Major support for MindShift comes from
Landmark College
upper waypoint

How Clear Expectations Can Inhibit Genuine Thinking in Students

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again


Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand, from Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools by Ron Ritchhart. Copyright (c) 2015 by Ron Ritchhart. All rights reserved. This book is available at all booksellers.

By Ron Ritchhart

Sitting in the back of Karen White’s algebra classroom in suburban Colorado, I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable. When I had interviewed Karen the year before about the possibility of observing in her classroom, she shared with me how important thinking was to her in her teaching. She had been through several professional development seminars about promoting “habits of mind” and enthusiastically rattled off the lingo associated with that program as she talked about her goals for students. She stressed the importance of metacognition to learning and discussed how she integrated writing and problem solving in mathematics. On the basis of these conversations, I was excited to see how these elements would play out in her classroom. However, observing in her class that first morning, I had a hard time finding moments when students actually were engaged in any thinking. Karen was extremely well organized, greeting each student at the door and getting the class started quickly and efficiently. She was firm but pleasant to all students, and managed the classroom with the efficiency of a seasoned teacher. But for all this order and efficiency, there was something missing. Why didn’t this feel like a thoughtful place? Like a culture of thinking?

As I observed class period after class period that first day, Karen communicated very clear guidelines and standards to every set of students. Each homework question was worth a point if it was attempted. You could still get some points for homework even if it were late, so you should always do it. Scores were collected each day and point accumulations were publicly posted at the end of each week so that every student would know exactly where he or she stood in terms of a final grade. If you didn’t understand a concept, ask. Karen assured the class that she was “the best explainer in the West” and would be happy to supply a second or third explanation until a procedure was clear. In the end, doing the work and trying would guarantee that a student would pass the course—and not have to repeat it next year—even if one wasn’t any good at mathematics. Thinking was mentioned, but not in a way directly connected to the learning at hand. For instance, there were reflection journals to encourage “metacognition,” but these were used to record how students were feeling about their performance on tests and assignments rather than a careful analysis of their learning. There were “problems of the week” that students would do independently outside of class, but these problems were opportunities to gain more points rather than a well-integrated part of students’ learning.

CCoT_coverThroughout that first week of school and on into the school year, Karen was reliably consistent with her students. Still, the thinking remained largely elusive, and the culture seemed never to approach a true culture of thinking. Classes started promptly with a review of homework. New procedures were cheerfully explained, questions answered, and new practice sets given for homework. True to her word, scores were posted on the bulletin board beside the door each week, and students were informed at the beginning of class if any assignments were missing or late. At times it seemed like each student in the class had made an internal calculation regarding how much attention needed to be paid to complete the homework successfully or prepare for the looming test. Each student operated just slightly below this threshold and rarely stretched beyond it, creating an atmosphere of compliance and passivity.


“Order.” “Clarity.” “Predictability.” These were the words students and colleagues used to describe Karen’s classroom and teaching style. The other word that kept coming up was “expectations.” Karen had clear expectations of students. Students knew what to expect in her class. Indeed, these evaluations seemed to hold with my own observations. Karen did have very clear expectations, communicated effectively and upheld relentlessly in an admirable fashion. But somehow these expectations, the clearest manifestation of what Karen’s classroom was like, seemed to be standing in the way of creating a culture of thinking. How could that be? Why would having such clear expectations for students’ behavior and performance inhibit their development as thinkers?

To understand how this could happen and to understand better how expectations operate as a cultural force in learning groups, we have to make a distinction between two types of expectations: directives and beliefs. In schools and classrooms, we often talk of expectations in terms of the behavioral actions and performance outcomes adults want from students. Our expectations of students. Such standards, expressed to anyone in a subordinate position, have the nature of a strong request or even an order. Think about these as top-down directives whose aim is to clearly define what the person in charge desires with respect to another’s performance. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with communicating such behavioral standards or criteria for assignments to students or subordinates. Effective teachers and leaders do this all the time and with consistency, as did Karen.

Ron Ritchhart
Ron Ritchhart

The second kind of expectations operates on a deeper, more systemic, and ultimately more powerful level. These are the expectations that are rooted in our beliefs about the nature of things and how the world operates. In the context of a learning group, they are working theories about the nature of teaching, learning, thinking, schools, or the organization itself. Our expectations for students. These beliefs focus our attention, direct our action, and define our understanding of how things work. These beliefs form the basis for what my colleague David Perkins calls “action theories”—that is, theories about how our actions relate to obtaining desired results. Perkins (1999, p. 19) explains the utility of such theories: “We try to cope with the complexity and uncertainty of the mission of life through such action theories,” and explains that their power comes from their compactness, simplicity, and efficiency. They are the “rules of thumb” and the “internal compass” with which we operate. This second layer of expectations is a constant influence on the actions of a teacher or leader, providing the underpinning for the more explicit, surface-level directives he or she might express.

