Adam is in his PGCE year and is working on his portfolio of evidence to meet the teachers’ standards. His mentor tells him that he does not yet have enough evidence to meet standard 1:

Adam isn’t quite sure what to do about that.

***

Regular readers of this blog will know that my recent focus has been on concrete actions and drilling down into the specific components of expert practice*. One of those components relates to the way teachers set high or low expectations for their students.

This isn’t something that is particularly well explored in my experience. There is plenty of material out there that relates to high expectations at a macro level: how we build challenging curriculums, robust behaviour policies, rigorous assessment regimes and strong school-level accountability for student outcomes. But at the micro level – at the level that says “what does this look like in the classroom?” – less so.

As per usual, I want to examine this by looking at some classroom scenarios. As ever, these aren’t invented or imaginary, they are lessons I myself have seen in my school or at a school I’ve visited (virtually or in person). They are also scenarios that have repeated themselves, which is why I think they are worth blogging about. Finally, they are also scenarios which I have found myself in – they relate to and reflect normal patterns of behaviour and teaching and as such should be of use to a range of teachers (or at least I hope so). Here we go…

***

Sarah is teaching her class about diffusion. She asks students which state of matter diffusion takes place in most quickly, something she has recently taught them:

“In which state of matter does diffusion happen in most quickly…David?”

David says “gases”

Sarah says “well done”, and Danny asks her

“Does it take place at all in solids?”

Sarah says “great question” and begins answering it

***

As ever, we start with the things Sarah has done well:

  • Sarah could have reminded the class, instead she questions them (giving them retrieval practice and allowing her to check for understanding).
  • Sarah has used a Cold Call to ask, which is the best way to ask a question which you expect students to know the answer. It builds Ratio and allows her to target the student she wants.
  • Sarah has left adequate Wait Time before calling David’s name, again building Ratio.

Of course, the question probably would have been better if she’d used mini-whiteboards, but for the minute we won’t focus on that. Instead, we will focus on the interaction with Danny, who has asked her a very good question, but, and it’s an important but, in this script it looks a lot like he’s just called the question out. We don’t see him with his hand up, we don’t see Sarah asking him, we just see him asking.

I didn’t write “Danny called out…” in the script, because I think if I had have done, people would say “oh well that’s obviously bad, and I would never allow it.” People say this to me a lot, often right before I give them three examples of it happening in a lesson of theirs I just watched. Instinctively, we don’t see this kind of thing as bad, and in our heads we sort of skip over it unless its directly pointed out to us, but it happens a lot and in my opinion betrays low expectations and leads to problems further down the line:

  • Low expectations: every teacher I ask tells me that they don’t let students call out in their classroom. This is a “bar” by which they have set their expectations of student behaviour, but if a student does call out and there is no challenge, then they are allowing students to not meet that bar.
  • Problems further down the line: students get used to calling out, and then it starts to happen more and more, and at a certain point the teacher gets annoyed and starts telling students not to call out. Again, I see this a lot, but what did the teacher expect if they’ve been allowing it for so long?

I confess, this happens to me too, but it isn’t really good enough. A better script would look like:

David says “gases”

Sarah says “well done”, and Danny asks her

“Does it take place at all in solids?”

Sarah says “I’m sorry, Danny, but in this classroom we don’t call out, even if we have a good question. Everyone needs to feel like they can contribute to the lesson, which is why we put our hands up and wait till we are asked. I can see a couple of other students have their hands up and are waiting politely and patiently, so I am going to go to them first. If your hand is up when I am done with them, I will invite you to ask your question.”

So I set myself an action step of:

Set high expectations by challenging every instance of calling out.

This is a good action step. It deals with a specific action and something that happens a lot. It’s high impact and relatively straightforward to implement . It also utilises the Power of By to make sure that the receiver understands the point of the action step.

(If you aren’t familiar with this approach to setting actions steps, read here. A separate blog on Sins of Enthusiasm should help you challenge these types of behaviour more effectively as well if it continues to be a problem.)

