Expectations, optimism and student performance

theclubdvdAbout an hour ago I was sitting with my 27 top set Year 10 English students. We’re studying satire, had just finished watching an Australian film called The Club and were talking about whether the students thought it was satire or not. The conversation was focused and intelligent, with many different views expressed. Some thought it was clearly satire, and identified satirical techniques and clear targets. Others thought that while it had satirical elements, it couldn’t be classified as satire because the author seemed more interested in telling an entertaining story rather than in exposing important flaws or follies. The conversation was intelligent not only in that relevant ideas were expressed clearly and convincingly, but because there was lots of listening and thinking going on. The class, I’m sensing, understands that satire is a big and complex topic, and that the aim is to allow the course and the conversations to expand our thinking. It’s fun to be a part of.

Then, as I drove home after the class, I heard on the car radio an economist talking about the current financial crisis. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned from economics,” he was saying, “it is that a community’s expectations can influence the course of events. If the community is convinced that hard economic times are on the way, it makes a severe recession all the more likely. If there’s an expectation that things will get better soon, the optimism stimulates recovery. Our leaders have an important role to play in fostering the expectation that we’ll come out of this recession strongly.”

I’m full of optimism about this class of mine. As I listened to the economist on the radio, I thought about expectations, optimism and student performance. I’m not the only optimist in this classroom; the students themselves are confident, articulate and successful. They seem to greet each new topic in class as an opportunity to engage with a stimulating text, to have fruitful conversations, to develop a deeper understanding about satire.

I teach two Year 10 classes, this one (the top set) and another (labelled, quite inaccurately for a number of reason, ‘mixed ability’). There’s not the same degree of confidence in the second class, not the same sense of expectation that a new text or a new discussion will be stimulating. This second class is a great class to teach, full of a more raw and intuitive type of intelligence. But there’s less optimism. Expectations are not as buoyant.

Is learning like the economy? Are the expectations of the leaders significantly influential? I’m sure they are.

Which leaves me wondering what I might do in my second class to raise the level of optimism and the expectation of success.

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2 Responses to Expectations, optimism and student performance

  1. I am working with a group of six kindergarten students who were identified as falling a bit behind in expected development of emergent reading skills. It was a great opportunity for me as a principal to exercise my teaching skills. We meet everyday for an hour.

    When we first began to meet, I set out to get to know each one of them. There were blaring deficiencies and a few strengths to build on. But when I asked one of the children to read something, he too quickly said, “I can’t read.” It was in that moment that I decided to prove him wrong. So as I work with these six children I will not accept low expectations. I began that day to convince them that they CAN read. It is often in the conversations that we build the confidence in reluctant learners.

    It has been a great experience with these children. Yes, they are reading and continue to build their confidence and their skills. I have not heard, “I can’t read” in a very long time.

  2. In my own experiences as a teacher, consultant, coach, and especially as a parent–I find this to be so true. I also love Seth Godin’s work for this reason. Seems to operate from this same perspective as well. There is also a calm certainty that permeates the work of people who have this belief system, and I think it does much to influence how others act as well.

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