Expectations Define What We See

This is the second post in a five-part series on using observation data to improve our teaching.  Read the first post here: Four Verbs to Hone Your Observation Superpowers.

What Do You See as Students Engage?

Imagine you asked students to read and annotate, then discuss a text. As you listen and watch, what are you looking for? Which conversation data do you most want to help you see the impact of your teaching and scaffolds on student thinking? What will you watch for to help you identify what next instructional steps to take?

What you expect students to be able to do shapes what you watch for as students engage. If your goal is to keep kids on task, you notice if they are on or off task. Your learning intentions for the lesson shape what data you prioritize as important. If your intention is text evidence, you notice who is using text evidence. If your intention is that students will engage in extended conversations, you notice conversation dynamics, including ways students build up ideas together.

For observation data to matter, we need to be clear on our learning intentions. For it to matter for equity, we need to be aware of our biases and be intentional about disrupting low expectations for students from historically marginalized groups. Students rise or fall to the level of teachers’ expectations, and inequitable expectations for students of color and EL students lead to inequitable outcomes for kids (Gershenson, Hold & Papageorge, 2015; Peterson, Christine, Osborne & Sibley, 2016).

Historical context matters. I highly recommend Dr. Kendi’s powerful Stamped Since the Beginning for a deep dive into the history of racist ideas in America. While Dr. Kendi’s work is not specifically about education, it is foundational to understanding the roots of deficit thinking and the assimilationist culture we have inherited in this nation, both of which directly shape our biases in classrooms today.

How Do You Interpret the Data?

Implicit biases shape what we see and don’t see as students engage. Notice what you notice and value in student responses. What do you approve of and reinforce with your body language, wait time, and feedback? Is it quiet, heads-down working? Critical questioning? Deep collaboration in peer projects, or individual responses that are quick and accurate? Reflect on your lived experience. How did you act as a student? How did adults respond to you, and what impact did that have? How might your lived experiences shape what you see and don’t see as students engage?

Biases shape how we interpret data, often in very subtle ways. For example, in one first-grade classroom, a team of teachers and I observed a lesson we had co-planned. One Latinx boy was fidgeting a lot with his pencil during the lesson. Two of the observing teachers, both of whom were monolingual and white, noted this and concluded from their observation data that the student was not paying attention. I noticed that the same student, when he engaged in a peer conversation about the lesson topic, demonstrated full understanding.

Observation Inquiry Helps Teachers See Beyond a Single Lens

Using the Observation Inquiry protocol, we followed five steps to use the data to self-reflect and improve our approach. The first step of the protocol, describe without judgement, helped us intentionally slow the leap from observation to interpretation, and make it a collective process. Because we all noticed different things, we were able to bring the data we had each prioritized into shared focus before drawing conclusions together. The shared focus in this case helped two teachers see beyond the first data they gathered, and use the new data to self-reflect that what they interpreted as “not paying attention” was inaccurate. The data about fidgeting further helped the team question the value they had placed on stillness when designing the task and observing kids. They reflected how it disadvantaged those students who learn through action and movement, and the teachers made changes to future lessons so students could be more active.

That’s just one small example of how different teachers read the same moment of student action in different ways. Hearing the students’ voice was absolutely essential data to move beyond reading behavior as the full story. Collaborating as a team to help one another see beyond first impressions was important to bring critical awareness to what we were seeing and not seeing, and how we interpreted the data.

Our lived experiences, cultures, and identities in this work shape the lens through which we interpret student behavior and learning. Unpacking biases is part of the solution, and it is life-long work—but we can take immediate, practical action by clarifying expectations together.

Clarify Expectations Together

Take Action: Begin with intellectually rich, grade-level expectations, and collaborate with colleagues and students to clarify what success looks like. For example, use content and language standards to co-write student-friendly learning intentions. Identify strong exemplars of student work and use them to model what success looks like. Also, critically question those standards and exemplars.

  • Do the expectations define success within a narrow lens that unfairly advantages some students over others?
  • Are there multiple ways to demonstrate success that give students different entry points an opportunities to show voice, choice, and agency?
  • What shifts can you make in the expectations and exemplars to ensure success does not oppress but inspires an amplification of student voice, choice, and agency?

Increase the value of the observation data you gather about students’ interests, assets, and challenges by creating open-ended tasks that are intellectually rich and include multiple options for ways students can demonstrate success.

Stay tuned for the next post: Observation Begins with Active Engagement.

Related Readings and Resources

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.


  • Lisa Martinez

    January 8, 2020, 11:43 am

    You are such a talented and thought-provoking writer. ❤

    • Tonya Singer

      January 9, 2020, 8:37 am

      Thank you for reading and engaging!

  • Wascar De León

    November 3, 2020, 5:40 am

    Clarify expectations together, especially if we are teaching different levels. We need to make sure that the students move to the next levels with the skills that they need in order to succeed.

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