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Great expectations: Embedding a growth mindset in our school culture


Liz Koni.

Liz Koni is the deputy principal of Queen’s High School in Dunedin. In this blog post Liz shares the highlights of her recent ten week sabbatical, part of which was looking into building a culture of high expectations and embedding a growth mindset.

The purpose of my sabbatical

New Zealand learners in the 21st century come from a diverse range of ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds which puts increasing pressure, and rightly so, on us as educators to take responsibility for instilling in all learners a self-belief that they can, with effort, achieve success educationally. Yet, over the past few years I have developed an increasing awareness of the lack of self-belief that some learners have about their own ability and the lack of understanding that they have about the relationship between effort and achievement.

I believe that every school culture should be one that is fundamentally built on the belief that we must have high expectations for our students, and ourselves as educators, if we want students to succeed. Research confirms that student performance is influenced by subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages from teachers about students’ worth, intelligence and capability. The famous Harvard teacher expectation study by Rist (1970) and many others since, confirm this self-fulfilling prophecy: Students will perform in ways which teachers expect. This verifies the incredible positive power of simply expecting the most out of our students. Further research verifies that establishing and maintaining high expectations for both ourselves, as teachers and leaders in schools, and our students, is the key and central tool in our most immediate control to raising academic achievement (Bamburg, 1994; Miller, 2001; Ricci, 2007; Dweck, 2006).

As a staff at Queen’s High School, we spent 2016 building theoretical knowledge and understanding of the power of high expectations, but the next step to building a school culture of high expectations was to put theory into action. Hence the purpose of my sabbatical was to spend time visiting New Zealand secondary schools, where leaders have successfully created school cultures of high expectations.

The premise to my sabbatical project

I first came across the idea of the power of high expectations somewhat serendipitously in 2015, when brainstorming and searching for ideas for a new personal professional development focus. One evening I stumbled upon two articles; one by Carol Dweck about growth mindsets, and another by Steven Farr titled "The Power of High Expectations". Reading these was energising and inspiring, and prompted me to read more widely about these two ideas. In doing so, I became curious about a third idea; how these two principles could become embedded in a school’s culture.

I proposed to our principal that we use the ideas behind high expectations and growth mindsets as a staff professional development focus for 2016. It was aptly named "Great Expectations" (blame the internal English teacher in me), and would focus on learning about growth mindsets in the classroom, the power of a school culture that values academic achievement, and encouraging learners to work hard, build resilience, and overcome adversity to achieve success.

2016 started by introducing staff to "Great Expectations" and at the first professional development staff meeting I posed the following questions for staff to reflect on:

  • Is there any degree to which you too, despite the best of intentions, tend to see the different backgrounds of students not as an asset but rather “an obstacle to overcome”?
  • Are you tempted to relax expectations of students out of sympathy or pity?
  • Do you recognise the damage that such a relaxation of standards can cause?

At the same time I introduced the theory behind the power of high expectations, and how it influences academic outcomes. Teachers were also given visual aides to use in the classroom with their students about developing a growth mindset towards their learning. From this point, at regular intervals throughout the year, staff completed readings about mindsets and the high expectations principle, and in our staff PLGs the focus remained on Great Expectations for the year. As the year progressed, however, I realised that while there was a great deal of theory about high expectations, and many global examples of best practice, there was very little practical evidence about how to create a culture of high expectations in the context of New Zealand secondary schools. Thus, the idea for my sabbatical project was born.

Existing information/knowledge about the power of high expectations

Rosenthal & Jacobson’s 1968 "Pygmalion in the Classroom" study triggered the beginning of an extensive body of research on the power of high expectations, all of which conclude that “teacher expectations play a significant role in determining how well and how much students learn” (Bamburg, 1994, p. 1). This initial study, and the many which have followed, recognise the self-fulfilling prophecy of expectations, which is that students will perform in whichever ways their teachers expect; so positive or high expectations influence student performance positively, and negative or low expectations influence performance negatively. This is a somewhat frightening concept, especially when research concludes that teachers’ expectations about what a student is capable of achieving can be affected by factors having little or nothing to do with his or her ability (Rubie-Davies, 2015), yet these expectations determine which learning opportunities will be available to a learner.

