How to convince people

Have you ever pulled your hair out talking to a conspiracy theorist?

It turns out that new information will never change their mind, because what matters to them is not more information. They love new facts. It’s the source of information they are worried about.

More information sometimes drives people even further from the point you’re trying to make.

There is a neuroscience reason for this. We like to conform to established patterns and views, so new evidence is usually assumed to be mistaken. This can be seen in brain scans of people who are presented contradicting statements to their own. First of all, the dorso lateral frontal cortex associated with reasoning was quiet, while the areas associated with processing emotion, conflict resolution, and rewards, were lit up (orbital frontal cortex, anterior cingulate, and ventral striatum).

Does this mean that rationality is overrated?

Absolutely not!  Check out this wonderful podcast over at the British Psychological Society blog about how to convince people.

One way is to assume that they are fully rational, and then gradually push their statements to logical extremes. This is in essence the philosophic technique of providing counter-examples. The Socratic Method!

Using the principle of using logical extremes, Baraz Hamiri, a graduate student in the University of Tel Aviv, exposed subjects to a propaganda video that presented a slightly more extreme view of their own. While tanks and patriotic music played, a statement flashed on the screen: Israel needs the occupation and war against Palestinians so that we can have the strongest military in the world. Participants were willing to find fault in this view because it wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. The first step in being convinced was the willingness to judge their own view against another.

Another more Socratic strategy was Hamiri’s use of what he calls “living questions”. Subjects were asked to respond to a researcher. “Why do think that the real and only goal that Palestinians have is to annihilate us in a matter that transcends their basic needs, such as food, water, etc.” When confronted with some logical extremes of their own views, people were willing to admit nuance and re-think entrenched positions. Hamiri checked in with test subjects a year later, and found that they were more willing to vote for moderate political parties.

These “living questions” try to do away with the illusion of understanding. We function with the default view that our views are correct, or that we understand exactly what we mean. But if you’ve ever had to teach something, you might have realized that you don’t know what you’re talking about. However, most of us are not often confronted in this way. Psychologist Steven Pinker once said that if there was one thing he could eradicate from the world it would be overconfidence.

(Us teachers have the distinct pleasure of experiencing this often. So why are many teachers narrow and dogmatic? I think it’s because experiencing ignorance too often without the support of a dialogue community leads to cognitive dissonance – it’s much easier and more effective to teach things when you believe that they are true and adopt them as your own)

One key to living questions is that they assume competent rationality on the part of the respondent. Mindset is just as important as the facts. Carol Dweck has shown this in her research on the effects of “growth mindset” in students. Those who believed they could achieve greater results often did so despite having the same IQ as those without a growth mindset.

So a belief about the importance of dialogue turns out to be rather important. One way to encourage others to share this belief is by assuming our interlocutor is rationally competent, and allowing them to think for themselves. You have to be very careful to phrase questions so as to exclude your views, and focus only on their views. Socrates does this relentlessly in Plato’s dialogues. As a result, characters are always asking Socrates what he thinks, but he never tells them (directly). Was he successful? You’d have to ask 2000 years worth of philosophy students.

So next time you want to convince someone of something, ask them to explain in detail what they believe. Repeat back to them what they just said – “Do you mean that….?” Next, gradually offer some counter-examples, or logical extremes of their views.

But most importantly, believe in their ability to think rationally. With any luck, they will return the favor.

Komitas is a genius

Michael Church, in The Guardian:

“For Armenians, music is memory. And whenever they gather to honour their dead, the songs they sing are by the composer who speaks for the soul of their nation, Komitas Vardapet. He himself was a victim of the 1915 persecution, and though he survived physically, he was driven into madness by it. Outside Armenia he, too, has been swept under the carpet of history.”

Komitas’s output was modest: 80 choral works and songs, arrangements of the Armenian mass, and some dances for piano. But as his better-known compatriot Aram Khachaturian acknowledged, he singlehandedly laid the foundations for Armenia’s classical tradition. And as a collector and arranger of folksongs, he did for Armenia what Bartók did for Hungary, turning simple material into bewitchingly sophisticated polyphony. After a Komitas concert in Paris, Claude Debussy declared that on the basis of a single song, he deserved to be recognised as a great composer. Yet many classical musicians barely recognise his name.”


Yerevan: with a few exceptions, the most family friendly city I’ve been to.

