Saturday, February 1, 2014

Great - or not so great - Expectations

February 1st is a day of expectation in the State of Pennsylvania. It is the eve of Groundhog's Day, a day when the folks of Punxsutawny, PA, present the state's most well-nurtured groundhog for the annual prognostication of the length of winter. If he sees his shadow and runs back into his shelter, we are doomed to six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't, we will most likely have six more weeks of winter as well. It's an old folk tale that has become the center of an all-town celebration at a time when people in the cold Northeast need to celebrate.

Why do we even follow this tradition, with its unreliable outcome? Because we hope for Spring, and no year more than this year, when temperatures have hovered in the single digits and below. We look ahead to something better, brighter, and warmer. The simple act of expectation can be uplifting.

Scientists agree. When people heal from illnesses without receiving anything more than a sugar pill. the result is said to be due to the placebo effect. For years, medical professionals were likely to shrug off these results as "just" the placebo effect. Now they have the tools to explore what actually happens in the brain of patients who heal this way. What researchers found were measurable chemical and electrical responses in the brains of people who improve when treated with a placebo but think they are receiving drug treatment. According to Dr. Esther Rosenberg, author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University, "the cure can be as effective as when achieved through a drug." (p.198)

Why? Expectation. Dr. Rosenberg defines expectation as "imperceptible learning that comes from everyday experience." (p. 195) We may not realize it, but the process of going through our daily lives teaches us something about what we may or may not expect to happen. Frankly, I don't expect my husband to ever win the lottery because, so far, he hasn't. I do expect him to make a good joke when I really need to hear one because he so often does. It is this kind of happy expectation that triggers the reward system of my brain, causing positive chemicals like dopamine to increase and my annoyance at life's obstacles to decrease.

What does this have to do with pedagogy? As teachers, we are part of the everyday experience of our students. We see them weekly over a period of years, and we learn what matters to them and what doesn't. During a lesson we create an environment that influences outcomes, either positively or negatively.  Maybe we don't think about it that way, but we do. When we choose to establish a positive environment, we set up expectations for positive outcomes. The reverse is also true.

Of course, not all people access the placebo effect to the same degree, or even at all. This is because the placebo effect depends on more than expectation. It also depends on "conditioning, cultural factors, and social support." (p. 195) Sound familiar? These are the same factors that impact our students' success rates. We have little or no control over these elements. We connect with parents with suggestions and inquiries for advice, but what happens outside the lesson remains out of our hands.

Take the story of the famous Chinese pianist, Lang Lang, who at the age of nine was thrown out of the studio by his early teacher, nicknamed "Professor Angry".  Lang Lang's father was so distraught that he told his son to kill himself. Yes, kill himself. (see Here was a situation with a difficult teacher and an unreasonable father, neither of whom provided an environment for positive expectations.  Lang Lang said, " I didn't need that kind of push, because I knew what I wanted." He already had great expectations.

It is certainly easier to ride the waves of great expectations than to wade through a bog of murky goals. Teachers enjoy nothing more than the student who comes in, ready to learn, with appropriate expectations of success. We also play a part in the establishment of reasonable expectations for all students, especially those who are less likely to have support in other areas of their lives. We can celebrate where they are and where they are likely to be in a season or two, aware that maybe, just maybe, we can help trigger the brain response that encourages hope.