Research leading to the Teacher Expectation Project found that teachers who had high expectations for all their students also incorporated three key elements into their classrooms, resulting in consistently higher achieving students.

These high expectation teachers did not group their students by ability for core subjects such as reading and mathematics, especially for learning experiences. Instead, a variety of learning experiences was made available to all students and they chose which activities they wished to pursue and who they wished to work with. This meant that all students had the opportunity to engage in challenging learning opportunities. That is, the low-level, repetitive activities often assigned to low-achieving students were not evident in these classes.

The class climate of high expectation teachers was more positive than that of other teachers. They managed behaviour positively and worked to prevent poor behaviour. Further, because all students worked together and changed groups regularly, a cohesive class environment was created which resulted in students supporting each other. High levels of teacher care were also evident.

The final area of goal setting had several elements. First, teachers used assessment information to set goals regularly with each student. Second, they monitored student progress frequently and provided feedback in relation to the goals. Third, student interests were taken into account in planning activities and this promoted student motivation and engagement. Fourth, because students were given some autonomy in the activities they could complete, this also helped to promote student motivation and engagement.

The project

These core elements formed the basis for the Teacher Expectation Project. Teachers from 12 different primary and intermediate schools were randomly assigned to either work with the researchers (intervention teachers) or to continue with their schools’ regular professional development (control teachers). The 43 intervention teachers attended four full-day workshops where they learned about the beliefs and practices of high expectation teachers in the three key areas outlined above. In the afternoon, at each workshop, they planned how they would implement the practices into their classrooms.

Before the first workshop, the intervention teachers were filmed teaching a lesson and were then taught about the kinds of non-verbal behaviours that convey high or low expectations to students. They then analysed their own videos to look for the messages they were giving students. During the three years of the project, they were filmed a further three times and sent their DVDs to self-analyse. Following the workshops, the researchers visited the teachers a further three times in the first year of the project. Teachers from two schools came together each time to share what they had implemented that was working successfully.

In the second year, the intervention teachers trained the 41 control group teachers in the practices they had learned the previous year. This enabled the researchers to determine if the practices could be effectively passed on by teachers without the need for researcher support. The final year involved monitoring of teachers and students when the researchers pulled back from the classrooms to see if teachers maintained the practices and to measure student gains.

The results of the project were very encouraging. In the first year of the project, when only the intervention teachers were engaged in implementing the practices of high expectation teachers, students in their classes made much greater gains in mathematics than students in the classes of control group teachers – who it is to be remembered were engaged in their school’s and their own professional development. The students with intervention teachers gained the equivalent of a whole term’s additional learning in just one year when compared with students in the control group teachers’ classes. Put another way, they gained 28 per cent more learning than students in the control group.

Teachers were very enthusiastic about the project. When asked if they would recommend it to other teachers, 97 per cent agreed that they would highly recommend it. In terms of moving to different and more flexible forms of grouping, teachers made comments such as:“I grouped less confident readers with more confident readers and I found that both groups really enjoyed this. The struggling readers had buddies to support them and the more capable readers thrived with the responsibility.” Other teachers believed that flexible groups improved student self-esteem. One said: ”Flexible grouping in all curriculum areas dissolved the notion of ‘top’ group or ‘bottom’ group which was very positive.”

Ability groups questioned

There is a very strong research base that shows that teaching students in ability groups has few, if any, benefits for learners. On the other hand, there are also studies that have shown, firstly, that a large percentage of students are misplaced and secondly, that when supposed low-achieving students are placed with their high-achieving peers they are soon performing at much higher levels than previously.

Among OECD countries, New Zealand has one of the greatest disparities between our highest and lowest achievers and we ability-group from school entry. Finland, on the other hand, has one of the smallest gaps between their highest and lowest achievers and they have a policy of mixed-ability grouping throughout schooling.

One reason that ability grouping exacerbates differences between students is simply opportunity to learn. Once students are placed into ability groups, teachers develop different expectations of the top and bottom groups and provide them with different learning experiences. Those in the top group are often given challenging activities requiring high-level thinking, whereas those in the low group are given tedious, repetitive activities requiring only surface-level thinking. Ultimately those in the top group learn more simply because they have been given more opportunity to do so.

Class climate changes

Teachers were also enthusiastic about the practices related to enhancing the class climate as shown by this teacher’s comment: “I believe that working on my classroom climate has had a significant impact on… the reading levels in my class. Before making these changes a lot of students would often argue with each other, fight and put each other down. After changing/ implementing strategies from the workshop I could see huge changes in the students’ self-management and their feelings towards learning and BELIEVING in themselves!”

Other teachers also noticed changes in tone in their classes after implementing changes to their class climate: “…the atmosphere has changed – every two weeks the children move desks and it means they have all got to know one another and there is more harmony in the classroom.”

The research evidence shows that when students are in a classroom where they feel supported and cared about, they are likely to achieve at higher levels. Positive behaviour management and interactions with students coupled with high levels of teacher care contribute to a constructive class environment. Further, when students are engaged in cooperative learning and support each other, this is also likely to lead to higher achievement. When students are no longer in ability groups, they are much more likely to create friendship networks that spread across the classroom resulting in a supportive, encouraging classroom community.

Goal setting aligns with motivation

Many of the teachers in the intervention group were already using goal setting in their classes, although this tended to be less structured than the goal setting recommendations outlined in the Teacher Expectation Project. . Teachers were enthusiastic about the effects they had noticed after implementing goal setting into their classrooms: “I used goal setting and reflections on achievement each Friday and found it beneficial in improving the students’ autonomy over their own learning. They became much more articulate and reflective about what they needed to improve or work on.” Teachers also made use of the e-asTTle individual learning pathway reports to enable more focused learning for students: “Using e-asTTle …. to determine a student’s stages on the knowledge test summaries has helped my students identify gaps in their learning. Transparency in data was helpful in setting goals, e.g. students all saw the data.”

The goal setting literature is vast and because of the effectiveness of goal setting it has been applied in many settings, for example, in business, in education, and in life skills courses. A feature of the Teacher Expectation Project, however, was the alignment between goal setting and student motivation, engagement and autonomy, and teacher monitoring and feedback. The inclusion of activities that were stimulating, challenging and interesting to students helped ensure their engagement and motivation, albeit that the learning experiences were targeted around their goals. Further, the explicit feedback of teachers related to the degree to which students had achieved their goals and what they needed to learn next also served to engage and motivate students. Students took more ownership of their learning and enjoyed seeing their own progress.

Further information about the Teacher Expectation Project can be found in
Christine Rubie-Davies’ new book: Becoming a high expectation teacher: Raising the bar published by Routledge.

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