creative commons licensed ( BY-SA ) flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs

The other day while getting material for my Easter bonnet I bumped into an ex-student. I taught her six years ago. We chatted as she served me. She asked how my daughter was going and whether I was still at same school. She then told me that she had started university this year, studying science at one of Melbourne’s top establishments. She then said something that startled me, “who would have thought?” We kept on chatting, before she moved onto her next customer, but it was this comment that really stuck. Obviously, she didn’t think that I thought highly of her and that her success was almost in spite of her teachers. It made me consider two things: firstly, how much do we restrict students with our perceptions of them? While secondly, what growth and potential is within my own classes that is left unfulfilled?

In a recent post, Steve Wheeler touched upon the phenomena of labelling. That act of hardening our attitudes and feeling that we know students, subsequently predicting what they will do next. As he wonders:

How often do we label our students? He’s very bright, she’s brilliant…. he’s not such a hard worker, and that one over there is a real trouble maker…. Often we spend just a short amount of time with our students before we build an impression of their characters.

He discusses two self-fulfilling consequences of labelling:

  • The Pygmalian effect where students are ascribed with great expectations often perform better.
  • The Golem effect where students seen as lazy and time-wasters will under perform.

The most dangerous thing that we do though is handover from one teacher to another. This is often where such habits are fostered and perpetuated. Another situation where habits are fostered is when we teach students from one year to the next.

Even if the subject may change and the student grow with their learning, it is so easy to fall into the trap of preconceived ideas. I was recently faced this problem with my Robotics class. I had taught some students for three years, taking them for intervention amongst other things. As I have reflected elsewhere, I had decided to simply let students make. One of the biggest challenges with this was letting go. This was not only my sense of control and ownership of the classroom, but also my preconceived ideas about students in general.

These ideas were challenged early on when one student decided to start wondering around the room. Instead of automatically requesting that the student in question return to his seat, I stopped and watched. What happened next was amazing. He went from one group to the next checking out what people were doing. Talking with them, helping them out, while getting ideas off others. He finally returned back to his team re-enthused and attacked the problem of making a fast car. Six years ago when I started teaching Robotics, this would never have happened. I would have sprouted something about safe learning environment and students’ right to learn. Feeling that as duty. Yet, ironically, in letting the student in question walk around he learnt so much more. I don’t think that this would have worked six years ago because that was not the culture I created in the classroom. My next challenge is to help students celebrate such moments themselves. To recognise the untapped potential that they come to class with each and every day.

I am not going to say that I never box students. In my view we all have fixed moments now and then. However, when I do, I would like to think that there are always those around who are pulling me up on it. For at the end of the day, learning takes a village and working together we are always better.

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Who Would Have Thought? by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

2 thoughts on “Who Would Have Thought?

  1. Love these thoughts Aaron. I can identify with the anecdote about the student walking around chatting, gleaning new thoughts and seeking inspiration. Also the student who said ‘who would have thought’. Last year a former student came back to our school and hunted down all the teachers who were here when he attended to let us know he had been accepted into a medicine degree. This was so encouraging. In Primary School he had received support for ESL, reading recovery and was on the Macquarie Reading Program. He had been determined to succeed and applied himself to do as well as he did. Who would have thought?

    • Isn’t it amazing what people achieve when they are driven. This was something that came through in Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath ( One of the things that stood out the most was that being perceived as having a disability etc … can often help as it helps strengthen student resilience when trying to overcoming adversity and challenges. Not sure if that is the case every time, but certainly made me think differently about things.

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