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Creating a culture of high expectations: complexities and challenges

Julie Smith

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. Teachers may be encouraged to provide lesson objectives according to ‘all, most, some’, creating an opportunity for teachers and students to subconsciously lower their expectations, and from the earliest stages of formal education, teachers are required to make predictions about future development based on present attainment, determining students’ academic ability (Dixon, 2002).

In their book ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’, Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) 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. Rosenthal’s work led to a plethora of investigations, notably Brophy’s (1970) study, which finds that teachers sometimes differentially interact with individual students, groups or classes in ways that seem likely to maximize the achievement progress of high expectation students, but limit the progress of low expectation students. Similarly, Brattesani, Weinstein and Marshall (1984) claim that teachers can behave in ways that communicate their achievement expectations to their students, and that these expectations influence students’ own expectations and achievement.

Recent research categorises teachers as ‘high and low differentiating’, finding that in the classes of low differentiating teachers, the gap between high and low expectation student achievement decreased over a year. Additionally, flexible grouping has many benefits for student learning, as does a positive atmosphere and warm student-teacher relationships, in addition to the setting of specific, achievable goals, and a focus on mastering skills and learning (Rubie-Davies et al, 2015). The benefits of positive teacher-student relationships are also a key factor in creating a culture of high expectations, as pupils who feel supported by their teachers are less likely to become alienated and disengaged from their work. Muller et al (1999) cite that students often report 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 to 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 (2009) 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 political rhetorical of ‘high expectations’ tends to refer to a more narrow definition of the term, in that it is directly linked to educational outcomes. Ball uses Boyle’s 2001 newspaper article on the subject of the increasingly dominant role of numbers and statistics in our society to illustrate the impact of this element of education reform: ‘the more figures we use, the more the great truths see to slip through our fingers’ (Ball, 2003). Schools are saturated with data, including data based on students’ prior attainment. It is possible that too much focus on this type of data leads to teachers ignoring the nuances of a student as an individual, and prevents teachers from focusing on students’ idiosyncratic needs and requirements. Expectations are an unobservable construct, and it is possible that well-meaning attempts to meet the needs of groups of learners in the classroom (and perhaps to meet the needs of accountability frameworks) may actually limit a student’s progress and performance.


Ball, S. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Education Policy. 18 (2), pp. 215-228.

Brattesani, K, Weinstein, R, and Marshall, H (1984) Student Perceptions of Differential Teacher Treatment as Moderators of Teacher Expectation Effects. Journal of Educational Psychology. 76 (2), pp.236-247.

Brophy, J (1983) Research on the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and Teacher Expectations. Journal of Educational Psychology. 75 (5), pp.631-661.

Dixon, A (2002) Editorial Forum. 44 (1), p.1.

Hattie, J (2009) Visible Learning MUA: Taylor and Francis

Muller, C., Katz, S. and Dance, L. (1999) Investing in Teaching and Learning: Dynamics of the Teacher-Student Relationship from Each Actor’s Perspective. Urban Education. 34 (3) pp. 292-337

Rosenthal, R., and Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development’. New York: Rinehart and Winston.

Rubie-Davies, C., Peterson, E., Sibley, C. and Rosenthal, R (2015) A Teacher Expectation Intervention: Modelling the Practices of High Expectation Teachers. Contemporary Educational Psychology. (40), pp.72-85.

Spitz, H. (1999) Beleagured Pymalion: A History of the Controversy Over Claims that Teacher Expectancy Raises Intelligence. Intelligence. 27 (3), pp. 199-234.