The side-effects of high expectations...

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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I have a daughter who has perfectionist tendencies. The blanket message of 'high expectations' ...

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It is an important requirement of Ofsted inspections – teacher expectations, particularly of disadvantaged students, must be high. However, a new study asks whether this policy has any unintended consequences for our pupils

A good school must have high expectations for all students and urge them to achieve the most they can, whatever their starting point. No-one would argue with this statement.

However, at the same time, there has been little research into the impact, or not, that high expectations might have. With increasing concern about mental health in our classrooms, could the climate of high expectations be partly to blame?

Conclusions from a new study suggest that perhaps we should look more closely at the effect that applying “pressure expectations” has on children’s learning experiences.

The research finds that teachers’ pressure expectations might lead to pupils working harder but that there are other implications too.

The researchers, Lars-Erik Malmberg and Andrew J Martin, found that pupils reported enjoying lessons with higher pressure expectations less and that they also felt less confident in these subjects.

This is not criticism of the expectations agenda. The authors acknowledge the importance of pushing students and encouraging them to do well. But they do issue a word of warning that pushing too much may leave students feeling demotivated, exhausted and with less confidence.

An elephant in the room

However, school accountability is driven by national expectations translated through cohorts to individual pupils. Heads and teachers are measured against these national expectations, which are applied taking little account of the individual contexts of schools and their catchments.

The pressure is on for all. Having low expectations of pupils with SEND is a criteria for inadequacy in Ofsted grade descriptors for the quality of education. Under leadership and management, leaders are rated according to whether they have high expectations of all pupils “and the extent to which these are embodied in leaders’ and staff’s day-to-day interactions with pupils”.

Expectations across the teaching staff should be consistent and raising the expectations of students themselves is considered a key element in tackling the attainment gap.

However, this agenda comes alongside the well-documented concerns about the pressure of SATs and their impact on teachers and students. And it is not only in year 6 that schools, particularly those in requires improvement and special measures categories, are pushing their pupils to achieve the high expectations they have set for them.

Is such a sustained campaign healthy for our teachers and students?

The new study

Alongside their research paper, the authors of the new study have summarised the main points in an article for The Conversation (2019). In it, they refer to the cyclic and dynamic learning experiences of:

  • Engagement – effort exertion and task-focus.
  • Competence beliefs – how good a pupil thinks he or she is in a particular subject or task.
  • Motivation.

The researchers distinguish between autonomous motivation (enjoying, choosing to do a task and being interested in a subject) and controlled motivation (teacher expectations and structures).

Data was collected from 231 year 5 and 6 pupils in 16 classrooms across 11 schools. The teachers provided information about the students’ academic performance and rated the students’ task-focus. They reported on students’ performance in maths, English and science. The students were asked to report on their learning experiences once in each lesson every day for a week. They were asked why they were doing the task, how hard they were working and how confident they felt about what they had learnt.

The study found that the higher the pressure expectations in a lesson the harder a student worked in subsequent lessons. The study showed that a higher level of effort was linked to both autonomous motivation and controlled motivation.

When the students were motivated – either through their own interest in the subject or through external regulations such as being rewarded by good marks, or not wanting to disappoint a teacher – they were more likely to work hard.

However, alongside this positive correlation was a more worrying finding. Subsequent lessons were enjoyed less by the students and they reported feeling less confident in the subjects where this happened. It also seemed that the use of coercive motivations – threats and denial of rewards, for example – reduced engagement and motivation.

Where students experienced more pressure from the teacher, some interpreted this as the teacher not believing that they were up to the task. This led to them believing themselves to be less competent.

How pupils feel about their capacity in a subject is very important. Those pupils who believed in their ability and who had success in one learning task were more likely to approach a subsequent learning task more positively. They were also more resilient to subsequent short bouts of failure.

Implications for schools

The study recommends that teachers look for a balance between pressure and reassurance. They suggest that less emphasis on expectations and more emphasis on understanding student perspective might be a better approach. They recommend that teachers:

  • Provide understandable goals.
  • Frame upcoming lessons clearly.
  • Explain things concisely.
  • Acknowledge negative feelings in the classroom.

It is okay for pupils to feel tired or nervous and teachers should set about providing supportive reassurance. They should get to know their students, what their values and their views are. With this information they will be clearer about the students’ needs, interests and preferences and so be able to set more meaningful learning goals.

The research paper is not proposing a return to a “do what you can and don’t worry” culture. The right amount of pressure and a carefully applied level of expectation is a crucial part of a good education system.

However, perhaps it is time to take a hard look at how much we expect from – and the kind of pressure we exert on – our youngest students.

Further information

  • Processes of students’ effort exertion, competence beliefs and motivation, Malmberg & Martin, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Vol 58, July2019:
  • Teachers’ expectations help students to work harder, but can also reduce enjoyment and confidence, Malmberg & Martin, The Conversation, August 2019:

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I have a daughter who has perfectionist tendencies. The blanket message of 'high expectations' worried her greatly. Her fear of failure was exacerbated by the pressure she felt not to disappoint her teachers. She often struggled to meet her own expectations, let alone the expectations of the school. This pressure has, in my opinion, severely knocked her self-confidence and the pleasure she takes from learning. She suffered from separation anxiety in year 6, we had to seek help from CAMHS to overcome this debilitating condition. I am certain that the pressure that she felt about entering Year 6 and sitting SATS at the end of that year, was the chief initiator of this ramping up of anxiety.

As a parent and a TA and cover teacher I disliked the expression "we have very high expectations" in relation to learning, I feel that to a child it can sound ominous, leaving a child to think 'what happens if I don't meet high expectations, does that make me a failure or bad?' As a parent, TA and a cover teacher I have seen the confidence drain out of some children in each class. when learning becomes about passing the expectations of adults test and not about learning for the pleasure of better understanding the world around them. For the child that doesn't find absorbing, understanding and applying knowledge easy, but who craves approval the result can be very negative. Children are canny enough to know that, despite cheery and encouraging comments in their books they are not meeting 'high' expectations. I would replace the term in heartbeat with something that is about the child being empowered not subconsciously fearful. I just wish I could think of the right phrase! XP school in Doncaster's tag line is 'compassion above all' I love that!

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