Top 10 Things I’ll Miss from Yerevan:


1. Public workouts –  Parks here have slides and swings for kids, but you’ll find all generations gathered in the public gym section. A large sandbox hosts the moving workout machines – Grandma is doing the stair master in her 80s style skirt, Grandpa is twisting side to side standing on a small metal wheel, toddlers are covering their feet in sand, and teenagers are pumping the rowing machine. In a sizeable 50×50 foot pull-up bar section of the park, young men show off their Soviet gymnastic skills on static bars. These (really buff) men gather to compete for the best pull-up/flipping routines, set to the hippest baddest workout music in Eurasia.

Claiming a bench in Republic square before the fountain show begins

Claiming a bench in Republic square before the fountain show begins

2. Water fountains – Like the Romans, Armenia has an abundant supply of fresh water. Busy street corners offer streams of living water for the parched. Not only that, but Yerevan is famous for its fantastic fountain shows in Republic square every night of the week. There is mystical significance to running water – in Geghard monastery it is important to collect a portion of this healing stream in your plastic bottle, and compare its taste to that of the pleb watering stations in town. On a hot dry day, they taste the same.


3. Kids amusement parks – Bread and circuses abound for little children, and the fun is  due to a refreshing and conspicuous lack of safety regulations. My kids have never had so much (cheap) fun in all their life. The inflatable castle is waiting for them every weekend, a 10 minute walk away. (Whoever said Yerevan is not family friendly lived in a suburb, and not in an apartment)

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4. Stone and Wood detail – I want to buy all the wooden carved crosses (khachkars) that exist at the Vernissage flea market. Artists have a vast repertoire of medieval manuscript ornamentation to copy from (Yerevan has one of the best medieval book museums in the world), and it is in full display today. I can’t get over the beautiful stone work carved into the buildings downtown, and I feel like if I had 5 more years I would apprentice with a master.

Playing "palace" in the palace.

Playing “palace” in the palace.

5. Unique history – Hayastan (the real name of Armenia) has an inflated sense of national importance for a reason. They’ve maintained a unique culture through centuries of invasions – Assyrian, Mede, Seleucid, Roman, Hunnic, Mongol, Persian, Turkic, Russian. As I walk downtown, I imagine that I can see parts of these in people’s faces. They were part of every empire, but in the end stand alone. The Armenian language sounds Semitic, with a slow Persian lilt, especially on the open As (aah). Bits of French, Russian, Persian dot conversations. The Armenian apostolic church continues to be the glue that holds the diaspora together despite the acid of globalization.


hasmik music

6. Arts Scene – Live jazz, ballet, opera, symphony, rock bands, folk music, street performers, the puppet theatre, public dance lessons, fashion shows – Armenians love their arts. I got a kick out of seeing the Andean flute players surrounded by a throng of curious Armenian onlookers. We’ve been to all of the above in the last five months and enjoyed them all.


7. Local produce – “They are from the village” is a common and very true saying. Every day, an unhealthy looking Lada pulls up to our market and unloads its bounty from the backseat. It’s all fresh, and it’s all cheap, and it is everywhere. Armenians claim not to use chemicals (if this is true it’s because they can’t afford them). The key is to buy in season – a bag of six cucumbers set me back 25 cents today. Last week was strawberries, and this week is cherries and apricots. After driving through quite a few villages, I never saw a local that wasn’t working their plot of land by hand.


Musician friend Serge talks philosophy

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Ashot Hovhanisian – best taxi driver in Yerevan

8. Friendliness – Everyone knows someone from another country, and you are always a potential connection. It’s not a put-on formality like in South America. People are genuinely nice and interested in getting to know you, especially if you have cute kids. Hospitality, like in most Middle Eastern countries, is legendary. Friendship is on public display all the time – men lock arms with other men, women hold each other’s hands. You start to get the feeling that this place is populated by Romeos, Benvolios, and Mercutios. Added to this everyday friendliness was the relatively small expat community. We’ll really miss hanging out at the British Ambassador’s house, talking politics with insiders, or visiting our Iraqi neighbors and discussing life with some thoughtful people.



