Sunday, August 20, 2017

High Expectations? Yes, But...

About the time that the No Child Left Behind legislation went into effect in 2002, then President George W. Bush famously decried the "soft-bigotry of low expectations" that was holding too many students back. President Bush had a point, if teachers and educational leaders did not expect high achievement from their students then low achievement would be the inevitable result. Bush's decree led to a spate of calls for teachers to have "high expectations" of their students. And as so often happens in education, this call was misunderstood and misapplied to the detriment of learners.

Telling new teachers, or veteran teachers for that matter, that they need to have high expectations for their learners is dangerously vague and unhelpful. The advice that teachers need is that we should set high, but achievable, goals for each of our students and that these high, but achievable, goals will be different for each of our students. As with all educational bromides, the real answers are much more subtle and more difficult to implement than just having "high expectations."

In 1954 the British track star Roger Bannister ran the first ever 4 minute mile. There can be no question that Bannister had high expectations for himself to achieve this goal. He had to train hard, get excellent coaching, and then drive himself to the brink of collapse to achieve his goal. In the 63 years since Bannister broke the four minute mile the record time has been lowered to 3:43.13 by the Moroccan track star, Hicham El Guerrouj. That is, with all the advances in training and equipment, just short of 17 seconds has been shaved off this record. Now, I suppose runners who have followed Bannister over all those years could have set a goal of running the first 3 minute mile. That would certainly be a high expectation. But the quest would have certainly ended in frustration and failure, because human beings have so far proven incapable of running that fast. So instead, runners set themselves the high, but achievable, goal of shaving hundredths of seconds off the existing record.

Back in my high school days, football players were expected to run a six minute mile. This was definitely a high expectation for me that demanded a full summer of training before ever walking onto the football field. Six minutes was a high, but (barely) achievable goal for me and most of my fellow football players, but a four minute mile would be out of the question and would have led to me giving up on football.

The point is that what constitutes high expectations depends on the individual and also on what can reasonably be achieved given our human limitations. I think it is ill advised to tell teachers to have high expectations of their students. If the teacher aims too high, students will become frustrated, lose confidence in themselves as learners and question the ability of their teacher to assist their learning.

How does a teacher craft high, but achievable, expectations for students? Here are a few keys.

  • Follow the Goldilocks principle. Work to find the amount of challenge that is "just right" for that individual student. This means working with the child in what Vygotsky called the "zone of proximal development", that area slightly above where the student can function independently, but well below where the student becomes frustrated. 
  • Provide high levels of support. Provide consistent specific feedback, provide additional and varied instruction, build positive relationships, teach students explicitly how to get help.
  • Give students opportunities to contribute. Make sure all students have an opportunity to voice their ideas and opinions regularly. Vary who gets called upon in class.
  • Show confidence in your students. Let students know that you believe they are competent learners who can learn and thrive in your classroom. Start off with goals that are a little easier to accomplish to build confidence and stamina for more difficult work.
  • Listen closely to students. Conferring with students individually about there learning provides the teacher with the information she needs to help the student to the next level of learning.
  • Praise student efforts and achievements often. Make sure the praise is both genuine and specific. I wrote about the role of praise in this post 
As teachers we must go into each interaction believing the students can learn and believing that we can help them learn, but simply having high expectations is not adequate. A high expectation for one student is another student's insurmountable barrier. As professionals, providing for the needs of all students is the high expectation we must hold for ourselves. It is a constant challenge that cannot be boiled down to a simplistic cliche like "have high expectations."

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