The Importance of the Impossible


For some, a new school year will start this month. If not, this message is just as important to you. I’ll address the importance of the “impossible” in your job, in students and in schools. This post is about impossibility, expectancy, student predictions, high goals and of course, the brain.

But first, I begin with a true story…

A few years ago, Diane and I hired a handyman to replace a cluster of smaller windows with a bigger window. We knew the bigger dining room window would help us enjoy the view more and we reconnected with a trusted guy (Martin) who had done work for us before. After he took out the old windows and prepped the area for the installation of the big new picture window, the main event was about to happen. Only one problem, though…the new window was going in on the second floor and it was too big to take through the house and up the stairs to the second floor. This meant the heavy 6’ x 6’ glass window had to be brought up on the outside.

Martin brought with him just one helper for the day. Outside, he and his helper are on ladders, which don’t quite reach the second floor. They’re trying to push up the 200+ pound piece of glass to fit it in the large cut-out framing slot in the second floor dining area. But they needed someone up on top to steady the rising window and guide it into place. So they yell out to me “Eric, can you lend a hand?” Before I knew what I was saying “Yes” to, I jumped in. Soon it became clear that this would not end well. The new picture window weighed well over 200 pounds… seriously!

So, picture this….I am on the second floor, reaching down through a hole in the wall to grab, pull up and steady this huge, heavy, monstrous piece of glass. As long as they were doing all the pushing it wasn’t bad at all. But they needed to constantly adjust their position and shuffle this weight on their shoulders, all while standing on ladders. The window is now held up to the equivalent of the level of the second floor and I now curl my fingers underneath it. They are still pushing up from the bottom.

I’m trying to support the window, with my hands curled underneath the bottom of it and the weight of the window is squeezing the life out of my hands. So, I say to them, “Hey can we rest this on something for a minute?” Martin calls up, “There’s no way we can stop now. We have to finish this.” I hang on for another moment while they try to adjust their position so they can push the window forward and into the cut out slot in the wall. By now the pain is excruciating. My fingers are almost frozen and lifeless with this ridiculous weight driving them downward. I am sure I’ll drop it, injuring or killing the two guys with glass flying everywhere. I plead again. “I’ve got to put this down; I can’t hold it any longer.” Seconds were ticking away and my grip felt very, very tentative. I was very, very scared.

But Martin looks right at me and shouts, “You HAVE TO hold on, we have NO choice at this point. You can do MUCH MORE than you think you can! Hang on to it!” Within another 30-40 seconds, the two guys somehow managed to push and wiggle the glass towards me and into the opening, securing it into the large cutout frame. The window was now supported and I pulled out my throbbing, nearly flattened fingers. He was right; I did do much more than I thought I could. If I had known what the task entailed from the start, I would never have started it – the risk was too high for safety of property and life. But one strong, last minute pep talk and I did what I thought was impossible. I supported a weight that I have never lifted in my life. I now know I can do more than I think I can.

And, you can too.

The Research

This story leads us to the research on expectancy. What I expected was failure. However, Martin refused to let me fail. He helped me change my mental picture of failing in my head. I may be a positive person, but I’m no contractor or weight lifter! I came through sore and hurt, but I learned a valuable lesson.

Here’s what happens in the brain. The brain creates and holds both pictures and sounds. Typically one or the other is more prevalent in one’s brain. This means that we either value the created “goal pictures” of likely futures OR the “voice tracks” which advise, criticize or gives pep talks. This is why teachers who understand these two events happening in the brain focus on altering student’s pictures (mental goals) or voices (self-talk). If the picture or voice is a rosy future, we move forward. If either predicts a negative outcome, we contract.

In the classroom, there are two sets of expectancies working simultaneously. One is what the student expects; the other is what the teacher expects. Both of these expectations have a huge effect on student achievement.

The original study on teacher expectations is now a classic. In fact the study became known as the Rosenthal effect, based on the author’s name. This study showed that expectations a teacher held about his/her students could even affect IQ. Several studies by this author have shown what teachers expect is significantly correlated with student achievement. When teachers were told that certain kids showed “high promise” to achieve, those students did much better than the kids who were not told of the so-called aptitude. Their IQ even went up over the course of a school year. When teachers expect more, they often get more.

Effect sizes are a standardized way of comparing the effects of an intervention from one study to another. Effect sizes below zero mean the effect was negative. Most effect sizes are between 0.10 and 0.40. Anything over 0.40 is considered moderate to strong. This background gives you the perspective on the following stats.

Teacher expectations of student success are a staggering 1.03 effect size. Expect more, and get more! Dr. Robert Coe’s research suggested a 1.03 effect on student learning from expectancy. This is huge! Yet, Professor John Hattie’s meta-research indicated that students’ prediction of their own grades and self-assessment is a whopping 1.44 effect size, ranking it in the “hall of fame” for influence.