9. Sense of Community  – This is the theme running through this list. The curse of Soviet apartment blocks on a hot evening means everyone is out on the streets lapping up dirt cheap (but very good) ice cream, gathering at Republic square, just enjoying each others’ presence – and every age group is represented. Then when the weather is bearable, every square inch of the neighborhood is buzzing with life indoors. Think the smallness of Israel in a country where all demographics actually get along. People break out in patriotic songs and folk dances, and everyone knows the melodies of Gomidas – their most famous composer. The best parts of Yerevan are the beautiful downtown avenues, where everyone walks on Friday night, including the children and elderly. Despite its smallness, parts of Yerevan rival the atmosphere of Paris.



10. The View – Seeing Ararat’s twin peaks burst into view after a couple of hazy days never grows old. Everything is set against this gorgeous and seemingly eternal presence – sunsets, larks rushing against the updrafts of buildings, quickly forming clouds.


Top 7 Things I Won’t Miss

1. Uneven stairs – Every day when I get home from work I am reminded in a very awkward way of the thoughtless construction habits of some underpaid laborers. Couldn’t they have measured or used a mold? Water drips into our shower from a tube that disappears into our ceiling, and it drips faster at 11pm (does it start at the top of the building?) Someone in the apartment is inevitably doing renovations, which means constant concrete drilling that resonates throughout. One day, politely asking our downstairs neighbors why my toddler was consistently woken up from his nap, I found out that the racket was actually two floors down.

2. Hideous apartment blocks – I’m just starting to get desensitized to the inhuman imposition of Soviet pleb housing. I don’t notice them as much. But then when I think about it, Yerevan would have made a good set for Star Trek First Contact – home of the Borg cube. I suppose the sense of community is derived from density. But it has as much to do with empathy as it does with density. (I’m assured that most apartments, no matter how ugly on the outside, are quite well furnished inside).

3. Post-Soviet hospitals – We made a trip to a very poorly funded public hospital after Jane suffered a mini-concussion. Bare rooms, hardly any equipment. The doctor set Jane on a metal table with no sheet, told Rachel to hold her head, and went off into the other room to make the X-ray. No protective cover, no asking if Rachel was pregnant. Doctors in Armenia are not paid enough to survive, so they often ask for more money before doing a procedure. The school nurse carried a wad of cash with us just in case. One doctor on our hiking trip told us that many physicians have left the profession and have become successful businessmen. Only one particular hospital in the city, run by a famous Armenian American surgeon, has the equipment and procedures up to Canadian standards.

4. Armenian “lines” – Amusement park tickets, ice cream on a hot day, trying to get in a bus – they are all a fight to the death. I’ve never been so aggravated or dumbfounded at the logic, or illogic, of having to push your way to the front of a crowd. Last time I bought ice cream my competition were mothers with small children. This proved to be more difficult than I thought. A 10 year old boy cut in front of me 2 or 3 times. Each time I decided I would show him a lesson and keep my elbows protruded. At the last moment he slipped in front of me and bought his 3 cones when someone who had been successful pushed everyone back because she was trying to “leave” the line. Another time I had been waiting for 10 minutes at an amusement park concession. I was holding Alasdair and got tired. I put him down. The mother behind me rushed in front of me. Then a minute later, someone who hadn’t been standing in line at all nudged her way right to the front and bought her tickets because she seemed to be in more of a rush than everyone else. There is something quite disturbing about this transformation of friendliness to the chaotic state of nature. Our taxi driver once described getting lost in the Moscow airport as a boy. The only way he knew he was back in the right place was because there was no line – just a mass shoving its way forward. “Yeah, really…It’s a national tradition,” he said tongue in cheek.

5. Loud Music – What is up with trying to burst the eardrums of every child celebrating a birthday party? Our first party I remember Jane crying, Alasdair running away, and me, cowering in the kitchen (near the wine). The volume was unbearable. Then came Alasdair’s end of the year concert at pre-school. The first act consisted of the kids entering the room to an ear shattering techno beat. All the subsequent songs (which were well choreographed) were off the decibel charts. “So this is what you’ve been practicing for the last 3 weeks,” I thought to myself. It wouldn’t have mattered it I said it out loud.

6. Unpredictable Shopping – Just because you see something in the grocery store doesn’t mean it will be there tomorrow. Because Armenian borders are closed with Turkey and Azerbaijan, there is limited supply of popular items. I once went on an errand for Rachel and I couldn’t find 5 out of the 10 items I was looking for – things that had been around for a couple months until then. You just have to prepare to improvise.

