A cat’s chance in hell

Some years ago, my journey to work used to take me past a new development of Lego-like ‘executive’ homes, for which the temporary yellow direction sign gave the name ‘Aspire’. I used to cringe every time I saw it – until I realised that the location had views of the local church which, yes, has a……

Across my consciousness, at some point during the last week, crept the phrase, “It is important that children from all backgrounds are taught aspirational values.” The context was the fixed mind-set of white, working-class boys.

This served as a reminder that there is almost no time in education when unqualified, sweeping statements of values are appropriate. At first sight this might appear an educationally reasonable, err, aspiration, but as always the devil is in the detail. While tackling low expectations is hardly contestable, it only becomes meaningful once one has also understood a realistic upper limit. Is it really important – even healthy – to be encouraging free-floating aspiration for all, irrespective of the likelihood of attaining such unrestrained dreams?

Perhaps it is too easy for a habitual sceptic like me to question the meaning of the words –  yet Freudian slips have a habit of revealing inner truths. While it is possible to aspire to all sorts of things, the word has in recent times come to mean mainly material aspiration, such as the rather mundane ability to afford a suburban ‘executive’ home. So one needs to be clear what it is that children should be encouraged to aspire to.

Moreover, the word increasingly has passive connotations: aspiring is about yearning for ownership, the purchase of something one cannot yet afford. This casts one in the role of consumer and assumes that aspiration is met by earning power; the expectation is on someone else to deliver a finished product. Maybe I’m stretching the point, but this is a concept that I feel has very little to do with real education and a great deal to do with how much of society now perceives it.

There is a difference between ‘aspiration’ and ‘expectation’, but one easily slips into the other. An aspiration may remain unfulfilled, whereas an expectation carries the opposite connotation. Again, this is not an unreasonable concept in itself – but again, one needs to define the parameters. There is no obligation on either aspirations or expectations to be reasonable, or even realistic. One is free to dream of whatever one wishes – but that is no guarantee that it is attainable.

How, amidst such complexity, is the teacher usefully to define high/low/realistic expectations for pupils, let alone enforce them? The locus of responsibility needs to be clear, and we should also remember that aspirations and expectations can be both contingent and contagious.

On the surface of it, one might find little to object to in one’s expectations of oneself, and realistically framed, these can serve as a helpful stimulus to progress. Nonetheless, we need to remember that self-delusion is all too easy, especially in a culture that encourages almost limitless expectations. But it is much more difficult to hold oneself to account than it is others.

I am certain I am not the only teacher who has encountered pupils (or perhaps more saliently, their parents) whose expectations were vastly out of proportion with all evidence of their ability. The teacher, at this point is faced with a difficult balance, between dashing ambition and tempering it with a dose of realism.  In this situation, internal expectations are easily externalised, in the hope of acquiring what one tacitly knows one cannot secure for oneself. But it also risks transferring to the teacher an unacceptable burden to deliver what may well be impossible, and certainly not fully within their gift. This is why it is essential that we consider the locus of responsibility when discussing expectations: what is it realistic to expect, and upon whom falls the task of achieving it?

The situation becomes even more complex with our direct expectations of others: there is no sense of self-accountability to temper our demands. It seems to me that in this respect, modern society is deeply dysfunctional: collective levels of expectation have been widely hyped, often beyond what is attainable; a focus on peak performance (particularly in sport) has distorted our understanding of the rarity of the phenomenon. By definition, there can be only one champion.

When free-floating aspiration is channelled into supposedly-justified expectation, all sorts of distortions can result. When we commodify pretty much anything, we risk over-simplifying the means by which it is attained, and indeed the nature of success. We also deny the inherent intangibility of qualities such as health or education, expecting that they ought to be deliverable just as easily as any consumer product. We tend to externalise failure to achieve them, as we might externalise a faulty product: blame falls on ‘poor service’ rather than accepting the true complexity of the situation, or our own responsibilities within it.

Thus can expectations be said to be contingent. But they are also contagious: one’s own are not simply the product of one’s own mind, but are influenced heavily by peer pressure and the wider social climate. Again, this phenomenon encourages them to be free-floating, decoupled from the necessary personal understandings that are required to remain proportionate.

