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How teachers can create a culture of high expectations in their classroom

Written By: Julie Smith
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5 min read
The impact of teacher interaction in maximising or limiting student achievement

Labelling and notions of fixed ability are prevalent in our education system. From the earliest stages of formal education, teachers are required to make predictions about future development based on present attainment, determining students’ academic ability.

Dixon, 2002

The pygmalion controversy

In their book, ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’, Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) reported that experimentally created teacher expectations resulted in changed performance on the part of the students. Teachers were told by researchers that one group of students would make significantly more progress than their peers. Despite the fact that these ‘bloomers’ were randomly selected, this group showed greater IQ gains over the course of a year than a group of control students.

As Spitz (1999) reminds us, the Pygmalion controversy has extended for three decades, perhaps because it reflects the seemingly indestructible nature/nurture controversy and disputes about the malleability of intelligence.

Although the ‘Pygmalion’ study offers insight into the impact of teacher expectation on students, its central thesis that teacher expectancy raises IQ is problematic, partially because the IQ work of Burt has largely been discredited as a model of ensuring intelligence (Hearnshaw, 1979; Kamin 1974; Joynson, 1989).  However, Rosenthal’s work did lead to a plethora of investigations, including Brophy’s (1970) study, finding that teachers’ interactions with pupils maximise the achievement progress of high expectation students, but limit the progress of low expectation students. Similarly, Brattesani, Weinstein and Marshall (1984) claim that teachers’ behaviour communicates their achievement expectations to their students and influences students’ own expectations and achievement.

Students want their teachers to be able to believe that they can do good work, and to demand it.

The effects of grouping by ability

Babad (1995) reports that students perceived that their teachers give low achievers more learning support and put less pressure on them than they do on high achievers, but also that they give high achievers more ‘warmth and emotional support’ (Babad, 1995, p.362).

Rubie-Davies et al. (2015) refer to Weinstein’s (2002) research, categorising teachers as ‘high and low differentiating’ (Rubie-Davies et al., 2015, p.74). Weinstein finds that in the classes of ‘low differentiating’ teachers, the gap between high and low expectation student achievement decreased over a year (ibid). Additionally, Rubie-Davies et al. (2015) find that flexible grouping has many benefits for student learning, as does positive student-teacher relationships, in addition to the setting of specific, achievable goals.

The benefits of the practices of Rubie-Davies et al’s (2015) low differentiating teachers are supported elsewhere in the research literature. They find that ‘none of the high expectation teachers grouped their students by ability’, suggesting that ‘within-class ability grouping (can have) detrimental effects on student self-beliefs’ (Rubie-Davies et al., 2015, p.75).

Despite the preference politicians express for grouping students according to attainment, the research literature suggests that this form of grouping has ‘few significant effects on achievement, aside from replicating the pre-established achievement hierarchy of social class’ (Kutnick, Blatchford and Baines, 2005, pp.350-1).

Ireson and Hallam (2005) also propose that setting readily establishes status hierarchies, accompanied by stereotypes and expectations of pupils. Similarly, Kutnick, Blatchford and Baines (2005) suggest that within-class ability grouping may inhibit classroom learning.

The findings of Rubie-Davies et al. (2015) are also in agreement with Ireson and Hallam (2005), whose study supports the benefits of positive teacher-student relationships, suggesting that pupils who feel supported by their teachers are less likely to become alienated and disengaged from their work, claiming that environments that ‘foster a sense of belonging should also promote achievement’ (Ireson and Hallam, 2005, p.298). Muller, Katz and Dance (1999) comment that students report it is important to have teachers who care about them. They want their teachers to be able to believe that they can do good work, and to demand it.

Impact of feedback and praise on students’ mindset

The final aspect of practice in which high expectation teachers differ markedly is through goal setting based on regular, formative evaluation. Providing students with clear, specific feedback about their goals can aid student progress (Rubie-Davies et al, 2015; Hattie, 2009). Hattie (2009) claims that feedback is among ‘the most powerful influences on achievement’, and that to have the most impact, feedback needs to be ‘purposeful, meaningful and compatible with prior knowledge’ as well as relating to ‘specific and clear goals’ (Hattie, 2009, p.178).

The research warns against directing feedback at the level of ‘self’, and stresses the importance of allowing children to learn from mistakes, suggesting that ‘we need classes that develop the courage to err’. This debate has particuar relevance due to the current popularity (and perhaps the marketisation) of Dweck’s theories of growth-mindset and fixed-mindset, which have received widespread recognition in the English education system.

Similarly to Hattie, Yeagar and Dweck comment on the impact of adult use of praise on students’ mindset. They argue that to promote resilience, students should be praised for their effort, their strategies, their focus or their persistence rather than on their ability and outcomes. They find that ‘focusing more on process rather than ability can put students in a mindset that helps them respond to challenges resiliently’ (Yeagar and Dweck, 2012, p.311).

Expectations are an unobservable construct, and it is possible that well-meaning attempts to meet the needs of groups of learners in the classroom may actually limit a student’s progress and performance.

The complexities of a high expectations culture

The terminology of ‘a culture of high expectations’ is in itself complex and problematic. To gain a richer understanding of it, it may be necessary to define what is meant by ‘high expectations’. Social psychologists (Correll and Ridgeway, 2003) refer to expectation states theory to explain the emergence of status hierarchies in socially important contexts, including the classroom.

When members of a group anticipate that a particular individual will make more valuable contributions, they will defer to that individual and give them more opportunities to participate. This can shape behaviour in a self-fulfilling way. Equally, a student with lower performance expectations may have their contributions ignored or poorly evaluated. Therefore, to reduce social inequalities it is imperative that inequitable processes are redressed.

The political rhetoric of ‘high expectations’ tends to refer to a more narrow definition of the term: one that is directly linked to pupil attainment in standardised assessments’ (DfE, 2012). However, high expectations are not necessarily represented by educational outcomes.

Ball uses Boyle’s 2001 newspaper article about the increasingly dominant role of numbers and statistics in our society, to illustrate the impact of this element of education reform: ‘We take our collective pulse 24 hours a day with our use of statistics. We understand life that way, though somehow the more figures we use, the more the great truths seem to slip through our fingers’. (Ball, 2003, p.215).

As Rogers and Gunter (2012) explain, ‘detailed data on pupil performance, tracking data and setting targets has become part of the personalised learning discourse’ (Rogers and Gunter, 2012, p.141). Schools are saturated with data, including data based on students’ prior attainment. It is possible that too much focus on this type of data leads to teachers ignoring the nuances of a student as an individual, and prevents teachers from focusing on students’ idiosyncratic needs and requirements. Expectations are an unobservable construct, and it is possible that well-meaning attempts to meet the needs of groups of learners in the classroom (and perhaps to meet the needs of accountability frameworks) may actually limit a student’s progress and performance.

A further complexity in creating a culture of high expectation for all is the notion of heritability. Krapohl et al. (2014) find that learning is more difficult for some children. Their study concludes that the high heritability of educational achievement reflects many genetically influenced traits, not only intelligence, but psychological domains such as self-efficacy, personality, well-being and behaviour. Further studies point to links between patterns emerging in early childhood and declining expectations (Burhans and Dweck, 1995; El-Sheikh, Cummings and Kellar, 2007; Evans et al., 2005). Although schools cannot entirely compensate for these factors, any opportunity to explicitly raise expectations can be seen as a moral imperative.

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