Managing My Expectations

Here is a challenge for you.  Try to count the number of times the people wearing white t-shirts pass the ball.  They are moving around a lot, so it’s challenging, but see how close you can get to counting the correct number of passes.

How did you do?  Were you surprised by the results?  If so, you were probably highly focused on counting.  The first time I saw this video, the meeting facilitator stopped it before revealing there was a gorilla in it.  I was distracted that day and couldn’t focus on the ball passes so I saw the gorilla, but sat in complete shock as the facilitator asked people about passes without first discussing the gorilla.  I noticed a few others with confused looks on their faces, then realized most people had not seen it.

The video wasn’t a hoax.  It turns out, our brains ignore the unexpected.  It’s called inattentional blindness or selective attention.  In an effort to efficiently process tremendous amounts of information and make decisions quickly, our brains rely on schema, stored knowledge that has been grouped and organized for understanding, to fill in blanks as we perceive information.  We filter out whatever we don’t expect based on our mind’s idea of the situation.  No one expects to see a gorilla walk through the circle, so when focused on counting, most do not see it.

Why is it important to know about inattentional blindness, especially as educators and parents?  We need to know so we can actively manage our expectations of children (abilities, worthiness, potential) and for children (belief in success and achievement).

The literature on motivation and school performance in younger school children suggests that expectations shape the learning experience very powerfully. For example, classic studies in the psychology literature have found that merely stating an expectation results in enhanced performance, that higher expectations result in higher performance, and that persons with high expectations perform at a higher level than those with low expectations, even though their measured abilities are equal.  ~ Schilling and Schilling

If a great deal of student performance is attributable to our expectations, we must be intentional in setting and stating those expectations as well as in our practices of supporting and assessing achievement.  It’s easier said than done.

  1. Our brains rely on our stored collection of experiences, knowledge, and understanding to set our expectations about what should or could be.  Schema: Balls. People. Movement.  
  2. Our expectations determine what we see or filter out.   I don’t expect to see a gorilla.  Ignore the gorilla.
  3. Our stated beliefs (high expectations for all) may not be in line with the schema the brain uses to determine expectations (high expectations for only some students).

Unfortunately, we all have unconscious ideas in our minds about what could or should be, based on experiences and messaging, that may seriously conflict with our stated beliefs (implicit bias).  For example, most parents would say that they believe their daughters are intelligent, capable beings with the same potential to achieve as boys.  However, parents are twice as likely to Google “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” and almost twice as likely to ask “Is my daughter overweight?” than “Is my son overweight?”.

The same is true of teachers.  Most teachers firmly believe they have high expectations for all students and that they do not vary how they assess or support students based on gender. However, a recent study shows students were given a math exam in which the girls outscored the boys when scored by teachers who did not know student gender, but when graded by teachers who were familiar with their names (and gender), the boys outscored the girls.

Neither of these examples speaks to the values or character of the people involved.  In fact, it’s important to know that nice, well-intentioned people have blindspots, too.  Awareness is the first step to managing our expectations.  I plan to begin by exploring the following questions:

  • What are the unconscious beliefs that inadvertently lower my expectations of and for certain students?
  • How are my behaviors and practices out of line with my beliefs and intentions?
  • What can I do to reshape and expand my schemas?


American Friends of Tel Aviv University. (2015, February 26). Teacher prejudices put girls off math, science, study suggests. ScienceDaily.

Banaji, M., & Greenwald, A. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York: Delacorte Press.

Carpenter, S. (2001, April). Sights Unseen.  Monitor on Psychology.

Miller, R. (2001). Greater Expectations to Improve Student Learning. Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schilling, Karen Maitland and Karl L. Schilling 1999. Increasing expectations for student effort. About Campus, 4:2.

Stephens-Davidowitz, S.(2014, January 18). Google, Tell me. Is My Son a Genius?  The New York Times.


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