Learning with Lemov: Taking Classroom Techniques into the Choral Rehearsal

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lemovbookI have recently been reading Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion, which I have been aware of for some years but only just got around to buying. It is a book aimed at classroom teachers, with the specific aim of helping them develop their skills in how they prepare and deliver classes. It is intensely focused on ‘concrete, specific, and actionable advice’, i.e. stuff you can do immediately and then get fluent at through practice.

I am sure I will be wanting to reflect on some of his techniques in individual posts, but before I launch into the detail, I felt the need to mull in a more general sense on, first, his basic approach, and second, how the circumstances of the rehearsal room inflect the application of his techniques.

Lemov’s basic premise is that, whilst educational philosophies provide guiding principles and school systems play a necessary coordinating role, neither of them drill down into the nitty-gritty of how to behave in a classroom so as to help your students learn deeply and efficiently. The difference between mediocrity and excellence lies in the execution. So, by analysing and documenting patterns of action taken by teachers who routinely produce excellent results, he aims to give others tools to become more effective.

As a reading experience I have been finding it a pleasant balance between smug, ‘Oh I do that already!’ moments and, ‘Ooh, good idea’ ones. I find his focus on efficiency very pleasing: how can you get people to travel to furthest distance in the shortest time? It is not simply that you get more done, but it shows a fundamental respect for the people you work with. And the distance travelled isn’t that kind of mono-dimensional tick-box world of getting children though tests (don’t get me started), but of deep, embedded learning that allows them to build and develop and become more effective in their endeavours.

For all his focus is not on educational philosophy, there shines through the pages a belief that children can learn, and that those children who come from the least privileged backgrounds have the greatest need for an education that will empower them. The ferocity of this commitment drives the detail of the techniques: if a student can’t do something, here’s what the teacher can do to change that.

So, I can see what the fuss is about. It’s good stuff, and I can’t imagine anyone reading it and not ending up a better teacher in some way or another, if only in having a greater strategic self-awareness about good stuff they were already doing.

Many if not most of Lemov’s techniques can transfer from the classroom to the rehearsal room in some way or another, but the dynamics are somewhat different - though only somewhat. The two main differences I have identified so far are, first, the relationship between individual and group, and, second, the nature of participation and its implications for monitoring.

In the classroom, the ultimate aim is for the development of individuals. The group dynamic matters because the norms for behaviour and interaction within the group can significantly help or hinder that aim. You want people to be cooperative, orderly, engaged and on task as that will let everyone get on with doing lots of learning. In the rehearsal room, the ultimate aim is for the development of the ensemble. How individuals are doing matters because as each singer increases their skills, the results achievable by the whole improve. You want the group to be cooperative, orderly, engaged and on task as that way you can make the best music together. So there is much in common between the two worlds, though where you look to see how well you are succeeding is different.

The biggest thing that leapt out at me here is how singling out individuals is absolutely central to Lemov’s methods. And that makes sense in the context of his goal of supporting individual achievement. But, as I wrote about some time back, this is something that is culturally more problematic in choirs, again probably due to the overall goal. But it can still have its place, and that’s an area I will be sifting through in more detail as I consider individual techniques.

One reason why singling-out is not so central to choral rehearsal is that choir has several advantages over a classroom for things like keeping people on task. Many of Lemov’s techniques are designed to keep all students engaged in the process and to allow the teacher to monitor carefully how they are getting on.

The choral director has much more immediate feedback mechanisms to hand. If everyone starts singing at the right place, that tells you they all know basically what is going on. If it sounds good, that tells you the singers are on top of the vocal and musical skills needed to perform the music. If it doesn’t sound so good, the nature of the problems tells you what the skill deficits are you have to deal with.

Having said that, every choral director has experienced some or all of their singers slipping into autopilot and swinging the choral lead, if you’ll pardon the rather extravagant mix of metaphors. It’s easy to keep people on task at a basic level, but that does not guarantee that they are also cognitively engaged. So that’s where I am going to enjoy taking some of Lemov’s techniques and adapting them to solve the same problems but in somewhat different contexts of activity.

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