A note on hidden curriculum

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!)


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?”).


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