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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.

What to Do 2.0

As with our other techniques, great teachers have mastered What to Do and applied it in a variety of ways. In this section, I’ll pay it forward by sharing some of the most effective applications by teachers over the past four years.

Consistent What to Do

Use the same direction in the same words over time to make it a habit (for example, always say “pencils in the tray” and perhaps, over time, “trays,” as opposed to “pencils in your trays,” “pencils in their homes,” “pencils down,” “put your pencils down,” and so on). Standardizing the language of your directions allows you to effectively and efficiently prompt students to complete specific tasks without the need for more description or explanation. This frees you up to focus on your lesson, and makes it easier for students to do what you’ve asked.

Adding a Gesture

Understanding and compliance increase if you add a nonverbal gesture, especially one that resembles what you want students to do (for example, folding your hands to signal that you want kids in “learner’s position”). Even if students do not comply the first time, make sure to deliver your nonverbal gestures with Emotional Constancy, keeping students focused on your directions rather than on your emotional response to noncompliance. It can help to deliver nonverbal gestures with a neutral facial expression or to add warmth with a smile.

What to Do with Checking for Understanding

One barrier to student compliance arises when adults give directions that aren’t as clear as they thought they were. To account for this, you can check that students understand your directions before releasing them to move forward autonomously. Ask students to tell you whether or not they understood your directions or, even better, ask students to show you they understand your directions by asking them to rehearse what you’ve asked them to do. You might say, “Point to where you’re going to put your binder. Good. Go.”

Simplified What to Do

If a student does not respond appropriately to your What to Do direction, simplify it, either by removing words, requesting an even more concrete action, or reducing the number of steps you’ve asked the student to follow-through on. For example, you say to a student, “Stand up at your desk and track the door,” and she doesn’t do it, so you say, “Stand up at your desk.” She still doesn’t do it, so you say, “Push your chair back. Good. Now stand up. Thank you.” Breaking directions down makes it easier to teach and reinforce your expectations for how students should complete a task.

What to Do Out Front

Giving a What to Do direction in advance of a cue to begin a routine behavior is a great way to build facility and autonomy in that routine. For example, saying, before the timer goes off, “When you hear the timer, please have pencils in your trays and be ready to review” gives a clear reminder of the expectation before the behavior is required. It allows students to execute on their own—they’re moving from following directions to remembering the expectation. This will help you install the routine going forward.

Assuming the Best

Whenever the root cause of a student’s noncompliance is unclear, assume the best by showing students that you believe they are making a good-faith effort and will comply once they understand what you’re asking them to do. For example, if I ask students to get into learner’s position and they do not, I might say, “Hmmm, I must not have been clear enough. When I said ‘learner’s position,’ I also meant ‘with voices off.’” This shows students that I am confident in my authority and believe that they can and will do what I’ve asked.