7. Corruption/Depression – I mostly mean the economy. The government is hiking electricity prices 18 percent in August due to the faltering ruble. One of our friends was arrested in the sit-in protest today. People are fed up with arbitrary rules, corruption, lack of jobs, lack of development, opaque laws, byzantine bureaucracy, and lack of real democracy. There is a negative feed-back loop of resignation among the young people. As I mentioned before, even doctors are quitting their profession. The air is a bit tense whenever our taxi driver suggests getting something for a cheaper price. Those who get ahead do so in mysterious ways. People who I highly respected defended the connections game – “how else would anything get done?” and “every country has corruption.” I will never forget one of my students asking me indignantly “wouldn’t you pay to get out of jail if you knew you could?” Never mind the nature of the charges. This indifference to justice is hard to understand.  I am also looking forward to police that don’t stop people to top up their salary.


Evidence that there is hope among the youth.

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We’ll miss you Yerevan!














Sanahin-Haghpat Hike

1960799_1404414203131407_8919080854450028645_o This weekend we joined a hiking group for one of their day drips –  people from all walks of life rent a couple mini-buses and leave town for lots of laughs and wonderful comaraderie. It was a great way to enjoy Armenia’s beautiful landscape together. We sang songs, walked up waterfall streams, and sang Armenian folk songs. We would have liked to do this every weekend! It was great fun, and we learned a lot about Armenians – some of them doctors, lawyers, programmers, etc. – who love nature and love to have a good time. IMG_0900 This time the group went to Debed Gorge in Lori province (near Georgia). We walked from Sanahin to Haghpat, two important 10th century university monasteries across the gorge from one another. In between was the Kayan Berd (fortress) built in 1233, and sacked by the Mongols.


Sanahin has a very neat scriptorium, and has this first example in Armenian architecture of a narthex, or meeting area before you enter the church. It’s impossible not to walk on graves – this is because people thought walking on graves was a good thing in the 10th century – it gave you the power and energy of the people buried beneath.



Ruins of a small chapel, where you can see the watchtowers signaling the Mongol invasion.


After a nice cool dip in the river, we walked to the edge of the gorge to the surprise entrance route to Kayan Berd fortress.


On the precipice of Debed Gorge. We took a nap in the fortress below.



On top of Kayan Berd, across from Haghpat monastery.

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Haghpat – I thought this one was slightly better than Sanahin. One room had holes in the ground (buried karas gourds) where monks stored food, honey, wine. Haghpat also has the first instance in Armenia of Jesus carved on a khachkar, with God staring down at him.

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Apparently these corner details are Seljuk in origin.


Separate bell tower. Still works.


Feats and Foibles 2015

I’ve come to the end of my third year teaching, and it’s time to reflect on the highs and lows of teaching middle school in Yerevan (February-June).

The Good

1. Setting high academic expectations.

Middle schoolers are just at the point where you can start teaching against the textbook. I really enjoyed reading and discussing Plato’s Apology with my 12 year old class – many were asking all the right questions. Small group discussion is one of my favorite ways of teaching, and small classes at QSI really lends itself to this way of teaching.

Both 12 and 13 year olds also wrote an 8 page research paper. A couple students learned the hard way about plagiarism, but others said they took off reading and writing about topics of their interest. I was proud of some of the areas my students tackled: comparing Machiavelli’s The Prince to his Discourses on Livycomparing Greek art as mimesis and the use of fractals in computer graphics, comparing strategies of the Roman Empire to those of the US, and whether Ebola caused the Black Death (apparently yes, say some scientists).

We used a lot of technology – Edmodo continues to be useful, and I discovered Socrative, a free app that gives immediate feedback on quizzes and exit slips.

2. Having fun

I love teaching history. We enjoyed dressing up for our Greek god party on Mt. Olympus. Later we were served by slaves at our Roman patrician banquet, complete with proper reclining seating arrangement on mats. We also built scale models of the Pantheon, and Hagia Sofia (OK – the last one was a little hard to do!)

Any time you can do a field trip to a Mithraic temple (Garni), a medieval monastery (Geghard), and hike into a canyon is a win win.

We capped off our year by doing some archaeology – students were assigned one civilization from the text book and produced 3 artifacts for burial. Inscriptions were written on pottery, and then smashed with a hammer. After burial, groups then had to dig up other people’s artifacts and try to figure out which civilization they were from.

Debates were a great way to explore topics in non-fiction and get to the core ideas of texts. Students usually begged for more, because they think they aren’t actually working.

