Quality first teaching: Three principles for maintaining high expectations

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
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We would all agree about the power of high expectations for all students. Robbie Burns offers three broad whole school principles for ensuring high expectations, as well as suggested actions and questions for reflection

Do we know what high expectations look like when we see them? Can we articulate the tangible action steps to make them happen at key stage and whole school level? Before I introduce three broad principles and related actions for primary schools, let us first clarify this important but often illusory idea.

The Pygmalion Effect and where high expectations begin

The word “expectation” stems from the latin word “expectare”, which means to “desire or long for” beginning with the common latin prefix, “ex-“, meaning “out from” and “upwards”. So, to translate literally, expectation means “coming out from desire, or longings”.

The word expectation, in its original meaning at least, tries to express an engrained hope that a person has for their lives and the lives of others, rooted deeply in their beliefs. All of their later priorities, words and decisions flow out from their “expectare”.

This adds an important foundational layer to our understanding of what high expectations mean in the classroom. But our understanding of high expectations does not have to be rooted in etymology alone.

As early as 1968, Robert Rosenthal, educational psychologist at Harvard University, and Lenore Jacobson, a school principal in Boston, teamed up to begin a totally unheard of experiment (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). They wanted to test the hypothesis that teachers’ expectations of their students’ intellectual capacity could affect their performance.

Their study was simple: at the beginning of an academic year, two teachers were given information by their principal about the cognitive ability of their students (who they had never met before).

The first teacher was told that his students were high-flyers, while the second was told his class were very average in their ability. The reality was that both classes were filled with mixed ability students and there was nothing to say that either group was academically more able than the other. The results? The class with the supposed “high-flyers” performed far better than the class who were supposedly average in their ability.

The study originally conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson has gone on to be replicated in similar ways more than 345 times and they show beyond doubt, according to Rosenthal “that interpersonal self-fulfilling prophecies not only occur, but that their average size of effect is far from trivial” (Rosenthal & Rabin, 1978).

What does this research reveal and how does this help us understand high expectations?

Fundamentally, I think it tells us this: all our teaching attitudes, values, dispositions and actions in the classroom flow from what we believe about our students. If we believe our students can’t change their behaviour, it is unlikely they ever will; if we believe that our students will never achieve, then it is unlikely they ever will. At least, not through our support.

However, the opposite is also true. If we firmly believe, every day we lead our schools or stand up and teach, that all of our students, every single one of them, can achieve great things, this deep-seated conviction will not only coarse through our veins but bleed out of us into all that we are and do as educators. Powerful stuff. Belief matters.

How can we put this into action? Here are three broad strategies, small steps for action and questions to consider.

1, Show don’t tell: Create tangible visions of excellence across the curriculum

When we see curriculum design as primarily about writing documents that describe how students’ learning will progress towards a given goal, we miss the first step in ensuring high expectations in the classroom: tangible visions of excellence for all.

High expectations do not exist on a page, on a lesson plan or on slides. It happens in the moment when the teacher teaches. In that moment, the teacher is the curriculum.

As school leaders and teachers we need to make our expectations tangible by showing, not just telling, our students what excellence looks like. What this means is that high expectations are rooted in model work.

Model work, whether it be a piece of excellent writing that advances the action through thoughtful sentence structure, outstanding artwork showing a range of painting techniques, excellent maths work solving a complex multi-step problem, or a voice recording of a superb retelling of a narrative poem, should be kept and treasured in the life of the school. These are crucial curriculum artefacts displaying high expectations in their purest form.

It is simple for us as teachers to pull model work from the internet. But this lacks power and influence over student beliefs about themselves. Model work made in this school, in this classroom, by students who might have even sat in their seat is deeply motivating.

I will never forget the first time I projected on the screen to my year 6 students a story a boy in my last class had written. When I said: “Last year, Andrew wrote this excellent story based on the book you are all reading. Let’s read it together. I want you to focus on what’s great about this piece and how he has engaged you as a reader.”

The faces of the students in my class were stunned. Really? Andrew? He wrote this? That boy who played football for our school team and was on the school council?

They listened and read with new eyes. This was real and gave them a clear picture of what “a good story” might look like. Andrew’s work stayed on the wall throughout that unit of work. Sometimes, during independent writing, my students would say: “Mr Burns, can I go look at Andrew’s work for inspiration.” The answer was always yes.