***

Next scenario:

Simon is teaching his class about diffusion. He asks students which state of matter diffusion takes place in most quickly, something he has recently taught them:

“In which state of matter does diffusion happen in most quickly…David?”

David replies that he isn’t sure.

“ok…Danny?”

As above, Simon has done a lot of good things, and here we don’t have the calling out. However, there is still a problem. When Simon says that he isn’t sure, is it because he really isn’t sure, or because he hasn’t been paying attention? If it’s the latter, then by accepting that and moving to the next student, we send a message to him that it is ok for him to not be paying attention. Once again, this betrays low expectations of Danny. Instead, we try the below:

“In which state of matter does diffusion happen in most quickly…David?”

David replies that he isn’t sure.

What question did I ask, David?”

“I’m not sure, sir.”

“Ok, that’s a problem. Can I have all eyes up here please [Simon looks around the class to check everyone is paying attention]…good. In this classroom, we all pay attention all the time. I am going to ask David a question later on and if he isn’t listening he will join me in lunch. Please note that the same applies to everyone in the room. We all listen, we all learn. Always.”

This way, David broadcasts a clear expectation not just to David, but everyone in the class (and avoids losing the many, which is the icing on the cake).

So I set myself an action step of:

Set high expectations by identifying and challenging students who are not listening

Another common pitfall here is to repeat the question. A student says they didn’t hear, or they just ask you to say it again…and you do so. Again, this shows them that it is ok to not be listening:

Set high expectations by never repeating a question, and challenging students who are not listening

***

Scenario 3:

Steven is teaching his class about diffusion. He asks students which state of matter diffusion takes place in most quickly, something he has recently taught them:

“In which state of matter does diffusion happen in most quickly…David?”

What question did I ask, David?”

“You asked which state of matter diffusion happens in most quickly”

ok…Danny?”

Again, an improvement. Steven is checking that David is paying attention, and David confirms that he is. However, we still have a problem. Steven recently taught the class this information, and given that he is asking the question by Cold Call, we can assume that he expects that David should know the answer. So why doesn’t David know the answer? Maybe he wasn’t paying attention earlier. Maybe he didn’t do his independent practice properly last lesson. Maybe he hasn’t done his homework. We don’t know, but we are now saying that it’s ok for him not to know this. If it’s something that we expect him to know, then it isn’t ok. Saying it’s ok lowers our expectations.

Instead we try this:

What question did I ask, David?”

“You asked which state of matter diffusion happens in most quickly”

hmm I’m surprised you don’t know this. I went over it just a few minutes ago and it was part of the homework too. I’m worried that you aren’t paying attention properly. I am going to come back to you later to ask you this question again, please make sure you are ready to answer.”

This strategy is called No Opt-Out, and it shows David quite clearly what the expectations are around knowledge. As time goes on, Steven might discover that this is not an attention issue, but a content issue, and might take appropriate remedial steps. I like to keep a little pad of paper where I write things like “David, diffusion, 30/10,” and then at some point in the future I will ask David a question – any question – about diffusion. Note that the challenge Steven offers David is reasonably mild at this point, this gives David the chance to improve his classroom focus without resentment, but if in due course David continues to fail to meet the expectations, Steven can increase the robustness with which he challenges David to do better:

Set high expectations by ensuring that you later return to students who made mistakes with core knowledge

Steven might also discover that actually this is an attention issue rather than a content issue per se, and might take different steps. If I have a student who’s really struggling with attention, I might just move them to the front right under my nose, or use a lot of non-verbal cueing with them to make sure they are always on the ball:

Set high expectations by identifying students who are struggling to pay attention and moving them to the front or regularly giving them non-verbal cues in lesson

Steven also might discover that actually loads of students don’t know it, at which point he might realise that he didn’t explain it well enough or give students enough practice, which would result in a whole different set of action steps, this time relating to the expectation he sets of himself, rather than the students.

***

There are hundreds of possible scenarios, and hundreds of ways in which we – and I include myself in this – lower our expectations of our students. Hopefully, these scenarios have given you something to think about and a framework from within which to carefully scrutinise your classroom micro-actions and how they relate to your expectations.


*and that I haven’t blogged enough

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