After decades of research into how to create a theoretical model that would explain teaching behavior, Alan Schoenfeld and his colleagues at the Teacher Model Group in Berkeley developed a goal-oriented decision-making model of teaching (Schoenfeld, 2010). In this model, knowledge of a teacher’s goals and beliefs provides the basis for understanding much, if not all, of a teacher’s behavior. Indeed, Schoenfeld claims that “if enough is known, in detail, about a person’s orientations, goals, and resources, that person’s actions can be explained at both macro and micro levels. That is, they can be explained not only in broad terms, but also on a moment-by-moment basis” (p. iv).

Schoenfeld’s model suggests that teachers do not so much work from a set of practices, either prescribed or ingrained, as they are guided profoundly and implicitly by their belief sets (what he calls“orientations”) about teaching, learning, and the meaning and purpose of school. The power of these expectational belief sets helps explain why changing teaching is much more than giving teachers a new set of practices to deploy. In fact, teachers may employ a new method of instruction, only to find that it falls flat and doesn’t achieve the kind of lift its proponents had promised. They then discount the method, ignoring completely how their expectational beliefs may have undermined the new instructional practices.

Back to Karen White’s classroom: Why were her directives inhibiting the creation of a culture of thinking? Why should her clarity regarding behavioral standards and outcomes impede her efforts to create a culture of thinking, given that thinking was something she expressly valued? It wasn’t that her directives were necessarily “bad” or “wrong”; it was that the action theories and beliefs that gave rise to them tended to be more inhibiting than facilitating of an agenda of thinking. Consequently, the deeper-level expectations, her action theories, on which she based her directives were not supportive of an agenda of thinking. Peeling back Karen’s surface directives to uncover the beliefs and action theories that lie beneath them, we can see why this is the case.

In Karen’s very clear standards for students about points, grades, and keeping score, one sees a belief that school is about work and that students must be coerced or bribed into learning through the use of grades. You may recall that this was a recurring theme emerging from many people’s stories of learning shared in chapter 1. In the way Karen planned and focused her classes, one sees the belief that learning algebra is primarily about acquiring knowledge of procedures rather than developing understanding, and that memorization and practice are the most effective tools for that job. This theory of action, “One learns through memorization and practice,” made it hard for Karen to bring out and facilitate students’ thinking. Instead, thinking existed as an add-on to the regular rhythm of the class, something she did as an “extra” to the regular work of the class. Through her strong focus on grades and passing the course, even if one is “no good at mathematics,” Karen sent the message that our abilities are largely fixed and that “getting by” was all that some could hope to accomplish. One might not understand algebra, but with effort one could at least pass the course. Finally, in her efforts to promote order and control, certainly worthwhile and important goals in any classroom, Karen tilted the balance toward students’ becoming passive learners who were dependent on her.

In this chapter, I’ll explore five belief sets that act as action theories and lay a foundation for our expectations in learning groups. They can either facilitate a culture of thinking, though they can never fully ensure it, or act as an inhibiting challenge to that development. The five belief sets are as follows:

• Focusing students on the learning vs. the work
• Teaching for understanding vs. knowledge
• Encouraging deep vs. surface learning strategies
• Promoting independence vs. dependence
• Developing a growth vs. a fixed mindset

By way of introducing these, we’ve taken a brief look at how each of these sets of beliefs played out in Karen White’s teaching. We’ll now explore them more fully to understand how these specific expectations for students (as opposed to of students), which operate as our guiding action theories, are important to establishing a culture of thinking. You’ll notice that I’ve framed each of these belief sets as a natural tension. I’ve done this because forming a powerful theory of action for oneself is not a simple matter of merely adopting a nice-sounding platitude some author spouts off. Rather, the creation of a real-world action theory demands that we acknowledge and try to reconcile for ourselves the pushes and pulls that exist in a given context. Only then can we know why we are coming down on one side or other. Furthermore, before any given belief is to fully exist as an action theory, we have to make the connection between actions and outcomes. Thus it is important to explore how a belief gives rise to a set of actions that then results in certain outcomes. Finally, we must recognize that there are other possible goals, beliefs, and expectations out there competing as possible action theories. Having clear expectations— that is, the kind of expectational beliefs that guide our own and students’ actions— requires a conviction on our part. We must first set and then calibrate our internal compass if we want it to act as a reliable guide.


Ron Ritchhart is the author of  Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. He is a senior associate at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is a former math teacher and co-author of Making Thinking Visible

lower waypoint
next waypoint