Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice. Excerpt: On Right is Right and its Challenges

Right is Right GlovesI’m creeping up on my deadline for TLAC 2.0 revisions and have asked my family and friends to avoid using the word ‘b*ok’ or, God forbid, ‘m*nuscript’ around me as they make me start to mutter and sweat uncontrollably. 

Anyway, this morning I finished my revisions of Right is Right and thought I’d share a bit that relates to one of my favorite criticisms of TLAC. People sometimes say, of the book and of this technique in particular, that it’s “obvious.”  First I would like to say that while people sometimes mean that in a dismissive sense, I am quite comfortable with it. If the techniques in the book are “obviously” the techniques that good teachers use to achieve results, I am perfectly happy to be the one to make them visible to others, even if it earns me fewer points for originality and creativity. 

Anyway, my discussion of Right is Right starts with a reflection that it’s our job to set a high standard for answers in our classrooms and that we should strive to only call ‘right’ or ‘correct’ that which is really and truly worth of those terms. That much, i noted, is obvious…

Maybe the word ‘obvious’ just went through your mind, but start watching classrooms around most schools with Right is Right in mind and you’ll be surprised by how difficult it can be.  It’s difficult enough, across teachers and settings, that its challenges must be endemic so it’s worth reflecting on why it is sometimes difficult for us as teachers to push our students to all the way right?

There are many factors. The first is time. There’s a time investment required in pushing students to find the rest of the answer rather than simply providing it yourself, and we’re always under pressure for time.  “Ok,” we think.  “I’ve got ten minutes left and I just might make it through everything I planned.” And then we get an answer that’s almost what we wanted. It’s easy to jump in with a quick fix.

Another reason we don’t hold out is that we want to be encouraging to our students.  Linda raises a careful hand.  She wants to answer. It is the first time you can recall ever seeing her raise her hand. Her answer is decent but you want to be positive, make her feel successful, encourage her to raise her hand again.  So you avoid any implication of ‘not good enough.’  The fact that we care about our students and their experience in school poses a challenge to our standards.  As I’ll discuss below, it’s a manageable challenge but a real one.

A final reason why we sometimes accept answers that are less than fully correct is perhaps the most endemic and personal factor of all and, thus, important to understand. We as teachers are not neutral observers of our own classrooms. At the end of the day, we evaluate ourselves as professionals based in large part upon how our lessons went, on much we think our students learned. So we have a vested interest in telling ourselves, “Yeah, they know that,” or “I know what she meant to say.” In a sense, if we give students credit for a correct answer, we give ourselves credit for a correct answer, and for a busy teacher with fifteen things on her mind this can be a powerful if subtle incentive, but in fact the very phrase, “I know what she was trying to say,” acknowledges the problem; the (implicit) second half of the sentence is, “but she didn’t actually say it.”  So a lifetime of teaching, a lifetime of caring about students and wanting to believe in them, wanting the best for them, puts us at risk of giving students credit for partial answers. This means that although holding out for right seems like a simple skill, it’s actually very challenging.  It works against many of our strongest impulses as educators.

Back Pocket Phrases To be effective, then, Right Is Right can take into account the challenges.  If you’re worried about sounding negative, and making every response a chastising, “No that’s still not good enough,” rest easy. You can still to tell students that they’re almost there: that you like what they’ve done so far and that they’re closing in on the right answer.  To do so I think it’s worthwhile to come up with a few back pocket phrases that are positive about effort but encourage more thinking.  Once you’ve come up with two or three simple back pocket phrases that carefully express the positives and the need for more in a student answer, practice them outside the classroom so they come out simply and naturally, almost before you realize it and then use them to simply and consistently enforce Right is Right in your classroom and make rigorous answers a habit for your students.



4 Responses to “2.0 Excerpt: On Right is Right and its Challenges”

  1. Keith Miller
    February 3, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    So what are some examples of “back pocket phrases” then?

    • Doug_Lemov
      February 3, 2014 at 4:37 pm

      Hope others will chime in but here are a few: “I like most of that.” “Good start. Now let’s see if we can make it college prep.” “Good thinking. Let’s see if we can make it even better.” “Good thinking. Let’s see if we can make it even better by….” [adding some evidence, removing unecessary ideas, being even more precise, etc]

      • Janice Smith
        February 6, 2014 at 5:03 pm

        Here’s a great example I just used with some teachers the other day where a student provides an answer, but one of the words in the answer wasn’t quite spot on with what he meant. How Mr. Terranova responds does a great job of validating the original student, while still pushing everyone to think about the importance of word choice in expressing your message.

        Another one I saw recently said simply “Your idea is good, but I think we can go a bit further. Who wants to build on that?”

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