When students struggle, it can be tempting to lower our expectations, especially when our thinking is that doing so will increase their opportunities for success. However, the opposite is true—expensively so. When we lower our expectations for the quality of work and learning students will produce, we risk setting in motion consequences that can be life limiting.
While there are times and circumstances when lowering expectations might be contemplated for any type of student, multiple research studies have shown that lowering expectations disproportionately affects our most vulnerable students. The adjustment in expectations may be well intended. We may believe that it is best for students not to feel pushed and pressed to do work that is challenging or difficult for them, especially if they come from challenging life circumstances or have a history of struggle with academic learning.
We might even believe that focusing on building strong relationships with students will lead to greater learning success than having high expectations for them. However, students need more than our warmth and caring. They also need to be exposed to interesting work, meaningful challenges, and opportunities to build competence and confidence in their learning. It is the right balance between high expectations and high levels of caring that lead to learning success.
Importantly, the cost of lowering expectations can take many forms. Some costs are associated with the way in which students will come to view themselves. Other costs can be seen in skills not developed and competencies not gained. Still others can be found in negative responses to the experiences to which students are exposed. And some of the most expensive consequences are found in the limits and sacrifices students will face if they leave us not having learned what will be necessary for future success. Let’s consider five ways in which lowering expectations can be a costly decision.
When we lower our expectations, students lower their expectations. In fact, our lowered expectations risk communicating to students that we not only do not expect high level work from them, but we also believe that they are not capable of meeting high expectations. This is a dangerous message. The most difficult student to teach is the student who believes they cannot learn. We cannot afford to communicate this message or otherwise contribute to such a perception.
When we lower our expectations, we deprive students of opportunities to face and overcome difficult challenges, persevere, and build resilience. Yet, these are key life skills students need to develop for success in life. Further, while these challenges can be uncomfortable during the times when students face them, once successfully met, they can be sources of price and new confidence.
When we lower our expectations, we deprive students of opportunities to develop critical-thinking skills and employ creativity to solve novel problems. Low expectations for learning often mean that the teacher does most of the thinking, creating, and problem solving. Yet, these activities are what can make learning interesting, meaningful, and challenging enough to invest in.
When we lower our expectations, we are more likely to expose students to superficial and uninteresting content. We risk diverting students from learning with depth and full understanding. Absent useful application, meaningful purpose, and engaging activities, students learn and recall even less.
When we lower our expectations, we risk disqualifying students from pursuing highly skilled, learning-dependent life and work roles. We dramatically increase the likelihood that they will struggle to find work for which they will qualify and which will provide adequate compensation to support them and their family.
How can we communicate high expectations for our students? Here are five actions to consider:
- Consistently present students with challenges at the leading edge of their learning and development. Students need to consistently feel our nudge for them to struggle and grow.
- Take extra time to establish the purpose, implications, and details of concepts and skills. Focus on generating deeper understanding rather than limiting attention to the steps and sequence of completing an assignment or finishing a task.
- Focus on progress. Reaching high standards may take time and multiple learning attempts. Success is often the result of processes, practices, and purposeful effort. These are the building blocks for our attention.
- Frame coaching language around the inevitability of success. We might talk with students about “when” they succeed, not “if” they succeed.
- Intervene quickly when students begin to drift and underperform. We need to approach that behavior as an aberration that needs attention rather than as a reflection of the student’s potential.
Admittedly, holding high expectations for our students can be challenging. However, students rarely have the maturity and wisdom to consistently exceed our expectations. In many ways, the expectations we set and hold become the ceiling for performance and possibility for our students. We need to be certain that our expectations are high enough to protect their future.