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Teach Like a Champion

49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College

by D. Lemov

Paperback, 332 pages, John Wiley & Sons Inc, List Price: $27.95 |


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49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College
D. Lemov

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Simple Techniques Can Make You A Great Teacher

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Good Teaching Is About Hard Work, Not A Halo

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Teach Like A Champion

Teach Like a Champion

49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-470-55047-2

Chapter One


One consistent finding of academic research is that high expectations are the most reliable driver of high student achievement, even in students who do not have a history of successful achievement. Much of this research has been conducted to test, confirm, or debunk the famous "Pygmalion" study in which teachers were told that randomly selected groups of students had been proven through testing to be on the brink of great academic gains. Those groups of randomly selected students in fact outperformed other randomly selected groups whose teachers had not been led to expect great things, presumably because of those expectations.

One of the problems with findings about high expectations is that they often include in the definition a wide array of actions, beliefs, and operational strategies. One study defined high expectations as including the decision to allocate and protect more time on task in academic subjects. That's certainly good policy, but from a research standpoint, it's hard to disaggregate the effect of more time on task from expectations. It's also hard to turn that into specific action in the classroom.

So what are the concrete actionable ways that teachers who get exceptional results demonstrate high expectations? This chapter looks at five, derived from these teachers, that raise expectations and differentiate great classrooms from the merely good ones.


One consistency among champion teachers is their vigilance in maintaining the expectation that it's not okay not to try. Everybody learns in a high-performing classroom, and expectations are high even for students who don't yet have high expectations for themselves. So a method of eliminating the possibility of opting out-muttering, "I don't know," in response to a question or perhaps merely shrugging impassively in expectation that the teacher will soon leave you alone-quickly becomes a key component of the classroom culture. That's where No Opt Out started, though as with so many of the other techniques in this book, it soon found additional applications as a useful tool for helping earnest, striving students who are trying hard but genuinely don't know the answer. No Opt Out helps address both. At its core is the belief that a sequence beginning with a student unable (or unwilling) to answer a question should end with that student giving the right answer as often as possible, even if it is only to repeat the correct answer. Only then is the sequence complete.

In its simplest form, No Opt Out might look like this. It's the first day of school, and you're reviewing multiplication facts with your fifth or perhaps sixth graders. You ask Charlie what 3 times 8 is. Glancing briefly and impassively at you, Charlie mutters, "I dunno," under his breath, then sucks his teeth, and turns his head slowly to look out the window. It's a critical moment. Students all too commonly use this approach to push back on teachers when their unwillingness to try, a lack of knowledge, or a combination of the two makes them unsure or resistant. And all too often it works. Reluctant students quickly come to recognize that "I don't know" is the Rosetta stone of work avoidance. Many teachers simply don't know how to respond. The result is a strong incentive for students to say, "I don't know" when asked a question. If you don't feel like working hard, those three words can save you a lot of effort. So if Charlie successfully shows you that you can't make him participate, it's going to be a long year of you gingerly (and weakly) stepping around him, of other students seeing that Charlie does what he wants, and of Charlie not learning-a lose-lose-lose situation.

If you used No Opt Out in this situation, you would turn to another student, Devon, and ask him that same question. Assuming he correctly answered 24, you'd now turn back to Charlie: "Now you tell me, Charlie, what's 3 times 8?" Charlie has just found-without your stopping for a time-consuming and possibly ineffective lecture-that he has to do the work anyway in your class. Later we'll look at more challenging contingencies that you may be wondering about: What if Charlie doesn't answer when you come back to him? What if Devon doesn't answer? For now, it's most important just to understand the power and necessity of coming back to a student who won't try. The moment when you circle back and ask the student to reanswer the original question is the No Opt Out.