Soundings of ‘pupil voice’ at my school repeatedly reveal one contradiction: both in my own lessons and those of numerous colleagues, pupils agree that they are learning much – but at the same time, the constant demand is for ‘more Fun’. Somewhere, these children have been led to expect that school needs, above all else, to be ‘fun’. I will leave aside a discussion of what that might actually mean – but I would suggest that this is not inherent in all children. I think I can say with confidence that at school age neither I nor my peers expected school to be, above all else, Fun.

This might not be particularly serious if it did not have implications for their subsequent responses. If one expects fun and is not getting it, this may stigmatise the teaching as deficient when it is anything but. This in turn affects pupil responses, for example by making less effort. Empowering pupil expectation assumes that children have a realistic understanding of the nature of learning and an honest acceptance of the balance of responsibilities for it – which many do not, and which wider messages may not be promoting.

Last summer, I stated my intention to revert shamelessly to a more traditional classroom approach, and this I have done; fortunately, the change of expectations from Ofsted has meant the pressure to produce ‘progressive’ lessons has diminished somewhat. Experience so far suggests that my classes of all abilities are generally able to cope with formal teaching, even when they superficially manifest an expectation for something else.

But I have nonetheless encountered a repeated demand for ‘more fun’, and expectations do condition responses. I have also found that where pupils encounter difficulty, their expectation seems not be that they first tackle it for themselves, but that the answer will simply be provided by me. After all, struggling is not always fun.

Likewise, I have found that some upper school students who are doing well in class are finding it difficult to score high marks in assessments because (at their own admission) they are doing little revision. Revision is hardly fun.

Then there is the case of a couple of generally-able sixth formers who are struggling to reach their full exam potential because they lack the ability to write at length, despite repeated advice that they need to read more. Reading subliminally develops one’s understanding and own style and depth of writing – but for some, reading is not fun.

In all cases, the general expectation is that the teacher will be able to rectify these issues – and I would not deny that it is the teacher’s job to try. But doing so need not mean taking more upon oneself; sometimes the best intervention is to make a student aware of what they need to do for them self. This can be a specific academic action – but at least as helpfully, it needs to involve communicating a suitable balance of expectation between the teacher and the pupil. And in this respect, the expectation that study always needs to be Fun may not be proving very helpful.

The more one thinks about this issue, the more complex it becomes. Balancing such considerations has probably fallen within the professional wisdom of teachers for generations, but that may be no defence against externally-inflating demands. I have not, for example, discussed the various effects of the expectations that schools communicate to their pupils through targets; too-high expectations can be just as damaging as too low. Neither have I considered the impact of schools’ unrealistic expectations of teachers.

It seems to me that the imbalance of expectations within the education system today may actually be hindering students’ success – and simultaneously damaging many teachers, both professionally and personally. While one would of course not wish to dash young people’s dreams, I am not certain that creating ones that they have not a cat’s chance in hell of attaining, is very helpful either. We need to temper aspiration with a wiser and more realistic appreciation of the nature of dreams – and a healthy dash of realism.




5 thoughts on “A cat’s chance in hell

  1. A really thought-provoking post. “Aspirational” has become ubiquitous in education. Essentially, I think it has become a pavlovian code word that means “Step 1: Make them wear blazers…Step 3: Get a high paying job” with Step 2 being somewhat unclear (remember the Underpants Gnomes from South Park?). This is an excellent take down of a vapid concept.

    • Thanks! Your identification of the missing step two says it all. Since writing this, it also occurred to me that there are implications for another important concept – Trust.

  2. I agree that you’ve nailed two or three things hugely pervasive here – and things which we rarely step back enough to see if we can counter them.

    I was reminded part way through that I had been pondering the other day a ‘mindsets’ post that I still might write. The binary of the ‘fixed’ vs ‘growth’ mentality needs to be joined I think by something more responsive to the actual specific reality that is faced by someone – perhaps an ‘adaptive’ mindset or something more cleverly named. In other words, one that sees the potential to grow, but recognises limits and can take a reasonably calculated ‘reality check’.

    I think ‘reality checks’ should be built into our new character curriculum…;)

    • Thanks. I think that for all the technical debate, some of the things we need to address in teaching are simpler matters of what it means to be human.

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