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Why What We Believe about Students Really Matters

Wednesday, January 06, 2016 by Mary Frances "Frankie" Jones


In the current political climate of education reform and high-stakes accountability, we often hear calls for “higher expectations.” For those of us invested in the work of transforming Catholic schools, we wouldn’t argue for lowering them.

"The beliefs we hold in our minds about people influence the way those people behave."

Yet while we agree that high expectations are important, we don’t necessarily take enough time to appreciate why they matter so much. The power of expectations in our lives, and the lives of our students, is actually quite fascinating. The beliefs we hold in our minds about people influence the way those people behave. When you really let that truth sink in, it’s profound.

Expectancy Effects

One of the earliest studies on expectancy effects explored how experimenter expectations could affect the maze-running behavior of rats. The researcher snuck into his lab one night and labeled rats “bright” or “dull” using signs on their cages. He told his lab assistants that the rats had been bred accordingly. What happened? 

The “bright” mice performed two times better than the “dull” mice, even though they were all just average lab rats, randomly assigned to the two conditions. How did it happen? Just thinking that your mouse is smarter improves the way you handle him and talk to him—and these small changes in behaviors lead to big changes in outcomes.

It turns out that people aren’t all that different from lab rats when it comes to other people’s expectations about us. When similar students are artificially grouped into “gifted” and “below average” categories, their performance tends to match the designation—even when the students themselves are not aware of their category.

That means that the beliefs teachers hold about students—whether true or not—influence student performance, even when those beliefs are not explicitly shared. When we expect students to succeed, we unknowingly treat them differently. Teachers call on students they believe are higher-performing more often, stand closer to those students when providing feedback, and smile more at those students. All of these micro-behaviors lead to macro-differences in achievement.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat is another example of the power of expectations in our lives. When girls fill out the gender bubble on standardized assessments before a math or science test, they do demonstrably worse than when they fill out the bubble after taking the test. Why?

It happens because a negative stereotype exists about females in math and science. Society “expects” females to perform poorly in these areas, and the simple act of identifying oneself as a girl is enough to activate those negative expectations and influence performance.   

"The expectations we have about students actively shape the way we act towards students and, in turn, influence the way students behave."

The expectations we have about students actively shape the way we act towards students and, in turn, influence the way students behave. When teachers and school leaders expect less from students because of their racial background or their “tough home life,” their beliefs lead to behavior that conforms to those expectations.

Alternatively, when teachers and school leaders believe deeply that all students can and will learn, and that expectation is shared and reinforced in the daily operations of the school and classroom, students excel.

Clearly expectation effects have their limits—we can’t expect students into flying, but we can expect them into greater learning, bigger success, and better performance.

Transformational school leaders use the power of expectations to chip away at the pernicious achievement gap. They believe that all students can learn and they hire teachers who share that belief. They coach teachers toward intolerance for mediocrity and a mindset that all students will learn at the highest levels. Transformational school leaders hold unwaveringly high expectations for all children, but also challenge those we work with in their beliefs about our students.

Students watch what we do to see what we believe—and what we believe about students really matters.

About the Author

Mary Frances

Mary Frances "Frankie" Jones

Frankie Jones currently serves as the Coordinator of Teaching and Learning for the Notre Dame ACE Academies, and as faculty for the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program.

She formerly served as Director of Development for St. Ann Catholic School in Chicago. Jones’s research focuses on the ways in which teachers and school leaders facing intense accountability pressures successfully enact improvement strategies and cultivate productive school properties for authentic student achievement.