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12.15.15Because you Can does not Mean you Must: Responses to my Interview w BBC Radio

BBC Radio 4’s series The Educators ran a long form interview today that I did recently with host Sarah Montague. Here are three thoughts in response:

1. I genuinely enjoyed the conversation. I don’t say that often about interviews but Sarah Montague and producer Joel Moors were unusually well prepared and knowledgeable.  My mom, a journalist, noted: “You did fine; she [Sarah] was outstanding.” One small thing I especially appreciated was Sarah’s first question about teaching specifically. It was about one of the subtlest but most important techniques for a teacher, Wait Time. It might not make for sexy journalism but it’s so important. Plus while to some people I am “known” for the behavioral techniques, only 2 of 12 chapters in my book, in fact, deal with behavior. The rest is about things like Wait Time. Pedagogy, like, and none of the behavioral stuff makes sense without that context—that’s why the behavior advice is at the end of the book! Anyway I was grateful that Sarah led with a question about Wait Time. I understand the behavioral stuff is important and controversial but I appreciate that she also put it towards the end.

2. Another thing I especially appreciated was the way the producer, Joel (I met him because he came to gather sound at my workshop; he watched the whole thing), layered in scenes from the classrooms of outstanding teachers I profile in my workshops. He used two in particular- a clip demonstrating Maggie Johnson’s use of Wait Time and a clip showing how Nicole Willey normalized positive benign touch in her classroom which then allowed her to use it as a positive and a corrective tool. I thought listeners might was to actually see those clips so here they are.


EA.WaitTime.GR8.Johnson.’Focus on why.’Clip2017 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.


BC.100%.GR3.Willey.’I can tell you were listening.’Clip2350 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

Finally the interview was wide-ranging and in listening I was struck by the possibility that listeners might think my advice on non-invasive corrections while you were teaching always involved touch. Actually that’s a bit of a special case for a student with his/her head down—the example I used in the interview. More often teachers correct with hand gestures and other nonverbal interventions while they are still teaching. Here’s a great video of Ashley Hinton doing just that.   Just try to count the number of times she redirects students while she keeps her engaging lesson going. (This is about 15 minutes of teaching condensed into a minute or two).

BC.100%.GR3.Hinton.’Montage.’Clip1961 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

3. On their morning news hour BBC 4 also offered a discussion of the segment by Tom Bennett, teacher, blogger and head of the UK government’s study group on classroom behavior, and Ruth Payne a linguistics professor from Leeds who has researched behavior in schools.

Ruth, arguing the anti- position, used a series of arguments that I commonly hear. Notably they involved the tendency of people to globalize. When you talk about building teachers’ skills in managing behavior they often extend the argument to its furthest logical extent. You describe how you could get kids to transition from one place to another quietly and all of a sudden you are advocating that kids should not be allowed to speak, have emotions, or disagree with their teachers in school. The assumption is that the adults will of course no longer care about and relate to the kids. Arguing for the importance of being able to get kids to do what you ask as a teacher is inherently also arguing for restrictive levels of order.

So when the program played a tape of a silent transition in from recess at a school in Birmingham, Ruth was away and running with the assumption that this mean silent repressed kids. So I’d like to remind folks of two things.

  • Because you can does not mean you must. Because teachers can establish order and get students to be silent or follow their directions when they ask, does not mean that they always do and does not imply one thinks they always must. Only a fool gets a hammer and thinks everything is a nail. Teachers, in my experience, are smart people who want to balance the need for order and the need for happiness and joy and relationship building. I mean, they teach because they care about kids. They find different answers to the question of what’s the right balance. The problem, generally, and particularly for teachers who teach in schools that are not filled with kids of privilege, is that establishing order when you want it with 30 skeptical and clever teenagers is very hard. Teachers cannot get listening or silence when they need it and this leads to the loss of learning opportunities not just for the distracting kids but for every kid. Plus, a classroom with an angry or feckless teacher struggling for order is rarely one where long standing relationships and trust thrive. It’s an adversarial place. Teachers know this and they feel the cost. Ironically, they can usually much more easily give kids true freedom and independence if they know they can reliably call them back in ten seconds if there’s a problem. So teachers need to know how to establish positive order. And then they get to decide when to be orderly. Building their capacity is different from arguing they must always use it. Building the capacity of teachers to bring order to the classroom when its warranted helps them spend their time doing productive things. Building warm relationships with students is one of those things.


