Expectations is a belief that shape our behavior. Understanding is a goal will take students further and demand more of them. Only then is our teaching focused on deep rather than surface learning.

Ritchhart’s focus for expectation is school will be about learning, rather than the mere completion of work and merely accumulating enough points to score a top grade.

Ritchhart makes two distinctions between two types of expectations: directives and beliefs. Directives are a top-down hierarchy where the aim is to clearly define what the person in charge desires with respect to another’s performance.  Nothing wrong with communicating behavioral standards or criteria for assignments to students. Effective teachers and leaders do this all the time and with consistency.

Beliefs operates on a deeper, more systemic, and more powerful level. The expectations are rooted in our beliefs about the nature of teaching, learning, thinking, schools, or the organization itself.

Five Beliefs of Expectation

Ritchhart lays a foundation for our expectations in learning groups by exploring five belief sets that act as action theories. They are:

Five Beliefs of Expectations
Five Beliefs of Expectations

Ritchhart explores how these specific expectations for students (as opposed to of students) are important to establish a culture of thinking. 

Ritchhart emphasizes that having clear expectations – the kind of expectational beliefs that guide our own and students’ actions – requires a conviction on our part.

Learning Vs. Work

The first expectation is to focus on learning versus the work. The main point is when teachers and students focus their attention on learning as the priority. Letting the work exist in the context and serve the learning, then work becomes a means to an end, not an end to itself.

What does this look like in practice? Ritchhart states teachers normally introduce a task or assignment by highlighting the learning that can potentially arise from it. Next, teachers sustain and support the learning through their interactions with groups and individuals. When the purpose of the task is on learning, teachers are also more likely to provide choice and options in completion of assignments if it is being achieved.

When teachers are focused on learning, they spend their time with students “listening for the learning: ‘Tell me what you have done for far.’ ‘What questions are surfacing for you?’ ‘What does that tell you?’ We see learning oriented classrooms where mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, grow, and rethink.

Learning Oriented classrooms, teachers often provide more descriptive feedback that informs learning.

Teaching for Understanding Vs. Knowledge

Teaching for understanding Versus Knowledge is the second expectation. It requires exploring a topic from many angles, building connections, challenging long-held assumptions, looking for applications, and producing what is for the learner a novel outcome.

Ritchhart uses metaphors for knowledge and understanding, and they are:

The metaphor for knowledge focuses on possession, storage, and retrieval. Knowledge is seen as something you have. This leads to a notion of knowledge as something one either has or doesn’t.

The metaphor for understanding focuses on action: applying, performing, adapting, and so on. Understanding is viewed as performance; it is something you do.

I thought Ritchhart metaphors sound profound. He emphasizes that knowledge, skills, and information play an important role in understanding, and are a necessary component of it.  Ritchhart explains further that knowledge is presented while teaching for understanding, with an expectation that the knowledge will be used, applied, discussed, analyzed, transformed, and so on. Ritchhart believes the pressure is applied when the teaching of knowledge becomes the primary goal, and it can impede students’ understanding.

There are four essential elements teachers need to attend to when teaching for understanding:

  1. Generative topics focusing on the curriculum around big ideas with understanding
  2. Understanding goals by identifying a small set of specific goals for understanding
  3. Performance of understanding by designing a sequence of ever more complex performance tasks that require students to use their skills and knowledge in novel contexts
  4. Ongoing feedback by providing a steady stream of ongoing feedback and assessment information that students can use to improve their performance.

Ritchhart suggests the key to developing understanding is through activities that allow for development and demonstration of understanding. To help you do it, you can ask yourself this question: What will I ask students to do with the skills and knowledge they are acquiring that will develop their understanding and push it forward?

Ritchhart explains understanding is built up of many small performances of ever-increasing complexity stitched together. By asking yourself, what will learners do with the information and knowledge? How will I ask them to process it – that is to interact, use, manipulate, or change it? You can design performance that builds understanding.

In working with teachers, Ritchhart has found the simple language of “surface” and “deep” thinking to be useful. He notes “Surface strategies focus on memory and knowledge gathering, whereas deep strategies are those that help students develop understanding.” (Ritchhart 2015 pg 52)

Encouraging Independence vs. Dependence

Encouraging Independence Versus Dependence is the third expectation that helps shape culture of thinking. Ritchhart points out some potential downsides to student dependence and they are: 

  • Deterioration of problem-solving strategies
  • A focus on extrinsic motivation
  • Diminished enjoyment of learning
  • Lack of resilience when faced with difficulties and challenges
  • Decreased creativity and motivation

