The power of expectations (South Korea) - 2

Please read part 1 before continuing...

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

So, what are some of the instances in which my parents and teachers set high expectations for me?

For starters, I wasn't praised by my parents for studying or doing well on a school test or exam; I was expected to study and do well.

Closer to home, my father taught me chess and carrom. He did not lower his level when we played and made it clear, through words of encouragement, that I would have to practice consistently if I wanted to beat him. I vividly remember the look of simultaneous shock and pleasure on his face when I defeated him at carrom for the first time! 😂

My high school geography teacher was a stickler for perfection. Her style of teaching and correcting papers made it evident that nothing besides a thorough and sincere approach to learning geography would cut it. She set the bar high and I recall pushing myself to meet it. The marks I earned on her papers carried more weight because I knew how stingy she was in awarding them! 😅

My mother expected my English essays to be of a high quality. One of my lasting memories was putting in a lot of work in writing an essay for the school magazine only to see her return it with comments and corrections galore! 😒 Extremely disheartening for an 11-year-old at first but an invaluable life experience... As you might have gathered from this, now I naturally go through many cycles of proofreading and edits before I publish a post. I definitely owe my attention to detail while writing to my mother's admirably high expectations of me from a young age! 😀

When I was around 13 years old, my tennis coach was someone I looked up too. He did not believe in mass coaching - I was accompanied by only 3 other children of my age as he put us through warm ups, drills, service practice, rallies and games for 2 hours straight under the early evening sun. He insisted that I sign up for state level tournaments and saw that I developed the right habits and behaviours that befitted a sportsman, both on and off the court. I learned a number of intangible lessons from him thanks to how demanding he was in pushing my mind and body to limits that I didn't even know existed. 🎾

Examples such as these deeply shaped how I approached college and my time as a teacher. This tendency to set high expectations, born at an early age, continues to influence my personal and professional interactions on a daily basis.

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

Similar to the examples outlined above, children in South Korea too 'encountered high expectations very early in their lives, and not just in school' (Ripley, 2013, p. 107). Korean parents had high expectations of their children and pushed them because they intrinsically valued school, academics and rigourGood performance was seen as a product of hard work and not innate talent. To put it simply, this conveyed a direct and clear message to the children - you have to try if you wish to succeed here. There are no shortcuts or substitutes to hard work.

Thus, South Korea's high PISA scores could be attributed more to the motivation of parents and children and less to the country's curriculum and schools. Quoting Ripley, 'competition had become an end unto itself, not the learning it was supposed to motivate... the system had become overly competitive, leading to an unhealthy preoccupation with test scores and a dependence on private tutoring academies' (Ripley, 2013, p. 60). Students seemed to be surviving and succeeding in this harsh system on the strength of their character and the high expectations that were set for them and not because the educational system itself was conducive to success.

In part 3 (hyperlinked), I describe the importance of expectations in the lives of the children who I have had the pleasure of teaching over the years...

~ o ~ x ~ o ~


Ripley, A. (2013). The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.


  1. I believe setting high expectations for children and eventually for oneself is important. But it's so important to be careful with what expectations are being set and constantly looking at the what we actually want from life.

    While there is no substitute for hard work, and while I believe that no hard work is truly wasted (it at the very least builds a physical and mental muscle memory that takes you far), I also believe that it is possible for many to work hard and trudge through gruelling systems that aren't necessarily where they should be putting their effort.

    There are many people in this world working hard as a response to a formula without considering what the results really are or without considering the changing nature of it's results.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      I definitely agree that expectations need to be thought through before being set. Entering children into a rat race in the name of success and living in fear of peer pressure and failure can hardly be fun for the child!

      In part 1, my point was about how holding children to high expectations, whether reasonable or not, has a profound effect - they are willing to accept and toil simply to meet those expectations that adults and systems have decided that they should meet. Even if it means that their lives are miserable or a living hell... :-(

      So, we, as adults/parents/teachers, should be acutely aware of the kinds of expectations that we set for children.

      Also, I was reminded of something that my school principal said during one of his annual day speeches. He said that we should strive to 'work smart' and not aimlessly 'work hard' - it is something that has stuck with me ever since...