  • Structure and Freedom have a complex relationship. Let’s also remember that a silent transition from recess is not a silent recess. It’s a way of making sure that whatever recess you have—loud or otherwise—is managed so it does not cause disruptions in or time taken away from the classroom. You have your fun and then there is a clear signal that says: “Now we are going inside to do something very important. Use your walk to get into a scholarly mind frame.” So, again, silent transition is just as likely to allow as restrict freedoms and fun at recess.  And it’s a lot easier to start with the expectation of silent transition and allow the exception—you may speak quietly on your way to class—than it is to try to enforce silence when you need it but haven’t made it an expectations. Anyway, as Tom wisely put it, there’s a case to be made for a wide variety of schools. If Ruth wants to send her kid to a school where there are no rules about how much noise you can make, when, fine. But people who enjoy the luxury of class and caste, who send their children to schools of privilege and who can augment their learning experiences at will, rarely understand why parents who have sent their children to dangerous or chronically disruptive schools are so happy with orderliness in school- and in fact why the kids themselves often relish it, as Tom, again, points out. When you’ve had school stolen from your child, or when you worry about her safety, or you dream about her becoming a doctor even though you are barely making ends meet, then you maybe place less of a value on everyone else’s unlimited freedom to say and do as they wish and maximize social interactions no matter how they affect the school’s ability to deliver on its mission.  You might place more of an emphasis on additional minutes in Science class with fewer disruptions.


So is it reasonable to have a school with silent transitions some or all of the time? Yes. Maybe not for all parents and sure I respect that—it’s a great argument for school choice—but it’s certainly a reasonable approach. And even if you don’t think you favor the idea, please differentiate a silent transition from a silent recess. I leave you with the words of a student at a school I once worked with. It was quite orderly. “At my old school we could do what we wanted but we never did anything. They couldn’t let us. Here, we’re expected to be orderly but we are always doing stuff. Basketball tournaments at lunch, field trips out of school and reading real books all the time… because we all know how to do those things the right way. Honestly, some times it’s hard. I see a friend and I want to talk to him right then and I can’t, but in the big picture, I’ll take the trade.”



4 Responses to “Because you Can does not Mean you Must: Responses to my Interview w BBC Radio”

  1. December 16, 2015 at 7:42 am

    Dear Mr Lemov

    I found the BBC Radio 4 Programme broadcast yesterday (‘The World’s Best Teachers’) captivating and inspiring. I teach, but not in a classroom — I tutor one to one from home.

    I used to be a university lecturer. We were never given any teacher training at all, which is why university lecturers are, on the whole, poor teachers.

    I have had a year in the classroom, in France, in a Lycée Technique in the Vosges. I was 21, on a year abroad during my undergraduate degree, and really not very sure what to do. The classroom had a toilet in the corner, and one day a kid got up and used it. I think I struggled to stop myself crying in front of the others. Later on, one of the kids put a bottle through the back window of my car. I left that job and went to Paris.

    As a university teacher, I didn’t have disruptive behaviour in the classroom until I was teaching in London. There the students were balancing travel, second jobs and study commitments, and were sullen, judgemental and unthinking. Or at least, that’s how I found them, after the wonderland of Oxford and Cambridge.

    I know now that I needed to up my game as a teacher, that I wasn’t going far enough, and that I had never HAD to think about how to engage people.

    My second insight into bringing distracted students back to the fold wasn’t in teaching at all, but in management consultancy. I was trained by an ex-actor in how to facilitate. I was taught that everyone in the room is looking for a leader, and that it’s not enough to be a passive facilitator, hoping everyone will make nice, even in a room of supposed adults. There will always be one participant trying to take over, bully others or bully you. You have to learn to address that person directly, for the sake of everyone else. You can park them and say you’ll take their point later — but you have to name what they are doing, to them, in front of everyone. You cannot let the elephant remain in the room. After years and years of perfecting what I thought was a non-directive approach which would just let things happen in a natural and organic way — successful in a space in which everyone wants to play by the rules — I at last understood that you can certainly establish such a space (a performance space), but you have to do so in an active way, and sometimes name the rules out loud in the middle of the game.

    My third insight has been in raising my own children. One of the tales on which Shakespeare bases ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is an old folk tale, in which a wild woman is ‘tamed’ by gradually learning that kindness and gentle words will win more than shouting. She defeats a goblin, by being so lovely to it that it explodes in its own frustration. Miss Honey, the improbably sweet teacher in Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’, is another version of this.

    I am more wild Katerina than sweet Miss Honey, but I understand, intellectually and emotionally, that kind words and gentleness win more than sharpness and shouting. It’s just that it’s VERY DIFFICULT to put into practice, perhaps especially with one’s own children, when every single moment is a form of boundary-testing.

    It is an inordinate challenge to remain silent under provocation, but it works.

    It is exceptionally tricky not to shout when your kids get up from the table for the fifth time in a meal, but a quiet reminder will get them sitting down without even thinking about it.

