Students rarely achieve beyond what they believe is attainable. Of course, perceptions about attainability are formed by multiple factors. Past performance with similar challenges, family expectations and history, relatively safe and supportive learning environments, and relationships with the teacher are among the most influential factors.
Many students are fortunate to come from families with high expectations and a history of academic success who instill success-building strategies and habits in their children. These habits and strategies have led these students to experience academic success and created expectations for future success. Through different means, other students have learned these as well as other skills and strategies that have led to success and are part of their approaches to learning. They expect to be challenged and to do well. Consequently, we do not have to invest significant time and effort in lifting their expectations and aspirations.
Unfortunately, many students do not have these advantages. They may not have a history of academic success. They may never have learned and practiced the skills and habits that could lift their performance and increase their ability to succeed in the face of significant challenges. As a result, they face at least two barriers. First, because they do not have a history of success, they may not believe success is possible. Second, they lack the learning tools necessary to lift their expectations and achieve at significantly higher levels.
Obviously, there are contextual factors we can influence. We can create a safe and supportive learning environment. We can hold high expectations for the achievement of our students and communicate our belief in their potential to succeed. We can also share our confidence and seek the support of families to lift expectations and provide encouragement and support when their children struggle.
We also need to consider the learning we are asking of students. Students need to see the value and utility of what they are learning. Content that students find interesting, skills that are important to them, and connections to the world beyond the classroom can motivate students to want to do better and be successful. There are also concrete steps we can take to help students build skills and lift their learning aspirations and expectations.
First, we must help students to see, experience, and believe that higher levels of achievement are possible. We can share examples of people with whom our students are familiar (and, ideally, whom they admire) who faced significant barriers and overcame difficult challenges to achieve unusual success. Beyond the success these people achieved, we need to share and discuss their journey, including challenges they faced, strategies they used to overcome barriers, and the roles of effort, persistence, and resilience.
Second, we can coach students to build a vision for what they might achieve. Without a sense for what could be and what they would like to have happen, little change is likely. At first, the vision might be modest and incremental. Regardless, it needs to be compelling to the student and worth working toward. There will be setbacks and temptations to abandon the vision, but without a vision there is no reason to invest.
Third, we can teach and coach students to build a plan of action. Starting where students are and identifying initial steps, commitments, skills, and strategies can create a sense of hope within the context of reality. For many students, creating a plan may be a new experience. In fact, they may not have solid models and examples to rely on, so we need to be ready to provide varying support, including explicit instruction, based on what students need.
Fourth, we need to encourage students to celebrate small wins and evidence of progress. To sustain commitment to their vision, students need to see connections between their effort and progress. Our feedback might focus on what actions and insights made a difference and led to that progress. If students fail to make a connection between effort and outcomes, they are not likely to persist. Our attention and encouragement as progress emerges can lead students to see even higher goals and deepen their commitment.
Fifth, we can coach students to become resilient. When students experience setbacks, we need to be ready to help them see the situation as an invitation to learn, not a judgement of their character or potential. Supporting students by giving them second chances and opportunities to revise and adjust their efforts can make a big difference. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Sixth, as they experience higher levels of achievement, we can nudge students to continue to lift their aspirations and set even higher goals. No evidence is more credible for students than their own accomplishments, especially when they know they have been earned. Our goal is to have students build momentum that can carry them forward to achieve more than they expect and that leads them to believe in themselves and their ability to succeed.
Unless students believe they can do better, they have little reason to invest and persist when they struggle. However, by helping students to set a vision, even if it is a modest one, we can coach them to build the attitudes, skills, and habits that can lead to improvement and eventual success.