What Does Having High Expectations Really Mean?

By Marc Hayes


The term ‘high expectations’ is as commonplace in schools as ‘retrieval practice’ and ‘growth mindset’. I know few, if any, teachers who decidedly have low expectations of pupils. However, I would argue that regular reflection on our expectations of pupils is vital when considering how to improve outcomes for the children we teach.

Awareness of what we believe about pupils’ potential achievement, why we believe it, its impact on pupil achievement, and how we might raise our expectations can lead to improvements in our teaching, our own sense of professional self-efficacy, and, of course, outcomes for our pupils.

To understand the effect of teacher expectations and its relation to pupil achievement, we need to start with the pupils themselves. Pupils’ beliefs about their potential for success impact their motivation to commit the necessary resources and behaviours to learn the content we teach them. We have evolved to be wary of allocating our limited attention to situations where success is unlikely. Such a prediction of failure is enough to lead a pupil to avoid investing their time and energy in a lesson; the repeated experience of failure in a subject can lead to a deep-seated negative belief about their own potential that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of under-achievement.

Teachers play a crucial role in shaping pupils’ beliefs. When we have high expectations of what pupils can achieve, we set in motion a virtuous cycle whereby pupils both become and believe they can be more successful. Teacher expectations, too, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The term ‘high expectations’ is as ubiquitous as it is elusive. Despite the significance of expectancy on achievement, distilling the components of ‘high expectation’ teaching is a challenge. The lack of clarity over what high expectations meant prompted me to study the phenomenon for my final MSc research project.

Teacher expectations can be conceptualised as the beliefs we hold about pupils’ potential achievement. These beliefs are usually based on pupils’ prior attainment but can also be influenced by a range of other factors, such as socio-economic status and gender.

Our beliefs shape our classroom interactions and approaches. These contribute to our pupils’ self-beliefs and significantly affect the progress they subsequently make. When teachers believe their pupils are capable of more, their pupils often meet these increased expectations.

The famous ‘Pygmalion’ study demonstrated the expectancy effect in action[i]. Teachers in the experimental group were led to believe their pupils’ had higher potential than those in the control group; these pupils consequently made more progress than those in the other, despite there being a random allocation of pupils between them.

How can just believing in more potential translate to increased achievement?

What we believe about pupils’ potential for achievement shapes our own classroom behaviours, especially our interactions and pedagogical decisions. How we interact with our pupils, the way they are grouped, and the level of work they are set all contribute to how pupils interpret our expectations of them.

Although they are slow to build, conveying higher expectations to our pupils over time positively impacts their achievement and progress; conversely, and alarmingly, transmitting low expectations can swiftly damage children’s perceptions of what they think we expect from them.

The type of behaviours which might cause pupils to infer teachers have low expectations of them are numerous and can often be subconscious decisions. Providing insufficient time for thinking after posing a question, only praising correct answers, and using ability groupings can all contribute to the perception of lower expectations (Rubie-Davies et al., 2015); when combined with pupils’ anxiety and fear of failure, they limit learning in a profoundly worrying way.

It’s quite common for teachers to behave differently to pupils with different levels of prior attainment. When completing my research project and finding out about the types of teacher behaviours which convey high expectations, this was a sobering reflection point: did I really demonstrate the same high expectations of all pupils regardless of their starting points? I wanted to say yes, but a lingering guilt emanated as I read about how teachers, albeit subconsciously, can differentiate their practice based on their differing expectations.

One study[ii] found that some teachers respond differently to incorrect answers depending on whether they have high or low expectations of the pupil. The study found that where in response to an error teachers might use language such as ‘You should know this!’ to a child for whom they have low expectations, their responses to similar mistakes for children with high prior attainment usually prompted them to re-teach or re-explain a concept.

Having high expectations does not just mean ‘wanting’ all pupils to do well; having high expectations means truly ‘believing’ in pupils’ potential and demonstrating this belief day-in day-out. Both the beliefs and associated actions are critical in using the expectancy effect to raise achievement.

