Needed: A Culture of High Expectations
Any experienced teacher will probably agree that how a teacher acts toward a student affects how the student performs in class. If a teacher is gruff and disapproving students will be reluctant to go out on a limb and announce answers they are unsure of. If a teacher is overly laidback or permissive and doesn’t seem to mind much if assignments are of a certain quality, students will likely become lax in their assignment completion. Perhaps more commonly, if a teacher expects lively boys to be disruptive those boys will likely feel unjustly targeted by reprimands and may either shut down or act up more. Teachers might give less feedback to students who performed poorly on assessments early in the year. In short, teachers are not immune to the all-too-human tendency to judge and to categorize and adjust behavior accordingly.
To be clear, it is not a teacher’s expectations per se that affect student performance but teacher behavior toward students. While most teachers would take professional pride in being fair and impartial factors as subtle as a look, word choice, physical proximity, or time spent in engagement send constant messages to students about a teacher’s expectations. If Johnny is told harshly to sit quietly at his desk, while the teacher stands by Sally’s desk pleasantly looking over her latest writing assignment both kids are getting pretty clear messages, especially if consistent behavior is routinely displayed. Psychologist Robert Rosenthal demonstrated the power of this variation of self-fulfilling prophecy in a fascinating experiment in 1964. Rosenthal manipulated teachers’ expectations by supplying them with phony results of a misrepresented test that could purportedly identify children who were on the cusp of great intellectual growth. Rosenthal followed up after several years and found that those children who were randomly identified as supposedly poised for an intense intellectual bloom did in fact gain more in IQ. In exploring reasons for this he concluded that those children had been given more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval than their peers.
After reading several articles and studies about just this sort of cause/effect relationship between teacher expectations/behavior and student performance and then sifting the information through my own experience as a teacher it occurred to me that this is realm of the great unknown in education. We have set curricula, standardized tests, tracked student progress, and so forth, but this influential but often subtle effect of teacher-student interaction is largely hidden and unaccounted for. This is the realm in which teaching is more art than science, where experience, personality, and attitude come into play. It’s the largely hidden aspect of education that often worries parents who secretly ask themselves, “Is my kid being encouraged or stifled? Is he being challenged or slipping through the cracks? Is she made to feel comfortable and valued in class or ignored or discouraged?” And in light of those recent studies indicating that professional training and even experience are in fact not good predictors of successful teachers, one might suspect that it is the nebulous, personal factor influencing how a given teacher approaches various students that is more determinative of success in the classroom. It is the teacher who has high expectations for all students, who is fair, encouraging, and positive when interacting with the girls, the boys, the quiet and gregarious, the more advanced and the less skilled, the troubled and the placid who will have greater success than the teacher who knowingly or unwittingly is selective in the distribution of attention and encouragement.
Some studies suggest that it is difficult to get teachers to change their expectations. Experiments with groups who were given intensive training to change their behavior yielded better results. But my questions is, could we get better by cultivating in a given school a teacher culture that specifically promotes equitable, positive, and encouraging behavior toward all students, not just the polite ones, or the apparently skilled and engaged ones, but the introverted, the rambunctious, the prickly, the withdrawn and defensive as well.