Christine Rubie-Davies (2015) book, Becoming a High Expectations Teacher: Raising the Bar, is well worth reading to understand the power of expectations in relation to teaching and learning. While her focus is primarily on New Zealand primary schools, she draws on a wide range of international studies and examples, and many of the principles examined in the text are equally applicable to secondary schools. Rubie-Davies draws a number of important conclusions about high expectations, which I believe are worth all educators pondering, including:

  • “After the family, school is the most important social environment that students encounter in terms of shaping their psychosocial development. The interactions that students have with teachers and with their peers are thus highly influential in students forming personal beliefs about their academic capabilities.” (p.15)
  • “Students with high expectation teachers make large academic gains, while their peers with low expectation teachers do not. Further, whereas students with high expectation teachers maintain reasonable positive attitudes, students with low expectation teachers come to view themselves more negatively...it is what the teacher does that creates differences for students.” (p. 75)
  • “A supportive, psychosocial environment is important for any student’s sense of security and self-worth. A warm, affective classroom provides the secure environment necessary for students to take risks with their learning, to be motivated to achieve, to be successful at their level, and to want to continue to learn.” (p. 153)

The theory of growth mindsets, based on the work of Carol Dweck, (her book Mindset is an inspirational and usable text which is well worth reading) has become increasingly popular over the last few years, and is now a catch phrase not only heard in the education sector but in the world of business, high performance sport, and personal development. At the heart of understanding a growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can develop over time, as opposed to something that is an inborn trait which cannot change (a fixed mindset). Dweck (Oct, 2007; Dec, 2007; 2010) emphasises that it is a teacher’s responsibility to create a growth mindset culture in the classroom so that students view challenges as an opportunity to learn, work hard, value effort, build resilience to adversity, and reach their full potential, all of which align closely with the principle of high expectations.

Having a growth mindset is not only important for students, but just as important for those teaching them, with Dweck concluding that “when teachers believe in fixed intelligence, this is exactly what happens. However, when teachers hold a growth mindset, many students who start out lower in the class blossom during the year and join the higher achievers” (Spring, 2007, p. 10). Strategies that Dweck encourages teachers to use include the power of the word “yet”, using goal setting, creating a risk-taking classroom, praising correctly and presenting meaningful learning tasks for all students. Dweck concludes that “teaching people to have a growth mindset, which encourages a focus on effort rather than intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life” (2007, p. 38)

Ka Hikitia: Accelerating Success (2013–2017) picks up on Dweck’s ideas also, and states that:

  • “The most motivated and resilient students are those who believe their abilities can be developed through their own effort and learning.”
  • “Education professionals who believe students have fixed abilities often have their belief confirmed when students do not improve. On the other hand, education professionals who believe their students can improve through diligence find that students who start at the bottom of the class can improve throughout the year.”
  • “Education professionals who hold lower expectations for Māori students may harm students’ learning opportunities and outcomes.” (p. 37)

A summary of my findings

Visiting schools allowed me to witness practices that schools are implementing to help students build resilience to adversity in learning; how to create a culture of growth mindsets amongst students; and how mentoring relationships are supporting student engagement and achievement at school. Students helped me understand what influences their behaviour and effort inside the classroom, and teachers shared how they create classroom cultures where high expectations are the norm with regard to work completion, homework, meeting deadlines, and behaviour management.

Significant action indicators identified for creating a culture of high expectations

  1. Refusal to accept deficit thinking from students or staff.
  2. Teachers must take responsibility and accountability for their students’ outcomes.
  3. High expectations for student effort towards their learning.
  4. Staff lead by example and model high and clear expectations.
  5. Effective pastoral care systems/programmes in the school for students; to build relationships, monitor progress and track achievement.
  6. Celebrate success
  7. Clear guidelines for appearance and behaviour.
  8. School wide targets/goals/vision clearly and regularly communicated to school community.
  9. Improving home-school partnerships.
  10. Focus on manaakitanga; respect and caring for people and place.
  11. Focus on whanaungatanga; building positive, supportive relationships.
  12. Close monitoring of student achievement data; students needing support are identified early and targeted support is provided.

I believe that if a school wants to work towards building an embedded culture of high expectations that they could apply any number and combination of the above indicators into their current school culture, to help achieve this goal. And why wouldn’t every school want to do this, when the effects can be so powerful?

Rubie-Davies (2014) sums them up perfectly when she states:

“It should be the aim of all teachers to ensure that every inkling of talent that students possess is nurtured ... this begins and ends with having high expectations for all students, decreasing the inequities associated with low expectations, and showing all students that we care. The positive teacher attitudes and equitable teaching strategies of high expectation teachers lead, not only to student academic success, but also to high levels of motivation, engagement, self-efficacy, and incremental notions of intelligence.” (p. 230)

Where to from here?

Having completed my sabbatical in term 1 and returned to my role at Queen’s High School in term 2, it has been rewarding to share my findings with the school community. In light of these, our next step is to use the action indicators above as a starting point for review and look for areas of improvement, in our teaching, learning and leadership, to ensure that high expectations not only exists but is truly embedded in our school culture.

Read Liz’s full sabbatical report on Educational Leaders