In many ways, adapting instructional actions to convey high expectations is the easier of these two components. In a 2015 New Zealand study[iii], Rubie-Davies and others investigated the effect of training teachers to employ what she termed ‘high expectation behaviours’ – strategies and approaches which are commonly used by ‘high expectation teachers’.

Rubie-Davies found that when teachers were trained to incorporate three distinct approaches into their practice both pupil achievement and the teachers’ own expectations increased at statistically significantly higher rate. These approaches related to learning activities and grouping, cultivating a positive classroom climate, and motivation and goal setting. This was achieved through regular professional development, contrasting previous studies where merely sharing ‘high expectation behaviours’ with teachers had little effect on their practice and their pupils’ achievement.

Crucially, it is important for teachers to be on-board with any such professional development. Where practices are mandated to teachers, it’s likely their intended impact are limited without individual teacher buy-in.

Despite any intervention to improve a culture of high expectations for all pupils, teacher beliefs are notoriously difficult to change. Our beliefs about teaching and learning are shaped by a whole host of factors, including our own experiences of school. I attended a secondary school where we were in sets for every subject. If you were ‘clever’ you were in Set 1, if you were in Set 7 then, well… you were kept busy. Being educated in such a setting shaped my beliefs about achievement and potential, albeit at a subconscious level.

An important teacher belief is our theory of intelligence. Often conflated with the notion of ‘ability’, intelligence is understood as either an ‘entity’, something which is fixed, or as ‘incremental’, something which can grow.

Our practice is generally informed by whichever theory we hold. Those with an ‘entity’ theory typically see any ‘failing’ as being related to the pupil rather than instruction. For teachers who hold this belief, it is typical to take less responsibility for their pupils’ outcomes and associate pupils’ lower outcomes as being something outside of their sphere of influence. Those teachers with an incremental theory of intelligence conversely consider their own actions as being the definitive cause behind pupils’ achievement.

Interestingly, those who hold an incremental theory of intelligence typically report higher levels of self-efficacy – their belief in their own ability to effectively impact students’ learning and achieve desired educational outcomes. Teacher self-efficacy encompasses a teacher’s confidence in their instructional skills, classroom management, and their capacity to engage and motivate students. Even more interestingly, a high level of teacher self-efficacy has been linked to increased student achievement, and higher expectations of pupils’ potential achievement.

Self-efficacy is affected by a range of different factors; however, one which is pertinent to expectancy effect is that of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK).

PCK involves understanding not only the subject matter but also how pupils learn the content as well as providing insight into how to adapt instructional strategies, explanations, and examples to suit pupils’ varying needs and levels of understanding. PCK is closely related to teacher self-efficacy in that it forms a critical foundation for teachers’ confidence in their ability to facilitate meaningful learning experiences.

Improving our PCK seems, therefore, a critical way of raising our expectations of our pupils. Developing our understanding of how pupils learn the content we are teaching them can develop our belief that all pupils can be more successful. The insights that PCK brings support teachers to use more effective pedagogy. Not only does this lead pupils to experience more success, but it also provides teachers with a clearer framework of why pupils might have misconceptions as well as supporting teachers to effectively address them.

While a focus on high expectation practices is a good starting point, it is not sufficient. For us to truly come to believe that all our pupils can achieve highly, we must also consider the extent of our PCK. It is the combination of understanding how our pupils learn the desired content as well as adopting effective behaviours and instructional practices that lead our pupils to themselves believe that they can be successful.



[i] Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom; teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development Robert Rosenthal Lenore Jacobson. New York, NY: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston.

[ii] Rubie-Davies, C. M. (2007). Classroom interactions: Exploring the practices of high- and low- expectation teachers. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(2), 289-306. doi:10.1348/000709906×101601

[iii] Rubie-Davies, C. M., Peterson, E. R., Sibley, C. G., & Rosenthal, R. (2015). A teacher expectation intervention: Modelling the practices of high expectation teachers. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 40, 72-85. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.03.003


You can read more articles by Marc Hayes here.


Write A Comment