The Power of Clear Expectations

November 4, 2013 by
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Brandon Busteed
Executive Director, Gallup Education

This August, the school year began with the staff watching and discussing a speech by Brandon Busteed, Executive Director, Gallup Education. We were asked to think about how his thoughts informed our work of creating a learner-centered, proficiency-based system. I had watched the video several times over the previous month to pull driving questions to guide the conversation. But on this day, in front of my colleagues, I had a thought that sparked like a transformer being hit by lightning. Brandon asked, “What is the ultimate outcome of education?” I paused the video and asked the educators to discuss it at their tables. I never thought twice about the response, “to create a love of learning.” That was until now. “That is wrong,” I heard myself say. “No. It is right,” I responded. “How can anyone argue against being a life-long learner?” Suddenly I had an argument so fierce in my neurons it was as if they were celebrating the Fourth of July again.

When my focus returned to the room, I was pleased no one had noticed my momentary, self-inflicted argument. Somehow, I managed to hold the outburst inside. As I continue to reflect on that day, I have become more convinced that preparing life long learners is not a role for education. Rather, a better response to Brandon’s question is, “The ultimate outcome of education is to nurture a student’s already implicit love for learning and keep them engaged in their formal education.” What I have come to realize is that humans naturally possess a love of learning. It is as intrinsic a quality to being human, as is having hair. In his book How the Brain Learns, author David Sousa argues that if schools stopped existing today, we would not have a land of thoughtless zombies tomorrow. Students will continue thinking and learning. He says educators should not worry about teaching how to think but about teaching how to think more efficiently.So, if it is natural to observe, think, and learn, how come so many students seem disinterested in learning at school? While many adolescents seem turned off to the pursuit of knowledge as we define it, they often have something that drives them. Whether it is getting better at understanding a sport, an instrument, or a video game. What can educators do to help keep the love alive in our classrooms?

One way is by having clear expectations. These expectations need to be shared by the teacher and the student. John Hattie argues in Visible Learning that one of the single greatest influences on student achievement is the expectation a student has for how they will do on an assessment of skills or concepts. If students are not clear about what is being asked of them, how can they make an accurate prediction of how they will do?

Not meeting expectations is as much a threat to the brain as is a lack of food or water (Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence). If Student A meets the teacher’s expectations, he or she receives a shower of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the feeling of reward. If Student B does not meet expectations, even though he may have had greater growth, he can begin a downward spiral triggering the brain’s fight or flight response. This can result in students developing avoidance behaviors or seeking mundane tasks. I know when I get frustrated, like when I’m trying to write and the words won’t come, I start pushing papers around my desk. Have you ever seen a student fall into avoidance behavior: head down on the desk, refusal to do homework, or even disrupting the class?

What can educators do to help students meet expectations? Make them transparent! Create learning targets that explicitly state what students should know and be able to do and then place them in a teaching progression. As students move through the progression, they are held accountable to meet the expectations of one level before moving to the next. As students work on a level and produce evidence of their learning, the educator is providing feedback to the student on how they are progressing toward meeting the target. Those are primary tenets to the philosophy behind Customized Learning.

At my school, for example, we use a writing continuum that clearly states how students can improve their writing. Students begin the year creating an on-demand sample. Then they use the continuum to assess their work. The teacher also assesses. If there is a difference in the scores, they conference and decide together what level of the continuum they presently meet. As students work through the next writing, they constantly look at the continuum to see where they are and what needs to happen to move forward. The teacher uses the knowledge of where students are to set a mini-lesson schedule to instruct the needed targets.

Students have expressed to me in focus group conversations that they feel more confident as writers. They are aware of what they need to do to improve their writing and this makes it more enjoyable. Many have said that, before, writing was a mystery and they simply hoped the teacher agreed with what they wrote. Now they are clear on what needs to be done and feel empowered to improve as writers and ultimately as thinkers.

Clarity about expectations is what adults wish from their supervisors. It is hard to make the decision to exert the effort to think when one is not sure it will lead to a reward and a dopamine shower. Two of the remaining top ten in John Hattie’s list of influences on students learning are clear expectations and feedback. As educators we have the power and the responsibility to make our curriculum transparent.

Competencies can be used to help make clear what we expect. Students should be able to answer three questions; (1) What are you working on? (2) How do you know when you have met the target? and (3) What comes next in your learning? If students are clear and can answer these, then they will have a better chance of meeting expectations, receiving a dopamine shower, not developing avoidance behaviors, and putting the effort into the continuous process of becoming a more efficient thinker.

About the Author

Bill Zima began his career as a zoo educator. Seeking something that was a bit more dynamic, he became a 7th grade science teacher. He is currently the superintendent at RSU2 in Maine. He is an original member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, an organization of educators dedicated to the promotion of performance-based education systems in Maine. He is the author of "Learners Rule: Giving them a voice improves the culture of their classroom." You can follow him on Twitter (@zimaw) or reach him at zimaw (at) yahoo (dot) com.

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