Ritchhart cites Rose-Duckworth and Ramer (2008) definition of student-independence: “independent learners are internally motivated to be reflective, resourceful, and effective as they strive to accomplish worthwhile endeavors when working in isolation or with others-even when challenges arise, they persevere (pg. 2)” (Ritchhart 2015 pg. 55) Ritchhart points out additional benefits of independence as a goal and they are:

  • Resilience in the face of difficulty
  • Openness and willingness to accept challenges
  • Greater motivation, engagement, ownership, and “drive”
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Interdependence and independence
  • Development of a learning or mastery orientation in oneself
  • Enhanced self-esteem and sense of efficacy
  • Development of lifelong learners

Growth Mindset vs, Fixed Mindset

Developing a Growth VS. fixed mindset is the final belief set. This belief exerts a profound impact on the culture of a classroom, organization, or group. It concerns how individuals view intelligence, ability, and talent. Ritchhart points out Carol Dweck, a psychologist, refers to as one’s mindset and how that view shapes the way one approaches learning opportunities. Ritchhart points out Dweck’s focus is on ongoing growth and development through the situation, and a lack of feeling threatened, beaten down, or counted out by difficulties and challenges. This facilitative approach is different from people who are a fix mindset. People who are a fixed mindset gravitate toward situations that validate their perceptions of themselves and avoid those that will threaten it.

Ritchhart believes mindsets are powerful shapers of our experience, but people aren’t born with them. He notes people develop through one’s interactions with others, particularly in learning situations and in the feedback and input one receives in those situations. Ritchhart explains that our mindset develops through the subtle messages we encounter in the classrooms and from teachers, mentors, and parents.

Ritchhart gives examples of teachers and parents who deliver implicit messages to learners about the nature of abilities through praise and feedback. Comments like “You are so smart,” “You are a really good reader,” and “You are very talented,” define you and that these are inherent in who you are as a person. Comments that focus on a person’s efforts, something that is controllable, tend to aid in fostering a growth mindset: “You really worked hard at this, and it shows!” “That was really difficult, but you stuck to it and accomplished something.” “I am noticing that as you push yourself, your reading just keeps getting better and better.”

You Can Explore and Develop Expectations

Ritchhart emphasizes that taking the five beliefs together lays a foundation for teachers’ expectations in the classroom and forms the basis for action theories to guide instructions.

Ritchhart suggests possible actions teachers can take to better leverage and understand that particular cultural force:

  • Evaluate the five belief sets. Each belief set exists as a natural tension for educators, meaning that although we might intellectually embrace the more facilitative end of each continuum, we might sometimes find an individual expectation hard to implement. Where are the tensions in each belief set for you? What conditions give rise to that tension? How do you resolve or lessen those tensions?
  • Focus on the learning. Talk with your students about the distinction between work and learning. Tell them that because your goal is always to focus on the learning, they should let you know if they are not clear where the learning is in a given assignment. Make sure you introduce new assignments and tasks by highlighting their purpose and what you want students to learn. Pay attention to your own language and the use of the words “work” and “learning.”
  • Identify key understandings. Developing a true understanding of anything is a complex, ongoing endeavor. If you could pick only three things that you want your students to understand after their year with you, what would they be? Why are those three things worth understanding? What future learning does understanding these three things enable?
  • Analyzing understanding experiences. Identify one unit you teach that you feel does the best job of developing students’ understanding. Analyze that unit to pinpoint the elements that helped build students’ understanding. Look at that unit through the four elements of the Teaching and Understanding framework. Do those elements easily map onto your plans? How can you take “what works” from this unit and apply it to other units you teach?
  • Look for deep vs. surface learning in assignments. Working either on your own or with colleagues, collect all the assignments given to students over the course of a week. Look through the assignments to determine the level of processing each requires of students. It is likely that an assignment might require both surface and deep levels of processing, but try to determine where the greater emphasis is in the assignment.
  • Identify the most independent students in your class. What actions do they exhibit that made you identify them as independent? Divide a sheet of paper into three columns and make a list of these actions in the center column. In the left hand column, identify things that make it hard for other students to engage in these behaviors. What stands in the way? In the right hand column, identify things you do or could do that would provide opportunities for or facilitate the behaviors you identified in the center column.
  • Numerous resources exist for exposing students to the idea of a growth mindset. For example, see “Brain is like a Muscle” lesson plan (Ferlazzo, 2011). Typically such instruction focuses on how the brain literally grows as a result of learning. You might use a short article or video clip that describes this growth using Youtube. More elaborate teaching resources can be accessed at Carol Dweck’s own Brainology program https://www.mindsetworks.com

Check out Language Moves for the second part of 8 forces of culture.