In our start of term INSET, Sarah Brinkley the Executive Headteacher (ALT) spoke about the importance of having high expectations of all our students. She asked to imagine that every new student we encounter had unlimited potential to achieve and focus our energies on lifting them towards that.
The inclusion team also referred to important research that teacher attitudes are one of the biggest barriers to fully inclusive education. Black-Hawkins and Florian (2012) emphasised the vital importance of building in teachers the attitude that every child can succeed in their classroom, and that they have the power to make the difference. Our own research, looking at schools that have been very successful at closing the gaps have reinforced this message. The attitudes of everyone involved in the child’s education need to be aspirational; to move away from a focus on the student’s limitations to their potential.
Does this mean that every student will achieve top levels? Of course not, sadly. But it is an approach that supports far more students to achieve their potential, including high-level qualifications. What is the fundamental mental shift that needs to happen?
One of the biggest shifts we can make is to shift our thinking away from a focus on a student’s limitations and what they cannot do. For many of us, this is something we have long been asked to do. Look at what students cannot do and avoid uncomfortable challenge; offer alternatives, “different” work, pathways or qualifications and remain ‘realistic’. However it is increasingly clear that this approach to education, which many people are now referring to as the “deficit model” is more likely to embed disadvantage than to help students overcome it.
Instead, at every level of education, we need to focus on a different question. “How can I support this student to achieve in line with others?” We need to focus on the scaffolding and support we can offer as teachers, TAs or part of their wider support network to overcome disadvantage, challenges and cognitive overload and support them in both aiming and achieving high.
At the start of a new school year, one thing to think carefully about is how we handle the data we receive on students. We are given a huge amount of data about all of our students, often before we have even met them.
One thing to be treated with caution at this point in term is the data we are given about children. But more is not necessarily better if it leads to low expectations and a focus on students’ historic limitations. In the last year we have done research that suggests that some data can be very dangerous in this regard and lead to teachers and professional focusing on students’ “limitations” – especially individualised target grades. But even without these we need to think carefully about how we use the data we have. As professionals, I think it is very important that we are aware of a number of possible risks that our own attitudes can create:
- The Pygmalion and Golem Effects: In 1965 Rosenthal and Jacobson experimented with the impacts of labelling by convincing teachers that a (non-existent) test they had run on their students had identified certain students who were on the verge of going through the intellectual equivalent of a ‘growth spurt’ and whose progress would accelerate dramatically over the course of the next year. They found that children profited from their teacher’s high expectations and made greater progress than those not so labelled. There are various provisos to this “Pygmalion Effect”; including that the impact was limited to younger children and their paper explores a range of possible explanations. However one implication is the possibility that low expectations can lead to poor outcomes for the student – the Golem Effect. As a teacher, seeing my students for the first time through the filter of data, it is sobering to remind myself of the potential for my expectations to shape their outcomes.
- Confirmation Bias: Along with the risks of self-fulfilling prophecy acting on the students, confirmation bias is a well-documented psychological tendency that it is worth teachers familiarising themselves with. Essentially this is where we interpret new evidence in light of our existing theories. This can be done in a variety of ways; we can look for evidence that supports our beliefs, disregard contradictory evidence as anomalous and give greater weight to information that fits comfortably with our current world-view. It is not always a conscious process and can be hard to avoid, even when aware of the phenomenon. The risk in education is that it can be easy to find confirmation of low expectations, even without realising we are looking for it. All teenagers tend to miss the point sometimes, rush a bit of homework and submit an essay that is far below their best standard, not revise for the odd test or just have bad days. If each instance of underperformance adds up in the mind of the teacher as an accumulated wealth of ‘objective’ evidence that they “can’t” or “won’t” do it, that their targets are too high, their ‘ability’ too low, or their skill-set mismatched to the subject it is hard to think how they might avoid low expectations.
As such, it is very important that we approach data about our students in the right way. If we look at it one way, as we trawl their reading ages, CAT scores, past levels we can start to “spot” those who are behind, who have limitations or have underachieved in some areas. Or we can just accept that this applies to everyone and focus instead on the positive. Where do each students’ strengths lie? How can we best support them to access the learning? How can we scaffold the lessons to ensure that they are empowered to achieve from day 1?
Our students face many hurdles in achieving success, some more than others. As teachers one of our key goals has to be to support them rather than to become one of the hurdles they have to overcome. And one way to start on this journey is to think carefully about how we approach them in the start of the new school year and the attitudes and expectations we have that every student can achieve in our classrooms.
When starting the new school year, I find the following questions helpful in reflection:
- Am I reading too much into these data, and forming judgements that may limit my expectations too far?
- If any initial expectations based on the data are misguided, how will I identify that this is the case and not fall into the trap of confirmation bias? What should I be looking for in this student’s contributions, work, ethos and attitude to learning that challenges the previous data and suggests the student may be capable of more?
- Were these data to be fundamentally misleading for this student, understating their full potential, how would I know?
- Is the AfL, teaching and questioning in my classroom giving all students opportunities to excel – to overcome the low expectations they may have of themselves or others may have of them?