Something has happened in our education system – high expectations have become demonised.
It is doubtful that this was by design. It is likely that the ever-greater calls for differentiation, for understanding that students learn in different ways and move at different paces, have unintentionally resulted in educators and parents being unwilling or unable to set academic expectations.
The result is a generation of students with an almost crippling fear of academic discomfort. A wrong answer is to them proof that they have been pushed too far and it is only a “bad parent” or a “bad teacher” who would ask them to continue pushing.
Of course, I’m not talking about every student, but recently, it has been difficult not to notice the surprise in young people’s eyes when I hold them to my academic standards.
In this article, I will explore the relationship between expectations and excellence by recounting my experiences with a wonderful young mother who has since become a close friend of mine. We didn’t see eye to eye in the beginning on how to set academic expectations for her son, but after one particular conversation (and the many that followed) we both came to understand young people and their academic needs a little better.
Back to the central issue, the chronic unwillingness of a growing number of young people to exert any effort in tackling academic challenges. I assure you, it has become something of a religion for many children. In fact, they are so dedicated to it that they have devised their own mantra that encapsulates their philosophy and which, like a Gregorian chant, they can utter several times in a single hour if pushed. The phrase in question is: “I tried my best”. For them, this statement is the end of the story; there is nothing after they have said this. The inability to disprove this declaration seems for them to be their silver bullet. But just like a bullet, this mindset is dangerous, and I see an increasing number of parents and teachers adopting this religion too.
I will never forget what happened with my client that I mentioned earlier. She told me I can tell you this story because we are very close now and she is now a completely different person when it comes to her son’s education, which he of course doesn’t thank me for.
I can hear the jaws dropping – how dare I insult a child; how dare I question a child
One day I arrived for our lesson and she was there to meet me, and her son was nowhere to be seen. We sat at his desk and she proceeded to tell me two things: firstly, that he had not completed my homework, and secondly, that I should be OK with this because, you know, he had “tried his best”. That was it she’d thought. She’d been the sacrificial lamb because I couldn’t possibly tell her off, I couldn’t possibly punish her with lines (which I do sometimes!) or withhold praise, and even if I did, she wouldn’t care because she was an adult.
I remember the look on her face when I replied, “well, if he really tried his best, and he couldn’t do it, then his best wasn’t good enough”.
I can hear the jaws dropping – how dare I insult a child; how dare I question a child; how dared I as a tutor with over 15 years of experience and having taught that particular child for over six months make an assessment about whether or not he had worked hard enough.
She felt the same way, how dare I, and she fired back – “he just can’t!” – and there was such conviction in her voice – “He can’t do better”.
That truly shocked me.
It was a big moment of realisation for me as an educator. I often joke that I learn more in lessons about teaching than my students do about their subjects, but in truth they are constantly teaching me new things; their parents too.
But the lesson I learnt from this encounter fundamentally changed the way I feel about academic expectations.
“…there’s no either/or trade-off between supportive parenting and demanding parenting. It’s a common misunderstanding to think of “tough love” as a carefully struck balance between affection and respect on the one hand, and firmly enforced expectations on the other. In actuality, there’s no reason you can’t do both.”
The line between private tuition and parenting has the potential to become blurred. When does your advice stray beyond the educational and seep into the parental? The truth of the matter is, those lines are artificial. Parents are their children’s first and most formidable educators. I learnt by such experiences that a home is an educational institution like any other and when, as a private tutor, I enter that space, whether in person or virtually, I am teaching a child within the existing culture of that institution; the existing culture of that family. The parenting does affect my teaching. And inevitably, my teaching will affect the parenting.
What I truly realised from that and many similar conversations, was that the expectations of the child had been set too low in the first place. Try as I might, to push the point I would have been swimming against the tide of the culture of an entire institution – an entire family mentality.
She was protecting him … from the pain of my disappointment
That client and I joke now about this conversation all the time. She said to me recently that when she released that statement into the world, that “he can’t do better”, she’d never heard or seen herself more clearly as a parent. She is one of the most accomplished people I have ever met; her life story reads like a guide to ultimate success. She went to the right schools, she got the right grades, she worked in the right companies and got to the right levels, then she left it all and started the right business and was, and is, doing fantastically well. She was, and is, the definition of hard work. She says that what annoys her most is not that her professional self was so at odds with her personal self but that she didn’t even believe what she’d said. She didn’t believe for a second that her son couldn’t do better because he was doing almost nothing. The one expectation that she could have about her son’s education was that he could do better. It was a near un-debatable point.
