Is This What Lemov Means By “No Opt-Out?”

Someone, if not Lemov, ought to film this exchange. David Cox takes a student from “I have no idea.” to “Oh that’s how you do it.” without asking a single content question, just a series of Jedi meta-cognitive mind tricks that amount, basically, to this:

  1. What is the question asking you to do?
  2. What do you know about what it’s asking you to do?
  3. Do you notice any patterns about what you know about what it’s asking you to do?
  4. How can you use that pattern about what you know about what it’s asking you to do to answer the question?

Yo Dave: record that patter to MP3; sync to every portable music device in the classroom; take the day off.

BTW: Tom Woodward pulls a clip out of his vault that illustrates, if not this exact line of questioning, its tone.

My comment there:

If “feign the curiosity of a novice” isn’t an element of Lemov’s Taxonomy, he needs to get started on the second edition pronto. I think it’s a very small subset of educators who attempt this kind of assessment at all (ie. “waitaminit … walk me through this … “) and an even smaller subset of those educators who can pull it off without it seeming campy or in on their own joke.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I have a slightly different patter of questions that I ask my students. I think the differences come from not teaching math.

    1. What does the question say?
    (Extra bonus: This allows you to instantly learn whether your student is capable of reading – as some who make it to high school actually cannot read – and/or reading comprehension.)

    2. What words of the question can you ignore?
    (Because at least in the wordy world of science questions, there is some random factoid thrown in. In fact, as I recall, even in Algebra there is fun information about Farmer Bob and his sheep, when really the question is a perimeter – how much fence will he need? – question and some students need to know that it is okay to ignore the fact that Farmer Brown has a name or that he raises sheep in order to get at the real heart of the question.)

    3. When have we seen something like this, before?
    (Extra bonus: You get to build a relationship here when you give positive feedback for this one. “Wow, you have a good memory. You are exactly right.” or “Wow, you remembered that example well, but it was actually about a different concept.”)

    4. What do you know about how to solve the problem?

    I rarely make it through all four questions. I’ve found that if I do make it to question #4, I get to hear a student’s thought process in action, which is very fascinating. It does not often involve complete sentences, but the enthusiastic tone grows. At the end of that experience, I channel The Todd (from Scrubs) and ask the student to give me a [insert concept name here] five.

  2. Funny thing is, I was thinking about the whole Lemov-No-Opt-Out thing in the middle of the exchange while simultaneously kicking myself for not somehow recording it.

  3. The importance of J’s meta-question #1 cannot be underemphasized in the remedial (high school) classroom setting. So many of our students struggle to sound out the words. This is not an indictment of them so much as it is a symptom of their need for lots more structured practice in simultaneously reading and reasoning out loud.

    Thank you for bringing this back to the conversation.

  4. That post reminded me a bucketload of Polya’s How to Solve It. My interactions with students improved overnight just by reading that book and thinking about asking purposeful questions like those.

  5. An otherwise lousy administrator once gave me some of the best teaching advice I’ve ever had: raise the level of tension in your room. That is, wait longer for them to answer, the kids had learned that be being quiet, they got out of answering the question or otherwise demonstrating ignorance…or knowledge, for that matter. I think of him daily my classroom, often several times a period. Don’t let them off the hook, demonstrate the persistence you want them to exhibit.

  6. Have you read Lemov’s new book? I just got my copy a couple of days ago, so I’ll be interested to learn more about his ideas.

  7. The best day of my year is when I hear, “don’t bother asking, she won’t give you the answer.”

  8. Julie: I think that the question would have to be asked with much sincerity from the teacher to not offend the student.

    Agreed. It strikes me very much along the same wavelength as the question you ask to snap a drifting student back to attention. It’s pretty easy for that to come across as punitive, when you really want to play the inquisitiveness, as you note, with total sincerity.

    “So what do you think?”

  9. Julie, I watched Lucy West (a math consultant from NYC) do this with fifth graders several years ago and was very impressed by it. She would ask students basically to repeat the answer in their own words to help others understand it better. She did it to pull in students who were struggling with the concept by having them restate someone’s answer with the added bonus of helping other students who might be struggling who got to hear it put another way.

    She did it so often, even just during the one lesson she modeled for us, that the kids came to expect it and were in no way offended by it.

  10. I think that it is actually meant to be punitive for the students that chose to “check out” of your class by giving you the “I don’t know” every single time you ask them a question. You could ask some of them “what is one plus one?” and would get, “I don’t know”. So, this very directed method of questioning done from the the beginning of year could be very effective to let those students know that in your class everyone is expected to really participate.

    I would love to see Lucy West do this so I could model it. My biggest concern was the students that (often) do not understand but really want to. Many of mine are embarrased enough that they do not know the answer. I would love to do this with them and have it work in a positive way for them. I had a thought that you could even start the year off doing this with vocab. Ask the question once and ask 3 kids to repeat the answer, even when the first student gets it right. You can never repeat math vocab terms enough. That way they get used to this methodology and may not be so offended once you start doing it for incorrect answers.

    With both senarios I think that being consistent and doing this frequently is going to be key. My problem tends to be that I read about and use these great ideas for a while but eventually revert back to my old ways. This is why I need to write on my hand with sharpie.

  11. Lucy West’s book, Content Focused Coaching, comes with a CD. I haven’t watched it in a while so I don’t know if this aspect of her teaching shows up frequently in the videos or not.

  12. I’m an English teacher, but I love reading your blog. I hope you managed to get a copy of Lemov’s book. It is so instructive. This really teaches teachers how to teach effectively–and its concrete.

    Your comment on on Tom Woodward’s blog implies that Lemov overlooked the technique “feign the curiosity of a novice.” I wanted to let you know that, as a part of “Ratio” (Technique 17), Lemov states that one way of placing most of the cognitive work back on the students is to “feign ignorance” (p. 94). For example, “A theme is just a summary of what happens in the story, right?” I love feigning ignorance and I agree that if done with the right tone of voice it can empower students to be teachers for a while.