Five Mental Models to Start Your Year

I'm a big fan of Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion, and the third edition of the book has landed on top of my (towering) stack of To Be Read professional titles.

As I skimmed the introduction, I was struck by the five mental models he suggests for thinking about teaching, partly because it's the first of the year and I always find myself retooling systems now, and partly because it seems like we are facing more complexity than ever and I think these models can help us make good decisions for kids despite that. As Lemov writes, "In a typical lesson, you decide, often quickly. Then you decide, decide, and decide again. You are a batter facing a hundred pitches in a row ... What do you need to decide quickly, reliably, and well, while thinking about other things and often under a bit of pressure in the form of, say, twenty-nine restless students, twenty-five minutes' worth of work left to get done, and a ticking clock to remind you that you have fifteen minutes left in the class period?"

Sound familiar?

Lemov proposes that mental models, such as his five, can help us quickly make sense of the complexity, picture the ideal state, and make fast, smart decisions that'll move us closer to that. He says, "Your mental model guides you what to look for. The more we understand, the more we see. And when we don't understand what we're seeing, this too influences our looking."

Here are his five principles and how they play out in ELA instruction:

1. Teaching involves managing working memory and building long-term memory. Working memory is powerful, but it's also very limited; the human brain can only attend to a small bit of information at a time, and this poses a challenges for teachers and kids. If working memory is overloaded, our brain chooses what to focus on, and it doesn't always make a good one. In kids, this struggle leads to frustration, distraction, boredom, acting out, and less learning and engagement. As Lemov says, "We want them constantly engaged and interested, but not overloaded with more than they can manage." And for teachers, an internalized lesson frees up your working memory to pay attention and be nimble and responsive to students.

On the other hand, long-term memory is almost unlimited, so a main goal of teaching is to get the needed knowledge and habits of thinking from working memory to long-term memory, where students can draw on its stores and make sophisticated connections. And the more we ask kids to go to long-term memory and retrieve what they've learned, the less likely they are to forget it entirely. One study found that if students interact with new information three times, there's an 80% probability it'll be embedded in long-term memory.

What can teachers do? Roll out complex texts in bite-size chunks, get all students actively and frequently thinking about what they're learning through discussion, do lots of checking for understanding, cold call so every student is expected to engage, and have everyone write responses to all-class questions BEFORE discussion.

2. Habits accelerate learning. Anything that's memorized becomes a habit, which frees up working memory so we can attend to other things. Lemov says "Making common, everyday activities familiar enough that we can do them without having to think about them makes it easier for us to do them - and therefore more likely that we will - and means we can free our minds up to think more deeply while doing them." 

What can teachers do? Have lots and lots of familiar routines to help students get to the important things. For example, a teacher with a routine for journal writing can make sure that within three minutes every student is hard at work, and more engaged in the deep thinking writing requires. 

3. What students attend to is what they will learn. In the study that showed an 80% chance that students will remember something they've heard three times, there was a caveat: students had to be paying attention. Lemov says that "Attending to attention - building habits of sustaining focus - is one of the most important things that teachers can do."

Easier said than done, of course. He goes on to write, "We aren't just struggling to help students learn to concentrate on what's important; we are struggling against a massive and pervasive technology that acts on our students - and ourselves - to erode that critical capacity in almost every minute of the day." Adults now switch tasks about every two and a half minutes; students switch even more frequently. Our brains are being rewired for constant distraction and surface-level attention. 

What can teachers do? Lemov says that we should provide "steady doses of screen- and distraction-free time sustained by meditative reflection - pencil, paper, book ..." So, less focus on including technology with every lesson and more time to read, write for sustained periods of time, student-to-student discourse, and "minds on" time.

4. Motivation is social. Humans evolved to survive socially, and social norms in classrooms are more important than we often realize. All relationships matter to kids, but the peer-to-peer cultures teachers build through strong classroom norms are "at least as important" as the relationship between students and teachers.

What can teachers do? Set classroom expectations such as: making eye contact with classmates when they speak; setting models of engaged thoughtfulness for peers; and making high quality, exemplary work the classroom standard. And of course, we must model these ourselves, too.

5. Relationship building is at the heart of good teaching. Lemov says that "the assertion that no teaching can happen until a relationship exists is inaccurate, in part because teaching well is the most effective way to show a student that you care and to establish a relationship with them in the first place ... A teacher who pushes students to work hard, to write an essay they are truly proud of, a teacher who does not have to shout at students for work to get done, a teacher who, by teaching well, builds a student's interest in and then love for a subject, builds relationships." He goes on to write, "... teaching well ... is the primary tool by which teachers build relationships with students." 

He reminds us that we are building teacher-student relationships, not friendships. And be sure that the relationships we build are meant for the students' well-being; the goal shouldn't be for us to be the teacher they never forget, but for us to help them learn the lessons they'll never forget. Lemov quotes Adeyemi Stembridge: "A relationship is a tool that helps students understand how to connect to content."

What can teachers do? Set the right environment for strong relationships, such as immediately dealing with a situation where some students subtly mock the way a classmate speaks, and connect in simple ways, such as smiling, knowing and correctly pronouncing students' names, and making authentic family connections. Students in a strong core teacher-student relationship should feel safe, successful, and known.

Five mental models that can help us see through the complexity to what really matters in teaching and learning ... and make good decisions to get closer to making a difference.

Here's to simply teaching well,

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