are bad jobs”. Surely their are jobs which have maybe more political power or make more money, but what is most important is to instill in children that they can pursue anything they want to as long as they dedicate their all in being the best in that field. Not everyone can be the president, in any society, capitalistic or communist, there will be those who have more political power than others.

    On the issue of education quality in America, I have to say as a high school student that there are many terrible things happening in school. One the key issues has to do with the difference in education provided to those of different socio-economic backgrounds. Those born in families of academia or rich ones can find an easy path to some field they find interesting. Many of the schools they attend are top notch. Those in lower classes are being taught by some incompetent teachers, and find school boring. Though members of both classes will find many flaws in their system, poor americans are at a loss here. The typical classroom in america, rich or poor, focusses too much on a sort of repetitive assembly line process where they must know x,y, and z before graduating. There is not enough emphasis on true problem solving, logic, and creativity. These pillars are the most important in all areas if people are to make a difference on the world. To read more check out my post on Educational problems from a high school prospective on my blog https://nerdmath.wordpress.com.

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