When Michael Gove borrowed the phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” from George W Bush’s speech writer, Michael Gerson, there was widespread condemnation of the message he was giving. Since then, the phrase has been repeated on numerous occasions, with little time devoted to defining precisely what these low expectations are and how they manifest in school, or what we might expect to see in classrooms across the land if there were high expectations of every child.
Having the highest expectations of every child in our classrooms is surely one of the foundations of great teaching. As a teacher trainee in the early 1990s the message was drummed into me that at the start of every new topic or theme, we must convey expectations for every child to achieve highly. I simply could not imagine how to go about teaching without having unlimited expectations of each child, despite coming from the era of desperately limiting “top tables” which undertook different work from those tables hosting the rest of the class.
So, what do high expectations of each child actually look like? One thing is crystal clear, ability tables do not indicate high expectations. As one teacher explained to me, “I do NOT sit children in so-called "ability" tables or groupings. High expectations for all with, yes, extra support if necessary for some. No pre-labelling or limiting, just an awareness that some will find some tasks and some learning more challenging than others.” Another teacher felt that ability tables simply encouraged those children who were not labelled as high achieving to live down to the expectations made of them. “Why would any teacher in their right mind do that?”
This is interesting to reflect on in the light of our own experiences at school. I recall one athletics teacher pairing me with the fastest runner in the year group and telling me to “keep up”. I almost did. The result? The fastest run I had ever done up to that point. There is no doubt that without that pairing I would not have run so fast.
It is important not to mistake the expectations we may have of, for example, uniform standards, for the expectations we have of a child as they work on the tasks set for them in the classroom. High expectations cannot begin with uniform and end with behaviour if we are limited in our aspirations for the children we teach and what they may or may not achieve.
Charlotte Davies, Education and Tomatis sound therapist as well as Director of Fit 2 Learn CIC, believes that high expectations begin at the earliest opportunity with making sure that motor skills, sound processing and vision are all developing well. “Then children can achieve motor-sensory integration and learn whatever they want,” Davies explained. “Children need to be able to cognitively process with ease, if something is a huge challenge then they will get disheartened and feel anxious & insecure.”
Retired headteacher, Chris Chivers, believes that an awareness of what the next year groups achieve is a useful rule of thumb. He explained, “In professional development terms, your awareness might add an appropriate amount of challenge at the right time. "How about trying..." I have never had a problem with aspiration, but it starts with awareness, not just a "high expectations" mantra.”
To sharpen the focus on high expectations in the classrooms in your care, these ideas may work:
Build your positive working relationships with the children on a continual basis. From strong relationships comes commitment and a willingness to see you as a role model for learning.
Acceptance and trust
Help children to accept and be proud of their current levels of attainment and to trust that they can and will improve over time, with effort.
Effort, effort, effort
Did I mention effort? The effort a child puts into their work is worth focusing on, perhaps more so than outcome. And if at first their efforts do not bring the results they desire, encourage them to try again. And again. Effort that falls below expectations needs addressing sooner rather than later. Leaving reduced effort to set in as a habit could mean a harder task ahead in turning things around. As soon as low effort is detected, act.
When work is below the quality you would expect or know can be achieved, work together to determine the causes. Did they just not try hard enough? Or are other factors at play? Bullying? Tiredness? Hunger? Preoccupation with worries or anxieties? What support can be given to create the mental space to achieve well?
Keep the learning open-ended. Don’t put a limit on how far they can go with the learning on offer. Incremental steps can be achievable and difficult. Revisit Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.
Model great learning
What do you expect to see? What would be a great outcome and what would be mediocre? Show, tell and explain. Tell them what you expect and what would be unsatisfactory.
Would children know how to do better in the future from the feedback you give? That’s the goal. How does feedback help them to strive and to set high expectations for themselves? If they haven’t hit their targets yet, how can they bridge the gap between where they are and where they need to be? Too little challenge is to be avoided, as is too much all at once. Keep it realistic.
Praise the praiseworthy, whether as part of a step towards success or as the outcome of a bigger project. There is no benefit to holding back on praise where it is due.
Listen out for the language used by the children you teach. Are they talking in terms of things being “too hard”? Or are they describing themselves in negative terms? Encourage confidence and self-belief.
Who is standing in their own way of meeting the highest expectations? Why? How can you get parents on board in this quest for high expectations?
Researchers Rosenthal and Jacobsen demonstrated the Pygmalion effect (high expectations lead to improved performance in a given area). While their study may now be considered limited, the overall notion that high expectations can nudge a child to move towards their potential and anything but the highest expectations can limit success persists. If nothing else, taking a moment to check our expectations and any subconscious limits we may be placing on classes can only be a good thing for the overall achievements of the children we teach.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.