The Power of Expectations

“Great teachers focus on expectations. Other teachers focus on rules.
The least effective teachers focus on the consequences of breaking the rules.”

Image credit: Devid Levene

I think setting expectations is only the first step in learning. What is more challenging is establishing relationships so that students want to meet these expectations.

I remember when I was in high school, my Math teacher would give us a very difficult Math problem every day during lunch hour. And he expected us (at least one of us in the whole class) to be able to come up with a solution by the end of the lunch break. He never really set rules, though – he just believed that someone would take up this daily challenge. And guess what? We did exactly what he expected every day for three years, without fail.

Unfortunately, our school system tends to articulate expectations in the form of rules. “School” and “rule” just seem to go together (and they rhyme, too). No doubt rules are important, but rules are inherently limitation rather than liberation. Rules in school focus on undesirable behaviours, usually the worst kinds of behaviours. In fact, sometimes rules help plant ideas which would never have existed in students’ minds. Apart from spelling out a list of undesirable behaviours, rules highlight their consequences. This indirectly provides a framework for students to do a cost-benefit analysis, which will result in constant battles between the rule-owners and rule-breakers.

The reason expectations are powerful is that they are simply one-directional. The cost of not meeting expectations is unknown, or at least not clearly defined. As one book beautifully puts it, “the fear of the unknown can sometimes be a more powerful deterrent than a list of predetermined consequences (Todd Whitaker, p19).”

Like many others, I believe that great teachers have high expectations for students. But a friend challenged this, saying: “That’s not wrong, but it’s pointless. Even the worst teachers have high expectations for their students too.” So what is it that separates great teachers from the rest in terms of expectations?

Again, I agree with Todd Whitaker’s opinion: “The worst teachers expect students to be engaged no matter how irrelevant the material is. They expect students to pay attention no matter how boring and repetitious their classes are. They expect students to be well behaved no matter how the teacher treats them. Now, those are high expectations.”

Sarcastic as he may be, Whitaker’s words make sense. In my opinion, the true power of expectations starts with what teachers expect of themselves in the first place. If every teacher thinks that it’s their job to gain and keep students’ attention, that it’s their job to inspire and motivate, we’d have a much more productive and engaging classroom.

As a parent, a teacher, or a student – what do you think?



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