Monday, January 6, 2014

Expectations vs. Wishes (part 1) - What Do We Want for Our Kids and Ourselves?

INTRO: School leaders everywhere claim to hold high expectations of their students. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise. So, we see and hear the mantra in campus mission statements, speeches by superintendents, and campaigns by school board candidates. Of course, this is how it should be! The problem, as I see it, is not with the declaration that we should have high expectations of all students. My concern, quite frankly, is that we simply don't mean it.

Defining Expectations
Our problem is not that we intentionally hold low expectations of our students, but we fail to define exactly what it is we expect. By default, we go around repeating slogans that resemble "wishes" more than true, realisitic expectations.
To create an environment that truly nurtures high expectations, one must clearly define what expectations are in the first place. Being explicit about what an expectation is and is not, I believe, is one of the most concrete tasks that school leaders can perform to lay the foundation for successful student learning. Furthermore, this work at the "front end" will also support professional development and adult learning.
Therefore, let's begin with a definition of expectation. An expectation is something anticipated, something we can look forward to, an event that one not only hopes for, but also trusts will happen. In our minds, a true expectation is so certain to occur that we make plans accordingly. For instance, I expect the sun to set this evening and to rise again tomorrow. I am so sure of it that I plan my eating and sleeping patterns (sometimes not all that consistently) based upon this expectation.
The key criterion of an expectation is that it is worth arranging one's life (or work or play, or in our case, class or school) around. In other words, to expect is to fully believe to the point of acting. On Monday morning, for example, I expect to still have my job. As a result of this expectation, I plan to wake up early, dress a certain way, leave an adequate time for the commute (another aspect dependent on real expectations of traffic flow, functioning street lights, etc.) and so on in order to arrive at my job. There is an "expectation...action" conditional relationship just as there is an "if...then" relationship.
The practical point here is that there are very real consequences to our plans if expectations are not met. Continuing with my previous illustration, if an unexpected delay arises, such as road construction or a car accident that I could not have foreseen, then I will be late to work, or at the very least, I will have to find another route. In short, my original plan will be insufficient and must change. Therefore, the first test to tell if a true expectation exists is whether plans will have to change as a result of it not occuring.

This, in turn, becomes the litmus test to determine if you truly hold an expectation of your students. If you think you expect something of them, then ask yourself, "What changes in my plans does it create if they do not meet it?"

"Close Your Eyes and Make a Wish"
We've all been to birthday parties and know that "magic" moment when the celebrated person gets to blow out the candles on the cake. Following what is usually an off-key performance of the famous song in which most participants are lip-syncing "Happy Birthday to you," somebody reminds the aging individual of the ever-so-crucial directions about closing eyes and "don't tell anyone or it won't come true." The individual at the center of attention then forcefully exhales to extinguish all the flames, simultaneously covering a delicious desert with an invisible layer of spit. (We do like our strange traditions.)

But the most important part of this tradition, for our context, is what happens next. Nothing! There is not a single change to anyone's plans, including the birthday person, based upon the wish that was made. Everyone merely goes on as if nothing has changed.

A wish is what someone does when buying a lottery ticket or bringing in the New Year. A wish is almost the opposite of an expectation because it precisely deals with wanting things to be different than they really are. Wishes do not lead to action because there is no serious belief that they will happen. To make the point, let's return to my analogy of going to work on Monday morning. I may wish I didn't have to go to work the entire weekend leading up to Monday, but come Monday morning I will find myself carrying out all the necessary plans to meet my expectations and arrive to work on time.

Before analyzing our common practices in schools, here is the basic summary of our discussion. Expectations guide our plans because we are so sure they will happen. Wishes do not guide anything, but only offer distractions to the reality we face. Therefore, I submit that spending more professional time on wishes in our schools is a waste of time, at best, and more often worse, a hindrance to student learning. be continued next week

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