Confirming or Challenging Children’s Expectations of Teaching?

In every setting and situation we have expectations about what is possible and what is not.

We expect a judge in a courtroom to be fair and impartial. We know that most clergy won’t tolerate people cursing in a church. We’re not surprised when a librarian asks us to be quiet in a library.

But sometimes we are surprised because our experience differs from what we expected.

A serious-looking London Bobby agrees to pose with us for a selfie. A flight attendant departs from the standard script for pointing out the safety features on a plane. A priest personalises and sings from the altar a song for a couple on their wedding day.

As children enter a new class, they have perceptions of their teacher and the teacher’s role in their learning. Their perceptions may be about teachers generally or they may be specific to the teacher they have this year.

Children might expect the teacher to be the sole person in the classroom who is knowledgeable about all curriculum subjects and who will portion out that knowledge to the children during the year.

Children may expect to learn little or nothing from their peers and to contribute little to their peers’ learning.

Children may expect their teacher to tell them immediately if their answers to written or spoken questions are correct or incorrect.

Children may also expect a teacher to form judgments about them according to their ability.

Teachers can confirm or confound such expectations.

The teacher doesn’t have to be the source of all wisdom in the class. The teacher may instead provide a context for what children will learn from the teacher and from other sources like peers, the environment, the internet or books. Or the teacher might provide a stimulus to spark the children’s interest in a topic. When children start learning about a topic, the teacher may help them to scrutinise their own ideas and their classmates’ ideas.

When children answer a question, the teacher might not tell children if it’s right or wrong. Instead the teacher may ask the children to try and justify or defend their answer. Some children may need to revise or modify their ideas following a discussion. Rather than depending on the teacher, the children can develop some autonomy in monitoring their learning.

Teachers can also avoid ranking children or labelling them with broad and simplistic terms like “good,” “average,” and “weak.” Most children have areas in which their achievement to date is good, average or weak but that doesn’t fully capture what they can or cannot do and nor does it mean they won’t do better or worse on another occasion.

To help children make a new start when they work in a new setting, I seek agreement on four principles or rules for how the children and I will work in class. They are:

1. You can learn a lot from your classmates
2. If you understand something, help others to understand it
3. Be willing to justify your answers and revise them if necessary
4. It’s good to ask questions or to say “I’m not sure” if you don’t understand

Having sought agreement on these principles, I work to apply them persistently and consistently during our time together.

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