Topic 1: High expectations

Print Topic Head shot of young Aboriginal boy

The importance of high expectations for all students has been discussed in educational theory for some years. While much has been written about the importance of believing in high expectations, less has been written about what teachers need to do to enact high expectations in the classroom and the school community.

Therefore, it is vital that educators are given opportunities to examine their assumptions and deficit beliefs, and to entertain positive solutions that will provide real and meaningful change.

This topic will include:

  • examining unconscious beliefs and assumptions
  • understanding the impact of deficit thinking and explore ways to change these perceptions
  • gaining awareness that the expectations you convey in teaching will influence the achievement and lives of students.

Get StartedExplore the concepts, activities and assessment tasks below or use the Get Started button to work through the content in the suggested sequence.

Having high expectations

While the characteristics of quality teaching are universal, having high expectations is paramount to successful learning outcomes. If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are stereotyped as troublesome and unable to learn, this is doing them, and you as the teacher, a disservice.
Quality teaching modifies the curriculum to reflect reality, valuing past and present experiences and knowledges. It is important for you as a teacher to focus on the skills and knowledges the students possess, rather than those they have not yet attained. Schools require commitment from all staff to improve the quality of teaching and learning, to expect all students to learn successfully and to foster a school culture of high expectations for student attendance, engagement and outcomes.

Related content

[related_excerpt slug="module-2/topic-1/stronger-smarter/"]

Characteristics of effective teachers

One of Fanshawe’s approaches to teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is to be warm but demanding.
John Fanshawe is a proponent of Ryans (1960) and Kleinfeld (1972) and as early as 1976 argued that the personal characteristics of effective teachers of Aboriginal adolescents are likely to include:
  • being warm and supportive
  • making realistic demands of students (high expectations)
  • acting in a responsible, businesslike and systematic manner
  • being stimulating, imaginative and original
Fanshawe’s research focussed on the warmth and demandingness dimensions and is based on Kleinfeld’s (1972) Alaskan findings that effective teachers of Canadian Aboriginal students are characterised by personal warmth and active 'demandingness'.
By remaining an individual, with all an individual’s inherent traits, even if a particular lesson hasn’t gone that well, the teacher doesn’t project disappointment onto the students. Students need to see the teacher as an individual: someone who is grumpy sometimes, who can be strict, but also can be happy. Students demand a relationship. They don’t want a teacher to be a “buddy”, but someone who is warm and sharing of themselves. While teachers of today may have been used to teachers in a particular role, rather than a human being, it is more important to develop a relationship that engenders respect, remembering that as soon as you meet someone you have started a relationship.

Successful educational outcomes for Indigenous students

[caption id="attachment_5311" align="alignnone" width="1000"]Flow diagram of elements influencing positive self image for Aboriginal children/young adults Achieving successful educational outcomes for Indigenous students. Adapted from Fanshawe 1999.[/caption]


Fanshawe, J 1989, 'Personal characteristics of effective teachers of adolescent Aborigines', The Aboriginal Child at School, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 35–48. Purdie, N, Tripcony, P,  Boulton-Lewis, G,  Fanshawe, J &  Gunstone, A 2000, Positive Self–Identity for Indigenous Students and its Relationship to School Outcomes, Queensland University of Technology, viewed 29 August 2016,  <>. Kleinfeld, J 1972,  Effective Teachers of Indian and Eskimo High School Students, Institute of Social, Economic, and Government Research, Alaska University, Fairbanks. Ryans, D 1960, Characteristics of Teachers, American Council on Education,Washington, pp. 416.

Challenging 'deficit thinking'

Teachers must challenge ‘deficit  thinking’ and over-emphasis on gaps between the achievement levels of students.
When students’ academic outcomes are below expectations, teachers, or indeed the whole school, may view this as a problem characteristic within the child’s cultural background or within their family or community. In challenging this kind of deficit thinking, it is important to look at the classroom and school environment. Teachers can start with the curriculum:
  • is it relevant?
  • is it inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures?
  • can Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students see themselves reflected in their schooling?
Literature provides students with mirrors into their own lives and windows into the lives of others. As teachers, it is vital that we provide mirrors and windows for all students that respect and value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and peoples. We can provide windows for all students to gain perspectives into the lives of people who are similar to them and people who are different from them. We can provide mirrors for all children that are free from bias, stereotypes and racism. To provide such mirrors for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students requires us to assess our own knowledge, develop our skills and knowledge in recognising and assessing the suitability of materials and adopt both proactive and reflective practices in using literature in the classroom.

