Marginal Gains #5 pt1: High aspirations and expectant thinking

As I came back from London earlier this week, I reflected on the last remaining signs of the Olympics and Paralympics still in evidence around the city. I remembered the feelings I had experienced as the entire summer of sporting excitement had gained momentum starting with Wimbledon, The Tour De France, the Olympics, the Paralympics, The US Open and the Ryder Cup. I reflected on how the sense of hope that we shared grew into something new, as one outstanding sporting achievement after another hit the headlines. Hope morphed into expectancy. In particular, I started to wonder about the mindset of those performing.

How ‘hopeful’ was Dave Brailsford on the morning of the first leg of The Tour De France or on the morning of the first cycling competitions in London 2012? Did he hope that Bradley Wiggins would win or did he expect it? Did he hope that Team GB Cycling would reach their targets on the medal tables or did he expect it? More to the point, did he and his team communicate an expectation of success to the riders, or simply pat them on the back as they cruised to the start line and then say that they hoped they would win? This got me thinking about the relationship between thinking and speaking. The language in our heads and the language we use to communicate. There’s probably a heap of NLP stuff I should be reading up on about this, so I’ll add it to my list. For now, I’m just going to work this through here and see what you make of it. The question this raised for me was this:

How would our actions as educators change if we adopted a mindset and, therefore, a language of expectation rather than hope? And these musings led me to think about many conversations over the years with teachers during planning and reflective sessions…

Conversations in particular about how to incorporate and communicate high aspirations for learning in the design of lessons. Always, however, it has been incredibly difficult to unpick exactly what aspiration looks, sounds and feels like. Trying to actually establish an aspirational learning environment is dependent on knowing exactly what characterises it in the first place and then being able to design the environment according to those characteristics. We know that when we meet people who have high aspirations, we feel it, sense it and, therefore, we know it. They are inspirational and energising to be around. But replicating exactly what this ‘aspiration thing’ is so that we can both feel, communicate and teach for it through the learning we design is a massive challenge.

So here goes my attempt to give it a go. And as always, I begin with questions…

How do we establish a culture of aspirational learning through the language of learning that we think in and use?

What practical strategies do we need to implement in a culture of aspirational learning?

How can we deliberately develop learner aspirations through our teaching?

How do we know when it’s working?

Well, one thing I have been trying to do lately is be much more conscious about the language I think in. A tiny thing to try, hence it sits within our suite of potential marginal learning gains. I have had a go at removing the word hope from my language when I am thinking about and discussing learning intentions, objectives, success criteria and outcomes. Instead, I have tried to replace it with ‘expectation’. Admittedly, this feels a little uncomfortable. It puts you on the line and suggests a certainty in what you are intending to happen. But I wonder if it is a case of ‘fake it ’till you make it’? If we think in terms of high aspiration and use words that reflect an expectation that something will happen, then maybe that’s worth trying?

Whenever Year 10 and Year 12 students embarked on their courses, fresh new exercise books at the ready, I used to say to them that that they should get to a point during the course when they couldn’t wait for the exam itself to happen. I told them that they should feel excited and energised about it as opposed to dreading it and fearing what was about to happen. They always looked at me quizzically at this point (well, they did so most of the time, to be fair) but I would reassure them that if they knew and understood everything that we were about to cover and could articulate their thinking, ideas and arguments with confidence, then there would be nothing to fear when it came to the examination itself. In fact, they would see it as an opportunity to show off their immense knowledge, skill and understanding and hence be fidgeting with excitement at what they were about to encounter.

In thinking and talking in highly aspirational ways and trying really hard to avoid using the word ‘hope’ and with it, ‘might’ and ‘should’, I am in no ways advocating ‘hopeless‘ teaching or, indeed, a strict, no-compromise rigid and inflexible all-or-nothing succeed-or-fail approach to teaching and learning. Far from it, so please bear with me as I think this is where our marginal learning gains will come to the rescue…

Marginal learning gain: The language of expectation frames our thinking.

Often, when planning lessons together, teachers state that they hope that the students will get to the (x) task. When reflecting on lessons, teachers often say that they had hoped that the group would have achieved (x). But I wonder what might change if instead of hoping, we very deliberately thought about expecting the learning we intend/plan for to happen? What effect would that have on:

(a) How we plan and select learning activities

(b) How we deliver and structure learning

(c) How we communicate our expectations to learners

What if we thought in terms of expectation and then overtly communicated this through the language we use, as opposed to hope/ might/ could SO THAT we can create a ‘culture of expectation’ and foster a sense of agency for all our learners?

I’m still working on this, so I would really appreciate any feedback on this if you want to give it a go. There’s another post to follow, where I will share with you what happened when I noted how thinking in expectations directly informed the structuring of learning.

2 thoughts on “Marginal Gains #5 pt1: High aspirations and expectant thinking

  1. High expectation language, within a doable structure, that’s clear and relevant works for both staff and their learners, increases independence, confidence and peformance. Mr Brailsford rather than Mr Gove, please.

  2. Pingback: Marginal Gains from Cycling to Teaching | Good To Outstanding at TA

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