Teacher expectations

I remember hearing, some years ago, a true story about a school in England at which the head of maths accidentally mixed up two class registers. Consequently, the teacher who had been assigned the top set ended up with a class full of the lowest ability students, and the teacher who had been assigned the bottom set ended up with a class full of the highest ability students. Although the head of maths realised his mistake in time and could easily have corrected it, he chose not to disclose the mistake to the two class teachers affected because he was intrigued to see what might happen.

At the end of the year both groups took the same test and something extraordinary happened. The top set, which (unbeknown to their teacher) contained the lowest ability students, significantly outperformed the bottom set, which was made up of the supposedly “highest ability” students. The head of maths questioned the top set teacher about her experiences with her class; he wanted to know how she had pulled off such a remarkable achievement. Her response was telling: “I really struggled with the class for the first few weeks. The students did not respond at all well to my usual teaching approaches. But I knew they were the brightest kids in their year group so it had to be something I was doing wrong! So I adopted a completely different teaching approach, one that was more suited to their learning style.”

I have never forgotten this story. It is a wonderful example of the power of teacher expectations to become self-fulfilling prophecies. This top set teacher believed she was working with a class of high performing maths students. Consequently, all her thoughts about this particular group of children reflected this belief. Rather than blame the children when her usual teaching practices failed to produce the desired results, she turned to herself and asked: “What can I do differently?”

This is where I am coming from with the eduspire philosophy. I have taken the above story a few steps further and posed the question: “What would happen if every child were treated as an angel?” I hold the belief – in fact, for me it is more of an inner knowing – that every child I work with is an angel in human form. Consequently, they reflect this back to me in their attitude and behaviour.

You can lead a horse to water…

The crux of the problem with the prevailing school education system is that it forces children to do something they would otherwise choose to do naturally — if given the freedom to: learn. Learning comes naturally to human beings. As Aristotle so famously observed, we are curious by nature. The seemingly widespread belief that a child given full responsibility for his own education will atrophy is a thoroughly depressing and wholly illogical view of the human spirit.

Consider the following questions:

Who taught you to walk?

Who taught you to talk?

Did you receive formal teaching or instruction in these ‘subjects’? Did you attend walking and talking classes led by walking and talking experts?

No, you taught yourself. Do you not think it remarkable that you managed to master the two most complex human learning processes all on your own — as a baby?! Is this not evidence enough of the innate desire of every human being to learn? Sure, your parents may have provided you with encouragement to walk and talk, but no formal teaching took place. Something within you compelled you to want to replicate their behaviour. Your parents were teachers in the sense that they were role models of these behaviours. But the motivation to walk and talk yourself came from within you. You had no need of artificial, extrinsic motivators; there was no “reward” for these endeavours, other than the internal satisfaction of having learned to do something that you previously could not.

What if education was redefined to allow each child to continue learning in an equally natural manner, throughout childhood and into adult life?

Is this such a ridiculous idea? Surely, no more ridiculous than confining a child to a room with children of the same age and same ability for up to fourteen years of his life, and forcing him to swallow a carefully prescribed curriculum of subjects determined by so-called ‘experts’.

“But they’ve got to be taught English and Maths, haven’t they?” This question, so often used to defend the status quo, is born from fear and represents a fundamental lack of faith in the human spirit. Just as a baby perceives the need to walk — in order to explore the physical world around him — so will the need to read, to write and to handle numbers surface within his conscious awareness when the time is right for him. The idea that there exists a certain time frame for acquisition and mastery of these life skills — a time frame to which every child must adhere if he is to be considered ‘normal’ — is utterly absurd. As Anastasia* so perfectly puts it…

“See the trees, grasses and flowers growing. How could one possibly draw up an advance schedule of the days and hours when they should be watered? You would not go watering flowers when they were being washed with water from heaven simply because  someone worked out a detailed schedule for watering them.”

There is no need to separate the learning of so-called “academic subjects”  from life. If a child is in a loving, trusting and supportive environment that affords him the freedom to explore himself and the world around him in his own way and at his own pace, acquisition of the “3 Rs” happens as a natural by-product of living, no matter what his interests happen to be.

