Learning with Lemov: Right is Right, 100%

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As I read through my last post on Lemov’s classroom techniques in preparation for starting this one, I noticed how certain central themes are already emerging. In particular, the principle that giving people the discretion to decide whether they commit their efforts and attention to the job in hand makes it harder for everyone to get on with it also lies at the heart of the two elements I’m going to look at today.

Lemov places ‘Right is Right’ and ‘100%’ in different sections of the book, the first in the section on setting high academic expectations, the second in the section about setting and maintaining high expectations for behaviour. Of course, both sections are about expectation-setting, so it is perhaps not surprising that their content resonates together. But it seemed to me that the two principles are much closer in the choral rehearsal than they are in the classroom, and it will be interesting to explore why.

‘Right is Right’ is the principle that the teacher should not accept a partial or approximate answer from a student as correct, but should hold out for a complete and precise one. Whilst getting to a state of ‘nearly there’ is a good start, it is not the same as full mastery of the subject, and students need to understand the difference. If the teacher ‘rounds up’ a student’s answer - i.e. add the missing information - the student, and the whole class, may not grasp that the answer was lacking if the student’s answer is basically accepted. Sure, the teacher should recognise that they’re getting there, but they should not affirm answers as right until they actually are right.

100% is about compliance with a teacher’s instructions. If a teacher asks for a class’s attention, but then proceeds when they have merely nearly everyone’s attention, they make compliance optional. On the face of it sounds quite - well, very - controlling for a teacher to ask for 100% compliance for every instruction they give. But Lemov’s view is that it is ‘an exercise in purpose, not power’ (p. 175), and the goal is to normalise cooperation so as to eliminate distractions and time taken away from teaching. And he gives a lot of specific, technical, detail about processes of intervention and enforcement to make it happen with minimal fuss.

Now, what struck me was that these two meanings of ‘discipline’ - the subject matter of an area of expertise and the internalisation of personal action in a social situation - are almost entirely elided in choral situations. Yes, we may sometimes make a distinction between the discipline of not chatting during rehearsal and the discipline of maintaining a good singing posture, but equally we’ll often see them as part of the same thing. As I documented in my second book, choral leaders routinely see the para-musical habits of good rehearsal (keeping the choir room neat, bringing a pencil) as contiguous with more specifically musical habits (watching the conductor, maintaining pitch).

I mention pitch specifically, as this was the bottom-line disciplinary focus for Jim Clancy at the workshop he led in Llandudno in May. He started off by exhorting the singers to challenge the pitch-pipe, to make it sound dull, and then any time when they started off with any laxness in this dimension would stop them and make them start again. Whether it was ‘Right is Right’ (nearly in tune is not good enough) or 100% (we don’t go any further until everyone complies) is rather a moot point. What was key was that absolute inflexibility about the expectation, and the effect this had on the singers’ actions.

Talking to a friend afterwards, the question arose about managing this in practice. If you refuse to go any further unless the pitch is respected, do you risk never getting to bar 2 of the song? Indeed, I have watched a director rehearse a group by constantly interrupting the music to correct them and send them back to the start, and they never got very far, either into the music, or in terms of actual improvement.

Moreover, a central principle of learning is that you have to be able to make mistakes. Reaching for things you can’t quite achieve yet is how you get better at anything.

But this is where the teacher’s/director’s own discipline comes in. As Lemov points out, holding out for 100% compliance has the effect of making a teacher reflect on what they are actually asking their class to do. What is their purpose, and how would it be best achieved? If you are going to draw a line in the sand about a specific form of behaviour such that nothing else can happen until it is achieved, then it had better be something that is (a) possible, and (b) will have a significant pay-off for everyone when achieved.

Insisting that, ‘I’m not starting until I have all your eyes,’ is an achievable discipline that rewards a choir with unity of purpose and clarity of execution every time they start to sing. Requiring 100% attendance at every rehearsal would have a fabulous pay-off for a choir, but is unrealistic for those of us who make music with human beings.

The point about these two principles is that they are about securing effective patterns of thought and action as standard. They are about taking ‘Category 2s’ (things you can do but don’t always) and turning them into ‘Category 1s’ (things you just do, every time). As Lemov puts it:

Excellence is the habit: what you do, you should do it well, and the easiest way to do it well is to do it well every time.

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