During the past year and a half of instruction during a global pandemic, there has been lots of discussion about “learning loss,” and to what extent (or even if) we should be worried about it. However, I have seen less about what our expectations of students ought to be, or how we should form those expectations. And that is something that concerns me, especially given that in addition to changes in students’ instructional gains due to the pandemic, I will also be teaching a completely different course load this year, including two courses I’ve never taught before. If I go into these courses with misplaced expectations, I’m setting not only myself up for failure, but my students as well. 

Some of the most effective instructional methods, according to John Hattie’s review of research.

Decades of research seem to indicate that teacher expectations are strongly correlated to student achievement. Teachers are often warned against “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” as President Bush (the second one) said at the turn of the millennium. It should come as no surprise, then, that teachers are regularly exhorted to have high expectations for all students, as though if we just believe it hard enough, our students can accomplish ANYTHING.

Tiana makes a wish on the Evening Star.

Somehow, though, it doesn’t actually seem to work that way.

Anyone who has taught for long at all has experienced the uncomfortable surprise of students failing to perform as well as expected. And it sucks! I promise you, teachers would be absolutely delighted if all we had to do in order to guarantee student success was just BELIEVE.

The parting of the Red Sea, from the 1999 Dreamworks picture The Prince of Egypt. “There can be miracles, if you believe,” according to the song.

Gosh, that would be nice.

Another possibility is that teachers are experienced at identifying which students demonstrate attitudes about themselves and the course that are likely to result in behavior that leads to achievement. Students who have previously worked through academic challenges, and experienced meaningful success as a result, are more likely to be willing to work hard and try different strategies if their first attempt doesn’t work out.

However, research does seem to indicate that the effect of teacher expectation goes beyond identification of students who indicate aptitude. All the way back in 1963, which if you can believe it, was actually before my time, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted the now-famous “Pygmalion experiment,” publishing their work in the 1968 book Pygmalion in the Classroom.

Rosenthal and Jacobson performed their research at an elementary school in California. All students at the school were given an IQ test at the beginning of the school year; it was called a “Test of General Ability.” Roughly 20% of the students were selected at random and labeled as “academic bloomers.” Their teachers were given their names and told that these students were expected to show more progress than their peers. When students were given the same IQ test at the end of the year, the “academic bloomers” did show higher gains. 

While there are so, SO many problems with this study, including sample size, the test used, the lack of an actual control group, the conclusions that reach far beyond the scope of the study, to name just a few concerns (see the links in the description for more information), one thing it accomplished was drawing attention to the connection between expectations and behavior, and how it plays out in the teacher/student relationship.

These factors are interconnected in ways that are much more complicated than we might first think. The researchers posited that teacher expectations influenced teacher behavior. However, student behavior can also influence teacher expectations. Additionally, teacher behavior can influence student expectations, and student expectations can influence student behavior. Oh, and let’s not forget something all teachers have experienced: that student behavior can influence OTHER students’ behavior. And, of course, the same thing is true among colleagues: teacher behavior can influence other TEACHERS’ behavior as well… and in both cases, there’s also a connection to student and teacher expectations as a result.

Oof. Okay, brain break time. Take a breath. Click pause if you need to. Grab a snack. Stretch. Come back when you’re ready.

So, one of the eventual results has been subsequent research that has explored the connection between belief and behavior. And one of the points we’ve discovered that I find most intriguing – and most helpful – is that while we tend to think of it as belief shaping behavior (which it does), the reverse happens as well. 

This is something we’ve known for awhile, that behaving a certain way can actually change our beliefs. For example, in the song “I Whistle a Merry Tune” from the musical The King and I, Anna describes how she deals with her fears. And she says that by pretending she isn’t afraid, she not only fools everyone else, but “I fool myself as well.” 

Anna teaches the king to waltz.

However, more recently than the 1950s (which is when The King and I was produced), there’s been research that has documented this effect. For example, in a study published in 2017, Madison and Schiölde found that “familiarity is the single most important variable for explaining differences in liking among music.” So listening to a type of music actually increases how much you like that type of music – which is, of course, likely to lead to you choosing to listen to it even more.

 This has a number of useful ideas that teachers can put into practice. First of all, we need to acknowledge and accept that we have internal biases. Our experiences have influenced and shaped us. They affect our preferences, our values, and our goals, in ways that we often don’t understand and may not even realize. But everyone has them.

These personal and cultural biases also influence our expectations of students, in terms of what we think they should know and be able to do when they enter our class, how they should behave and what they should do during it, and what they should know and be able to do by the time they complete it. 

We can counter those biases somewhat by starting with teaching methods that are shown to be effective. The catch, of course, is that no instructional strategy is perfect, so it’s important not to just leave it at that. Then, as each term begins, we can make even more of a difference by getting to know our students as people. As we learn about their goals, values, preferences, family, and experiences, it helps us understand them as individuals, which can further offset our biases. 

It’s important to use that understanding to revise our expectations of students. What are their goals for themselves, in our class and outside it? What do they prioritize and value, and why does that matter to them? What do they hope to learn, and why do they believe that is important? What has their prior experience in school led them to expect about this course? Who are the significant people in their lives, and what expectations do those people have?

When we uncover the answers to these questions, we can use those answers to re-shape the conscious expectations we have. This both improves outcomes for our students, and helps us to expand and deepen our own worldview as well. 

Thanks for reading, everybody! Check out the links below for more information, and as always, don’t forget to leave me a comment letting me know what YOUR thoughts are!

You can watch a video version of this post on my YouTube channel.

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