No Opt Out proves to be just as powerful in situations where students are trying. Here's an example from Darryl Williams's classroom, in which a student, James, was unable to identify the subject of the sentence, "My mother was not happy." He first tried to guess: "Happy?" he asked. Williams persevered, repeating the question as many other teachers would do: "What's the subject?" However, as the student was still unable to answer, Williams now asked the class, "When I am asking you for the subject, what am I asking for?" The student he called on now replied, "You're asking for who or what the sentence is about." Returning to James, Williams repeated, "When I ask for the subject, I am asking for who or what the sentence is about. What's the subject?" James now answered correctly: "Mother." As in all other No Opt Outs, the sequence began with a student unable to answer and ended with him providing the answer. The second student's answer didn't replace the original student's; it supported it. And James has seen himself succeed where just moments ago he was unable to. He has rehearsed success and practiced one of the fundamental processes of school: get it wrong; then get it right.

But let's return now to some thoughts about what you might do if things hadn't gone so well. What if James still couldn't answer, or worse, what if he had shrugged his shoulders and muttered, "I don't know," and with a bit of swagger. If James still couldn't answer, Williams might persist by asking another student, "Well, what does that mean the subject is?" The student having answered, "The subject is mother," Williams might then return to the original student asking him, "Okay, James, now you tell me: What's the subject of the sentence?" With only an answer to repeat, it's all but impossible for James to opt out and maintain the useful illusion that he can't answer. But in all likelihood, with any plausible gray area removed (see the box), he will answer. If he doesn't, it's a case of defiance that you can address with a consequence and an explanation: "James, you don't have to get the answers right in my class, but you will be expected to try. I'll see you here at recess."

Even more effective might be a firmer iteration of No Opt Out before returning to James: "Tell him again, David. What's the subject?" And then, "Let's try it again, James. What's the subject of the sentence?" Or you could repeat the answer yourself: "James, the subject of this sentence is mother. Now you tell me, what's the subject?" Regardless of which approach you take, the sequence ends with the original student repeating the correct answer: "The subject is mother."

In the case of Charlie, if Devon didn't answer and tried to mimic Charlie's impassivity, you might give the answer yourself: "Class, 3 times 8 is 24. Devon, what is it? Good. Now you, Charlie." In a minute we'll look at some of the more academically rigorous variations on No Opt Out. But first I want to underscore how the technique allows you to ensure that all students take responsibility for learning. It establishes a tone of student accountability, and it honors and validates students who do know the answer by allowing them to help their peers in a positive and public way.

I also want to underscore that the worst-case examples I've given above are fairly anomalous. The tone of No Opt Out in most classrooms is astoundingly positive and academic. Using it empowers you to cause all students to take the first step, no matter how small. It reminds them that you believe in their ability to answer. And it results in students' hearing themselves succeed and get answers right. This causes them to grow increasingly familiar with successful outcome. No Opt Out normalizes this process with the students who need it most.

There are four basic formats of No Opt Out. I've provided examples below, with each presented as a variation of the James sequence in Williams's classroom. What's consistent across all four cases is that a sequence that begins with the student unable to answer ends with the student giving the right answer. This ensures that everyone comes along on the march to college.

Format 1: You provide the answer; the student repeats the answer

Teacher: What's the subject, James?

James: Happy.

Teacher: James, the subject is mother. Now you tell me. What's the subject?

James: The subject is mother.

Teacher: Good, James. The subject is mother.

Format 2: Another student provides the answer; the initial student repeats the answer.

Teacher: What's the subject, James?

James: Happy.

Teacher: Who can tell James what the subject of the sentence is?

Student 2: Mother.

Teacher: Good. Now you, James. What's the subject?

James: The subject is mother.

Teacher: Yes, the subject is mother.

A variation on this method is to ask the whole class, rather than one individual student, to provide the correct answer (using Call and Response, technique 23 in Chapter Four) and then have the initial student repeat.

Teacher: What's the subject, James?

James: Happy.

Teacher: On the count of two, class, tell me what the subject of the sentence is. One, two ...

Class: Mother!

Teacher: What is it?

Class: Mother!

Teacher: James. What's the subject?

James: Mother.

Teacher: Good, James.

Format 3: You provide a cue; your student uses it to find the answer.

Teacher: What's the subject, James?

Student 1: Happy.

Teacher: James, when I ask you for the subject, I am asking for who or what the sentence is about. Now, James, see if that can help you find the subject.

James: Mother.

