These are times when we need to tap every strategy, technique, and advantage we can use to help our students succeed. In many ways young people are still finding their way back from the pandemic. They need to make up for lost learning time and accelerate their academic progress. It’s not easy when they struggle to regain their social identities, develop new relationship skills, and reestablish their positioning with peers. They also are looking for support on which they can depend as they make their way through normal developmental tasks and trials.
Our commitment to teach, coach, guide, and mentor students through this time represents a significant challenge. We don’t always know the best thing to do or the best time to do it. We may not know what new skills to develop or what new tools to adopt. However, there is one gift we can give to our students that requires no new skills or tools and requires no extra time or training. Yet, it can have a significant and lasting impact on our students’ learning and life success.
That gift is the deceptively simple and sometimes counterintuitive action of holding high expectations for our students. We may think that lowering expectations might help students as they struggle to regain their balance and momentum. However, holding high expectations may be even more important now than during more stable and disruption-free times. In fact, lowering expectations risks sending a message to learners that we do not have confidence in their ability to meet the challenges they face and succeed despite their current circumstances.
Most of us are familiar with the 1960’s experiment known as “Pygmalion in the Classroom” in which teachers were told that certain students demonstrated test results that showed they were about to make significant gains in IQ in the next several months. In fact, the students had been selected randomly with no attention to intellectual capacity. Several months later the students were retested. The students who had the teachers who were told they were ready to make unusual progress demonstrated learning progress that significantly outpaced a matched group of students who had not been labeled as ready to make unusual growth. The only difference between the two groups was the expectations of their teachers. Importantly, the “Pygmalion in the Classroom” experiment has been replicated multiple times with similar outcomes. Bottom line: Teacher expectations matter to student learning.
Now, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has released a new study that documents an even wider role that teacher expectations play in student success. The research focus expanded beyond test scores and grades to include other areas important to life success. The study found that when teachers hold high expectations the odds of their students completing college increased by seventeen percent. The odds of students having children before the age of 20 were reduced by three to six percentage points, and the odds of students receiving public assistance by age 26 were five percent lower than the general population.
To be clear, it is not enough for us to say we have high expectations. Our behavior and interactions with students must reinforce and amplify our words. When we believe in the potential of our students and hold high expectations, our work with them changes, often in subtle but important ways.
First, our language with students becomes couched in the inevitability of success. We talk with students about “when” they succeed, not “if” they succeed. When we communicate our belief in students through our language and behavior, it’s easier for students to believe in themselves and plan to be successful.
Second, when students begin to slack off and underperform, we intervene quickly. Instead of seeing the behavior as an aberration that needs attention, we view it as reflective of the student’s potential.
Third, when students struggle, we take extra time to explain the purposes, implications, and details of concepts and skills. Our focus moves to generating deeper understanding rather than focusing primarily on the steps and sequence of completing an assignment or finishing a task.
Fourth, when we believe in the potential of our students, we take advantage to present them with challenges at the leading edge of their learning and development. We nudge them to struggle and grow, reinforce that their learning is worth the effort required, and we display trust in them to succeed.
Fifth, when we engage students we see as having potential, we use ourselves and our experiences as examples. We share stories about our struggles and successes in overcoming challenges and present ourselves as models students can emulate. As a result, students are more likely to see themselves as having potential to becoming accomplished, successful adults.
Of course, the power of high expectations also applies to us as adults. When we are viewed as successful professionals, are given more detailed coaching, receive attention and support, are given growth-evoking challenges, and frequently hear that success lies ahead for us, it creates a positive effect on us and enhances our abilities.