8 different classes a day is ridiculous for a 12 year old (for a fun critique of school’s hidden curriculm, read John T. Gatto‘s Weapons of Mass Instruction). Sometimes they just need to go outside and play soccer (and realize that their teacher is not bad).

3. Character education.

7th grade can be a social minefield for students. It was a privilege to be part of the conversation when the going got tough. I love that QSI rewards students for excellence in character, evaluates areas of improvement, and makes them part of the report card. You end up reflecting a lot more as a class about virtuous actions (however, I felt like my experiment with daily reflections morning and afternoon – the Stoic method – was a failure, since you can’t force someone to go through therapy, the have to want it).

Teaching about the Armenian genocide was a particularly rewarding experience. I have a blog post about it here.


The Tough

1. Way too much computer time.

When I arrived to Yerevan in February, many students in the 12 and 13 year old class did not even have binders – they just took notes on computers like a university class and handed assignments in on Google drive or in unformatted emails. Because I used Edmodo and Socrative, it was a constant challenge to change their habits, and I believe I failed at this – doing an 8pg paper to cover multiple units also didn’t help. I felt like I betrayed Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Your Brain. Students need less screen-time, not more. I believe principals who think they are doing their elementary a favor by getting I Pads are sadly mistaken.

2. Brain drain.

After picking up and moving to Yerevan from Winnipeg (in the space of a month) and teaching middle school for the first time, I spent way too much time researching for my courses, and not enough time planning the actual objectives. Perhaps reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Rome (abridged of course) was an unnecessary burden that prevented timely assessment and contributed to burn out. There are other ways to engage the classroom without having all the good stories.

I also spent too much time blogging, which is way more work than it looks like. In the last 3 years I’ve written a 200 page book worth of material.

I drank way too much coffee, which made me into a (sweaty) walking zombie by the end of the week. Everyone reacts slightly differently to the substance, and I’ve realized that by Friday too many cups of coffee makes me slightly depressed. I remember a speech to our graduating class in Winnipeg telling us to “STAY AWAY FROM COFFEE.”  (Christine Rhodes) Now I know why.

3. Sweating the details

Switching from a large public school to a private school with classes of 10 or less has a way of making you more relaxed. But that doesn’t mean you should let go of the reins too much. Just because students aren’t really that loud and people are generally doing what they’re told isn’t good enough.

Treating my 12 year olds like they were more mature than they really were set me up for problems, especially with entitled students. I tried to live by the William Glasser approach (godfather of the QSI way), but there was something missing, and that was discipline and habit. Sometimes no amount of reflection on behavior will influence future actions unless students are explicitly told that they are wrong, and forced to make a habit of acting correctly.

The biggest thing I learned this year was to be prepared with a variety of immediate and incremental consequences and NOT to give warnings. Giving warnings is a recipe to be inconsistent, since you have to remember all the warnings you’ve given. Better to keep the learning curve and expectations high, and treat poor behavior like a bad habit.

The End

Over all, this adventure in Yerevan was challenging but really rewarding. I met some great educators, had some once in a lifetime experiences, and have lots of foibles to learn from moving forward. Many people said I had “the most challenging classes in the school.” Well, I’m both relieved and disappointed to hear that – relieved to know that I survived with a tough class, disappointed to hear that I wasn’t as effective as hoped in molding habits and behavior. Perhaps this is the best way to begin work for an organization like QSI that values character education.


One thing is certain as a teacher. You do not become a better without lots of hard work, reflection, and practice. Teaching is a craft.

Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion is the book that has helped me hone my skills the most. This book really should be on every teacher’s shelf (one reviewer says one for home, and one for school). Canadian teacher training does a good job with practical experience, but unless you are paired with a master teacher, you’re left to your own devices and a handful of competing theories.

I have no problem with theory, but management (think strategy vs tactics) can be tricky. Lemov shares 49 practical tactics master teachers use (Check out Lemov’s new TLAC 2.0)  While I agree that reducing teaching to technique is dangerous mistake, proper management is required for a teacher’s sustainable mental health. Almost all students I talk to say that the best teachers are the ones that instill discipline, respect, and hard work.

Here are some of the secrets of master teachers, starting with ones I’ve begun to adopt already:

1. No Opt Out – “A sequence that begins with a student unable to answer a question should end with the student answering the question as often as possible.”

