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  • The Dignity of High Expectations

    March 2010

    Just over 30 years ago, two American Educational Researchers, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen set up a most intriguing experiment.  They took an ordinary group of primary school children and divided them into two sets of classes. 

    The teachers of one group were told that the children in that group had been tested and were found to be well above average in ability.  The other group were told nothing.  In fact, both groups were random so there was no real difference. (It is unlikely that such an experiment would be allowed today).

    The outcome was fascinating.  The group that had been labelled as “high achievers” did far better academically than the other group.

    This will probably not be a surprise to anyone.  The researchers argued that this difference in achievement levels was principally due to the fact that the teachers held high expectations of them, and that the children rose to those expectations.

    Of course, that is a difficult thing to prove, but I suggest that intuition and perhaps experience would tell us that their conclusion is probably correct.

    There is, in fact, popular wisdom that says much the same thing.  I am sure you have heard the phrase that, “people will usually live up to expectations – or down to them.”

    While we would never want to crush spirits by holding unreasonably high expectations of those in our care (be they students in a classroom, children in a family or even members of a sporting team), we are doing them a real injustice by setting expectations too low.  Or, by accepting performance in any arena that is below what it might be.

    Not every student can be top of the class, not every footballer will win the Brownlow, not every netballer will play for the Opals, but every person deserves the dignity of high expectations.  

    I believe this is a message that each of us needs to hear and to put into practice.  While not, as I said, burdening others with pressures coming from unreasonable expectations, each teacher needs to expect good things of every student, each parent needs to expect good things of every child.  Of course, more should be expected of some than of others according to his or her abilities.

    Every principal and every parent has the right and the duty to expect good things of every teacher, every parent has the right and duty to expect good things of their children and of their own spouse, too, for that matter.

    And it is to be remembered, of course, that these expectations can apply to school work certainly, but to behaviour and attitudes too.  

    Why should we not expect high standards of behaviour, high moral standards, high levels of commitment to our professed faith?

    I repeat again, that just how “high” these expectations should be will vary from person to person and from context to context, but we should always be comfortable to believe in the individual’s ability to stretch that just bit more, to say and to believe that, “Just Okay is not really Okay!.”

    Of course, there is no one formula, nor one set of words or actions that will unfailingly communicate these expectations.  Sometimes, it might be as simple as a quizzical look, a raised eyebrow; sometimes it might be an encouraging, “I think you can do better than that;” sometimes it might be a firmer, “that’s not good enough from you.  I expect better.”  But in whatever way it is communicated, it must be based on an honest and deeply held belief in the quality and the dignity of the person before us.  It must have its roots in the belief that this person can do good things, indeed, is born to do good things.

    It is the right and duty of each of us to respect that potential in everyone we meet.  I am firmly convinced that if we do that and we communicate it in appropriate ways we will see wonderful things coming from our children, our classes, our schools, and indeed, from our whole society.