SLANT is an instruction given to students either at the beginning of lessons or during transitions. It is an acronym for the following set of instructions: sit up, listen, ask and answer, nod, track the teacher. It was originated in the charter chain KIPP (Knowledge is Power[1]) Schools. 

Let us first speak of the rationale behind it. It reduces five instructions to just the one and is therefore ‘efficient’. It has maximum efficiency. Maximum efficiency is displayed when we SLANT. The efficiency of this technique is total.[2] The instruction was displayed in pretty well every one of the videos of ‘Teach Like a Champion’ that I sat through, so the students, who clearly would have picked up what it meant through repetition, could be reminded of what it means should they have had a complete memory meltdown and found themselves in any doubt.

The issue with it is that some of the instructions are pointless, some seem bordering on abusive and some are both.

  • Sit up – Why? Stop trying to control the very thing I am. Stop trying to control my body.
  • Listen – OK. But I want to be able to do more than just this.
  • Ask and answer – Compulsorily? And if I don’t know the answer? And if I am delicate? If I have special needs? If I am neurodiverse?
  • Nod – You’re joking! This is of a pitiful level of reasoning and any teacher that advises you to do this knows almost nothing and should be subject to their own retraining.
  • Track the teacher – Why? Sometimes, I look away when I am thinking and processing the knowledge. It’s a nice day outside. I like to look at the butterflies as they flutter past. It doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention. I’m still listening. Why must I have only one compulsory focus on the person at the front?

I’ve taught students who have been trained (and trained is what it is) in what might be satirised as ‘the Pavlovian method’, and it can be disconcerting. Having a student watching you every moment of the lesson and nodding at you all the time is comedic, and I’ve had to tell children to stop doing this in the past. But there are more serious issues with it than its comedy, and they aren’t enormously funny. The desire to exert unnecessary levels of control over students’ bodies is slightly worrying. Treating the human body as an object that does not belong to anyone and having a method with which to control that object is suggestive of something. 

Doug writes in defence of SLANT: “regardless of how great your lesson is, if students aren’t alert, sitting up, and actively listening, teaching it will be like pouring water into a leaky bucket.”[3] Regardless of whether the metaphor here sits on the right side of cliché or not, it’s hogwash: “alert”, probably; “sitting up”, not necessarily; “actively listening”, listening is fine (though we can have off days for reasons outside of school); the adverb “actively” may well be meaningless if it is just a justification for complete control over students’ posture and gaze. Doug goes onto make the claim that the technique is “a critical part”[4] of a classroom that is functioning very well. This is bold and seems to imply that it is impossible to have a high performing classroom without use of this, at best, rather esoteric piece of practice. Well, here’s the news: effective classrooms existed long before the rise of ‘Teach Like a Champion’, and they will exist long after we have reached the time when it’s seen as a thankfully long forgotten example of how badly we treated the children in our schools for quite a while.

He also claims that SLANT makes “compliance visible.”[5] This is not the kind of language anyone who is in any way sensible would want a teacher of children to employ. The reasonable desire for order that has forgotten itself here. Compliance is something to be enforced (or else), and it is the basest level of conformity it is possible for any human to grudgingly assent to. For instance, where a uniform policy for teachers insists I wear a tie, I’ll comply, but it does not mean that I, in any way, accept the instruction as rational, nor regard its imposition as anything other than illogical, unthinking and rude. As Sue Gerard says in her excellent ‘Logical Incrementalism’ blog, “everyone knows ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are tokens, and they’re easy to use even if you actually feel no obligation or gratitude whatsoever.”[6] You can comply and hate both the instruction and the instructor at the same time. And why do people comply? Because they are frightened of punishment: no other reason. No one complies happily.

The language here leaks dehumanisation, animalisation even; the non-complier is ‘de-personned’. To say the word ‘compliance’ is more the lexicon of a dictator than a teacher is to state the bleeding obvious. For me, this language is frightening and is redolent of what appears to be an absence of human empathy.

I had coffee recently with a member of the 2006 cohort of Teach First alumni who entered the profession with their missionary zeal and their readily expressed beliefs that everything that came before them was wrong. She is a nice person, perhaps the moderate of all and highly intelligent to boot. She could not see anything wrong with ‘Teach Like a Champion’. This is evidence, if any more were needed, of the callow crassness of listening to people who don’t really know what they are talking about because they have government support. I repeat: a lovely, intelligent human could not see anything wrong with a book that describes children as non-compliers. She is and has been considered a serious voice in the profession she left a long time ago for quite a while now.

SLANT has now been discontinued in the schools that originated it. Dave Levin, CEO of KIPP Schools, published the following clearly heartfelt, sincere and considered apology.

“In recent years, I have come face to face with the understanding that white supremacy doesn’t just mean the public and hateful displays of racism; it applies to all aspects of the world that are set up for the benefit of and perpetuation of power for white people at the expense of Black, Latinx, and other People of Color.

“The most common example of this is discipline practices that center on compliance and control and have not consistently and constructively affirmed, uplifted, and celebrated your identities, your families, your communities, and our Black and Latinx staff … I have heard so clearly from some of you the pain, hurt, and anger caused by these and other dispiriting practices, mindsets, and experiences … I deeply apologize.”[7]

This apology came about as black alumni from the schools who’d returned to work in them had complained of their profound discomfort at having had their bodies controlled by white people and, when they returned as teachers, found that their career development was sometimes blocked by the same. Clearly, all professional organisations have issues from time to time, and Levin has been brave enough to acknowledge those of the organisation he leads, but having black former students identify that an organisation that was set up to ‘emancipate’ them was, against its own clear-hearted intent, actually specialising in “compliance and control” and that, by implication “systemic racism, inequities and anti-Blackness” were present in the day-to-day practices of the schools and that these caused black students “pain, hurt, and anger” is serious.[8]

He did well to cancel the approach, and I would suggest that any school that still considers it a useful shorthand consider doing the same as its originators have rightly done, immediately; tomorrow, if necessary, but certainly no later than next week.


[1] This statement is true. It also includes knowledge of who is using you and for what ends.

[2] “What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency” Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, (Penguin Popular Classics: London, 1902) p10.

[3] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College pp360-361.

[4] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College p361.

[5] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College p388.

[6] Logical Incrementalism, Michaela: Duty, Loyalty and Gratitude 5 September 2020.

[7] Dave Levin, A Letter from Dave Levin to KIPP Alumni 18 June 2020

[8] Dave Levin, A Letter from Dave Levin to KIPP Alumni 18 June 2020 Unsurprisingly, the head teacher of Michaela Free School was characteristically unrepentant. Her comment on the schools from which she took some of her inspiration admitting to racist practices was, “Another Titan in education, KIPP, goes the way of uncommon. They have fallen to the pressure of progressivism which destroys the lives of disadvantaged kids. Michaela will never succumb. Not on my watch.” You have to admire her commitment and her tenacious ability to hold the line when all about her have admitted that holding such a line can lead to deeply regrettable abuses.

Added Sat, 6 Jul 2024 09:48

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