Expectations Matter, But Whose?

superior brown-eyed kids excelling
Two days ago, my multicultural education class watched the famous "brown-eyed/blue-eyed" exercise conducted in 1968 by third grade teacher Jane Elliott. This YouTube video of the event is only twelve minutes long, so please take a look if you haven't heard of it before. I had watched a longer PBS program on Elliott's class a few years ago, but even though I'd seen the groundbreaking footage before, it pushed me to consider something anew—a teacher's responsibility to the power of expectations.

There is a great deal of argument over the power of expectations in current battles over education policy in the United States. Many people pushing for so-called education "reform" have stated that teachers must maintain high expectations for their students in order to achieve progress—implying that low expectations must be a major cause of student failure across the country, rather than, say, factors such as the shamefully massive amount of child poverty in the United States.

In spite of this use of "expectations" language to attack teachers, I still think expectations matter. Take a look at minute ten from the video linked above: Mrs. Elliott found a vast difference between how well a group of brown-eyed students did with the alphabet card pack on the day they were labelled inferior compared to the day they were labelled superior. Her two-day exercise was not a scientific experiment, of course, but I think that the drastic improvement in a simple activity indicates something important—that a group of students may feed off of each other's high expectations and confidence without additional prompting from a teacher.

I think expectations matter in terms of their intersection with confidence: Completing the card pack as a group, the brown-eyed kids expected each other to do well and were confident they would all do well, leading them to positively reinforce one another in the activity. If a teacher expects a great deal from students but doesn't support their confidence and personal development, they may be creating an oppressive environment. This excellent piece describes how "high expectations" combined with a "no excuses" ideology actually results in disaster.

surprisingly applicable
motivational image (source)
There are probably many of us who can think back to our school days and realize that our fellow students' expectations—not to mention those of our parents and families—were much more memorable and important to us than any comments from our teachers. I, for example, was labelled the "smart kid" through most of elementary school—not because of anything my teachers did, but because the other kids decided I was. I don't know how that phenomenon began, but I think the peer expectations that went along with it undeniably shaped what I did in school. The same would apply to kids expected to be class clowns, troublemakers, or any other stereotypical role or behavior set.

Teachers don't need to set expectations between themselves and their students; they should foster them among the students. This means actively stepping in to point out intelligence, maturity, or any other desired characteristic in every student in a class, and reinforcing those ideas repeatedly, both subtly and directly. If students expect good things from each other, I believe fulfilling those expectations will feel much more meaningful than those that just come down from an authority figure. To be sure, expectations do not an education make, nor do I think they are the most fundamental factor in improving students' school experiences. Politicians and pundits are insane to accuse teachers with low expectations of being the source of students' problems. Nevertheless, I think educators should strive to understand how expectations will provide the best encouragement, and that means making sure they come from the right source.