      With reference to the last paragraph of your comment - I think this is true for all sections of society and people from all races, religions and economic backgrounds. Working in one way because it is the 'accepted' way of working is something that we all have done (or do) sometime or the other in our lives.

  2. Looking forward to your next article.

  3. Kartik Nagaraj Sunku11 May 2020 at 13:16

    This combo post was basically a bittersweet throwback! What I couldn't find on your post was what your take on this is. Do you think this is a bad thing or a good thing? My perspective is this approach by teachers/parents is far from holistic and can definitely be made more organic on terms of the learning experience. I feel like I missed out on a lot of practical experiences over theoretical rigor which was not necessary helpful later on in life.

    1. That was intentional in some sense as I wanted the focus to be on the effect of expecations on children dissociating my own views on the subject. I will flesh these out more in part 3. :-)

      My own view is that expectations should be realistic, rounded and ambitious. However, there is a very fine line between pushing too much to the point that children's lives become a living rat race of hell; after all, peer pressure and fear of failure is hardly a fun way to live!

      My point was about how holding children to high expectations, whether reasonable or not, has a profound effect - they are willing to accept and toil simply to meet those expectations that adults and systems have decided that they should meet. So, we, as adults/parents/teachers, should be acutely aware of the kinds of expectations that we set for children.

      Regarding your last sentence - I agree. Bookish knowledge and theory seem to be valued more than practical experiences nowadays. Think about how vocational schools and courses are looked down upon as places that one attends if they could not succeed in traditional degrees and classrooms? Or, for that matter, dignity of professions like carpenters, plumbers, electricians etc.? Maybe if, during school, these kinds of skills are also consciously imparted, it would serve everyone a lot better down the road...

    2. Kartik Nagaraj Sunku24 May 2020 at 23:26

      Definitely agreed, we need to be very aware of this having gone through this element of pressure and fear of failure ourselves. I feel like a lot of factors go into vocational courses and professions being looked down upon. But I do hope the excessive number of engineers without jobs to feed them could be the spark that other vocational courses/professions need.

  4. Shreyas - This is an insightful post.I agree that having high expectations causes kids to raise their level and work harder to achieve goals - I've faced this too.

    However, I think that parents/teachers should be careful and take into consideration the kid's interests and current abilities while setting expectations. At times unrealistic expectations could lead to loss of morale and discourage them. The same expectations might then turn into a burden.

    1. Hi Rajiv,

      Thanks for the comment. Your comment is similar to the one raised above (to which I have responded) and to the second comment on part 1 of the post (to which I have also responded).

      It just goes to show how powerful an influencer expectations can be, right? I mean, we basically operate on some kind of auto-pilot motor and do what is 'expected' of us simply because it is expected of us without stopping to use our own brains!

  5. I liked the text that was referred to, which gives a glimpse into an S Korean child's day. I feel that 'high expectations' can sometimes be entangled with 'unrealistic expectations', and the expectation is being set by an adult with his/her own biases and assumptions about the definition of excellence. This does not give room for children to explore their own interests or strengths, leading to the formation of a delta of normativity that ends in a sea of saturated college students.

    For example, I feel I would have performed better (and been a much happier teen) if I was allowed to pursue my interest in writing or literature in grade 11 and 12, instead of being asked to study science simply because I scored well in grade 10 and conformed to 'expectations' set by my school teachers and parents. I attribute to luck and circumstance the fact that I did end up studying subjects of interest in college, rather than any concerted planning at my end.

  6. Appreciate the insightful and honest comment, Dev :-)

    I think the line between 'high expectations' and 'unrealistic expectations' is a rather fine one (see Kartik's comment above and my response to it).

    What I'd like to respond to further here is this - "the expectation is being set by an adult with his/her own biases and assumptions about the definition of excellence" - because I think that these biases and assumptions are taken so much for granted that they are barely visible any longer! When adults/parents/teachers set these expectations of middle school and high school students, do they involve them sufficiently in the discussion? Or, do they still think of their teenagers as soft clay that can be moulded into shapes as per their (the adults') definitions of excellence?

    Let's think a little more about why you were asked to study science post 10th... here, I'd like to call your attention to Adnan's comment (and my response) on part 1 of the post. I believe that certain professions are disporportionately respected and pay more than other professions; consequently, certain colleges and streams are perceived as far more 'desirable'. So, your parents/teachers weren't actually asking you to study 'science'; rather, in my opinion, they were asking you to choose the path that would lead to a 'more successful career and life' and that, incidentally in India, is thought to be science.

