5 September 2015

High Expectations

During Wednesday's Inset I delivered a five minute presentation to all teaching staff about high expectations.

At my new school, teachers are encouraged to engage in research - there is a comprehensive programme of internal CPD and a number of teachers are undertaking masters degrees. The school, more so than some others, has high expectations of its teaching staff. So in my presentation I had to be careful not to state the obvious. I gave a very short summary of the Pygmalion effect (ie that having high expectations of students will lead to higher achievement). I also spoke briefly about the impact of using encouraging language with students, and how teachers with low expectations often fail to give their students constructive feedback.
I did want to include at least one practical idea in my presentation, so I shared @MathedUp's 'Request a Work Selfie' which went down well. This is a great way to signal high expectations from the outset. It works well in any subject.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about expectations lately. Teachers have to deal with conflicts here - do I really have high expectations of a student who I enter for Foundation GCSE? It presents a moral dilemma. Sometimes it's useful to step back and look at the bigger picture. What should children experience at school? What's the point of it all?

Why do you watch University Challenge?
I enjoy watching University Challenge. I marvel at the knowledge of the contestants and feel a great sense of achievement if I get even just one or two questions right. I don't know most of the answers, just like some students in my lessons, but I still enjoy watching it. Why? Because University Challenge has high expectations of its audience. The questions are hard, there are no gimmicks, and I respond well to that. The makers don't dumb it down. They expect a lot of me. And I like it that they expect a lot of me.
The reason Brian Cox is so successful with series such as Wonders of the Universe is that these programmes have high expectations of their audience. We rise to these expectations.

If we have high expectations of our students then they will rise to them.

What would you prefer - an hour with Joey Essex or five minutes with Stephen Hawking? I'm sure we'd all choose the latter. Even if everything he said went over our heads, we'd benefit from being in an intellectually stimulating environment.

I attended the MEI Conference in June. There was a lecture called 'Bouncing Bombs and Boomerangs' by Dr Hugh Hunt, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University. I wasn't familiar with much of the maths and physics he spoke about. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and got a lot out of the experience. Dr Hunt spoke with passion, engaged his audience, and had high expectations.

'The biggest impact on a student is from a teacher in love with their subject'
People who are really involved with their subject never say ‘I’d love to tell you about this but I can't because you won’t understand it’.

I once attended a lecture by Simon Singh about The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets. I learnt lots of new things and I came away more excited about my subject than I'd ever been before. I rushed home to my husband, grabbed a pen and paper, and talked him through Fermat's Last Theorem. I excitedly showed him the 'near miss' solution that appeared on The Simpsons. Did he understand what I was talking about? Of course he did. In fact, I later heard him telling someone else about it. Here's what's interesting: my husband got an E in his maths GCSE. He retook it in Year 12 and got an E again. Over the course of our 17 year relationship, I'd never tried to explain anything mathematical to him before. But my excitement about sharing this really interesting mathematics overrode any expectations.

This is why the best teachers are those who are passionate about their subject. They don't say, 'It might be too hard for them to understand'. They say, 'I can't wait to tell them about it'.

It's all about narrative
Adding depth doesn't mean making something more complicated. To add depth to a topic we talk about historical perspective, social dimensions and practical applications. The key to making complex ideas manageable is narrative. For example, the causes of the Second World War are deeply complex and whole libraries could be filled with books analysing those causes. It's a complex topic but do history teachers say it's too hard to teach? No, they teach it by telling stories. It is those stories that spark the interest of their students.

We must have high expectations of ourselves and what we are capable of explaining.
I was recently teaching a class of low attaining Year 8s. I decided to teach them Pythagoras' Theorem, and was warned that it might be too much for them. I started with stories of the eccentric Pythagoras of Samos - they listened and learnt because these stories are interesting. By the end of the lesson perhaps only half the class could confidently solve a problem using Pythagoras' Theorem, but the lesson still had a far better outcome than if I'd had low expectations of the class and had not tried to teach the topic at all.

Pitch it right, but don't dumb it down
If a topic is hard, don’t back down. If you aim high and have mixed success then you will still achieve more than if you'd aimed low. If your students even get 5% of what you say, then better they were in that top flight academic environment and got only 5% than they were in a 'dumbed down' lesson. Why? Because education should take students from the known to the unknown. It should give them knowledge that they couldn't possibly get in their everyday lives. If we limit the intellectual horizon of our lessons, we miss the point completely.

If we have high expectations of our pupils, we are relaxed that they might not 'get' all of it, because we are showing them the "best that has been thought and said" in this area. They deserve that.
I did lots of reading over summer to prepare for my presentation. I particularly enjoyed this post from @HuntingEnglish about the impact of a maths teacher with high expectations - it's well worth a read.

I hope I've managed to give you some food for thought about high expectations. My work on this has certainly had an impact on the way I've started off the year with my new classes. You can find the slides from my presentation here. Thanks for reading.


Image source: wiziq.com


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