If High Expectations Can Get the Blind to See, What Could They Do in Our Schools?

Arnie Boldt must know the value of high expectations.  Injured in an auger accident at the age of three, he lost his right leg.  This loss did not stop him from becoming one of the greatest athletes in Canada’s history, in a seemingly improbable event no less: high jump.  Over his career, he won seven gold medals and one silver in high jump, setting more records than this space has room for.

Invisibilia, NPR’s newest science-themed podcast, recently explored the remarkable case of Daniel Kish.  Kish, blind since the age of 13 months, trained himself to use the clicking of his mouth to echolocate objects in his environment.  Kish sometimes rides a bicycle to show the amazing capacity of his talent.  He has dedicated his life to teaching the blind to, as some might say, “see” through echolocation and lead lives with more possibilities.

These examples are remarkable outliers, of course, but they establish something of critical and generalized importance: our expectations shape our possibilities.  Expectations we place on ourselves and those placed on us by others.  When we convince people they cannot do something, it acts as a barrier to their achievement.  When we act as though great things are possible, they often are.

Nowhere is this more important than in schools, where our youngest members of society often decide what constellations of possibilities to explore.  Schools have a key role to play in fostering a mindset of possibility, not unlike the growth mindset for which Carol Dweck has argued persuasively.  It is in schools where young people decide to push themselves – or, too often, not.

High expectations are communicated in many ways.  Shopworn posters line many school hallways and libraries, exhorting students to reach their potential.  Good as far as they go, but likely more powerful are the underlying messages broadcast to young people in our language, in our actions, and in our subtle overtures.  A student who thinks a teacher does not care is likely to find reason to disengage, too.  But teachers can also act as Chief Encouragement Officers of their classrooms, raising possibilities for lifelong engagement.

The importance of expectation-raising is probably especially true for groups of students who graduate at lesser rates than average, enter university at lower rates, and find fewer doors open as adults.  Even if talent is distributed equally across all races, cultures, genders, and other categories, the experience of life shows some groups do better than others.  The difference in outcomes, both in school and in life, are surely sensitive to the kinds of expectations students have of the limits of their possibilities.

I don’t know Arnie Boldt, but as one of my professors used to say, I would love to meet the physical education teacher who first worked with him.  Even if the drive to jump came from Boldt himself, it would have taken an act of pure faith to foster his natural talent.

The lesson: if determination and grit and, yes, high expectations, can allow Boldt to high jump 2.08m (!) and Kish to echolocate his way to blind bicycling, what could be done with students in our schools?  And more troubling, what might not be done, what achievements and positive life outcomes might be missed, when we fail to set expectations beyond our students’ view of what is possible?

While more – much more – than high expectations are necessary to improve schooling outcomes, the most vulnerable groups of students in our schools desperately need adults to encourage the visualization of a future that right now seems improbable.  The capacity for human ingenuity cannot be known in advance; we shouldn’t behave as though it is.