It's a common refrain in education that students rise to the level of expectations. Indeed, there is compelling research showing that when teachers hold lower or higher expectations for particular students, it profoundly affects those students' success in school.
Things get interesting when you dig further into this question. What are the right "high" expectations for a given age? How do we make them challenging but still developmentally appropriate?
Sitting in our Humanities Quest this morning, I saw a few puzzle pieces fall into place. The students are in a 7-week interdisciplinary "Quest" oriented around the guiding question, “Has America Dealt with Slavery?” Last week they went to the Oakland Museum for a powerful exhibit on the Black Panther movement, and today, in Socratic Seminar they discussed the exhibit as well as the symbols and history of the Black Power movement, relating it back to the long legacy of slavery.
Watching this seminar, thoughtfully led by my colleagues Stephen Lessard and Michael Fisher, I was aware that students were being spoken to with the tone, questions, and mindset that a teacher might apply to a high school or even college level discussion. What fascinated me was the response. Students responded with remarkably sophisticated, thoughtful answers. At one point they went into a conversation exploring the relationship between the black community and police officers - powerful stuff for a 6th grade group to examine!
I noticed as well that there were two developmental limitations at play. First was the students' experience set - at times you could tell that a lack of life experience limited their ability to understand, for example, the symbols being referenced by the Black Panthers. Second, they had less ability to regulate their attention than a high school or older group would have, and so needed more tools and support from the adult to return their focus to the conversation. At least, the focus of the class was fundamentally social, both in content and in the seminar teaching method - this made all the difference in fueling their engagement.
I walked away with the realization that when approached with some patience around their developmental growth areas - life experience and self-regulation in this case - we could nonetheless create a level of personal and intellectual engagement that was remarkable. I haven't seen many adult conversations work as thoughtfully through the history and symbols of the black power movement, and these students were there every step of the way. As their life experience grows and they strengthen their capacity for focus, watch out, world!