Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Expect Better

Like a lot of Asian guys, I'm into the Jeremy Lin story. As I'm watching Lin and the Knicks play I'm living and dying with every shot, steal, and defensive stand. I haven't acted this way since I was a 12-year old kid that didn't quite understand that world didn't end when my local team lost a game. While I’ve enjoyed almost every minute of the past week’s “Linsanity” (as it’s being called now) watching fans, announcers and players going gaga, almost unable to comprehend how this guy could dominate an NBA game, in some ways I find this whole thing upsetting. As blogger Timothy Dalrymple speculates the reaction to Lin looks like the result of the soft bigotry of low expectations which many Asians face particularly in sports.

All this Linsanity has hit home for me and got me thinking back to playing football on my high school freshmen team. Like Lin with the Knicks, I was riding the bench for much of the season until I got my chance when multiple players at my position got injured. In my first game as a starter I got an interception and a fumble recovery along with a few tackles, which caused my teammates and fans (parents) to go crazy, shouting my name seemingly in disbelief at what I was doing. Towards the end of the game with victory firmly in hand, the parents gave me a standing ovation as I came off the field during a timeout. That ovation was the highlight of my high school football playing days. The bad part was that it ended up being the highlight of high school football playing days. I did start our last two games playing reasonably well as we won both games and the league title despite starting 2-3 while losing three of our best players to injury. I still felt, however, that coaches and teammates didn’t really have faith in me including one lineman who kept going after me in practice in an effort to prove that I wasn't any good. My suspicions were realized when the following year I was still on the freshman team (Sophomores on the freshman team were allowed), but I wasn't really upset about it. I actually wanted to play with the freshmen, because I didn't think I was good enough to play JV at the time. I moved up to JV the following year before quitting my senior year, again because I thought I wasn't good enough for that level. Despite some success in the lower levels, I never did get to the point where I really believed in myself.

Now when I look back to that standing ovation from freshman year, I don’t think so fondly of it. What bothers me is that I didn’t really play all that great in that game. I got the fumble recovery at the line of scrimmage when I was supposed to be back in pass coverage. Plus it really doesn't take much skill to fall on a football. On the interception, the quarterback threw the ball straight into my chest. Of course, I was supposed to catch it, and because it was on 4th down, it didn't actually help the team.  I kind of feel now that I should have felt insulted by their enthusiastic praise when I accomplished such ordinary things.

Over the past several years I’ve watched highlights of some of those games where the team manager is allowed to play and the fans go nuts over every completed pass or made basket. When I watch theses games, the vibe just feels so similar to my freshman game. I could even see it in Jeremy Lin’s early NBA career when fans would seem to go crazy every time he hit a free throw, got a rebound or ran down the court without falling down. I’m not sure how he felt about that, but I know for myself I never wanted to be the team’s Rudy.

In the world of chemistry, I have rarely, if ever, had to deal with low expectations-at least for myself. Now I have students who go through these issues, and the stakes are obviously much more important for them than for some guy playing high school football. I’ll have to admit when I first saw one of my black students score at the top of the class I got real excited. I gave a little cheer. Then I slapped myself. While I am pleased to see minority students do well, I know I shouldn't get overly excited about it. I should expect these kinds of results. Numerous black and Hispanic students have excelled in my classes since then, and it still makes me happy, because I can imagine what they go through when people like me consciously or subconsciously expect them to achieve less.

A great deal of research has shown that low expectations teachers have toward students can become a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to lower performanceAs noted in the linked article, the lower achievement can result from good intentions such as teachers overpraising mediocre results from perceived weaker students. So as a teacher I know I need to examine my own prejudices and how I project my expectations to the students.

What makes Jeremy Lin inspirational to me is not his level of play or his defying stereotypes, but the confidence he displays when he drives aggressively down the lane against all-star caliber players and how he just acts like he belongs. While others may have overlooked and doubted his talent throughout his life for whatever reason, he still believed in himself. I hope that any of my students who may not have the look or the background of a prototypical scientist, can do the same.


  1. You raise a lot of good points about the problems that having low expectations can cause. I wonder if the "excessive" praise is always harmful, or whether it can sometimes be helpful as well. Interesting to think about...

  2. The article on teacher's expectations is interesting, especially that last part on grouping. I think for young kids, this is addressed by the Montessori method where each student goes at their own pace. There is no grouping. And in fact, these schools merge the various aged children together in different classrooms so that older and younger kids learn from each other.

  3. The excessive praise for mediocrity thing really hit home along with the low expectations leading to lowered results...
    the feel good praise made it devastating when "little Johnny" found out that he had reading problems and couldn't keep up with his peers...even though he had gotten all of the same stars and stickers and pizza certificates for the past two years....
    It really bothered "little Sammy" and his parents that he was put into a remedial reading group for English Language Learners, when both of his parents were US College Educated professionals...

    There are so many examples of this and the biggest problem is that what works well for one kid fails completely with another.

    Tell me that I CAN'T do something and I'LL move heaven and earth to do it. Tell that to my son, and he'll say, "OK, I'll just do something else then"...and not even try.

    Go figure.

  4. Old MD Girl: Certainly there should be some balance. The opposite approach to the excessive praise would be the Tiger Mom approach where it seems nothing is ever good enough. Those kids may achieve a lot in school, but you wonder if they're really better off.

    Anonymous: Montessori sounds great and would like to do it for my own kids. Just can't afford it.

    Christie: I agree that it certainly depends on the person. You hear pro athletes all the time talk about how the doubters fueled them since childhood. Just listen to Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame speech. I think for the majority of people, though, when hear enough that they can't do something, they begin to believe it.

  5. My parents said I only had to get a "C" average when I went off to college in 1982. I "achieved" a 2.196. Write to the med schools about that one, eh?

    I set the bar for me now at 4.0... let's just say, I'm not that far off :) My current biochem prof said that he wanted me to get a 95 in his class.

    "A 95? Really? Hm." I paused. "Why not a 100?"

    He just smiled and said, "You'll never change."

    I've never understood aiming for lower than perfect. It doesn't mean I don't accept, or am miserable with, less than 100, but why aim lower? Then the actual is likely lower too.

    Set the bar high for your students. Encourage them to get the better grades; see how far and high they can fly. They'll feel great and you will too (especially, cuz, you're Asian and all :P)

  6. I always tell the class "Your goal on this exam should 100%" which usually draws at least a little chuckle, but I'm dead serious. You're right. Why should you try for something less?

  7. So based on the comments above I'm going to relate a story from probably...2nd grade? We had a spelling test. I got a 90 something percent. I felt pretty smug (silly second grader that I was). What can you all do to improve your grade?, she asked us. Nothing, I thought to myself - I did awesome. If you didn't get 100%, then there's SOMETHING you could have done better, to earn a better grade. I had never thought of it that way - and I never forgotten those words. Doing well doesnt mean you couldn't have done better.

  8. It reminds me of one foreign student who would keep getting 99's and always ask about the one point he missed. He wasn't grade grubbing, just trying to figure out why he missed it.