February 11th, 2015

Our Ongoing Quest to Improve Student Learning: High Standards and Realistic Expectations


“Teaching is such a challenge! Just when one thinks improvements are happening, the goal post of perfection moves further away. A bit like getting better headlights on one’s car: now you can see as far as the next corner, but the final destination remains out of sight!” Thanks to Nigel Armstrong, whom I met during a professional development day at Niagara University, for this insight.

It touches on something that is often a barrier to instructional growth—trying to reach exceedingly high standards. No, it’s not a problem for all teachers. There are some among us who don’t set high instructional standards, but I’m pretty sure those aren’t teachers who read blogs devoted to the subjects covered in this one.

What’s an exceedingly high standard? Here are some examples: Wanting the instructional strategies we use to work with all kinds of content, in every course, and for all students. Anything less and we conclude that the strategy is inherently flawed, or some character defect prevents our successful implementation of it. Wanting every student to succeed and taking the failure of those who don’t personally. Believing that our already high student ratings should increase each semester—even a slight dip causes great concern.

It’s not so much the standards themselves that are the problem. They should be high. Teaching is important work—it matters. We need to do it well, and it’s good to want to improve. The problem is what we conclude about any failed attempts to reach our lofty standards. One negative student comment in a collection of 44 favorable ones launches a round of personal castigation that’s followed by consideration (sometimes implementation) of a large assortment of instructional alterations.

Our quest for strategies that better promote learning should be ongoing, but at the same time we need to recognize that a strategy can still be good even if it doesn’t garner the desired learning outcomes every time we use it. A strategy can be well implemented and still not be an effective learning experience for some students. And sometimes students sabotage strategies for reasons that have nothing to do with the teacher.

Besides making more of failure than we need to, we are often too comprehensive in our conclusions. A class session is not “good” or “bad” from the moment it starts until the period ends, nor is any teacher “good” all the time. Some of the time students are engaged and learning; other times they aren’t. Or maybe most of them are, but some of them aren’t. It’s always a matter of degree. Constructive thinking about teaching rests on tentative conclusions that are always in need of more evidence.

The solution is not to lower our standards, but to have more realistic expectations about meeting them. Nigel’s lovely quote points out why. Those exceptionally high standards, the ones right up there next to perfection, are forever beyond our grasp. But that doesn’t excuse us from exceptional effort. An important part of what makes us good teachers is that striving for perfection. We are right to care or at least be concerned about every student who fails. Did we play a role in that failure? What else could we have done to prevent it? Is it reasonable to expect us to do what might have prevented it? Accurate answers to those questions depends on clearly thinking about who’s responsible for what in the teaching and learning process.

This is self-examination not self-recrimination—even though sometimes we are at fault. We are, after all, human (if that’s in doubt, ask those at home). Sometimes fault can be attributed to others and sometimes it’s impossible to know where the blame belongs. But figuring out who or what’s to blame is where healthy self-examination begins. It then moves on to decisions about what, if anything, needs to change and it ends with affirmation. We deserve credit for setting high goals and doing our best to achieve them. When I wrote to thank Nigel for his insights, he responded with this affirmation. “As for the moving goal post, this is one of the best parts, knowing it is always possible to do better. And striving to do so!” Or, perhaps this: shoot for the stars, land on the moon, and be amazed at how far you’ve come.