Expectation

It’s one of the truisms of Education: teachers need to have high expectations. We talk about the “soft bigotry of low expectation” and such a lot. Always: have high expectations! For ourselves and our students. I agree with the sentiment, which usually amounts to “don’t water down your subject because you think your students can’t handle it” (or at least not until they have proven quite thoroughly that they cannot). I’m not sure about the principle, though.

I’ve heard a lot of contrary advice on what one ought to expect – from “expect a miracle every day” to “expect nothing, but to be sorely tempted until your last breath.” In truth, I have far more sympathy with the latter statement, partly because I tend to unconsciously have quite high expectations, and it usually gets me into trouble. When I started teaching, I unconsciously expected all kinds of things (even if I consciously knew them to be false): that young people would be courteous, give the benefit of the doubt, be interested in things that were interesting to me, get something done eventually whether they found it interesting or not, work outside of class, read outside of class, be happy, balanced people, and so on. All this was because of the kinds of people I have generally known, who tend to be not entirely representative of the population at large. Substituting and now teaching have been gradually disabusing me of those particular expectations. That’s just as well, since if I expect someone to already be courteous, I’m so surprised when they aren’t that I don’t even correct them: I just stare in disbelief. If, on the other hand, I don’t expect anything in particular, then I’m more likely to recognize bad behavior in time to let the person know that what they’re doing isn’t acceptable. If I don’t expect anything in particular from their work, I’m more likely to notice what difficulties they’re having in time to give them suggestions for how to do better, whereas if I expect them to be able to do good work, I assume all kinds of things that probably aren’t the case, and face an imperfect paper with a net of mark-ups that aren’t necessarily useful to the person being graded. Personally, I am much more likely to be frustrated by my own imperfections if I expect to be good at everything: a highly unwarranted assumption. When I have high expectations, I also tend to shrug off successes, and am overly irritated with failures: if I should be so naive as to expect a teacher training to be fascinating and useful, I’ll deserve all the disappointment with which I shall be subsequently afflicted. On the other hand, if I expect it to sound like Soviet attempts at mind control, but open to the possibility that it won’t, then perhaps I will be happily surprised to find that someone says something reasonable.

I’ve heard the thought that we ought to expect nothing, and desire as little as possible attributed to Buddhism, and it would be interesting to know if it’s accurate. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that we oughtn’t have specific desires, but expecting nothing (not to be confused with expecting bad things, which is entirely different) is in many ways an attractive idea.

Perhaps it’s more fruitful to talk about hope than about expectation. That’s not to say I’m not going to do something about it, though – if I say that I hope to become a good teacher, that doesn’t mean that I don’t intend to work to make that happen. It does, however, admit that I might fail in that attempt. I hope that someone has bothered to read to this point, but I don’t necessarily expect it: it might be you were busy, or my writing was dull, or nobody bothered looking here this morning. To support that hope, I’ll try to write about something interesting, and will continue writing even when it isn’t very good, in the hope of getting better. So,  perhaps it’s not warranted to expect that a student can write an engaging essay: perhaps he doesn’t know what to say, or how to find something to say; perhaps he doesn’t have the words yet for what he’s trying to say, or can’t use English conventions, or is tired, or is distracted because the person asking him to write is only a representative of “the man,” who wants to make him a cog in some vast bureaucratic machine. But, then, perhaps he can – I hope that he can, and will support his efforts as far as I’m able.

Besides, hope is a virtue: expectation may not be a vice, but it leads too easily to ingratitude to be relied upon. If I expect something, what reason have I to be grateful if it should come to pass?

