488. Expecting

When I started teaching, one of the rules of thumb I was supposed to learn was that pupils do what their teachers expect them to do. That was hard to believe, at first. The high school seniors I taught frequently did things I never would have guessed they were going to do. I expected with all my might, and it seemed to have little effect. I quickly moved down to second grade, but the seven-year-olds I taught surprised me just as much as the seventeen-year-olds had.
The message people were trying to give me was true enough, and could have helped me if I’d understood it, but my own experience was teaching me that though a few pupils might sometimes do what I expected them to do, most wouldn’t. And since that’s what I was learning, I was beginning to expect kids to surprise me. And sure enough, they did!
That very true rule of thumb given to new teachers is only helpful if it’s understood. Now, as I observe teachers, I see what it means. It’s so much easier to see a phenomenon clearly if you’re not part of the phenomenon. But new teachers tend to wonder whether they’re cut out for the kind of work they’re trying to do. As they wonder, they expect problems, some of which are created by that expectation.
I’ve heard teachers tell children what not to do. For example, “Don’t write on your desk. If you do, you’ll spend recess cleaning it.” For some children, words like that imply that the teacher expects children to write on their desks. They hear the expectation more clearly than they hear the taboo or threat. And they
write on their desks. They’re doing what they think they are expected to do – what the teacher may unconsciously expect them to do.
I’ve also heard teachers offer bribes to children: “If you pay attention well, I’ll give you a token. If you earn ten tokens, I’ll give you a choice of prizes.” The message some children hear is that the teacher does not expect children to pay attention well. If good attention were expected, there would be neither bribes nor threats. When the teacher really expects
certain behaviors from children, those behaviors tend to happen without artificial motivators.
I’ve seen behaviorism work on some children with severe problems. I’ve even heard that it works with entire classes. It’s not my way, but I’ve come to believe that it’s a legitimate and potentially effective approach. And I understand that it’s a gross oversimplification – a distortion – to treat behaviorism as a system of bribes and threats. But as I observe teachers in action, I’m impressed by some teachers’ ability to convey positive expectations, and by the effectiveness of honestly expecting good things to happen.

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