For the entirely of my career, I have focused on teachers, counselors and coaches that produce extraordinary results. 

In the movie “Stand and Deliver” we see the story of Jaime Escalante, a teacher in inner city Los Angeles that teaches Advanced Placement Calculus to students in a low-performing high school. 

In “Freedom Writers”, we meet Erin Gruwell. Erin was a middle class "preppy" woman who transformed a class of “remedial” students into a group of writers, thinkers and (eventually) college students. 

Uri Treisman is a mathematician who refused to believe that minority students cannot excel in college calculus. Over a 15 year period, his former students constituted nearly 15% of all black students with a PhD in mathematics in America. 

Joe Ehrmann’s high school football players consistently win championships while playing every boy that tries out, regardless of ability. 

In “How Children Succeed”, Paul Tough describes introduces us to Elizabeth Spiegel, who has made a public middle school in Brooklyn the greatest chess powerhouse in the nation. Last year, I.S. 318 won the National High School Championship – a particularly impressive accomplishment given that their oldest students are only 9th graders. 

What do these educators and others like them have in common? 

Earlier this month, I met with David Yeager, a researcher at the University of Texas who suggested a potential answer with some research to support his hypothesis. 

Dr. Yeager suggests that high expectations are the key to excellence. He is critical of the conventional wisdom regarding feedback: “give a compliment, give constructive feedback, give another compliment”. This “compliment sandwich” sounds like a kind way to deliver feedback, but research suggests that it is far less effective than honest information and high expectations. 

To prove this, he and his fellow researchers performed the following experiment:

  • They had groups of seventh grade students write an essay about “heroes”
  • A group of instructors critiqued the essays thoroughly
  • The students then received the feedback with one of two notes on the paper:
  • “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” This is the control group.
  • “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and know you can reach them.” This was called the “wise intervention” group.

They tracked both African American students and White students. 

In the control groups, White students were more likely to rewrite their essays than their African American counterparts. Similarly, the quality of the rewrites was higher for the White students. 

The results, however, changed substantially as a result of the “wise intervention”. All of these students in these groups performed better than the control group, doing more rewrites and generating better final drafts. In particular, the African American students receiving the “high expectation” feedback rewrote their papers as frequently as the White students. Further, their rewrites were now of comparable quality. 

This improvement was most pronounced for the African American students who were characterized as “low-trust” individuals, meaning that they had lost trust in the schools. 

It seems that simply providing evidence that an educator believes in a child’s capability meaningfully improves that child’s performance. 

In “How Children Succeed”, we see Elizabeth Spiegel recreating chess games with her students with stark honesty. Her feedback is not always kind. Note: she is quick to point out that her feedback can often be overly acerbic, and she continues to work on this aspect of her style. But the fact remains that she believes in them and refuses to all them to wallow below their capability. 

Conventional wisdom would say that her students would fade under her intense scrutiny. Yet they do not. Instead, they thrive. She sends a powerful message that is both overt and implied at all times – I know you can do this at a high level and I insist that you do so. 

I suspect that there is something else happening here as well. Not only does the instructor have high expectations, but he/she also cares about the student. In Elizabeth Spiegel’s case, she can seem brunt, if not brutal, but her students see her commitment to them. She gives them her passion and her time – truly precious commodities that few adults share. 

As we approach the children and teens in our lives, we should take a page from the great educators and expect great things from them. 

About the Author

Steve Baskin

Steve Baskin is the owner/director of Camp Champions and serves on the Executive Committee of the American Camp Association.

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