  • Curate model work and celebrate it relentlessly with your classes every year.
  • Break-down the models into small steps and model carefully how students’ achieved success.
  • Point students to tangible examples of high expectations.

Questions for leaders and teachers

  • Do you keep great work that showcases the expectations you have as a school for future years?
  • What sort of work showcases the vision, values and ethos of your school and how can you showcase this to your community?

2, Make your behavioural expectations clear through the classroom culture you develop

We can break this down into several parts but, in essence, teachers with high expectations make sure “the way we do things in this classroom” seep into every single aspect of the way they expect their students learn. We can break this down into routines, attitudes and behaviours.

The routines that teachers with high expectations have ensure that efficiency in the classroom is engineered in a way that means there is never a minute wasted. Importantly though, this efficiency might be teacher-led but it then becomes apparent in the way students know what to do, when to do it, and how they ought to behave with minimal prompting and direction as the weeks go by.

When teachers make sure that the mundane routines of the classroom, such as how to sit and listen, how to ask and answer questions, what to do when they enter the room, how to hand-out books and put them away, are performed in the quickest way possible each day, teachers build powerful habits.

This habit-building changes student attitudes. Even if things have been a bit unsettling in the playground, if they know what do the moment they walk into the classroom, they can calmly settle and focus on learning. If the cognitive load of “knowing what the routines are in this classroom after break time” is taken away, it means students have more space in working memory to engage in whatever the new learning is for that day.

When routines are habitual, students are more likely to be able to be attentive to the cognitive demands of new learning. This then means they are more likely to be in the right frame of mind to think hard.

By having strong routines and the right attitudes, the right behaviours are almost always likely to follow. And even if they don’t, it is a powerful thing for the misbehaving student to look around and see many of their peers getting on with their work, doing the right things and approaching their learning in the right ways.

For correction, a teacher with high expectations need not point to some ethereal ideal of how to behave, but to their purposefully engaged peers. This, like the first principle, is a tangible vision of excellence, sat in the very next seat, to those who need a reminder.


  • Think deeply about the efficiency of the routines in classrooms and consider how effective they are and whether they could be improved.
  • Rigorously pursue highly effective routines. It is never too late in the year to reset and reteach.
  • Clearly explain and model expectations that you have of student behaviour and explain why it is so important. It helps to be able to point to school ethos and values.

Questions for leaders and teachers

  • How explicit are the routines that you have as a whole school? Do students know and understand them?
  • If asked about “how to behave” in lessons, what would students say? Are they clear about this?

3, Make your academic expectations clear through the way you teach your lessons

It is not enough to have excellent model work from previous students to hand as you teach; we must expect our students in our own classes to be able to achieve the same and go on and do better. This can only be achieved by demanding cognitive work, modelling and explaining new learning clearly, and relentlessly checking for understanding

Every time our students are learning, we must make sure that the work they are doing is as cognitively demanding as possible. This doesn’t mean that all activities we provide our students are “hard”, what it means is that in every task, students are cognitively active and, specifically, they are cognitively active in particular reference to new learning being applied to what they know already.

For example, we must make sure that they are learning and using new words, engaging in high-quality talk, and reading and writing as often as possible. These three elements will almost always ensure the rigour of task in whatever subject is being taught.

By clearly explaining and modelling new learning and expecting all to understand first time, we avoid a cycle of low-attaining students picking up the pieces of new learning later in the day in an intervention, or switching off because they know someone else, or even us as teachers, will explain again a little later.

By forcing ourselves to be as clear as possible in our explanations and subsequent modelling, we improve the quality of our teaching and in turn help all students to learn first time round. One way to do this is to make sure that when new learning is taught, we do several examples and non-examples.


  • Make sure tasks are cognitively demanding so that all students focus on learning and remembering more over time.
  • Teach less at pace. Ask yourself about your curriculum: what are the most important parts of this unit of work that I need to teach, and then make sure they are taught and remembered by all students.
  • Explain and model expecting all students to understand first time. See your teaching through low-attaining students’ eyes – will they understand what you are teaching them? If not, consider how you can make your explanations as clear as possible and think of ways you can model so that all students understand.

Questions for leaders

  • How cognitively demanding are the activities that are being given to students?
  • What is being taught and is it being remembered? If they learned a new word last year, are they able to use it now in their talking and writing? If not, why not?

Further information & resources

  • Rosenthal & Jacobson: Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968.
  • Rosenthal & Rabin: Interpersonal expectancy effects: The first 345 studies, Behavioural Brain Science, 1978.

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