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High expectations in your classroom


Students in the playground.

High expectations is one of eight principles in The New Zealand Curriculum. The high expectations principle calls for teachers to support and empower all students to learn and achieve personal excellence, regardless of individual circumstances.

This blog post examines how the principle of high expectations can be brought to life in the classroom. It presents four practical strategies that teachers can apply to unleash the potential of all students.

Strategy one – Promote a growth mindset

The belief that intelligence is a fixed characteristic, something that you are born with, is incongruent to a high expectations classroom. In contrast, a growth mindset, the idea that we can grow our brain's capacity to learn, is a cornerstone.

Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, recognises the power of believing that you can improve. Dweck's research has found that students who view intelligence as something that can be developed fare better when they meet a challenge. These students engage in their learning, persevere, and reach their full potential.

How can you promote a growth mindset in your classroom?

  • Share your own journey as a learner with your students; let them know the times that you had to put in more effort and seek extra support to grow your mind.
  • When students succeed, praise their effort and strategies, not their intelligence.
  • When students fail, give feedback on their effort and strategies, offering ideas on what they could do differently next time to reach success.
  • Teach students to relish challenges and to enjoy the struggle to find strategies that work.
  • Teach students to focus on the learning rather than the grades. Although grades are important, learning is more important.¹

What has intrigued me most in my 30 years of research is the power of motivation. Motivation is often more important than your initial ability in determining whether you succeed in the long run. In fact, many creative geniuses were not born that way. They were often fairly ordinary people who became extraordinarily motivated. By motivation, I mean not only the desire to achieve, but also the love of learning, the love of challenge, and the ability to thrive on obstacles. These are the greatest gifts we can give our students.

Carol Dweck

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The power of believing that you can improve
In this talk, Carol Dweck describes two ways to think about a problem that is slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet?

Growth mindset vs fixed mindset rap
Students in this YouTube clip know that you're not just born smart, you have to work hard and have a growth mindset in order to achieve great things.

Strategy two – Offer challenging, high level, and exciting activities

Research shows that students' learning opportunities are largely underpinned by teachers' expectations. Timperley and Phillips (2003) report that teachers’ expectations for student achievement become their goals for the students and shape their daily classroom decisions and actions. Students learn what they have been given the opportunity to learn. If learning activities are challenging, engaging, and exciting, they will learn more than if the activities are low level, repetitive, and boring.

Professor Christine Rubie-Davies, a leading researcher in the field of teacher expectations, has found that students who are grouped according to their ability are often exposed to very different learning activities. Students who are considered to be high achievers are given complex, exciting activities and are often able to exercise choice as they learn. Students who are considered to be low achievers are given repetitive, skill based practice exercises. Professor Rubie-Davies recommends that while teachers may use ability grouping for instruction, they should ensure that all students have the opportunity to engage in cognitively demanding tasks.

"Much of the widening of the gap between historically high and low achievers is due to the accumulated differentiation of learning opportunities and interactions with the teacher. When students are given more advanced opportunties to learn, they can make more progress than might previously have been thought possible."

C Rubie-Davies, Becoming a High Expectation Teacher, 2014, p 218.

Strategy three – Set goals with students

Professor Rubie-Davies (2014) reports that goal setting is one means by which high expectation teachers enhance student learning. Having individual learning goals helps students to become intrinsically motivated and engaged in their learning. Teachers have an important role to play in supporting students to set appropriate, yet challenging goals that have a focus on individual learning and progress.

How can you help your students in the goal setting process?

  • Monitor your students' learning closely.
  • Share feedback with your students about their learning and next steps.
  • Use assessment information and students' interests to establish possible goals.
  • Give choices to students about what goals to work on.
  • Ensure that goals are challenging but achievable.
  • Give frequent feedback to students in relation to their goals.
  • Regularly revisit goals with students and revise them when necessary.²

Have you seen?

Sharing assessment data with students
In this set of videos from Assessment Online, teachers from Māngere Bridge School in South Auckland talk about sharing assessment data with their students, and how this enables students to develop their own next steps in learning.

Student goal setting and parent engagement
This video, from the Pomaria School series, explains how teachers, parents, and whānau work together to help students attain their learning goals and achieve personal excellence.

Strategy four – Create a caring classroom culture

Research shows that a positive classroom climate leads to better social and academic outcomes for students. When students feel that they are cared for and that they matter, they are far more likely to be engaged in their learning.

How can you build a more positive culture in your classroom?

  • Make connections with your students; take time to learn about their personal lives and interests.
  • Celebrate the cultural diversity of your students and incorporate their cultural contexts and languages into teaching and learning programmes.
  • Celebrate the efforts and successes of students.
  • Follow a code of conduct in the classroom that supports appropriate behaviour and class harmony.
  • Provide all students with leadership opportunities.
  • Promote cooperation between students; share the expectation that students support and help each other.
  • Facilitate the interaction of students with each other through regular and varied group work.
  • Do something together as a class each day; it could be singing a song, telling jokes to each other, playing a game, etc.³

"Teachers can make a huge, positive difference to student lives. Taking the time to make the classroom environment one that is pleasant to be in, physically and emotionally, is time well spent."

Professor Rubie-Davies, Becoming a High Expectation Teacher, 2014, p 182.

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Developing an inclusive classroom culture
This guide supports teachers to build an inclusive classroom that values the contributions of all students, their families/whānau, and communities. The guide offers information on how to establish a caring, supportive, and respectful classroom climate.

For more information ...

NZC Online has launched a high expectations principle package that features information, practical tools, stories, and resources to help you further explore the principle of high expectations and your school curriculum. 

Share your ideas

  • Computer keyboard.
    Has this blog affirmed or challenged your thinking about high expectations?
  • What changes might you introduce to your classroom in response to what you have read?
  • Can you share any other teaching strategies that help to foster high expectations?

We would love to hear your thoughts. Please email them through to [email protected].  


¹Suggestions derived from an Education World interview with Carol Dweck.

²Suggestions derived from C Rubie-Davies, Becoming a High Expectation Teacher, 2014, chapters 12 and 13.

³Suggestions derived from C Rubie-Davies, Becoming a High Expectation Teacher, 2014, chapter 11.

high expectations