Consider, for instance, a child given the freedom to follow her passion for cooking. Weighing and measuring ingredients. Reading recipe books. Researching food of different cultures. Planning a trip to the supermarket. Comparing prices and brands. Creating and recording new recipes. Planning the menu for a celebratory dinner with a group of friends. Organising and running a cake stall at the community fete. She will naturally pick up all manner of skills — not because she has been ‘told’ to, but because she either perceives the need to do so, or because the desire to do so is born out of her own curiosity.

As a private maths/confidence coach, I have occasionally made the mistake in the past of taking on students who do not themselves want additional support. In other words, the parents have cared more about their child’s improvement in maths than the child has himself. My interactions with such students have inevitably proven counter-productive and I have had to let them go before long. It is difficult to explain this to a concerned parent but I cannot help a child who does not want to be helped. In fact, I have realised that any attempt on my part to do so  is a fundamental breach of the child’s free will.

So what does a concerned parent do about a child who is “failing” at school? For a start, they can stop projecting their own fear on to the child. They can give their child space to make his own decisions and to make his own mistakes. They can wait for the child to come to them and request help. They can remind themselves that there is nothing that their child ‘should’ be doing or learning. And, if they really care about their child, they can remove him immediately from an oppressive school environment and either organise a home education programme, or find an alternative school that offers an environment in which their child is free to pursue his own interests and passions.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

The worst thing parents can do is to continue imposing their own agendas, for the only inevitable result of this is reinforcement of the wall of resentment between child and parent. It is best for the parent to stand back, to lovingly observe the child from a distance and, most importantly, to follow the child’s lead.

* From p.124 of The Space of Love, Book 3 in ‘The Ringing Cedars Series’ by Vladimir Megre

E. F. O’Neill of Prestolee

Edward (Teddy) F. O’Neill was the headmaster at Prestolee School, an elementary school near Farnworth, between Manchester and Bolton, in 1919. He was a wonderfully wise and inspirational educator and his words are just as relevant today as they were then.

Teddy believed in the following three principles:

1. Self-Activity

2. Originality

3. Initiative / Persistence


Teddy’s ‘Credo’

“I believe that education should deal in realities and not be artificial. It should be concerned with the day’s work of the Jack-of-all-trades, children and teachers, the response to actuality, genuine employment called for by the circumstances of their environment, inside school as well as outside.”

“I believe that the ability to find out and the desire to do so matter rather than any limited load of information a child can carry, remember and repeat.”

“I believe that the function of a lesson should be to provide opportunities for the exercise of the life force latent in every child and to facilitate such exercise in every possible way, and never to withold opportunities.”

“I believe that teachers should do things with children rather than for them.”

“I believe that children should be allowed to work together, to discuss their work one with another, and to learn by helping each other.”

“I do not want you to ask me what they know. Ask me: How are they growing? What kind of people are they becoming? Are they going to be able to fit in and be effective elsewhere?”

“The aim here is that, by being given abundant facilities to use their inborn powers of discovery and interpretation, these faculties will grow and grow through such healthy exercise. The knowledge will accumulate as a by-product of this activity, but initiative and resourcefulness will have greatly increased.”

“Of all the incentives, that known as ‘marks’ must be the wikidest, stupidist and cheapest.”

“Moreover, not having been brought up to be dependent on a teacher for guidance and instruction, their faith in themselves will not have become paralysed.”


Teddy’s proverb

The problem of education is the idiot teacher:

For whom no problem exists

Who expects children to do what he himself can’t — learn

Who can only do what he has done

Who only wants to teach his own subject

Whose qualification is that he has passed his exams

Who is repetitive and uncreative

Who has never really lived

Who has a bus to catch


Other quotes and proverbs from Teddy

“Let teachers be spacious”

“Educate for difference”

“The passing of exams is not education — ask him something he does not know and see if he can find out”

“Real poverty is lack of imagination”

“The best way to learn is to live”

“What do the children do when the teacher is out of the classroom?”

“Children are only little devils when they cannot find something legitimate to do”


Let teachers be human

They are not parrots — let them get off their perches


Simultaneous work means the suppression of individuality

Simultaneous work means the suppression of initiative


[All information in this post came from a book, “The Idiot Teacher”, by Gerald Holmes, London: Faber and Faber, 1952]