For those of you with jaws still on the ground thinking, well, what if he actually had tried his best? I want you to note your own fear. What are you scare of? What is there to fear about asking a child to do more than his current best? Surely all education, especially if you are paying for it, is specifically tasked with propelling students beyond their current levels of attainment.
What my client confided in me was that she was protecting him not only from the pain of having to do the work, but also from the pain of my disappointment. She didn’t want him to sit through the ten minutes of my chastisement; she didn’t want him to sit through the extra piece of homework I would inevitably set him that week.
She doesn’t have this fear anymore. And these days he fears her disappointment more than he fears mine, which is how it should be. No one should expect more of their children than their parents. This doesn’t negate taking into account your child’s specific academic ability. No matter at which level your child is working, you must always believe that with hard work and perseverance they can be better tomorrow than they are today. If you truly believe that your child has peaked at 8 years old, then I’m not sure what I can say to that.
And there will be those who will say – what about children with serious learning disabilities. I have worked with children with some of the most life-limiting cognitive disabilities, and if there is one thing I have observed it’s that, the children that thrive the most are those surrounded by parents and therapists who never stop believing that they can do better. However small, whether it’s remembering something today that they couldn’t remember yesterday; doing something today they couldn’t do yesterday, better is always yearned for. And children lucky enough to have such believers in their abilities had the best quality of life.
… a 1% increase in parental expectations results in a more that 1% increase in academic performance.
And if you don’t believe me, the science is there to back it up. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, it was found that expectations directly affect academic performance. They noted that a 1% increase in parental expectations results in a more that 1% increase in academic performance.
Of course, it is not just parents but teachers too that need to raise expectations. Kristine Napper, an educator in the United States, talks about her experiences with a young student who self-declared “I can’t” in response to her request that he complete an assignment. English was not his first language, and in addition he had learning difficulties that meant he was receiving additional support in school. Examining this student’s experiences in the school, she speaks about the potential for low expectations of a child to become systematised and institutionalised. Educators entering that system become part of the machine of low expectations that actively limits that student’s exposure to experiences that have not just educational, but life value. Once she stepped out of that machine and expected more from her student, he believed he was capable of more. She saw him make great advancements and graduate out of the special education class that year.
What Kristine’s experience shows me as an educator, and specifically as an intervention specialist, is that educators must regularly step out of the “machine” of low expectations that may have formed around a child.They must expect a child to be capable of advancement; I believe this is a prerequisite of being able to call yourself an educator.
“…ten thousand American teenagers completed questionnaires about their parents’ behaviour…teens with warm, respectful, and demanding parents earned higher grades in school, were more self-reliant, suffered from less anxiety and depression, and were less likely to engage in delinquent behaviour. The same pattern replicates in nearly every nation that’s been studied and at every stage of child development.”
Low expectations by parents and educators can manifest themselves in a lack of belief that a child can arrive at a right answer or complete a task by themselves. Parents and educators intervene to clear the path of challenges or worst still, don’t invite a child on the journey at all. A child can come to lack confidence in their abilities, planting the idea that they are somehow fragile. They are, and precious, but those cannot be life limiting attributes.
What I see most in young people is not a contentment in this fragility but an irrational and consuming fear of exertion, tiredness, strain and setbacks. This is often what I find myself correcting as a tutor, not subject knowledge. Before we can even get to subject knowledge, I work with young people to rebuild their confidence in their own abilities. And at the heart of that, is setting expectations. Remember that young people are born without fears. Any fears they have, we’ve given them. I guess what I am trying to say is, be careful the fears you give to your children. They shouldn’t fear all discomfort to the point of believing that mental exertion on schoolwork could somehow cause permanent damage.
Empower your young people, expect from them better tomorrow than they did today. Whether they always reach it is for another conversation, but you must not relinquish the expectation.
And remember what I said before, the home is a child’s first school and parents his first and most important teachers. If you allow low expectations to weave themselves into the fabric of your family culture, you will be doing your child a grave disservice.
Apeike Umolu, Director of Studies