Learning with Lemov: What To Do

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This is another technique presented by Doug Lemov in his collection of methods for classroom discipline that, to my mind, resonates strongly with his techniques for actual teaching. It’s quite simple, but very powerful: if you want someone to do something, tell them exactly what actions they need to take.

To elaborate: quite often if children (well, people) fail to follow an instruction, it’s not that they’re being deliberately obstructive, merely incompetent. An instruction such as ‘Behave yourself!’ is ambiguous; it tells the child they’re doing something wrong, but doesn’t state what’s actually required. Even the more specific, ‘Stop fidgeting!’ only makes it clear what’s wrong, not how to fix it.

‘Please sit down and face this way,’ gives a nice clear to-do list, and even a child who is in something of a bolshy mood might find it easier to just to get on with it than continue to resist in the face of such calm clarity.

As I noted before, choirs full of adult volunteers have relatively little difficulty with people who are genuinely being non-compliant, since there is no reason for somebody who doesn’t want to be there to show up. The worst we’d usually encounter is a spot of ego-driven disruption from someone whose esteem needs are showing.

(Having said that, deliberate obstructiveness from an adult choir member, whilst rare, is a much more serious issue to deal with, since it manoeuvres the director into a position where they may need to draw a line in the sand.)

But the advice to frame instructions as What To Do is equally helpful in the circumstance of just getting on with stuff as it is in a disciplinary context. I have written before about how putting rehearsal directions in positive terms keeps people focused on the solution rather than the problem, but Lemov’s formulation draws attention to the way that this is a matter not just of rehearsal psychology but actually of competence.

If you say, ‘Don’t go flat,’ it’s not just that the brain gloms onto the word ‘flat’ and makes it more likely to happen, it’s that the singers might not know what to do to keep the pitch up. Indeed, there are about a million things that might be the cause of the flatness, and it’s not really fair to ask the singers to try and work which to address. The person out front really is in the best position to diagnose whether the issue is vocal production, insufficient sense of tonality or lack of confidence. (And if it’s the last of these, ‘Don’t go flat!’ is about the most counter-productive thing you can say!)

If instead you say, ‘Can we have vowels that are tall and forward please,’ that gives the singers something specific to focus on that is likely to help. (And even if it doesn’t fix the immediate problem, it’s still good advice.)

This, of course, assumes that your singers know what ‘tall and forward vowels’ mean, which leads in turn to the process of skill acquisition. The teaching-mode equivalent of ‘What To Do’ in Lemov’s formulation is called ‘Name the Steps’. His point is that since complex tasks are best learned by breaking them down into simpler steps, people grasp these steps most easily if they are articulated as an explicit procedure. This process both helps the learner grasp and control each element of the task, and helps the teacher diagnose where the problem is when all is not quite working.

To take an example I have been using recently: the notion of readiness to perform is, as perceived from an audience perspective, a holistic impression of alertness, confidence and communicativeness. Using those adjectives to teach that presentational skill helps in that it defines the goal, but doesn’t tell someone who doesn’t get it intuitively what to do. Naming the steps does:


  1. Open
    • Teeth
    • Legs
    • Chest
  2. Lift
    • Core
    • Crown
    • Cheeks
  3. Eyes

This rubric developed from Sandra Lea-Riley’s usefully memorable, ‘Legs open, mouth open’ instruction. I added ‘chest’ as a way to add the postural element of both singerly relaxed expansion and communicative open body-language, and changed ‘mouth’ to ‘teeth’ to get the resonators out and showing (and got a good sub-level acronym in the process).

The Lift stage is also about both posture and expression, and I framed it in terms of crown and core specifically to get the head poised and support engaged without risking straining anything into a ‘trying too hard’ position. Lifting the cheeks adds forward resonance and a third term to make the stages of the process balance.

The open, visible teeth and raised cheeks are the actions usually elicited by the instruction ‘Smile!’ but they specify the form of smile to use. I suppose, technically, it is possible to show your open teeth and lift your cheeks and not look happy (if you wanted to snarl, maybe), but the emotional tone of the overall instruction tends to generate a mood that elicits an appropriate response.

The last element, eyes, is more context-dependent: on the director for conducted groups, on whoever is starting the music in chamber groups. Then once the music starts, using the agreed gaze behaviour of the ensemble (watching the conductor, down the tiles, focal point, interacting between singers, etc.). Different groups have different needs for gaze behaviour, but looking at the floor or gawping up around the room are pretty universally to be avoided, so having something specific to do instead is helpful.

The useful thing about Naming the Steps is not just that it gives everyone conscious control over a collection of small actions that add up into the desired result, it’s also that it gives everyone ownership of the concept. Once you have worked through the details of OLÉ! any member of the group can use it for an instant refresh of that element of technique. It is the inverse process of ‘Isolate and Repeat’ (the basic building block of skills-based practice): Concatenate and Automate. Naming the Steps gives the process both to drill down into the detail, and then build it back up into a known procedure that can be engaged using a shared trigger.

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