Teacher: Good, James. The subject is mother.

Format 4: Another student provides a cue; the initial student uses it to find the answer.

Teacher: What's the subject, James?

James: Happy.

Teacher: Who can tell James what I am asking for when I ask for the subject?

Student 2: You're asking for who or what the sentence is about.

Teacher: Yes, I am asking for who or what the sentence is about. James, what's the subject.

James: Mother.

Teacher: Good, James. The subject is mother.

I use the word cue here to mean a hint that offers additional useful information to the student in a way that pushes him or her to follow the correct thinking process. A hint, by contrast, could offer any information. If I ask, "Can anyone give James a hint to help him find the subject?" a student might say, "It starts with the letter m." This would surely help James guess the answer but doesn't teach him anything that will help him next time.

So how should you go about deciding which type of No Opt Out to use? As a rule of thumb, sequences in which students use cues to answer questions are more rigorous than those in which students merely repeat answers given by others, and sequences in which students do more of the narration and intellectual work are generally preferable. At the same time, there's no way to slow down enough to cue every student in the most rigorous way toward the answer to every question that stumps somebody. You'd never get anything else done. And if you do, you risk not only losing your momentum but you allow students to co-opt the lesson by constantly feigning ignorance and cleverly taking you off task. In seeking to balance between providing cues (slow but rigorous) and providing answers (fast but more superficial), you'll probably find it helpful to go back to your objective. The closer the question you asked is to your lesson objective, the worthier of a slower and more cognitively rigorous No Opt Out it probably is. If it's a peripheral topic, speed through it by taking the right answer quickly from a peer, asking for a repeat of it by the original student, and moving on.

No matter what balance you strike, students in your classroom should come to expect that when they say they can't answer or when they answer incorrectly, there is a strong likelihood that they will conclude their interaction by demonstrating their responsibility and ability to identify the right answer.


Right Is Right is about the difference between partially right and all-the-way right-between pretty good and 100 percent. The job of the teacher is to set a high standard for correctness: 100 percent. The likelihood is strong that students will stop striving when they hear the word right (or yes or some other proxy), so there's a real risk to naming as right that which is not truly and completely right. When you sign off and tell a student she is right, she must not be betrayed into thinking she can do something that she cannot.

Many teachers respond to almost-correct answers their students give in class by rounding up. That is they'll affirm the student's answer and repeat it, adding some detail of their own to make it fully correct even though the student didn't provide (and may not recognize) the differentiating factor. Imagine a student who's asked at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet how the Capulets and Montagues get along. "They don't like each other," the student might say, in an answer that most teachers would, I hope, want some elaboration on before they called it fully correct. "Right," the teacher might reply. "They don't like each other, and they have been feuding for generations." But of course the student hadn't included the additional detail. That's the "rounding up." Sometimes the teacher will even give the student credit for the rounding up as if the student said what he did not and what she merely wished he'd said, as in, "Right, what Kiley said was that they don't like each other and have been feuding. Good work, Kiley." Either way, the teacher has set a low standard for correctness and explicitly told the class that they can be right even when they are not. Just as important, she has crowded out students' own thinking, doing cognitive work that students could do themselves (e.g., "So, is this a recent thing? A temporary thing? Who can build on Kiley's answer?").

When answers are almost correct, it's important to tell students that they're almost there, that you like what they've done so far, that they're closing in on the right answer, that they've done some good work or made a great start. You can repeat a student's answer back to him so he can listen for what's missing and further correct-for example, "You said the Capulets and the Montagues didn't get along." Or you can wait or prod or encourage or cajole in other ways to tell students what still needs doing, ask who can help get the class all the way there until you get students all the way to a version of right that's rigorous enough to be college prep: "Kiley, you said the Capulets and the Montagues didn't get along. Does that really capture their relationship? Does that sound like what they'd say about each other?"

In holding out for right, you set the expectation that the questions you ask and their answers truly matter. You show that you believe your students are capable of getting answers as right as students anywhere else. You show the difference between the facile and the scholarly. This faith in the quality of a right answer sends a powerful message to your students that will guide them long after they have left your classroom.