Setting High Expectations for Young Learners


During my time as a teacher, I have been involved in many a conversation about the need to set “high expectations” for students. However, in my opinion this concept is thrown around without much discussion about what “high expectations” actually entails. In particular, I think that there is a lot of confusion about what we should expect from our younger students.

In order to tackle the challenge of setting “high expectations” in early learning environments I think it is helpful to separate the way in which teachers commonly manage high expectations into two categories. Doing so highlights the need for teachers to set their expectations in regard to student comprehension as opposed to surface level appearances.

Early learning setting one – example of meeting high expectations in relation to surface level appearances:

  • A wall filled with identical craft bees (the class made these as they were learning about the letter ‘b’).
  • Students have made clowns (for the the letter ‘c’).
  • The clowns have been printed out on a worksheet and have been coloured in perfectly. No one has gone out of the lines, everyone’s coloured the clown’s nose in red and no white spaces have been left.
  • Students have cut and pasted their clowns together. The outline of the clown has been cut out right on the lines and the glue has been carefully applied to its different parts.

High expectations have been set in this classroom – students are learning to colour, cut and paste to the best of their ability. And the bees and clowns look fantastic.

Early learning setting two – example of meeting high expectations in relation to student comprehension:

  • A range of things are on the classroom wall, all starting with the letter ‘b’. It’s difficult to to tell exactly what some of the pictures and crafts are, however. It looks as though one student’s picture is of a ball, and another appears to be a builder.
  • Students have made a range of different things that start with the letter ‘c’. A boy has made a blue car because he owns a blue car and knows that ‘car’ starts with the letter ‘c’. A boy who speaks English as an additional language has made a cat because it is one of the few words he knows that starts with the letter ‘c’. A girl who enjoys experimenting with text has made a birthday card for her Dad and has written a message for him inside it.

High expectations have been set in this classroom – students are applying higher order thinking skills by making connections between their prior experiences and interests and the content of the lesson. In this classroom they are developing their thinking skills, being creative and also working on their fine motor ability. The lesson also allows for different levels of ability as the little girl making the card has the opportunity to not only engage with the ‘c’ concept, but also experiment with text. The end product that the students produce looks like it has been made by an early learner. The products may not be described by an adult as looking “fantastic” but each student is proud of what he/she has individually created.

When I look to set my “high expectations” I draw on the approach illustrated in the second learning environment example. My expectation is that students will think, create, make choices and express their individuality. I am not saying that the fine motor skills being learned in the first example are not important, however they are more ‘surface level’ skills. As I have suggested, these ‘surface level’ skills can be integrated into more complex activities that have multiple levels of learning outcomes (i.e. in relation to creativity and higher order thinking skills).

I think that educators should be wary of the tendency to assume that high quality in the presentation of work means students are excelling. As I have suggested, high expectations should also relate to the development of higher order thinking skills, creativity and the ability for students to direct their own learning.

Credit to Creative Clips for the graphic.