Teachers should continually increase the cognitive work students do. The first rule of success is to not allow students to opt out of questions they “don’t know.” Boring reviews of homework become challenging, upbeat and interesting when students are held to a higher standard. If a student doesn’t know an answer, ask another student. If they give a full response, ask the initial student to repeat the definition. Come back a couple minutes later to see if it stuck. Students are often overconfident in their understanding of concepts until you make them explain to the class.

2. Right is Right – Don’t settle for partially right answers. Follow through to keep academic expectations high.

3. Follow Up – For international students with a highly developed worldview, asking challenging follow up questions is one of the most powerful ways to differentiate in the classroom. In my experience teaching advanced texts to middle schoolers (such as Plato’s Apology) it is always best to stretch overconfident students to their cognitive limit.

4. Cold Call – Don’t let students tune out because it’s not their turn. A little bit of “surprise” pressure is good for students, especially if you support learners with No Opt Out. Don’t set an order when reading a text out loud, and students will follow along better. Call on different students and vary the difficulty of the questions.

5. Ratio – More and more of the cognitive work should be done by students as you progress through a lesson. Some ways to do this are to feign ignorance (what do we do next?), have students finish your sentences, have them rephrase, ask higher order questions like why or how, and have students support their opinions with more reasons.

6. Break the Plane – Circulate around the room within the first five minutes of a lesson. Don’t let students feel like bystanders. I’m certainly guilty of standing there in my comfort zone. The most powerful position you can have is one in which students can’t quite see you, but know that you are present.

7. Complete Thoughts – Students should speak and write in full sentences 100% of the time. Half-thoughts lead to overconfidence and lazy thinking. Next year I will have a homework rubric and nothing less than a full sentence will be accepted for marks.

8. Repetition  – Students need to practice a skill at least 10 times before it becomes engrained. This is one of the things I found most difficult in the American style 40 minute class. You can have an amazing lesson, but never have time for kids to show you their mastery skills. According to #5 Ratio, this is a huge mistake.

9. Visible Objectives – Always write the objectives for that lesson on the board. The shortest path to mastery should be manageable (done in one class), measurable (you know when you’ve succeeded), and the most important (the shortest path to mastery).

10. Exit Slip – Students should always expect to show their understanding at the end of a lesson. The more substantial the answer (maybe a paragraph) the better. If students feel rushed at the end of class, they give half-answers and half-thoughts. I’ve definitely fallen prey to poor time management and not following up the next day with student responses. One way of teaching, based on behavioral psychology, is to ask students what they need to review, and then review only that material the next day. This gives students positive reinforcement, since they are being taught what they asked to learn.

11. Imagine – Don’t just imagine what you will say and do in the classroom. Imagine what the students will say and do in your lesson. What does your lesson (or long monologue) look like from their perspective? I’ve only just begun to do this, and it really helps you envision the shortest path to mastery.

12. Signals – Use non-verbal signals to make smooth transitions. This year I experimented with using numbers. Number 1 was “close computers” (before I take them away), 2 was “take out a piece of paper”, and 3 was “silence”. Kids get a kick out of the secret language, although my students found it more interesting to talk the phenomenon instead of completing the task seamlessly. What I was missing was a way to enforce consequences without too much discussion (see 19).

12. Entry Routine/On your mark – Students should pick up papers, have homework on their desks ready, and have pencils sharpened before we get going. I often have something written on the board for students to do. With practice, you don’t need to give any directions – students know what is expected and they can see the activity written on the board. Along with this rule, I’ve decided that next year there will be no bathroom breaks until the last 15 minutes of class.

13. Strong Voice – Say only what is absolutely necessary. Don’t talk over your students. Don’t engage off topic remarks. Speak quietly if you want students to take you seriously. These are a lot easier said than done. One time, a university professor of mine was confronted by an angry indignant student. His response was to lean back on the chalk board, speak quieter, and leave awkward silences. This showed he was in control.

14. Label desks – Instead of wasting time numbering groups, have your desks numbered or labelled already. One of my colleagues in kindergarten labels his desks with pictures of bread – either you have peanut butter, or jam. You can then pair up with an opposite, or form two groups in an instant. Also, if you want students to put desks back where they belong, tape spots on the floor for them (not sure how this works with janitors).