One of the great temptations of modern technology is to expect more from it than is warranted – if the internet is down, or the program doesn’t load in under a minute, or Google doesn’t bring up exactly the right page, or a video streams a little more slowly than it plays, or unlimited music cannot be downloaded for free – them immediately it’s (in the words of my students) “so cheap”, stupid, slow, crap, junk – and no though for how amazing it is (or should be!) that the program that’s still loading can instantly create picture effects that before this decade could only be achieved with paint and years of training; that the website that’s “so slow” belongs to a company in India, runs in ten languages, and changes according to twenty different preferences you have selected in the past, without even knowing you did so; that, even if it’s not legal to download every song ever written for free, there’s a lot of free streaming music out there, and millions more songs that can be purchased amazingly cheaply; that (if you’re a school), after all, you did not pay anything for any of this, or contribute any effort to creating, finding, or storing any of it, either.

In schooling as well, it’s easy to fall into the trap of ingratitude. Why should I expect such a large thing as the American school system be efficient? It’s rare indeed that any large organization is anything but top heavy and inefficient, and far more so for ones run by the national, state and local (with requirements imposed by all three) governments. Why should we expect that every child, regardless of background, will graduate knowing twelve years worth of information? It’s a thing nearly unheard of in human history, and has only been attempted here for a hundred years or so (in rural Alaska it’s been more like fifty). Why are we so surprised when it doesn’t work perfectly? Even in an idyl situation like Rousseau’s tutor with only one pupil, the boy might not learn things worth knowing, or how to use that knowledge for good – and places where young people go from teacher to teacher ever hour at the sound of a bell, outnumbering adults twenty to one, and learning fragmented subjects attached to arbitrary standards, is by no means idyl!

That’s not to say I’m not for improving things. There’s a lot wrong with schooling. There’s probably a lot wrong with the computers in my classroom. But whereas there’s evidence to suppose that computers will keep on getting faster and the programs better for the foreseeable future, there’s evidence in schooling to suppose that improvement isn’t going to happen without a great deal of pressure on everyone involved: schools, teachers, students, and parents, and that even then it’s not a straight correlation of effort to achievement, because of natural human limits of attention, intelligence, opportunity, and desire (I’m not talking about the evidence of educational studies, but of history and human nature). Opportunity alone is a necessary but not sufficient condition for education to occur.

I’m not arguing my case very strongly yet, because I’m not entirely convinced, and also I’m not sure that people mean it so thoroughly when they say to have high expectations, besides which, I’ve mixed several different cases: expectations for oneself, for other people, for society, for institutions, and even for God doing things as we would like Him to (“expect a miracle every day,” which my dad heard at a Bible study a while back, and churches where expecting to get what we want amounts to faith, and then means that God is sure to act as we would wish). They’re not the same, but they are connected, and I would rather have a coherent way to approach the subject than get slightly better results in the classroom. I can think of a number of instances in my own life where I would have done better to have not expected anything, but rather simply looked to see what would happen. That’s especially true of “life changing events,” that aren’t really, except for a very few people. A week long mission trip may be useful and necessary and even powerful as the very modest event that it is, but horribly disappointing if I take too seriously people who say it’s sure to be amazing and life changing. A Christian camp, for instance, can be a very good thing for what it is: a place where kids and teens come for one week, play, learn, pray, sing, and generally have a good time in an excited, loving environment. It’s also kind of awful as an example of “how we should be all the time,” an “amazing experience,” a “spiritual high,” or a number of other superlatives I’ve heard used. That’s not to say that a person might not have such an experience, but it’s hardly something to expect.  That’s something of a theme I’ve seen running through my life so far, at camps and churches and youth outings and events and schools, as a camper and counselor and teacher and helper and student. This event we’re at – it’s a good thing, as far as it goes. That just isn’t as far as it claims to go. A class, also, is good thing if one is trying to learn algebra or drawing techniques or the historical context of Shakespeare or some such modest thing. It’s a terrible place to learn how to be a good person, not only because of the artificiality of the thing, but also because that’s not something that can be taught in that sense. I wouldn’t expect to take a class on web design and come out with all new habits and interests – there’s no reason to expect anyone else to.

I wonder what it would be like to go for a time without expecting anything. What would happen? How might I see things differently? I’m not sure to what extent that might be possible, since expectations are usually determined unconsciously. Still, it would be interesting to see.

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