This paper explores the ways in which teachers in the project deployed the notion of high expectations. Teacher expectations have been the focus of intense debate since Pygmalion in the Classroom was published in 1968. Pygmalion in the Classroom explored the effects of positively manipulating teacher expectations on learners' performance in achievement tests. Other sociological-based research from the 1970s onwards has focussed on teachers' discriminatory expectations and practices with regard to race, ethnicity and social class. In the recent Queensland Masters Report, A Shared Challenge (2009), commissioned by the state government in response to perceived low performance on NAPLAN, high expectations were proposed as a feature of effective teachers, effective schools and effective systems of schooling. It was not surprising, therefore, when the teachers who participated in this research project, elaborated on the importance of high expectations in their own approach to teaching. This paper explores the ways in which teachers at the two regional case study high schools employed a discourse of 'high expectations' within conversations about their practice. The effects of these discourses upon issues related to social justice and schooling are also considered.
Data collected by the project team included observations of teacher practices, student interviews and teacher interviews. There is evidence that students are responsive and appreciative of the positive expectations conveyed by teachers. There was also a suggestion that having too high, or unrealistic, expectations could have a negative effect on students' engagement in the learning process. Some teachers indicated that they offered a range of pathways for different students that enable them to "fit in somewhere." The key dilemma pivots on how these different pathways are chosen by, and assigned to, different students. There is a clear tension between setting appropriate expectations and challenging students to stretch for more difficult goals. Other tensions we explore involve expectations about learning versus behaviour, conventional classroom habits versus inquiry and problem-posing, between an individual focus and a focus on marginalised groups of students. Glib advice to have high expectations for all students does not capture the complex terrain of tensions that the teachers experienced and expressed in our study.