Routine – Support for Student Expectations
30 May 2017
The most significant advantage humans have over other forms of life is our ability to predict what will happen given a certain set of circumstances. So you can see predictability underpins expectations. When we recognise a set of conditions that led to us having a great time we get excited anticipating another positive experience. Conversely another set of conditions may provide us with a warning – we are not going to ‘enjoy’ what we expect next.
When a student enters a room they will be confronted with a set of features that they will interpret and then imagine what to expect. This connection drives the emotional content of their minds and good teachers know how they feel about what you provide is directly related to how they will engage in your lesson. If they expect to be bored they will be set up for boredom there will be no stress that calls for the child’s brain to attend – there is nothing worthwhile here. If they are afraid they will be primed for protection against your lesson and the stress levels will be elevated to a level that excludes cognitive thinking – nothing can be learned effectively.
The successful teachers want what I call a ‘Goldilocks’ brain one that’s not too hot – over stressed and not too cold – under stressed but one stressed just right! The way they will behave in a lesson is quite literally shaped by the way they feel.
Most significantly, both the student and the teacher’s expectation of a lesson depend on the experience of the previous lesson. So it is important that the teacher understands that how they present their lessons sets the expectations of the students now and in the future. We can’t expect the students to come into class just feeling good about your subject just because you like it but we can build up experiences of past ‘feel good’ moments that the kids will bring into the next lesson. It’s like banking, the more you put into building an expectation account the more interest you will get and that’s compound interest.
You have to remember that so much of their expectation is stored in the emotional area of the brain and this is why the relationship between teacher and student is the most significant factor in teachers being able to engage their students. This is particularly true for those ‘difficult students who have a history of failure. The successful teacher will develop a relationship with students and with the teacher’s support slowly change the student’s expectation about your lessons and their ability to learn.
Students with behavioural problems provide the greatest challenge to the teacher’s ability to engage them in learning. It is important to understand these students will minimize or misinterpret any positive stimuli. They either think they are not worthy or don’t trust the teacher’s motives. They are also hypersensitive to negative social cues and they are hyper-vigilant about potential threats. They also fail to understand or read non-verbal cues they don’t easily get what is presented to them and they are highly likely to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any negative, incoming stimulus. All this history of failure means that to create expectations for success in children who have only experienced failure requires patience and quiet determination.
So what do we need to do? The following points will help:
- Students decide how important the lesson is from how professional the teacher presents themselves. You need to look like a teacher – have your ‘teacher’s uniform on’, look like you love your work and most of all look like you are happy in their company.
- Students register the importance of the lesson by the interest the teacher displays. How could we expect the students to be enthusiastic about maths if the teacher is blasé about solving simultaneous equations? Emotions are contagious and so is curiosity!
- Messages about the effectiveness of the lesson come from the state of the room and the presentation of the lesson content. The recent discovery of Mirror Neurons (the subject of an essay on the Web Page) highlighted the importance of this point. A neuroscientist Iacoboni had volunteers watch films of people reaching for various objects in a tea time setting (teapot, cup, jug, plate of pastries, napkins) in different contexts. In every instance when the subjects saw the person in the scene reach for a cup, a basic set of ‘reaching’ neurons fired in the subjects. But different additional sets of mirror neurons would fire depending on what expected action was suggested by the setting. In one case the setting was neat and orderly as if the meal was about to be enjoyed. The player was about to drink some tea and one form of additional neurons fired. The other setting was cluttered as if the meal had been finished and the cup was ready to be cleaned up and there was a different set of neurons activated. The brain knew what was coming next! If the student comes into a room that is organised for learning their learning neurons will light up. If the room is untidy and dirty another set will fire.
There is a popular view amongst some educators that we need to get emotions out of the way so we can teach the kids but good teachers know that emotions are not add-ons that interfere with cognition. They are a fundamental element of why thinking and learning happens and emotions fire expectations. Through the child’s experience they learn to ‘know something’ that is about to happen so let’s make that quality learning!