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What Exactly Are “High Expectations”?

By Frédéric Bordaguibel-Labayle
What Exactly Are “High Expectations”?

Recently, I have had several conversations about high expectations and I feel this topic deserves careful consideration. In education, we read and hear about high expectations all the time. The idea being promoted is that we set the bar high for every student and that everyone should do so—every school, every program, every teacher, every coach. Many accreditation agencies, if not all of them, insist on holding students to high standards.
This is all very nice, but I really think that this phrase “high expectations” is suffering from semantic stretch. A Stanford and Yale research study, also referred to by the Heath bothers in their book Made to Stick, defines semantic stretch as “the overuse of any idea or concept that delivers an emotional kick” (173). We could even say, in the case of this particular phrase, that it is “the overuse of any idea or concept that delivers an educational kick.” We are using this phrase so much that it might be time to re-think what we are talking about or, rather, what we should be talking about.
It has become quite evident to me that many parents, at least in our community, when referring to high expectations for their sons and daughters, are in fact using this phrase to refer to academic expectations.
If my daughter understands well this linguistic concept, teach her a more complex one. If my son knows how to do those kinds of equations, teach him more complicated ones. And let’s see really high grades on report cards and transcripts.
This approach is widespread, but is this still the kind of bar we want to set? I would offer that institutions that consider academics as the only area in which we should insist on high expectations are not actually setting high expectations at all.
Moreover, parents expecting this are doing a disservice to their children, as they are somehow disconnected from what the world—including universities—wants and needs.
We want to encourage students to get involved in meaningful community service with the goal of making a difference. We want students to represent their sports teams well. We want students to decide to learn how to play an instrument just for the sake of learning something new. We want students who follow online classes based on their interests, not for grades. We want students who help fellow students in math club after school. We want students who reflect positively on our schools when they travel to international conferences. We want students who make the right, ethical decision should a future test be found on the teacher’s desk.
Of course, this list is not exhaustive, but it speaks to my point. Not only do we want all of this for our students, but we also need these types of behaviors to build a better world than the one we are increasingly faced with.
These are high expectations, and it appears evident that, should we agree on them, we need to clarify our understanding of just what sorts of high achievers we want our students to embody. Further, we need to communicate these aspirations clearly within our communities, so that when the phrase “high expectations” is used we really know what we are talking about.

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