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March 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 6

Show & Tell / Are You Communicating High Expectations?

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Instructional Strategies
Professional Learning
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"I believe all children can learn."
If you've been in education for more than a month, you have undoubtedly heard some version of that sentiment. But do our practices match our words? Researcher Christine Rubie-Davies has dedicated her work to understanding how teacher expectations influence students' achievement. It comes as no surprise that students whose teachers have lower expectations of them learn less than peers in high-expectation classrooms. These beliefs are telegraphed by our behaviors. Rubie-Davies found that low-expectation teachers:
  • Use ability grouping for activities.
  • Rarely provide students with choice.
  • Ask more closed rather than open-ended questions.
  • Praise or criticize students based on accuracy.
  • Ask other students for the correct answer when a student answers incorrectly, rather than trying responses that might draw out the student's thinking.
  • Manage behavior reactively.
The good news: Teachers can learn to use more high-expectation practices. Students in one Rubie-Davies study whose teachers were trained in high-expectation practices increased their math scores by an equivalent of three months' worth of gains, compared with peers in other classrooms. The secret? These teachers experienced professional development that showed what high (or low) expectation practices look like, then had chances to link that PD to self-assessment. The teachers watched videos of themselves teaching and scored their own observed practices against what they'd learned about ways a teacher can show she is looking for strong work and thinking from everyone. This resulted in changes to their classroom practices—changes that in turn elevated their expectations.

Don'ts and Do's of High-Expectation Practices

The ways we organize our classrooms for instruction, partner with students in their learning (or don't), and use language, have the cumulative effect of communicating what we expect of our students. Teachers' actions along these three dimensions of practice (which we identified based on Rubie-Davies' work) can indicate whether they are more a high- or low-expectation educator. Specifically, high-expectation teachers:
Don't differentiate learning (as opposed to instruction). High-expectation teachers avoid ability-grouping students within the classroom during learning tasks. A central principle of Carol Ann Tomlinson's work—unfortunately one often misinterpreted—is that all learners should engage in complex and challenging tasks. In low-expectation classrooms, the misapplication of differentiation is used as an excuse for assigning low-level, repetitive assignments to some students as a tool for remediation. High-expectation teachers adopt an acceleration mindset for all learners and create a range of experiences that students can choose from. When students can choose, they often select work that's both appealing and challenging yet achievable for them. When this occurs, students are more likely to complete their selected, challenging learning tasks.
Do create a warm classroom environment. In high-expectation classrooms, the emotional climate is caring and nonthreatening. There's an emphasis on knowing each child well and developing a positive relationship with them. High-expectation teachers are emotionally responsive and use respectful, caring language with all their students. Because these teachers use a proactive approach to potential problematic behaviors, they spend less time reprimanding, repeating directions, and reteaching procedures. Practices like these help ensure all students have opportunities to learn.
Do help students set goals and monitor their learning. High-expectation educators find ways to set goals with students, monitor progress with them, and promote students' autonomy and decision making. Such practices rely on formative evaluation as a tool for students to gauge their own progress. Teachers who signal high expectations create a space for young people to view their own learning, rather than being dependent on the teacher to tell them when they've learned something. The net effect is that students become intrinsically motivated. Their sense of agency—their belief that they can achieve their goals—increases.

High Expectations in Action

In the video that accompanies this column, 1st grade teacher Alex Cabrera of Rosebank Elementary in Chula Vista, California, leads his students through an initial reading of a complex expository text. You'll see a number of teaching behaviors that communicate his high expectations. Cabrera sets the learning intention for his students, fosters inquiry and discussion, and allows students to wrestle with a problem in identifying the main idea rather than providing the correct answer himself. All this happens within an emotionally warm classroom climate created by a teacher who ensures students are comfortable taking intellectual risks and supporting each other.

Low expectations are telegraphed by teachers' behaviors. But teachers can learn to use better practices.

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Are You a High-Expectations Teacher?

So how can you get a sense of whether your teaching practices and the ways you interact with all students communicate high expectations? There are several ways to explore this. One we recommend is watching a video of your teaching and looking for how you're doing on key actions that research shows relate to high expectations. Education Hub has a self-assessment checklist of 25 actions associated with high-expectation teaching based on Rubie-Davies's research that any teacher can use to monitor their own practice in this regard. It includes practices associated with giving feedback (like "Praise effort rather than correct answers"); using formative assessment; and helping learners set goals (e.g., "Teach students about using SMART goals" and "Regularly review students' goals"). The teacher doing the self-assessment marks whether they do each practice rarely, sometimes, or often.
We encourage you to record yourself teaching or working with students for 20 minutes, then review the recording with this self-assessment in hand. What did you learn about what you're communicating to students? Might you set some goals to make your practice and ways of interacting more aligned with high-expectations teaching?
Author's note: The footage in the video was collected before the pandemic began, which is why teacher and students are not masked or observing other safety measures.
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EL Magazine Show & Tell: March 2022

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End Notes

1 Rubie-Davies, C. M., Peterson, E. R., Sibley, C. G., & Rosenthal, R. (2015). A teacher expectation intervention: Modelling the practices of high expectation teachers. Contemporary Educational Psychology40, 72–85.

2 Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

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