    It is deeply painful to be turned into a servant, and have no apparent authority, but a gentle touch and word will get those chores done. Here I was helped by ‘How to Talk so Kids will Listen and How to Listen when Kids Talk’ — wonderful book.

    My fourth insight comes from yoga and mindfulness. As a writer, I have to tame my wild brain every time I want to write. I have to establish rituals, and banish distractions. I have to create the rules of engagement with myself, I have to set myself goals and aim towards them. I have to let my imagination go, and rein it in. Learning to sit with my feelings, and just experience them, rather than fight with them, to breathe, to hold poses longer than is comfortable, and realise I can stretch a little further, all this has taught me that I can achieve a writing frame of mind without doing violence to myself, as I learnt to do as a child and student. I do not have to force, but I do have to be actively gentle.

    All these experiences have convinced me that your methods are the right ones, and it is wonderful to hear them articulated — how does one articulate the power of silence? — Thank you.

    • Doug Lemov
      December 20, 2015 at 2:56 pm

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful reply. I’m so happy the broadcast spoke to you.

  2. Christopher Brown
    December 24, 2015 at 11:52 pm


    I am one school term into my year-long PGCE primary teacher training in Bolton, England. I have just listened to both the episode of The Educators and to the brief discussion between Sarah, Tom and Ruth. As a student of the profession, I found both items genuinely interesting and thought-provoking, raising some questions about what kind of teacher I consider myself to be and how I see myself developing in future – particularly throughout the rest of this training year. The part of your blog post about freedom and structure is particularly interesting, and I would like to share an anecdote from my training.

    A few weeks ago, I completed my first classroom-based placement in a Year 2 class (ages 6-7). I underwent two formal lesson observations across the duration of this placement, and on the first occasion the tutor who observed me made note of how I tended to manage the class with my voice. She suggested that it might be more beneficial for me and for the children if I introduced some sort of visual signal to get their attention – particularly if using my voice would require me to shout above the level of noise the class were making. It took me a few seconds to register what she’d said, but it made perfect sense: not only that teachers must protect their voices and don’t always need to use them to get children’s attention, but that if children have pre-awareness of a particular technique that might ultimately impact on the amount of freedom they have, they are more likely to behave. Not only that, but if they have agreed with the teacher that this technique should be in use, then they have played an active role in the management of the classroom – it is not just a case of ‘teacher says, child does’, but rather a two-way transaction that promotes engagement from both teacher and learner.

    So, for this visual signal, I chose an hourglass with one minute’s worth of sand in it. With agreement from the class teacher, I used it in my next lesson the following day (unobserved), and explained to the children beforehand that whenever the level of noise in the class rose above what was acceptable, I would pick up and invert the hour glass to let the sand start to run out, only stopping it when every child was looking at me. For every whole minute’s worth of sand that ran out, the class would lose the same amount from their lunch time, or, if used in the afternoon, from their weekly ‘golden time’ play time last thing on Friday. This would force the class to ‘reset’, allowing to me remind them that while quiet discussion about their work was encouraged, inappropriate discussion or unacceptable levels of noise would impact on their learning as well as others’. I did this not to create a classroom of automatons, but to instill in them the notion of accountability: the quality of their behaviour is directly proportionate to the amount of time they are given to enjoy their lunch hour or play time.

    It took a few attempts, but children quickly began to limit the amount of noise they made whilst working independently. The noise in the lesson between morning break and lunch resulted in three minutes being deducted from that lunch hour – in the next lesson, only one minute was lost. The children made the correlation between their noise and free time, and whenever they saw me holding the sand timer aloft, the noisy ones would suddenly look up and hush, even nudging the quiet ones to stop what they were doing and pay attention. The end result was that the quality of work itself also increased, as they appeared more focused on the task and more engaged with my teaching.

    I have got two more placements to complete before the end of my training next summer, and I hope to repeat the experience relayed here in future. I understand, however, that techniques like this will have varied results in the different classes I will encounter, and will probably need to be adapted or perhaps changed completely in order to maintain my effectiveness as a teacher.

    Again, I write this not from the standpoint of a seasoned practitioner with many years of experience under his belt, but from a teaching ‘noob’ who has, on more than one occasion over the last few months, panicked in the middle of a class of rowdy youngsters and found himself hopelessly out of his depth. I write it to share an experience that, while not directly influenced by your work, perhaps shares elements of its’ philosophy. I am grateful to practitioners like you who provide me with a greater insight into what it means to be a teacher, and I look forward to finding out more about your work and using it to better my own practice.

    • Doug Lemov
      January 6, 2016 at 8:27 pm

      Thanks, Christopher, for your reflection. I wish you all success in the classroom. The profession is lucky to have you.

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