Demystifying ‘High Expectations’

Schools prioritise high expectations as a way of ensuring that children learn quickly.  The Teacher Standards explicitly identify having high expectations as a hallmark of good teaching and much of school quality assurance focuses on it.  I don’t disagree that it is vital but feel that there is a danger that the term can turn into an empty and nebulous buzzword.

To make ‘high expectations’ meaningful we need to understand what it means, what it looks like and how to develop them.

High expectations mean expecting children to learn fast.  It does not mean expecting children to know what they’ve never been taught.  Failing to understand this creates all sorts of problems.

Behaviour and attitude to learning.

Going into a class who’ve never been taught classroom courtesy and expecting them to behave perfectly is unfair.  Doing this creates enormous conflict.  Teachers who make this mistake hand out sanction after sanction.  Behavioural problems worsen as children break rules they didn’t even know existed.  Pretty soon children start feeling that there is no point in even trying to behave well because they can’t work out how to even begin pleasing their teacher.  Detentions and parental contact become overwhelming to the teacher.

Having high behavioural expectations of a class means expecting attitude to learn to rapidly improve.  Routines and rules should be sensibly thought out, clearly communicated and consistently followed.  Honesty is important.  “Your behaviour and attitude in the classroom are really poor.  I understand that you’ve been used to behaving this way for a while now so I’m going to introduce new rules.  You’re going to stick to them because that way you’ll learn, which is why we are all here.  If you break my rules these are the consequences.”

Once basics are embedded then teachers should gradually raise their expectations.  “Thank you for listening.  You are all now writing the date and title without being asked and you’ve stopped shouting out.  I’ve noticed that sometimes when we read together some of you don’t always scan along.  This is a problem because for you it means you don’t understand things you should.  From now on I’m going to be giving a C1 to anyone who isn’t scanning.  All understand?  Good.”

Introducing everything at once won’t work but expecting continual improvement will.  With my most developed classes I now give a C1 to any student I see not adding a new word to their glossary without being asked to and nobody complains.

High expectations of learning

As a demographic teachers are well educated and many of us struggle with accepting that many of our students don’t know things we might regard as very basic concepts.

Having high expectations does not mean setting work based on things we think students should know but don’t and then getting cross with them when they can’t do the work we set.

“They needed to explain why the Spartacists thought they could gain control of Germany but they didn’t even know what communism is.  I have high expectations so I expected them to know that.”

 The problem here is with the teacher misunderstands what high expectation means.  Rather than persevering with a task that was clearly inappropriate and unfair, the teacher should have stopped and taught the class communism.  High expectation means believing that children have the ability to learn things quickly, not that they should know things they’ve never been taught.  If problems such as this are common then the long term curriculum needs to be looked at and revised, but this is an issue with departmental planning not the children in the class.

Teachers who fail to grasp this and plough the same barren furrow demoralise their students who quickly disengage.  Soon we hear the dreaded “I just don’t get history.  I don’t understand anything.”

 What high expectations look like

Good quality assurance takes place in a collegiate atmosphere with teachers focused on continual improvement from whatever starting point the student began at.  I like to ask teachers why the choose tasks and why they have chosen to set the targets they have.  A reassuring conversation might look something like this:

“Me:  Why are you asking them to do so many descriptive tasks?”

Teacher:  “It’s a less skilled class (we try not to say lower ability) and when I ask them to describe things they only include one point.  I’m trying to get them to describe a range of things independently and confidently.”

Me:  When do you think you’ll be able to move on to explaining causes?”

Teacher:  “Hopefully in a fortnight or so, but I won’t know for sure until I mark the next assessment.  I’ll let you know if they don’t manage it.”

For comparison here’s a more worrying conversation I might have around expectations.

“Me:  This is a really skilled Y9 group so I’m a bit surprised you’ve got them spending so long describing London in the Blitz.  I can’t see anything about why the Blitz happened.  Why is that?

Teacher:  “I tried to explain it but they didn’t understand.  They liked writing a diary about being a WW1 soldier in the trenches so I thought it’d be better if I let them spend two lessons imagining what it must have been like to be bombed in WW2.”

This looks alarmingly like low expectations to me.  The students are repeating a skill and aren’t really developing any further as historians.


  • Having high expectations doesn’t mean expecting students to be able to do things they’ve never been taught to do.
  • Having high expectations does mean believing students can learn quickly.
  • Teachers with high expectations know what getting better in their subject looks like and plan lessons to ensure this happens.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Ben Newmark and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here. Read more posts by clicking here.

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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