Being culturally competent

Educators who are culturally competent respect multiple cultural ways of knowing, seeing and living, celebrate the benefits of diversity and have an ability to understand and honour differences.
Being culturally competent builds on a teacher’s connections with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their families. When teachers know more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s ways of being, knowing and doing (and this includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers who are posted away from their language and cultural group), they create an environment in which all children can learn. Teachers can be active in all the ways that support a sense of belonging and a safe, comfortable atmosphere.
Being culturally competent helps you to be aware of your own background and about your relationships in the school community.
Knowing about our own cultural identity is the first step in becoming culturally competent - reflecting on your identity, beliefs and values will help you to understand how your identity might impact on others. Think about the community you are working in – the students, the families, the sport or other activities they are engaged in, the cultural and language backgrounds of your students and recognise the similarities.  Leading Aboriginal educator Jeannie Herbert (2002) believes that ‘Educators who have the professional capacity to recognise the diversity of their students, who respect the knowledge and beliefs each individual brings to the learning situation and who use such knowledge to develop a better understanding of how individual students learn most effectively, are those who will achieve success in teaching Indigenous students’ (Hooley 2009, p.69). Teachers impact on students in planned and structured ways; however, it is often the unplanned that has the most impact. Lessons are learned that are not always intended, such as the transmission of norms, values and opinions within the classroom and the wider school community. A look, a gesture, can be all that it takes for a child to learn the lesson that a teacher has high or low expectations of their ability.


Hooley, N 2009,  Narrative life: democratic curriculum and Indigenous learning, Springer, p. 69.
Image: Charles Sturt University Student Teacher (courtesy MATSITI project)


Suggested readings for Topic 1: High expectations
Bishop, R & Berryman, M 2006, Culture speaks: Cultural relationships and classroom learning, Huia Books, Wellington, New Zealand. Lindsey, R, Roberts, L & Campbell Jones, F 2005, 'The art and science of conversation', in The culturally proficient school, Corwin Press, California, Ch. 6. Also explore: Buckskin, P 2015, 'Engaging Indigenous students: the important relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their teachers', in K Price (ed) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education: an introduction for the teaching profession, 2nd edn, CUP, Melbourne, pp. 174–191. Rogers, J 2015, 'Education: heart business', in K Price (ed), Knowledge of life: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia, CUPMelbourne, pp. 166–181. Perso, T & Hayward, C 2015, Teaching Indigenous Students: Cultural awareness and classroom strategies for improving learning outcomes, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

Stronger and smarter students

Activity: Reflect upon what you expect from your students.

Professional Learning in High Expectations
Reflect on the expectations that you have of students.
  • Do you unconsciously lower your expectations when working with Indigenous students? Explore why this might occur.
  • How do the meta-strategies of the Stronger Smarter philosophy support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students?
Explore the Professional Learning Module (free registration required): Part 1 - Changing the tide of low expectation.

An Introduction to Stronger Smarter

Related content

[related_excerpt slug="module-2/topic-1/high-expectations/"]

Positive reinforcement

Activity: Consider the impact of praise and positive reinforcement on teaching and learning.
Carol Dweck and her colleagues have conducted research around the relationship between a student’s mindset and a student’s beliefs about themselves as a learner - what and how we praise, as educators, can encourage certain types of mindsets in our students.
  • What kinds of praise/reinforcement would you use with students who do well at a task?
  • What would you say and or do (actions)?

The Effect of Praise on Mindsets
Consider the following:
  • which self theory do you think most represents your own mindset?
  • does this challenge your notions of praise?
  • can you see a relationship between creating a growth mindset classroom and establishing high expectations for your students?
  • Dweck argues that when educators create ‘growth mindset classrooms’ that equality happens. Can you see any connections between equality, ‘growth mindset classrooms’ and high expectations?
  • does this challenge your notions of what students are capable of?
  • does this challenge your notions of what educators are capable of?
  • does this research have implications for how you teach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students? Explain your answer.

Identity and student success

Assessment objective

To demonstrate appropriate educational practice to value, support and embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students' identity within the classroom and the school community. You can choose how you demonstrate this understanding through either: Option A Developing a visual presentation (eg, PowerPoint slides) and conduct and participate in a 15 minute Group Discussion guided by this visual presentation. Option B Essay 2000 words. Discuss with your lecturer the option you will take.


Instructions for both options Consider this statement:

It is apparent that matters of identity are key factors in the success or failure of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

  1. Identify and discuss appropriate educational practice to value, support and embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ identity within the classroom and the school community.
  2. What are the significant challenges facing Indigenous students in your location today?
  3. Focusing on two or three of the challenges, what does research suggest is the most effective manner of addressing those challenges and improving educational outcomes for Indigenous learners?
You may also:
  • Consider the impact of an awareness of shared history on attitudes towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities.
  • Examine the importance of an understanding of key issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their families.
  • Draw upon and refer to policies in your state or territory in relation to Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander education.

Topic review

High expectations

This topic outlines the importance of having high expectations of our students as well as what teachers need to do to enact high expectations in the classroom and the school community. In order to achieve this the topic examines the importance of reflecting on our unconscious beliefs and assumptions to challenge deficit thinking. This topic also outlines the characteristics of effective teachers and strategies to support teachers in the classroom such as positive reinforcement and the importance of identity in success.

Questions for review:

  • What are the possible impacts of teachers having either low or high expectations of their students?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities of an individual teacher enacting high expectations across the whole school community as well as in his/her classroom?
  • Outline how a teacher’s practice could be reviewed against the characteristics of effective teachers.

Choose one Focus Area of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers where you could apply  the knowledge and skills you have gained from Topic 1, such as:

3.1 Profesional practiceEstablish challenging learning goals

Set learning goals that provide achievable challenges for students of varying abilities and characteristics. (Graduate level)

Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (Graduate teachers)

« Return to Topic 1: High expectations » Continue to Topic 2: Supportive classrooms