Stephen Louw

The four tendencies

Identifying your students' expectations

The end of the year is approaching, and with it the opportunity to start over and do things better in 2019. Have you thought about your new year's resolutions?

New Year's Resolutions 

The tradition of setting promises for yourself at the end of the year stretches back to the Babylonians in 2000 BC, who apparently made resolutions at the new year festival to attract favor from the gods. The art of currying favor from Marduk is dead, but otherwise the practice of setting up an expectation for what you want from yourself in the new year is alive and well all around the world: check out Google's resolution map from 2013 where people posted their new year's resolutions.

How do you feel about new year's resolutions? According to author Gretchen Rubin, your answer to this question is important. She suggests that there are four likely responses:

  1. I like new year's resolutions, I make them, and I keep them.
  2. I'll make a resolution if it's important, but why specifically on January 1st? If I want to do something, shouldn't I just go ahead and do it now?
  3. I don't make new year's resolutions. I've tried, and I just can't keep them.
  4. I'm not going to bind myself to some silly tradition.

The four tendencies 

These four responses (or something like them) exemplify what Gretchen calls the four tendencies. The four tendencies revolve around people's responses to expectations. 

As a teacher, this is particularly relevant because we constantly create expectations in our classrooms. We give our students tasks, homework, set classroom routines, impose rules. Classrooms are all about expectations. As part of the classroom management manifesto, our fundamental driving question is 'How do we get our students to do what we expect from them?'

Gretchen's book The Four tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles that reveal how to make your life better sets out to answer that very question (well, sort of: the website says it answers the question, “How can we get people (including ourselves) to do what we want?”). 

The book argues that there are two kinds of expectations: inner (that new year's resolution), and outer (finishing the homework). We are all constantly subject to a variety of inner and outer expectations. At school, our students impose inner expectations on themselves ('I want to be the best in the class'), while teachers, parents, the school, and perhaps peers are sources of outer expectations. 

Dealing with expectations

Gretchen's four tendencies explains how we respond to all these expectations:

  1. The upholder responds well to both inner and outer expectations. These are self-disciplined individuals who need little external guidance once they've established expectations for themselves. They meet deadlines, they are motivated by fulfillment, they like to know what the expectations are and if there aren't any, they make some.
  2. The questioner resists outer expectations unless they makes sense. Questioners question all expectations and need justification and information for there to be a change in behavior. They like sound reasons, and reject things that are arbitrary or unfair. Once an expectation has been vetted and 'approved', the questioner embraces it.
  3. The obliger responds very well to outer but poorly to inner expectations. They meet work deadlines, are reliable and accountable. They don't want to let others down, and are therefore good role models, but they don't find it easy to motivate themselves in the absence of pressure from others.
  4. The rebel rejects all expectation, both inner and outers. Rebels find being told what to do (even by themselves) annoying. A rebel does what they want, in their own way, when they are ready. These guys play by their own rules.

According to Gretchen's framework, students with these different tendencies are going to respond differently to our expectations of them. Obligers are going to do exactly what we ask them to. Questioners will want to know why. Upholders will already have done it before you ask. Rebels will do the opposite. Can you spot these responses in the students you teach?

The tendencies in your classroom

Predictably, it's common to predict that others will respond to expectations the way that we do. If you are a questioner, then it doesn't bother you when a student questions everything. An upholder, however, may find a questioner tiresome, irritating, or even threatening. It's useful, then, to find out your own tendency, and for this there is a great little quiz on Gretchen's website 

Once you've done so and know yourself better, you can learn more about the other three in Gretchen's videos or if you'd prefer, listen to Ben Pakulski's interview with her.

Gretchen's audience isn't teachers, this is a self-help book: but there are some really useful tips here for our classroom management. For example, you may already have guessed that working with rebels can be tough. They don't like instructions or authoritarian direction. 

What they need, instead of autocratic heavy-handedness, is to know the facts and the possible consequences, and then the time and space to make a decision for themselves. They also love challenge: tell them they can't do something, and they become single-minded in their pursuit to do it. 

If you are an upholder, you've probably already opened the quiz in a new tab. If you're a questioner, you are arguing against everything here to make sense of it. If you are a rebel, you'll ignore it all because nobody can tell you about your personality. 

Assumptive final comments aside, it might be useful for all of us to see if the four tendencies framework can help us understand our students a little better.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


Great read..
Personaly I am not one for "New years resolutions."
It weighs heavily on my heart and self hatred sets in without me even knowing wherr it comes from..
However, I do enjoy listening with sincerity to those who declare their promises fir the new year as they shout it to anyone in earshot.
Good luck to them.

By Jenny, South Africa (19th December 2018)

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