Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.27.14Ok, So What’s Your ‘Tell’??


I’m writing about a new topic for TLAC 2.0: The Tell (defined below). It’d be helpful to hear some examples of ‘tells’ people are aware of in their own teaching.  I hope to include a few in the book so please chime in with examples in the comments section. And please enjoy this short excerpt from TLAC 2.0.

As teachers, we often unintentionally reveal whether an answer is correct out of habit.  We often have, as they say in the world of poker, a “tell,” an unintentional cue that indicates to students whether an answer is right or wrong and whether we liked it. Without realizing it, we communicate information about how much we value an answer and, for the student who gave that answer, that implicit valuation can be significant.  If, for example, I am a quieter student who has finally taken the risk of raising my hand, not only does a teacher’s tell risk sending a negative message but it risks sending that message without the teacher realizing it.  In short figuring out your possible tells and ‘managing’ them so you are alert to what they communicate is an important step in building a culture of error.


We all probably have multiple tells and, since they are unintentional, we may send them over and over, communicating a clear message to students in the moment they have taken a risk that is the opposite of what we might intend.  One of my tells was the word “interesting,” which I would use in my English classes when a student gave an interpretation I disagreed with or thought was flimsy.  I know this was my tell because one day after a student gave an interpretation of the chapter we were reading that was perhaps a little bit desperate, I said, as I often did, “Hmmm. Interesting.”  I almost assuredly made that slightly puckered face with my lips pursed, which I punctuated with a single long blink of both eyes- where upon a student named Danielle said quite clearly from the back of the classroom, “Uh oh. Try again, Danny!”  She knew what ‘interesting’ meant. It meant, “Well, that was disappointing.”  Like most teachers, I was saying a lot more than I thought, particularly about wrong answers, and my students knew it. Offering an interpretation of a tough question was a lot less ‘safe’ than I perhaps had thought.  I thought my choice of the word ‘interesting’ showed that I valued my student’s thinking. Probably not, and not only was I revealing the answer when I intended to withhold it, but I was tipping my students. When I would ask for a student to respond to an answer a peer had given, Danielle always seemed to offer a constructive critique. She was the one to say she disagreed exactly when I was hoping someone would take that perspective.  I could count on her judgment, I’d thought but, clever girl, she had been interpreting my “tell” all semester long and knew exactly what to say.

One of my most capable colleagues describes a different tell.  When a student gave an answer in her class she would write it on the board if it was correct, but wouldn’t bother transcribing a wrong answer. Sometimes she would call on a student and turn to the board, marker poised as if to write, only to turn back to the class upon hearing the answer and re-cap the marker.  Click. Message received.

OK, now it’s your turn.  What are some common ‘tells’???

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10 Responses to “Ok, So What’s Your ‘Tell’??”

  1. Matthew McLaughlin
    January 27, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    I find that I accept correct answers immediately, but take incorrect answers and offer them to the class for evaluation. My students have learned that if I don’t accept their answers immediately, it must be a bad answer. I need to retrain them!

    • Doug_Lemov
      January 27, 2014 at 4:27 pm

      Spot on, I think. I know that I do that as well and I think the two of us are not alone!

  2. Doug_Lemov
    January 27, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    By the way, Adele Bamber of Lancashire shared this one via Twitter. Reposting here cuz it’s such a classic: “Okaaay” said slowly while I think how to re-phrase the question, to ask them to unpick their thinking or ask a diff child.

  3. Doug_Lemov
    January 27, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    And this from John David Walters via Facebook: “I squint, raise an eyebrow and say “Hmm…”” Also a classic.

  4. Grant Wiggins
    January 27, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    Great question. I was given away by my eyebrows furrowing. I didn’t know this until a kid told me. Then, I deliberately furrowed them all the time for a while. I then learned that I was messing with their understanding! It is really important in discussions to develop not only a poker face but a consistent response such as “Interesting…” or “Great idea; any others?” while nodding one’s head ‘yes’.

    • Doug_Lemov
      January 27, 2014 at 8:02 pm

      Very interesting (and true, I think). The goal, you are saying, is not “blank expression” (that would be truly creepy) but a consistent expression that signals interest in all answers, yes? That seems very useful.

      • Grant Wiggins
        January 27, 2014 at 8:22 pm

        No, not creepy vapid stare! Completely consistent expression. I can do it now, even in workshops with adults 🙂 It’s exactly the antidote to a ‘tell’ – as in baseball, the pitching mechanics have to be identical for each pitch type and for throws to first so that there are no non-verbal cues.

        The other approach, which we discuss at length under Socratic Seminar in the Essential Questions book that came out last spring, is to completely re-define your role as questioner and prober so that students quickly realize that you will never answer since that’s not your role. More like a ref than the coach judging moves.

      • Mary Ann
        August 11, 2016 at 7:03 am

        I’m a bit hesitant about stopping the use of “tells”. Wouldn’t that just confuse students? I mean it is important to acknowledge if the answers are right or not yet right. “Tells” help students get feedback over what they said. Isn’t that also a form of affirmation? Like I nod when I get a correct answer to mean approval. I do agree that we have to be cautious so that we don’t end up overusing the “tells” or like using them in non-meaningful ways. But to some extent, I feel they serve a purpose.

        • Doug Lemov
          August 20, 2016 at 8:02 pm

          Hi, Mary Ann. Thanks for your reply. I think the idea here is that we want to be aware of how we unintentionally communicate our feelings about answers… especially wrong answers… generally speaking it’s a blind spot, and a potentially costly one. But feedback on answers?… for sure.

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