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Example 2: Negative Expectations

Student: “I can’t do number 4.”

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Example 2: Negative Expectations Student: “I can’t do number 4.”
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Teacher: “You can’t? Why not?”

Student: “I just can’t do it.”

Teacher: “Don’t say you can’t do it. We never say we can’t do it. Did you try hard?”

Student: “Yes, but I can’t do it.”

Teacher: “Well, you did the first three problems. Maybe if you went back and worked a little longer you could do the fourth problem too. Why don’t you work at it a little more and see what happens?”

An analysis of word choice and phrases in each of these dialogues illustrates how powerful a brief exchange between teacher and student can be in sending positive or negative expectations messages. In the first script, the teacher’s first question—“What part don’t you understand?”—credits the student with under- standing most parts and asks him or her to zero in on the stumbling block. When the student stalls, the teacher explicitly expresses confidence in the student’s ca- pacity: “Well, I know you can do part of it, because you’ve done the first three problems correctly.” Then, the teacher goes on to give explicit coaching help and promises to return in a few minutes “to see how you’re doing.” The teacher will help but believes the student can do it. Nevertheless, the student won’t be left hanging. The teacher will return as a safety net if there is still difficulty.

In the second script, the teacher asks, “Why not?” when the student says, “I can’t do number 4.” That’s a “gotcha” question. If the student knows why she can’t do it, she would be able to move forward and ask for more specific help. The teacher then responds to, “I just can’t do it,” with an injunction, “Don’t say you can’t do it,” and a bit of moralizing: “We never say we can’t do it.” The teacher may mean that as an encouraging gesture, but whatever hope there is of being encouraging gets crushed by the no-win question: “Did you try hard?” If the student has already been trying hard, only one conclusion is possible: “I must be dumb.” And if the student hasn’t been trying hard, then she or he must admit sloth. The implication, though without much hope, is that maybe longer and harder will somehow put the student over the top. But the teacher gives no specific strategic help. “See what happens” is the parting shot, and the student is left feeling that not much more will happen.

The point of studying these two scripts is to increase awareness of word choice and approach when students ask for help. With only subtle changes in what we actually say, we can convey confidence, point out how students can use



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what they already know, give strategies or cues as help, and check back at ap- propriate intervals, or we can moralize, simplify or dumb down the task, sug- gest inadequacies, hint blame, and convey (sometimes masked behind polite words) that we really don’t think the student is capable of doing the task. One outcome we desire for readers of this section is that you will find yourselves carrying a third eye and ear into your own classrooms. The third eye and ear are your own! And it is monitoring and giving you feedback as you speak when you are asked for help. What messages are you conveying as you interact with students to give help?

Unsolicited Help

Graham and Barker (1990) and Zimmerman and Marinez-Pons (1990) found that when teachers give unsolicited help, students often conclude their teachers think the students are not able and need support. As a result, some will begin acting as if to confirm this belief. Another side effect of premature unsolicited help is that students learn not to struggle, that struggle is bad, that struggle means they are unable—which is exactly the way entity theorists plunge deeper into a subtractive belief system.

This is tricky, because teachers want to be available to the students who need the most support. In fact, we want to arrange our time and other resources to deploy them efficiently to support students who do need extra help. How do we do so without inadvertently sending debilitating expectation messages? We think the answer lies in the subtleties of word choice and body language, as in these examples illustrate:

p Instead of going right over to Brian on the first problem and saying, “Need help, Brian?” Mr. Flood works with another child near him and watches how Brian is doing.

p He is able to pick up early if Brian is struggling. “Trouble?” he says off- handedly while catching Brian’s eye. “No,” says the student. “Okay, a good scholar knows when to ask for help. So, struggle is good. But be strategic, and ask me or someone else if you hit a wall.”

p “Trouble?” Mr. Flood says off-handedly as he catches Brian’s eye. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay. So, what part has you hung up?” “The whole thing.” “Okay; now you can do this with a little coaching. What’s the first step?”

