The language of “expectations” in education: Hope or control?

I was writing a chapter for my Whole Novels book about setting up clear expectations, structures, and systems for accountability and support for students during the reading process. In this chapter, I found myself repeating the word “expectations,” especially in subheadings. In effort to get away from that one word, I checked the thesaurus on my computer. What I found gave me pause, revealing a tension in the way the concept of expectations is often applied in education these days.

According to the Microsoft Word thesaurus, “expectations” is synonymous with prospect, outlook, potential, opportunity, and hope.

According to the thesuarus on my Mac laptop OS,

(1) her expectations were unrealistic: supposition, assumption, presumption, conjecture, surmise, calculation, prediction, hope.

(2) tense with expectation: anticipation, expectancy, eagerness, excitement, suspense.

In Spanish, the verb “esperar” means equally to expect or to hope.

The general connotation of this word seems to be positive and hopeful, and that’s how we want to approach our students. We want students to do well in our classrooms, in part because we are hopeful, expectant, and eager to see them do well, and because we want them to be similarly optimistic and excited to learn.

At the same time, I also hear the word being used in a way that signifies authority or control—I think that’s where the “prediction” part of the word comes in. We expect things of our students and are encouraged to prescribe and predict outcomes. What if the student’s response differs from our expectations? Is that difference necessarily seen as a negative response? If so, we are using the notion of positive expectations as a tool of control. In fact, in a learning environment that relies on punitive measures to respond to student behavior or lack of achievement, what we may refer to as “high expectations” can easily become inflexible demands.

Back to my writing… In a student-centered classroom, the expectations of the teacher are extremely important and influence students’ learning experience. It is equally important that teachers be reciprocally influenced by the students’ experience and response to conditions or tasks. That dialogue is how positive leadership can empower an entire group.

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