Kendall Hunt Religious Publishing Logo

Fewer Instructions, Higher Expectations

March 2, 2020

By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern

“How many pages do you want?”

“How long should our presentation be?”

“How many sources should we have?”

These questions may be common in your classroom, but it’s important to know that when your students ask them, it’s not always out of a desire to shirk extra work. Students aren’t necessarily asking to see how much they have to do, but merely to understand what’s expected of them so that they start off the project or paper on the right foot.

That’s no surprise. Humans like structure, and rubrics provide that. But those rubrics and laid-out expectations may be sabotaging students’ intrinsic motivation. When it comes to teacher expectations for students, sometimes less is more. Or perhaps, higher expectations but fewer instructions will lead to better results. Let me explain.

When teachers lay out instructions to the nth degree, students know what they’re learning, and it’s easier to evaluate their work. But it may also lead students to toe the line. They know what’s expected of them, and they fulfill those expectations admirably, but they don’t necessarily exceed them. Why?

For one, many students have been conditioned to think teachers don’t want them to. In a middle school math class, I was told that I “wasn’t supposed to know how to do that yet” when I cross-multiplied fractions. My experience isn’t unique, nor is it unique to math—how many of us can recall being told not to read ahead in class novels? When teachers make instructions explicit, it fosters the same kind of mind-set in the child: I’m not supposed to do more; they don’t want me to do more than what the paper says. And it doesn’t take many such thoughts for a student to bring that mind-set to every rubric.

But a more insidious problem with explicit instructions is that they can give students the idea that we don’t think they can do any more. The more mapped out it is, the less margin there is for error … but that might be leading students to think, even unconsciously, that we don’t believe they can avoid those errors, or solve those problems, on their own. If we make it too explicit, they sense that we don’t believe in them, and they shut down.

The answer is not to lower the expectations but to lessen the instructions. We should still expect them to reach the same high standards, but we need not give them rigid guidelines on how they’re “supposed to” reach them. If we don’t, but we still make it clear where they’re expected to go, they’ll realize that we believe in their ability to get there on their own.

Lizzie Moroney, a second-grade teacher at Wooranna Park Primary School in Australia, described how her school’s student-choice philosophy helps kids succeed in just this way. “They have an opportunity to be autonomous in their learning, and it changes their self-image,” she said. “They see themselves as capable, they see themselves as responsible, they see themselves as successful.”

Wooranna Park Primary is famous for its Enigma Mission projects, where students spend months or years researching a topic of their choice. The philosophy of “fewer instructions, higher expectations” is evident in that there is no set time limit for how long students work on the project. 

 “It can be six months, it can be two years,” said teacher Barbara Ward. “It really depends on the passion of the child.”

“It’s their journey,” said assistant principal Jennie Vine.

It’s a journey that hasn’t been prescriptively laid out for them by their teachers, and therefore, it’s a journey that they feel confident to direct on their own.

Students feel that implicit confidence from their teachers, and it allows them to zoom past the threshold of what they’re “supposed to” know. It helps them reach a higher standard of learning than a teacher would ever have dared lay out in an explicit rubric, a higher standard than they themselves would ever have dared hope to achieve.

“You’ll find they’re doing it with or without you, because it has that intrinsic motivation,” said Vine.

Of course, this is not to say that you should throw out all rubrics. Some students need to have things laid out more clearly, and some projects necessitate more explicit instructions than others.

However, the older students get, the less common detailed rubrics (not to mention page requirements) become. So, not only will we improve students’ images of their own abilities by lessening our instructions, but we’ll also prepare them for the self-directed learning that will be critical in their educational futures. Expectations are waiting … let’s lessen our instructions and watch our students exceed them!

Is there a project, assignment, or activity this week where you can ease up on the instructions and let your students take charge?