Learning with Lemov: Achieving 100%

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As an addendum to my post from last week on Lemov’s principle that 100% compliance with instruction is fundamental to the achievements of a class (and by extension, in our context, a choir), I thought it worth going into a little more detail about some of the guidance he gives for how to achieve this. It does sound scarily draconian on first acquaintance, but the point of it is to make the culture of compliance invisible so that everyone just gets on with things without having to stop and belly-ache about it.

His first point is that we should always use the least invasive form of intervention. If you can get someone back on task using just eye contact, that’s all you should use. A reminder to the group as a whole can be a way to reinforce the universality of expectations while bringing attention to the fact they still need to be met. If it needs individualising, you can start this off anonymously - I particularly liked the formulation, ‘Still waiting for 3 people...1 person...and we’re ready to go’ as a way to make individuals accountable without drawing negative attention to them.

If you need to correct an individual by name, doing it privately where possible is preferable; where it has to be public, be very quick, and end on a positive acknowledgement of the improvement. Those of us who run choirs consisting of people who all come along as a voluntary and leisure activity rarely have to go to the final level of intervention of consequences, but the advice to administer them quickly and decisively is still good.

His second piece of advice is about emotional tone: keep it calm and impersonal. This relates to the principle of making interventions as minimally invasive as possible. The object is not to punish transgressions but to motivate cooperation. The standards required aren’t there to make people’s life difficult or to assert your power, they are there to enable everyone to make better music together. People resent being picked on, but they don’t resent a commitment to the team.

Lemov’s third principle is to ‘emphasize compliance you can see’. Again, the section in my choral conducting book about disciplinary mechanisms identified this as central to choral craft: eye contact between director and choir is about both communication and surveillance. One is also reminded of Jim Clancy’s focus on the visual dimension of singing: he framed it as for the benefit of the audience, but it is clearly also a significant part of his disciplinary processes.

In this piece of advice, Lemov makes a similar link between behavioural and content-based expectations to that I remarked on in my last post. In this case, his advice to make compliance observable, links back to his teaching principle of ‘No Opt-Out’ through the idea that you should avoid marginal compliance. This is a grown-up way of saying that people should do things properly, not in a half-arsed kind of way. I have been looking for a formal synonym for ‘half-arsed’ for many years, and I suppose it takes a primary school teacher to come up with it.

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