Learning with Lemov: No Opt Out

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One of the first techniques Doug Lemov introduces in his collection of classroom methods is the principle of No Opt Out - the notion that students don’t get to choose whether or not to participate, or indeed whether or not to succeed. It is interesting to consider, both because of the way it typifies his approach of finding practical ways to structure classroom interactions so as to embody a fundamental set of values, and therefore also as a case study for adaptation to the choral rehearsal. The specific form(s) of the interaction will change, but we can still find concrete, actionable steps to embody the principle.

So, the way this plays out in the classroom is as follows. The teacher asks a student a question. If they answer correctly, fine, carry on. If they struggle to answer, or try to slide out of trying to answer by saying ‘I don’t know’, the teacher finds a way to help them out of the impasse, but makes sure the interaction ends up with the student stating the right answer.

The means of help may be to offer a hint or a cue, or to ask if any other students can offer a hint or a cue. These work if the student is trying, but hasn’t got there yet. If the student isn’t even trying, the teacher might ask another student, and, on eliciting the right answer, turn back to the first student to ask the question again. When all they have to do is repeat the right answer, they usually do. The teacher has the option also to reinforce the answer by asking the whole class then to repeat it.

This is cleverer than it looks on the face of it. You might, on first sight, wonder what the educational value is of asking someone to repeat an answer someone else has provided. To be sure it is less valuable than if they had worked it out for themselves, but it does actually guarantee that they engage with the content - the correct answer to the question has actually passed through their lips.

More importantly, the technique establishes the principle that nobody gets to opt out of participating. If you struggle, you get help; if you can’t find the answer, you get given the answer, but you can’t escape the attention of your teacher and your peers by adopting a position of ignorance or indifference.

At the same time, it isn’t punitive: the goal is to get to the right answer, not to give anyone a hard time about it. There is no berating for lack of effort, just a focused persistence in making sure that when someone is asked a question, the interaction ends up with them being right. It is, at heart, unremittingly positive and respectful; it evinces belief that knowledge is available to all, and that everyone deserves to succeed.

It also takes the pressure off students, since it removes the burden of having to decide whether to participate or not. If resistance is futile, you may as well just get on with the work in hand.

This last point resonates with a point that several of Magenta have remarked on over the years about our rota of solos to the group. When we first did this, it was on an opt-in basis - we were all expected to do it sooner or later, but people could offer when to do theirs. This looks like it’s giving more freedom, but it produces much more anxiety than just being given a date to do it. If you know it’s a condition of being part of the group and that everyone does it, you just get on with preparing, in the full knowledge that however you feel about yourself, your friends will appreciate your contribution.

But, as I discussed in my introductory post about Lemov, this is an anomalous situation in the choral context, as choirs are usually much more about doing things together than singling out individuals. And people are there to sing, so very rarely refuse to participate at all.

What you might get in a choir is the kind of lead-swinging leaner who is going through the motions but opting out of making the effort to work on whatever artistic or technical detail you are focusing on. Well, I say ‘might’, I mean ‘will unless you take steps to make that impossible’. The tricky thing for a director is identifying which people are not joining in with the choir’s work, when on the surface they are joining in with its activity.

Spotting this is part of the ongoing monitoring work of the director. We have our eyes and we have our ears. Our ears diagnose whether the singers are succeeding at the tasks we have set them, and if not, whether it is all or only some who need to improve. Our eyes can monitor for physical technique (posture, vowel shape) and for mental engagement (alertness, responsiveness).

The point is that if - when - we identify people who are not fully with it, either through distraction, misunderstanding, or resistance, we need to stay with them until they participate. Much of this can be done within the flow of the music. You can smile at someone who is looking vacant until they smile back again. You can use didactic gestures in the direction of a section or with eye contact to an individual to bring them back on task.

But if they don’t come back on task, we can’t just let it pass, since that tells them that following our direction is optional. It could be that some singers don’t understand what they need to do, so we may need to stop and break it down into simpler elements to secure it. It may be that they can’t perceive the difference between what we want and what they’re doing, in which case we need to demonstrate the difference. But the goal is to make sure everyone succeeds.

Use of gesture from the singers is a useful rehearsal method in this regard. Not only does it facilitate the singers’ understanding of musical and technical concepts, but it gives you a very clear visual indication of who is struggling or hanging back from participation. Then go and do the gesture with that person until they’ve got it - the struggler needs the modelling to help them, the resistant person just needs to realise that less than full participation attracts more attention than just getting on with it.

(Grown-ups are sometimes worried about their dignity. They can be inveigled into relaxing into playfulness in a positive atmosphere, but allowing no opt out makes it much easier for them to do so. I generally find that anyone worried about looking silly soon realises that they’re quite safe as they’re pretty much guaranteed to look comparatively sensible when I’m in the room.)

Lemov’s technique of getting other students to help the one who’s not answering to succeed also has its analogue in the choral rehearsal. When one part is having trouble with a passage, it is enormously helpful to have everyone join in on the detailed work on it. The kind of intense, repetitive drill that this can entail looks to an outsider like drudgery, but in fact you find when you all get deep into a moment of music together, there is a depth of learning that pays off for all parts, not just the one who had the initial difficulty. You can work on all kinds of details of vowel placement and articulation and shaping and the concentrated unison does wonders for the unit sound of the ensemble.

And in the meantime, the singers who struggled gain in confidence from the support of their peers, and learn to succeed. So when you gradually separate back out into parts again, everyone knows what they’re doing and has a much greater insight how the music there works. It’s taking the process of the active leaner and turning it to our advantage.

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