Labelling and notions of fixed ability are prevalent in our education system. Students are divided into groups according to their prior attainment and ‘appropriate’ work is provided as a result. OFSTED inspectors check that teaching is differentiated accordingly and some teachers are encouraged to provide lesson objectives according to ‘all, most, some’, creating an opportunity for teachers and students to subconsciously lower their expectations. From the earliest stages of formal education, teachers are required to make predictions about future development based on present attainment, determining students’ academic ability.
In their 1968 book, ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’, Rosenthal and Jacobsen reported that experimentally created teacher expectations resulted in changed performance on the part of the students. Teachers were told by researchers that one group of students would make significantly more progress than their peers. Despite the fact that these ‘bloomers’ were randomly selected, this group ‘showed greater IQ gains over the course of a year than a group of control students’. The debate continues to rage…
Rubie-Davies et al refer to teachers as ‘high and low differentiating’, finding that ‘none of the high expectation teachers grouped their students by ability’, suggesting that ‘within-class ability grouping (can have) detrimental effects on student self-beliefs’. Compared to setting, however, Baines suggests that within-class ability grouping is an advantageous form of grouping as it can ‘be more closely connected to learning and teaching objectives’ and ‘offer greater flexibility in reassignment of students’, although warns against homogenous ability groups as ‘all participants have similar understandings or assume that others already have these understandings’.
A further characteristic of high expectation teachers is a positive teacher-student relationship. Ireson and Hallam find that ‘pupils who feel supported by their teachers are less likely to become alienated and disengaged from their work’, claiming that ‘environments that foster a sense of belonging (should) also promote achievement. Muller et al report students feel ‘it is important to have teachers who care about them. They want…their teachers to be able to believe that they can do good work and demand it’.
The final aspect of practice in which high expectation teachers differ markedly is through goal setting based on regular, formative evaluation. Providing students with clear, specific feedback about their goals can aid student progress. Hattie also claims that ‘feedback is among the most powerful influences on achievement’. In order to have the most impact, feedback needs to be ‘purposeful, meaningful and compatible with prior knowledge’ as well as ‘relating to specific and clear goals’. The research warns against directing feedback at the level of ‘self’, and stresses the importance of allowing learning from mistakes, suggesting that ‘we need classes that develop the courage to err’.
The terminology of ‘a culture of high expectations’ is in itself complex and problematic, but any opportunity to explicitly raise expectations should be seen as a moral imperative.