Another recommendation is to make asking for help a rewarded behavior, used by “good students” or “scholars” in the culture of the classroom, when a student

Videos: Confidence Building,Tenacity, Allow Struggle



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has used her own resources first. That way you won’t have to give much unsolic- ited help. You can establish such a culture by teaching, practicing, and reward- ing such behavior explicitly. It becomes part of the curriculum.

Arena 4: Changing Attitude Toward Errors— Persevere and Return

There are at least two ways in which any one of us can interpret errors or mistakes we make: as an indication of weakness or lack of ability or as an opportunity for learning and growth. If I believe errors are signs of weakness, I will avoid them at all costs. In fact, I will avoid topics and types of work where I think I may make errors so I don’t have to face the “truth” about my low aptitude in that area. Also, I will get impatient with work that does not come easily or quickly because I will interpret the difficulty as a sign of my low ability. But if I interpret errors as feed- back (data to be used to indicate gaps), I can fill or alternate approaches I must seek out; then I do not shy away from material I do not grasp quickly. This view requires an underlying belief in one’s capacity to be able to understand the work ultimately by working at it and a belief that it’s worth the effort.

Teachers have the opportunity every time they help students deal with error to help them interpret it as data to deal with rather than as a low-ability message— for example:

p “You can do this if you have the right strategy, Carl. So you must need a dif- ferent strategy. Let’s see, which ones have you tried, and which ones haven’t you tried yet?”

p “You’re able to understand stories when you have the right background knowledge, Julie. So there must be something the author is assuming about experiences you’ve had that isn’t true. Let’s see, what could it be? Show me one of the places you got confused.”

p “Well, you do fine experiments when you understand what the task really is. So there must be something in the directions that didn’t communicate. Take me through the lab setup, and show me where it’s unclear.”

Our intention here is to highlight the significance of students’ attitude toward error and suggest how teachers might respond when errors occur so as to sup- port the incrementalist view of intelligence and a learning-goal orientation. (In Chapter 16, “Classroom Climate,” we examine how teachers build a climate for risk-taking and confidence so that students learn to treat errors as opportuni- ties for learning.)

Videos: Persevere and Return, Mistakes Help Us Learn, My Favorite No



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Arena 5: Giving and Negotiating Tasks and Assignments

In Chapter 11, “Clarity,” we discuss many important aspects of giving assign- ments and tasks. These include ensuring that students know why they are do- ing the assignment (the purpose and objective), are clear about what to do (the directions), and know how their work will be evaluated (criteria for success). However, when we give students assignments we also convey messages about whether we think the task is hard or easy, whether we think students will strug- gle as individuals, whether we believe students will succeed, and whether we think success will depend on students’ ability, effort, or luck. It is important to examine the messages we send students through the way we give assignments.

A teacher says to her sixth graders: “This weekend your assignment is to read the last three chapters of Tituba and be prepared to name the factors that you think contributed to a climate in Salem for the witch hysteria.” So far that’s pretty straightforward. The students may have some confusion about what “climate” or maybe even “factors” means in this context, but let’s suppose the students know what’s expected. No messages have been sent to individuals yet. How do they get communicated?

As the students go out the door, Ms. Hunt stops several of them for a private word:

p “Kaneisha, you should do really well on this. You’ve been reading carefully and taking good notes on each of the last two assignments. I think you’re ready to put it all together.”

p “John, how much time are you going to put in on this tonight?”

p “Marie, you’re taking your book home, aren’t you?” [Marie smiles and says, “Sure.”] “Uh huh. Right!” [Ms. Hunt purses her lips.]

p “Do the best you can, George. At least read all three chapters.”

Ms. Hunt has sent Kaneisha a high, positive-expectation message. She thinks Kaneisha is ready for a good performance that puts it all together. It’s hard to tell what message she has sent to John. If John is a slacker and she has communicated before that she thinks he is, then John may interpret her question to mean, “I don’t think you’re going to really do this, John.” And John may be inclined to conform with that preconception. But maybe she has had a series of conferences with John and done goal setting with him around planning his time use for homework. Per- haps, she is reminding him of the agreements he made and getting him to commit to a real number of minutes right now that she’ll hold him accountable for the next day. Then the message is quite different from the slacker inference. It sounds as if



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