Reality Check: Greater Expectations

I’d caught the tail end of a conversation about math scores and a possible connection with the practice of moving students along in grade level regardless of whether they’ve mastered skills.

It’s possible that I misunderstood. I’m sure what I heard was out of context. But if that’s the practice, then I chose to be sad about it. Why?

I’m sad about the math—never to be learned—and the missed opportunity for students to experience the joy that comes with mastery. I’m also sad about the struggle, failure, and loss of confidence that follows when one is plunged into more advanced tasks when ill-equipped with the basics. And of course, there are the career opportunities, now blocked, for those students.

You may know someone like Lee, who could be age 7 or 17. Lee lost his/her mathematical way somewhere along the line. Lee’s been moved along, in step with classmates and now is just putting in time. Sometimes, Lee acts out from boredom and frustration.

According to Choice Theory, each of us has some level of a need for power. That need can be interpreted as esteem, and one way to satisfy it is through mastering something.

When we master something, especially something difficult, it feels pretty good, doesn’t it? We recognize that we’re capable, even if we’re the only one who knows it.

Dr. Glasser advocated competence as the standard for students to move along. When you demonstrate competence in your work, your reward is that you get to do more advanced work!

Everybody doesn’t master skills at the same rate. Realistically, it would be a surprise if we did.

There’s likely a positive intent behind moving students along. Perhaps the goal is to keep students of certain ages together, or to prevent a loss of self-esteem that could come with failure.

However, there is a patronizing message sent when low expectations are transmitted through the message of, “You can’t master this.”

What messages might Lee actually get from this experience? Not necessarily the intended messages. Instead, might the following thoughts cross Lee’s mind?

“I don’t have to try hard and do my best because they’ll take care of it.” “If I don’t get something the first time, I may as well give up.” “Nobody needs to know that I can’t do something; we’ll move along and pretend that nothing’s wrong.” “I must not be very smart.”

A second message is one about importance. That is, “When you don’t understand something, we’ll just skip over it.” Isn’t that the same as saying that the information doesn’t really matter?

When skills matter, we do expect mastery. When you are learning to swim, and drowning is the consequence of lack of skill, the instructor doesn’t move you along to more challenging activities before you are ready.

Learning to fly? You’d want your instructor to make sure you’ve mastered your lessons before you go solo. It’s not to your advantage to have your exam checked off as “pass” just because the instructor didn’t want to damage your self-esteem by giving you a failing mark.

How about brain surgery? Would you want your brain surgeon to be the one who was moved along without an acceptable demonstration of skill because the university wanted to be kind and not give a failing grade?

Why, then, would it be ok to have this happen with math? Is this being compassionate to Lee? Or is it setting Lee up to be unable to take charge of his/her life? Will this help Lee take part in a productive, creative, innovative society? Or be part of a group that’s always in poverty, not experiencing the joy of success, but resenting, thinking that others get the breaks?

I think that greater expectations help. What do you think?

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