Along with the above, here are more Lemov secrets that I will intentionally foster in my classroom next year:

15. SLANT – No one is exempt from showing respect by being prepared. Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod your head, and Track the teacher – these are behaviours that have to be taught, not just expected – especially with those particularly entitled diplomat or wealthy kids. One of my students this year consistently put his feet up on a cross beam in his desk. After getting annoyed (or rather embarrassed when other teachers walked in), my response was to take one shoe off and keep it for a while. This proved to be just a fun distraction and totally ineffective. Better to enforce SLANT from day one with non-humorous consequences.

16. Threshold – As soon as students enter (or in some cases approach) your classroom, they should feel responsible. Make eye contact, shake hands, and say good morning to show that your class expectations have begun. Shaking hands is in most cases the only way to make physical contact with students, and this is a powerful signal.

Remember the tramway ethical dilemma? Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have found that people are much less likely to commit a crime if they have to physically touch another person. While this sounds weird in relation to school and students, the same effect applies. The first time I had to call a principal to my classroom in a public school, the large burly man took the insecure and highly insubordinate 14 year old by the hand. He shook it vigorously, and was feared thereafter.

17. Class Vibe – I want to create some good energy in the classroom by having students cheer each other on, sing idiosyncratic songs they made up, and respond in chorus. Lemov talks about teachers that have special names like “lawnmower” for the kudos students offer each other. “Class, it looks like Mark has really hit the nail on the head with that answer, let’s give him the lawnmower,” and then everyone made a physical gesture (starting the lawnmower) with a sound. To create classroom culture, some teachers make inside jokes only their class understands. While teaching AP Psych, I found that my students laughed about (and remembered) the neuron song we sang.

I did play random games with the class, but the challenge is always to relate them to objectives. Competition does this really well. Add chants and cheers to the mix and you have a fun classroom that doesn’t realize it’s also learning.

18. Binder Control – Good organizational habits have to be taught. Punishing students for not organizing or even having a binder is like giving someone a timeout for not riding a bike on their 5th, 6th, or 7th tries. Require a table of contents, page numbers, sections, etc. The biggest struggle I had this year was students complaining that they couldn’t use their computers. Probably one of the reasons they thought binders were useless is because they hadn’t yet learned to organize properly.

19. No Warnings – Warnings are a sign to your students that it’s OK to not live up to expectations, and they are a recipe for inconsistency on your part. Better to just give a small consequence the first time so students get the message. Next year I’ll be posting all my rules and small consequences on the wall and starting from day one. The key to this is having many small incremental consequences (losing 5 minutes of break, defining 5 or 10 words in the dictionary, sharpening all the pencils at break, cleaning the whiteboards, etc.). International schools are a place where whining and talk-back are rampant. These will be included on my list of no-warning consequences. In many cases you’re enforcing behaviors that are rarely addressed at home.

20. Practice the rules – Review expectations in a fun way when you aren’t concerned about behavior. Spend the first couple weeks reinforcing the behaviors you want to see by doing them again and again. Time them to see how fast they can do it. Make it a challenge.

21. Positive Framing – Narrate the view of the world you want your students to see, even while improving it.  Don’t narrate your failure to enforce consequences in front of the class (“I’m going to wait for Jonny to do X before moving on..”) Talk about how to behave well (We show respect in this class by listening the first time) instead of asking rhetorical questions (“Can’t you hear what I’m saying?”).


A NOTE ON THE HIDDEN CURRICULUM: While these techniques enforce efficiency, conformity, and routine, my current view is that these virtues are necessary in any school system if it want to achieve results. Not only this, but I’ve been convinced by Angela Duckworth and other psychologists that discipline and grit really matter in life (See Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed” on the latest research).

The Einstein quote “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school,” is often invoked to say that school is largely unimportant. But it can also mean that habits are more important than knowledge – and for Einstein, imagination was one of those fundamental habits that schools killed.

I agree entirely with John T. Gatto that school more often than not “ruins” kids intellectual curiosity due to its constant enforcement of rules and ridiculous 8 period days.

That is why I think it is important to distinguish the tactics that address virtues (like SLANT, positive framing, and respect) and the ones that address conformity for efficiency’s sake (Threshold, Entry Routine, Binder Control, Class Vibe).

If you’re a sociologist, well, let’s go for coffee sometime so we can talk theory.

(Thanks to Miguel Sansalone for lending me Lemov’s book in Yerevan!)













Portugal 3 Armenia 2

Yes, Armenia is part of Europe. I just saw Ronaldo get a hat trick, and I lost my voice cheering for a really decent team. HOO HOO HAYASTAN!!