Are having high expectations delusional?

We are told that we need to have high expectations of students but this mission is regularly aborted with comments such as “they will never be able to do this or that”, “I can’t teach him or her” or “they can’t do it, they can’t read or write”. Sometimes it sounds if having high expectations is delusional. Yes, it may be difficult for some students to learn certain skills or units of knowledge but if we do not believe they can do it as their teachers, then who will? It is our job as educators, our purpose.

There are many examples that I can elaborate on to highlight the power of high expectations, however, I want to focus on a humanities class I teach because many of the students in that lesson are those who are represented in the questions I posed above. It is a class of ten students consisting of a range of learners who speak limited English, some have significant issues in reading and writing whose levels range from 1A to as high as 5C. Similar to an earlier blog (See here), to accommodate such a range of abilities, I use Bruner’s Learning Model in my planning and delivery of lessons.

The topic I taught was on Belief in God as part of the religious education unit in the humanities curriculum. It is an interesting unit where the students explore different beliefs in whether a God exists. However, its discussions can become abstract and many can find it difficult to understand the beliefs of others. In particular with this class, language becomes a barrier and they find it difficult to understand key points and how to express themselves.

In comes high expectations – I could have easily gone down the path of using basic key words to support language and understanding. For example, using terms such as ‘they believe’, ‘they do not’ or they believe ‘god is powerful’. However, these are merely descriptions of specialist words. How will the students understand key knowledge without actually knowing specialist language such as theist, atheist and omnipotent? Therefore, the decision was made, I will teach them the specialist language as I would with a GCSE lesson. Am I having high expectations or have I become delusional because in addition to learning the key words they will have to write the answers as expected for the GCSE examination?

What was the reaction of the students? We “can’t do this”. When I probed deeper to why, they said “because we are not smart enough”, “no one has done this with us before” and “it will make us look dumber”. The common denominator in their conclusion is the concept of intelligence – we are not intelligent enough to complete this type of work. It may be of some consolation that the mention of GCSE to any Year 8 group would receive the same reaction but their tone was different, they sounded defeated, resided to always being the lowest set with a carousel of teachers.

Regardless, I was going to teach them the specialist langauge. How did I start – with words, lots of multi-syllabic words. I asked the class if they were ready for one word, and I received an overwhelming “Yes”. So, I wrote theist on the board. I asked if they wanted any more? Their reply emphatic “No”. Ignoring their answer I added to theist – atheist, agnostic, monotheist, polytheist, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omni-benevolent. Their faces dropped as did the other adults in the room. I said these are the words we need to learn and explain on your assessment (our GCSE examination question) at the end of half term.

We played games, created flash cards, completed practice questions, students responded to feedback, I introduced a new writing framework for them and we practiced. Our mantra became “practice makes permanent”. I had EAL and low ability students seeing me in the corridors reciting the words and their meanings. One parent at the end of the day at the school gate said all her daughter talks about are these GCSE words. Yet, we struggled, persevered, practiced and practiced more. The teaching was simple and rote in its pedagogy that layered new learning every week. By the time of the assessment the students were desperate to take the GCSE exam. Test day was game time and each student was itently focused, when the time was up, they all wanted to know the outcome.

What was the outcome? Disaster? Delusional? What about excellent? Their results were great, all the students exceeded their targets, some hitting 2 levels about their target. The students were ecstatic and a few overwhelmed. One boy could not stop smiling (I could not either, his answers were at an A* quality). A colleague of mine said that one of the students was telling her that it was his favourite class because they were learning GCSEs that will help them get into university. What a change in mindset.

I am under no delusion that sustainability is critical to ensure lasting success, however, there has to be a starting point and it starts with high expectations.

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