Practical Applications

For years you have heard to “Have high expectations.” However, that mantra is weak and fails to challenge us. It’s become like the self-esteem movement where a kid was told they are awesome for just putting on a uniform. Their team got last place – and they all got trophies! Never matter that the kid struck out four times or missed all his/her basketball shots. We are always told to have high expectations. But high for whom? If you asked a kid who failed math last year for his goals, his high expectation for this year is just to pass the class! Stop asking kids for their goals; YOU SET sky high ones for them yourself!

To find out what kind of goals you should be setting, engage not just research. Yes, it’s compelling that high expectations are important contributors to student achievement. But there’s another source. I have enlisted the help of another source, the real world. The names below are real; these are some of the “rock stars” of teaching kids from poverty. They get high scores with kids from poverty and they do it year after year.

Read what their “goals” are:

Crystal Jones, 1st gr. teacher. “By the end of the year, all of my 1st graders will read, write, behave and do math like 3rd graders.”

Jamie Irish, 8th gr. math teacher in a high poverty school. “We will beat the academic scores of the neighboring affluent school.”

Katie Hill, 6-8th sp.ed. “All my students will grow at least 1.5 years, master 95% of raised academic goals and be ready to go mainstream.”

In my research on high performing teachers in high-poverty schools, the teachers that set not high, but really, really high goals were the most successful. Why? The really high, nearly IMPOSSIBLE goals convey to their kids that they can reach them. After all, they were set by an authority figure (the teacher). In fact, I call these (nearly) impossible expectations, “Gaudy Goals.”®

Most teachers don’t set “gaudy goals.” Why? The two most common reasons are: 1) they are afraid to fail and afraid to have their kids not reach the expectations, and 2) they lack the confidence and skills to pull off the success. Which one of those two do you fit into?

Stop worrying about failing. If you are not failing, you are setting your goals too low. Great teachers fail all the time. They fail because they believe in themselves and set high goals. They just fail at a higher level while achieving great things. In fact, James Cameron, the movie director of the two highest grossing films of all time (Titanic and Avator) said, “Set your goals ridiculously high and you will fail above everyone else’s success.”

Now, it’s time to make some connections. At your school, does your administrator set “gaudy goals” for the school or keep expectations low? In class, does every teacher set such low goals that he or she can look good by reaching them?

Teachers who understand this concept must focus on altering student’s pictures (mental goals) or voices (self-talk) about their future. If the picture or voice is a rosy future, your students get motivated and move forward. If not, the students may become negative and quit.

Change their mental picture! Ask them to draw a better outcome. Post up positive future pictures. Go to and ask how your school can “adopt” a college and post up high academic goals for your students. Teach students how to repeat positive self-talk. Tell them, “When you are struggling, tell yourself you can do it if you take just one small step at a time!” Give students many positive statements.

Listen, if you are not failing weekly in your work, your goals are too low. Why? Great goals will inspire. Set goals high enough so that WHEN you fail (and you will fail often), you will succeed HIGHER than others will reach when they succeed. Goals should inspire you. Goals should push you and bring out the best in you. You should be pumped up to set high goals.

Now, get some “leverage” to help you reach your goal. You need a “carrot and stick.” Go to the website (notice that it has two “ks” in the URL). This will help you set up higher stakes in your selected goals to help you reach them. Now, if you are afraid to set “gaudy goals” I have two solutions for you: 1) upgrade your skills, effort or attitude, or, find another position in your school or district that won’t affect kids as much. Every low expectation confirms to struggling kids that they are not capable of great things. If you don’t know how to help them become a star, retool or rethink your work.

Once you have given yourself AND you kids higher goals, do one more thing. SELL them on HOW it’s possible. This is called the “Reason to Believe.” Say to your students, “I believe in you. Even if you have struggled before, this year will be different. Why? I will work harder for you than anyone else and will do everything it takes for you to succeed. This year you will be an A or B student!”

Eric Jensen


Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, C.H., Dweck, C.S. (2007) ‘Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Intelligence across an Adolescent Transition: a Longitudinal Study and an Intervention’, Child Development 78(1), 246-263.

Coe, R. (2002). It’s the effect size, stupid: What effect size is and why it is important. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England.

Mangels, J.A., Butterfield, B., Lamb, J., Good, C., Dweck, C. S., (2006) ‘Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model’, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 1 (2): 75-86.

Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L., (1992) Pygmalion in the classroom. Expanded edition. New York: Irvington.

Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. (1996). Teachers’ expectancies: Determinants of pupils’ IQ gains. Psychological Reports, 19, 115-118.

Sharot T, Guitart-Masip M, Korn CW, Chowdhury R, Dolan RJ. (2012 How dopamine enhances an optimism bias in humans. Curr Biol. 22,1477-81.

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