Posted by: holdenlee | September 11, 2012

Raise expectations of students, not (just) curriculum standards

Today in 11.129 (Educational Theory and Practice), we discussed memorable moments in our educations. One kind of story came up several times, so I’ll to give a generic version of it, with arbitrary names (and maybe a bit more on the dramatic side).

Bob is not motivated in Chemistry. Perhaps teachers in the past have implied that Bob didn’t have an “aptitude” in the subject. Bob meets Mrs. Miller, a teacher who made students work hard, and set high standards and expectations for everyone, no excuses. She of course worked hard in teaching. Mrs. Miller did not give easy grades.

Bob x hates the class. If Bob were fill out a “teacher evaluation” at the end of the year, he would have trashed Mrs. Miller.

After two years of reflection, he realizes that Mrs. Miller not only taught him her subject well–and he learned more from her class than many of his other classes combined–but that she also taught him how to work hard and how to approach future work.

Bob gets into MIT.

I’m amazed. I feel like many of these classmates really knew what it was like to have a teacher change the course of his or her life, and want to be that agent of change for other students. My utmost respect to those choose to pursue a teaching career.

Professor Gibb recounted subbing for a Special Education class. She didn’t know it was Special Ed. She had no lesson plans, found a lot of copies of Catcher in the Rye in the classroom, passed them out. Students read and discussed. The class ran smoothly, just like a normal class.

She learned later that the students had been unruly just the day before–throwing books out the window.

The Pygmalion Effect

These stories all show the Pygmalion effect:

The greater the expectation placed upon people, often children or students and employees, the better they perform. (Source: Wikipedia)

Of course, there are different ways to set high expectations. Some teachers are stern about it, others are encouraging. My point isn’t that stern is better.  when the teachers set high expectations, believe the students are capable of meeting the expectations, do not accept less, take the time to make sure the student reaches the goal, then the student will achieve more. (That being said, reflect on your own learning. Is there a teacher who you learned a lot from, who you didn’t appreciate at the time?)

What about a student who started out at a lower level at the beginning of the year? Expectations may be different from student to student, but there should always be an expectation that they will work to get better, to meet a specific goal. When the teacher believes the students can meet the expectations, the student does better. (Note: This does not contradict what I said about “slowing down to speed up.” A teacher can still has the unwavering expectation that the student who is behind will catch up at some time in the future.)

The effect is not just limited to expectations. A teacher who teaches the subject like it is interesting/boring will make students interested/bored with the subject.

Expectations vs. Standards

The Skillful Teacher gives us the following definitions.

  • standard is a “level or type of performance a teacher wants from students.”
  • expectation is “what a teacher thinks (believes or predicts) students will do.” (Emphases mine.)

In educational policy people talk about setting high standards. It’s not enough to set high standards–what we want from students. NCLB sets 100% proficiency as a goal, when most states are still at something like 20-40%. For one, there is no “one-size fits all” approach to education, and test scores are always a questionable method of gauging proficiency. Second, to an average student, something like the standards set by these policies seem removed from their daily lives.

The expectations of a student’s community–teachers, parents, and peers–is what brings standards home to them. But it’s often hard to send a message of high expectations–because it comes down to very subtle points like word choice when talking to students, how to call on students, etc. If you talk to someone you feel is smarter, it’s easy to subconsciously give them more opportunities to express themselves; if you talk to someone you feel is less smart, it’s easy to subconsciously give them false encouragement.

We have to examine what biases we have about what someone can accomplish, and believe that anyone can achieve great things with effective effort. There’s a name for that too. It’s called the effort-based ability theory. Its opposite? The innate ability theory–the theory that everyone has a set IQ, which determines what they can accomplish in life. If you communicate the fact that others can achieve highly with effort, then they are more likely to put in that effort, which is the basis of success anyway.

High standards combined with high expectations are a recipe for success.

Good teachers know this (and this post is just my take from reading about teaching). I think it’s valuable not just for teachers to know them but everyone, too.

Today in 11.124 we watched Waiting for Superman. It’s a very moving documentary about what’s wrong with the school system, although it does not portray all the facts honestly. I hope to write on this after I have read some contrasting opinions.

Oh, and about the math classes… will work on editing the notes to post them tomorrow.


  1. […] I’ve written in a previous post, in general the greater the expectations placed upon students, the better they perform (Pygmalion […]

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