Expecting the Best
The first assignments are in and it’s time to set expectations in a way that motivates instead of crushing confidence.
In the past, I’ve either graded very forgivingly in the first few weeks, or fairly hard but then have been impatient with mistakes that come up often. I didn’t do them any favors either way.
A couple of pieces of research have motivated me to change.
1. The famous study of the role of teacher expectation on student performance (The Oaks School experiment, expanded upon in this excellent article in the National Teaching and Learning Forum on the Pygmalion Effect.)
2. The comment in Po Bronson’s book “Nurture Shock” that students know who the teacher thinks are smart (or not) by how they are critiqued – ‘dumb’ kids get encouragement and praise. ‘Smart’ kids get constructive critique, like the teacher expects them to be able to do better.
3. Oscar Wilde’s famous quote “Those who expect the best very often get it.” (I did, and got a great husband :-))
To make this real, it’s reflected in my grading policy – the message they REALLY hear. I graded them hard, marking down for not completing stuff, not putting in the units or writing a circular answer to a question. (But I didn’t drive myself crazy – graded only a couple of questions. Faster if I do all of q.1 for the class, then do q.2 etc., plus more consistent that way.)
After I gave back their work, I told them the Oaks School research story and reminded them about the redo policy.
7th period told me how they know that teachers think a kid is smart or not:
- One teacher winks at the smartest kid when she asks for responses, so the smart kid won’t answer.
- Looking at students who struggle in the eye while giving explanations or instructions.
- Going over after instructions to repeat them to a student, are both ways the less able students get singled out.
I’ve done all of these of course. Some is unavoidable in the name of differentiated instruction, and some is specified in IEPs. I shared the different ways teachers praise students and there was a look of recognition between students.
So by giving them specific, actionable feedback and letting them redo, they get the message that they can all do better. It’s not delusional, ‘positive thinking’ that all kids are gifted. (Thanks by the way, to Barbara Ehrenreich for her excellent “Smile or Die” TED talk on this.)
In the end, the atmosphere shifted from the usual closing down when kids get a bad score on work to a more gracious and open attitude to coaching from me. And that’s a shift too. From critique to coaching.