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High Expectations in Primary: What They Are and Why They Matter

Several years ago, I was part of a SLT team which needed to respond to low standards. One of the areas for immediate improvement was for the school to increase expectations of what pupils could achieve. This led me to a quandary: were my expectations high enough? I thought they were, and I had been told they were too high when I had been training. It felt difficult to know whether or not I was doing right by the children.

So,I decided to focus on high expectations for my final masters research project because it was a term that was immediately important and one that I heard extremely often but also one for which I struggled to find a common definition. Having high expectations of pupils was deemed as being so important but I could not find clarity over how I could 'measure' the height of my expectations or calibrate whether my expectations were high enough. Committing to a 20,000-word research and development project was one way to find out.

The research literature about expectations stems back from 1968 with Rosenthal and Jacobson's seminal Pygmalion in the Classroom study. The researchers told groups of teachers that the prior attainment of a group of students was higher than it actually was: lo and behold, the achievement of this group at the end of the year was significantly higher than the control group of students sharing similar levels of prior attainment. In essence, it was proven that if teachers believe pupils are more 'able' than their prior attainment would have them ordinarily believe, then pupils end up making more progress as a consequence of this.

I'm all for making links to other areas of teaching, and a quote that stands out for me is one most commonly linked to the growth mindset field:

Whether you think you can, or you can't, you're probably right. - Henry Ford

This quote sums up the research about the teacher expectation effect: what teachers believe about pupils' potential achievement affects their actual achievement. This gives rise to the truism that teacher expectations lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Essentially, teacher expectations are beliefs that teachers hold about pupils that affect their interactions: pupils interpret teachers' expectations through these interpretations and behave accordingly. This means that the decisions teachers make about the level of work, support, type of response and pretty much everything within the classroom habitat all affect what pupils believe about themselves and their potential to learn. Teachers with high expectations generally believe that all pupils are capable of significant progress despite their starting points.

Crucially, it is the behaviours that teachers adopt that are critical to the teacher expectation effect. Professor Christine Rubie-Davies, an academic from the University of Auckland, is a leading authority on the behaviours of high-expectation teachers. Her research has found that it is possible to change teachers' classroom behaviours to emulate those of teachers whose practice enables their high expectations to be met. Interestingly, it is not enough to hold high expectations of pupils, but also act with those high expectations too.

Teachers who communicate high expectations to pupils typically:

  • have a strong understanding of the pedagogical content knowledge of their subject - how pupils learn the subject content

  • group pupils by need rather than pre-conceived ability

  • do not differentiate their interactions between children with differing prior attainment

  • ensure a classroom climate where mistakes are welcomed and feedback valued - a warm environment

  • develop student autonomy

  • believe that all pupils can make substantial progress regardless of their starting point - they do not have high expectations of the same achievement for all, but they do have the same high expectation of progress for all.

My study uncovered some relationships between high-expectation teachers and other interesting areas of teacher effectiveness. Relationships between school climate and teacher self-efficacy were particularly interesting. Curiously, in schools where expectations were typically high, individual teachers' expectations were generally overridden by this. Additionally, teachers with higher expectations tended to have high expectations of themselves and a higher level of self-efficacy - their belief in their own ability to be achieve their goals - than teachers with comparatively lower expectations.

🙌🏻 Most research has focused on pupils' responses to any intervention, and in my study, I wanted to see if the introduction of a high expectation technique - that of cold-calling - affected teachers' expectations. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 effect on schools meant I had to complete my project using hypothetical scenarios.

However, I think it's useful to summarise some of the key learning I've taken from an incredibly large volume of studies that I read for my literature review.

📚 Key Findings from the Literature

  • ↗️ By improving teacher self-efficacy - their belief that they can achieve a desirable outcome with pupils - it is likely that we can increase teachers' expectations.

  • ⏮ Teachers base their expectations on a range of factors but prior attainment features most heavily. It is important to prevent low prior attainment from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • 🏫 Developing a school culture of high expectations is an effective way of improving expectations across a body of teachers - but there will still be variation between individual classrooms. Narrating the approaches teachers should take in their classrooms might be able to mediate further individual teacher effects.

  • 🎓 Certain classroom practices demonstrate expectations to pupils. High expectation teachers generally are more flexible with groupings, are more positive in their interactions and provide more feedback when pupils make mistakes. On the contrary, low expectation teachers are more likely to use ability grouping, be less accepting of mistakes, and often limit learning by fixing the level of challenge at too low a point.

  • 🚸 Pupils are incredibly perceptive of teachers' expectations and the levels to which teachers differentiate their interactions between groups of pupils for whom they have different expectations. When teachers have high expectations, pupils' self-belief slowly increases across the year; this self-belief can be destroyed on a much quicker timescale. Changes to attainment match those with pupils' perceptions.

🍕 Key Takeaways

  • 🔊 Consider the message I convey to pupils through the words I use, the level of questions I ask, and my response to their mistakes. Body language counts for the majority of communication.

  • 👌🏻 Show, not tell - telling pupils I have high expectations of them is far less effective than showing them I have high expectations. I can do this by smiling if at first they are not successful, not giving up on them, guiding them to success and building their self-esteem throughout their time in my class.

  • 📈 Pitch lessons high and scaffold up - let children know that I am not capping what they can do.

  • 🚫 Refuse to use negative language around ability. I also try very hard never to make remarks about what some children should be able to do: "I know you can do this" is far better than "I expected you to be able to do this".

  • 🙇🏻‍♂️ Think carefully about what I need to do to enable pupils rather than internal barriers that I perceive pupils might have. I think this is the hardest one as we make so many assumptions about children with lower prior-attainment and the nature of support they need. It is important to switch the focus of this to the type of support they need to be successful rather than see these pupils as having a deficit which will make the learning harder for them.

I hope you've found these findings useful. If you'd like to contest, or enquire about anything I've written, please do get in touch.

To read my original research, please search for "MLT Hayes" on the Oxford University Research Archive.

To download a high-resolution copy of the above graphic, click on the link below.

Teacher Expectations
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