Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.04.14Systems and Routines is an Academic Tool, Too

Some of the most popular sections in Teach Like a Champion are the parts of the book about establishing systems and routines to make the classroom more efficient and maximize instructional time.  This section will get a revision in TLAC 2.0 with lots of updates and improvements.  One small but useful addition is this short sidebar about applying the principle of systems and routines to academic tasks.  I thought I’d share a draft of it now so you didn’t have to wait for the new  version of the book to come out!


It’s not just tasks like moving to the carpet and passing in homework that respond well to routinizing in the classroom. Academic tasks are ideal as well. Habits of Discussion (a new technique in the revised TLaC about building productive discussion habits; you can read more here and here and here), for example, is a classic system and routine in which students learn and practice how to make their discussions more productive.  Turn and Talks (also a new technique; discussed in posts here and here and here though) too would be all but impossible without the systems for accountability and efficiency I describe in that chapter.

In fact the more a behavior occurs and the more central it is to what you seek to accomplish in the classroom, the more responsive to routine it is.  Think for example of the power of having a routine for annotation or marking-up text.  You tell your class: “Every time we read we do so with pencils in hand- we underline key details, circle vocabulary words and summarize important scenes in the margin,” or something like that. You practice that until students can use the system with near-automaticity. Then for the rest of the year you can simply say, as East Boston’s Rue Ratray did in a lesson I recently watched, “Take five minutes to read and annotate this passage. Go.” One of your key academic tasks ensues without further explanation or discussion.  And of course there’s a virtuous cycle here. Once you have a system it’s easier to do it—the transaction cost for starting goes down; the efficiency goes up—so the better and better students get at it. You increase the rate of improvement at core tasks by systematizing them.

Or consider the power of a routine for text analysis: “When I give you an excerpt from a text we’re reading you’ll do four things with it: identify the characters involved and the setting, explain its place in the plot of the novel, describe how the scene exemplifies or challenges a key theme (one we’ve talked about or one of your own), compare the scene to another from the same book or another we’ve read as a class this year.”  If your students could do that in five minutes, your Do Now (another routine!) could involve this kind of solid practice at text analysis three, four, even five days a week.  You’d merely choose a rich paragraph or two, excerpt it and let them tear it apart. Talk about low transaction cost!  Again, systematizing something makes it easier to get going and increases the efficiency of its output, and that’s a powerful tool on the academic side too. It takes the focus from how to complete the activity and puts in on the substance of the task—“What do I want to say about this passage?”

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14 Responses to “Systems and Routines is an Academic Tool, Too”

  1. Matt Wheeland
    April 4, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    Excellent Point: “In fact the more a behavior occurs and the more central it is to what you seek to accomplish in the classroom, the more responsive to routine it is.” I’m going to start thinking about the most “repeated” activities I do and try to develop steps for them to cut down on wasted time.

    Your point about annotating a text is really helpful. I immediately began (mentally) drafting a poster-board that I could make called “Effective Reading” that lists several practices that I would like my students to internalize.

  2. James Marshall
    April 5, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Thanks for this Doug, I can use this in my coaching of young people. There is so much more to coaching than “crowd control”, really liked the practice perfect book.

  3. Lisa Pryor
    April 7, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Make every minute count when you practice and systematize procedures that lead to fewer disruptions an d interruptions and maximize student learning time….more time to learn, more time to teach. Thanks Doug for the inspiration!

  4. Rebecca Lane
    April 7, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    This is a rich insight to moving beyond just rituals and routines for the classroom behaviors. Now we are thinking more profoundly about the structures we put into place to allow students to spend their time in the content. Thus, we allow them access to the higher levels of rigor we desire.

  5. Ammon
    April 7, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    Teaching this skills really pays compounded dividends when you consider the instructional time you have saved, and that you have empowered your students to be confident in their ability to preform scholarly tasks!

  6. Mike Deguire
    April 7, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    How exciting if teachers across a school commit to common ways of analyzing text or responding to various learning opportunities. Students would appreciate the common expectations and work faster in their learning.

  7. Rachael
    April 7, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    This is applicable in any classroom and even the smallest things that we do such as sharpening pencils or getting to our seats can be made faster with a routine. Routines for transitions are some of the most important routines because they cut back on disruptive student behaviors that can in turn derail a new activity. This gives us more time for the activity which in turn allows more time for our students to learn!

  8. Ruth Ocon Neri
    April 7, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    As a teacher I never stopped to realize that academic tasks can and should be a part of systems in the classroom. This definitely saves time and more learning can happen. This article is awesome and I thank you for it.

  9. Lori Bobinsky
    April 16, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    We often talk about two groups of students–those that read the words and those that think about their reading. I can see the power of putting academic routines in place. Not only will we be saving time, but children will quickly learn that reading can not happen without thinking. The more thinking students do, the more they become engaged, and the more they enjoy reading. Wow!

  10. Kristen Fox
    April 16, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    Having routines, rituals, procedures, systems, and clear, high expectations in place for both housekeeping and learning are essential to student and teacher success in the classroom. I aspire to establish a classroom that runs like clockwork! To accomplish this, I need to evaluate my current state of affairs; decide what to change and how to change; and begin implementing changes today. I will refer to the book Teach Like a Champion for ideas; I will also seek ideas from observations of and conversations with colleagues.

  11. Selene becker
    April 16, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    Routines and rituals are extremely important to classroom communities. Imagine how much easier it would be for students to concentrate on their learning if the whole school community followed the same routines.
    IIn this example, allowing more time to focus on reading and responding to their reading.

    • Doug Lemov
      April 16, 2015 at 2:54 pm

      So true. it means time spent thinking about the text versus the teacher’s expectations

  12. Annetta Weatherhead
    April 16, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    It would be a great goal to have teachers across a school to practice the same procedures, systemizing note taking and so much more. Students would be able to practice, practice, practice and get so good at it!

    • Doug Lemov
      April 16, 2015 at 2:52 pm

      Hi, Annetta- I really agree with you here. The power of consistent systems across a school or a group of teachers is so powerful.

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