    Furthermore, if the yardstick for success is to get into these professions and earn a certain amount of money, it is no wonder that a herd mentality emerges which ends up being, as you have said, a 'delta of normativity'.

  7. Learning to be a good human being and a positive contributor to society, I feel, needs good human relationships as well as good learning opportunities. Opinions?

    1. I wholeheartedly agree. That is why "education", in my view, is more than reading, writing and math and also why teachers and social interactions that one gets in a place like school are paramount to overall development. I think this is particularly relevant in these times of the coronavirus when children and having to stay at home and 'learn' online - only a certain kind of learning and gaining of knowledge can happen in such a scenario.

  8. As I said, this was easily my favourite series in your blog. And am glad it is getting the traction it is. :)

    I think even as students while we are taught hard facts, logical reasoning, (and even critical thinking nowadays) in terms of subjects... I find the same rigour lacking in understanding how students operate.

    I've often felt that while a parent/teacher might desire for their student to get better, but not communicating it or believing that the child is outside of their control, they are abdicating their responsibility of setting the bar high and reiterating it to their child. They want the world for their children but are not willing to put the effort in.

    The sad part is I don't think they realize the impact of this abdication as it is more of a 'soft' action with effects that are intangible and hard to measure. Not to mention there is no measurable reward (unlike grades) that can be seen or affirm that what you are doing is effective.

    1. Thanks, Joel - glad to know you're enjoying it and hope to write a few more over the coming months on similar topics. :-)

      This part of your comment - 'same rigour lacking in understanding how students operate' - made me think about a quote/saying that I have read in many places recently. It says: Children aren't empty vessels to be filled but lamps to be lit (or something to that effect). I think parents/teachers/adults all make assumptions about children and, often, it's not right or easy to find fault because their intentions are good. They want what they see as 'best' for the children who they care about. There's this push-pull between adult and child and a gradual releasing of responsibility as the child gets older which is, by nature, rocky and filled with gray areas. Perhaps, it's hard for adults to see their young children growing into adults!

      Referring to the point made in the last para of your comment, so much about expectations is intangible, subtle and communicated indirectly to the child. In the personal examples described in this post, the expectations were often not spelt out explicitly and I realised their existence based on the actions of my parents, teacher and tennis coach.

      Lastly, regarding abdication of responsibility - this will come up, in some sense, in the third post which I'm still writing. Stay tuned!

  9. After reading the post what I felt was that having an environment where we are not admired much (rather pushed to achieve more) by our loved ones and teachers for very small of what we have achieved from what we could've achieved makes us unsatisfied of our performance and we tend to build ourselves in such a way that we excel or achieve mastery.

    I think this is the key to success. I've experienced it with myself that I was a child who was good at studies and my parents and relatives had this a very bad habit ( from my point of view ) that they always praised me so much that I thought this is the best in me and I don't have to work more hard to become the best version of myself. But know it's not the end I've to keep evolving my intelligence my skills my personality and everything with me

    Well let me tell you about my experience. Once a teacher of mine ( Karthik bhaiya ) on a fine PTA meeting day, when I was so ecstatic regarding my mother was going to talk to all my teachers and hear all my praises 😅. On the mean time something got wrong I thought to myself, I heard my history teacher karthik bhaiya say, "It's good but not the best within myself." That was the time when I felt miserable because I was always praised and now he was saying it's not enough. That's when I came into reality. And I understood that we will not develop more if every thing is going on smooth. You can also relate this to biology, organisms only evolved when they felt that they were not fit for the upcoming environment.

    But know it's not the end I've to keep evolving my intelligence my skills my personality and everything with me. And so do everybody.

    In the post I loved the part where your father did not lower his level while playing with you carrom to bring out the best within you.
    Thank for letting us comment on this 😃

  10. I agree with your analysis, Shradha. Unless we are pushed (or we push ourselves) outside our comfort zone, we could stagnate and think that the job is done! Your comparison to biology and evolution is absolutely on point here - continuous growth and honing of one's skills is key and I am glad that Karthik told your parents that you can do better!


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