'No Opt Out'

One of the things any totalitarian movement does, by definition, is outline a complete solution: one that is simple and satisfying. You no longer have to think because everything has been solved for you. As Havel suggests, “all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety and loneliness vanish”.[1] There is an element in the scope of Teach Like a Champion which suggests that everything you need to know about teaching is here.

There is an Orwellian slant[2] to calling teaching techniques for children ‘No Opt Out’ and ‘Right is Right’. I have seen ‘No Opt Out’ used in classes in the UK by inexperienced teachers, and the effect can be that the poor student who doesn’t know the answer is left suppurating in a well of shame as the teacher bullies them for an answer they don’t have.

Lemov is good enough to provide ways out of this potential stand-off for the students and for the teacher, but the best way out of it is not to bully children into answering a question they don’t know the answer to in the first place. There is an obvious option for the student: rather than suffer as the teacher insists that they answer a question they cannot answer, they tell the teacher who is publicly humiliating them to “P*** off” and storm out of the classroom. Align this technique with punitive zero-tolerance discipline and you are going to create a whole hill of problems because, potentially, you have got children squirming in shame with no way out of an adult bullying them.

To say I have always found this technique worrying is to say that Johan Cruyff was merely good on the ball. What if you do this and the child is having an awesomely difficult home life? What if his parents are divorcing? What if he is ill, anxious, nervous, has special needs, is new to the language, has issues with authority figures, is prone to transference? Teachers who really know what they are doing don’t behave like this. We speak softly to children, and if they don’t fancy answering that day, well, we’ll leave it till tomorrow. It might be that they were having a bad day. Humans are allowed bad days, and despite the assertions of the inexperienced, it really is all about relationships.

If we go to the videos showing how one might perform ‘No Opt Out’, there is an example of a young person corrected in the act of public reading[ET1] . There are various ideas on whether teachers should make slower readers read in public; I tend towards thinking, like all instances of placing other humans in positions where they might experience shame, that it probably isn’t a good idea. But this is just my opinion. The child falters at the correction and is clearly embarrassed. There is evidence of the public shaming of students inherent in these techniques, even in the exemplar materials provided. Still, in Lemov’s view of the classroom, it is better that students are shamed than teachers set, what he describes as (in a sentence that is surely – how can it possibly not be? – a winking piece of self-satire), “a low standard for correctness”.[3]

The insistence that children all speak in grammatically correct full sentences, although well intentioned, is possessed of a fairly obvious poverty of knowledge. He apparently doesn’t know that written and spoken grammar are distinct, and there is a confirmed lack of reading throughout the book. This can be fine. Not all books have to be rigorously researched, and many take the form of a ‘brain dump’ for the author. But, even accepting this, one might have expected an allegedly serious and no doubt influential text to at least acknowledge that Basil Bernstein’s ideas about restricted and elaborated codes have fallen into some critical controversy for the patronising and woefully incorrect way in which they treat the linguistic achievements of working-class people, white or Black. Equating middle-class speech with intellectual refinement is not only classist; it is flat-out wrong. It ignores the existence of the very fine work of William Labov [ET2] [PB3] who found that the dialect grammars of young Black people in New York were every bit as logical and sophisticated as Standard English, but that those linguistic achievements were not rewarded in any school settings in anyway.[4] There is a deculturalising element to this insistence on the sole validity of ‘academic’ language. If you want to take over or dominate a group of people – a racial group, for instance – then the first thing you might do is denude them of their own culture: a culture that is contained in their language.

This is not to say that there aren’t good sections in the book. The technique ‘Stretch It’, while coined as another imperative – and in which, in the words of a teacher named John Baumeister, “The reward for right answers will be harder questions”[5] – is a good one. Lemov is alive to the importance of verbal prompts and even attempts to systematise them. His attempt to unpack high-level academic expectations is brave. He is also right when he declares that inculcating a life-long passion for learning is one of the most important outcomes of education,[6] and he exhibits a genuine delight when he inhabits the idea that “exploding” expectations can be joyous.[7]

However, the issue keeps recurring that any fault in any classroom always belongs to the students. He recommends that teachers speak to a quiet child who struggles to make themselves heard (perhaps for a variety of reasons) by stating, seemingly quite abruptly, the word “voice”.[8] This is not as subtle or as gentle as someone who wishes to deserve the gift of being around the developing minds of children might want to be. There is a further technique later in the chapter called ‘Without Apology’. In truth, the idea is well intentioned – it is a way of encouraging teachers not to fall into obvious traps that might demotivate the students – but the linguistic landscape of a network of schools that place these two words into the mouths of adults in charge of children is worrying.



[1] Havel, The Power of the Powerless, p. 3.

[2] See what I did there?

[3] Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, p. 101.

[4] See Basil Bernstein, Class, Codes and Control. Vol. 1: Theoretical Studies Towards a Sociology of Language (London and Boston, MA: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971); and William Labov, Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972).

[5] Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, p. 108.

[6] Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, p. 115. There is also the mention of the word “fun” on this page.

[7] Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, p. 124.

[8] Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, p. 119.


Added Fri, 10 May 2024 18:11

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