What to Do from Teach Like a Champion 2.0 by Doug Lemov
Use specific, concrete, sequential, and observable directions to tell students what to do, as opposed to what not to do.
There are three potential causes of off-task behavior by students. The first is defiance. Students can be off task because they simply don’t want to do what you’ve asked and don’t care if you feel otherwise. The second is incompetence. I use that word in a nonjudgmental sense merely to refer to those times when students don’t yet have the skill to do a task reliably. Finally, there’s opportunism. Students see a gray area and lack of clarity about what’s supposed to be happening, so they take advantage of it to act on the most convenient or enjoyable interpretation of the situation.
What to Do is a profoundly simple technique, involving giving directions in a format that clearly describes what you want in concrete terms—as opposed to giving instructions in vague and confusing terms, or telling students what not to do. In schools, we may issue a lot of vague, inefficient, and unclear commands, even without realizing it: “Don’t get distracted.” “Stop that.” “That behavior was inappropriate.” They force students to guess at what you want them to do. This gray area leaves the door open to inaccurate interpretations, making it harder for students to do as you’ve asked, both now and in the future.
You need to be able to distinguish incompetence from defiance by making commands specific enough that they can’t be deliberately misinterpreted, and helpful enough that they explain away any gray areas. If I ask John to pay attention, sit up, or get on task, and he doesn’t, it’s crucial that I know whether he cannot or will not. If he cannot, the problem is incompetence. If he will not, the problem is defiance. How I respond depends entirely on what the root of the problem is.
If the issue is incompetence, I must teach John. If I punish him for not complying when he is unable to do so, the consequence will seem unjust and may erode my relationship with him. Consequences may appear random and disconnected from his actions. Learned helplessness—the process of giving up because you believe your own choices and actions are irrelevant—generally results from a perception that consequences are random. If the issue is defiance, my obligation is to provide a consequence. Unless I act clearly and decisively in the face of a challenge to my authority, John will establish a precedent of impunity. If I respond to defiance with teaching, I am just as bad off as I am if I respond to incompetence with punishment.
Confusing incompetence and defiance has damaging consequences, and this is why making the distinction reliably and consistently has such far-reaching ramifications for your classroom. By giving concrete, specific, observable, and sequential directions, you can make the distinction consistently and fairly—responding by teaching when you should teach and exerting your authority when you must.
What to Do not only can make a big difference in your students’ follow-through but also can improve your relationships with them. It socializes us as teachers to reflect on the quality of our directions before we proceed with other (and potentially more forceful) behavior management approaches.
Four Characteristics of What to Do
Differentiating consistently between defiance and incompetence will have a pervasive effect on your classroom culture, as well as on your relationships with students. What to Do directions should have the following four characteristics:
- Specific. Effective directions outline manageable and precise actions that students can take. For example, instead of advising a student to “pay attention,” I might advise him to put his pencil on his desk or keep his eyes on me. It is easy to remember, solution oriented, and hard to misunderstand.
- Concrete. Effective directions involve, when possible, clear, actionable tasks that students know how to execute. If I tell my student to put his feet under his desk rather than to “stop fooling around,” I have given a tangible direction that I am sure he knows how to follow. Concrete directions require no prior knowledge, and this eliminates the sort of gray area wherein a student might plausibly claim not to know how.
- Sequential. Effective directions should describe a sequence of concrete, specific actions. In the case of my student who needs help paying attention, I might advise him, “John, put your feet under your desk, put your pencil down, and put your eyes on me.” In some cases, I might add, “When I write it on the board, that means you write it in your notes.”
- Observable. It is hard for me to monitor a student’s degree of paying attention accurately. In contrast, it is easy for me to monitor whether his legs are under his desk. If I follow up a lack of follow-through with a consequence, my student might protest, “But I was paying attention.” It is much harder for him to say, “But my legs are under my desk” when they aren’t. I can clearly see whether they are, and he also knows perfectly well that I can see whether he has complied. All of this makes him more likely to follow through.