05.04.23Tracking in Classrooms: What I Really Think (and Wrote)
Every so often Teacher Twitter turns itself to the topic of tracking and “SLANTing” in the classroom- basically whether student can and should or can be asked to look at one another when they are speaking in the classroom and whether its reasonable to ask them to sit up.
That time has arrived again over in England. I’m always amazed at what people say I say about this idea–there’s a lot of “here’s what Lemov says”… usually it’s the people who know me least and who haven’t actually read my current treatment of the idea who are most sure about what I believe and say.. and who are most wrong… So for what it’s worth, here IS what I say about tracking in the classroom in TLAC 3.0 Obviously this won’t stop people from announcing confident distortions but for those who actually want to know, here it is.
TECHNIQUE 48: HABITS OF ATTENTION
“What few people ever appreciate is how central attention is for every function we perform,” writes reading researcher Maryanne Wolf. “What we attend to is ultimately what we learn,” concurs Peps Mccrea. It is the unheralded “gatekeeper” of learning. The ability to sustain focus and concentration is the unacknowledged source of many students’ success, and the inability to attend is the undoing of others.
“Neuroscience reminds us that before we can be motivated to learn what is in front of us, we must pay attention to it,” says Zaretta Hammond. “The hallmark of an independent learner is his ability to direct his attention toward his own leaning.”5 To build strong attentional habits is to give students stewardship of their own thinking.
Selective attention is the term for the ability to select what you pay attention to—to lock out distractions and lock in on the task at hand. It has “reverberating effects” on success in language, literacy, and mathematics, note cognitive scientists Courtney Stevens and Daphne Bavelier. They add that there are potentially “large benefits to incorporating attention-training activities into the school context.”6
If young people can build habits of sustained selective attention, their likelihood of success is higher. This has always been true but is magnified today when much of our universe—the online portion of it—is designed to fragment our attention and draw it to where it can be marketed and sold.
The technique Habits of Attention seeks to establish routines that cause students to focus their attention during class and build stronger attentional habits. In addition, it seeks to use the signals people send when they attend to someone else to build a stronger, more inclusive learning community.
I used to call the technique STAR/SLANT after the acronyms that schools often used to describe its component expectations in the classroom. I still suggest the use of an acronym to describe core attentional habits, but I’ve changed the name and the description to focus more on why. Understand the purpose of the technique and you are far more likely to use it effectively.
The “habits” in the technique focus in particular on eye-tracking and pro-social body language—language that communicates support for, and the belonging of, speakers. It may be helpful, before reading more, to watch these things in action in a classroom. I suggest you do so in two parts, first watching Christine Torres’s Keystone video, which shows two broad segments of her lesson, as she first teaches new vocabulary words and then leads a discussion of Lois Lowry’s novel Number the Stars. Christine’s students, I think you will agree, are unusually engaged and attentive: They enthusiastically wrestle with new words and are cerebral, respectful, and attentive in discussing a difficult question. Next watch the video Christine Torres: Habits of Attention Outtakes to see a montage of moments extracted from this lesson. Note how important it is that students look at one another, how their body language shows classmates that they belong and their ideas are welcome. Note how attentive, confident, and productive they are as a result.
“Visual cues,” writes James Clear in Atomic Habits, “are the greatest catalyst of our behavior. Where we look shapes our attention more than any single factor.”7 We are often not fully intentional or even conscious of where we look and why, however, so shaping students’ habits of looking can lead to a profound change, not only in their actions and cognition, but in those around them. For example, engaging in behaviors that show a speaker that you are listening carefully—nodding, for example, and looking interested—are often self-actualizing. They cause you to pay better attention and cause the speaker to feel a strong sense of affirmation and belonging as well. Note therefore how often—and how deftly—Christine reinforces these things.
There is a strong connection between such behaviors and our ability to build community in the classroom. Belonging8 is arguably the most powerful motivator there is. Our unconscious brains are “obsessed with it” writes Daniel Coyle in his book, The Culture Code, but he adds that the brain “needs to be continually fed by signals of safe connection.” Surveying the research, he notes that “Posture and expression are incredibly important. It’s the way we prove we are in synch with someone.” However, “a mere hint of belonging is not enough … we are built to require lots of signaling, over and over.”
You can see this happening in Christine’s classroom. Her students are constantly signaling to one another that they belong. They turn and face each other. They nod, react, and encourage. And this signal is strongest when their classmates are sharing important ideas. There is a risk that every student takes in raising their hand. To raise your hand and say something truthful in front of a group of peers is to risk failure or, worse, judgment by them. Yes, your answer could be disastrously wrong, but even worse, your classmates’ nonverbal response could say: None of us could care less about what you just said or Oh, wait, did you say something? I barely even noticed or please tell me you didn’t just make a comment about the book. If that is the case, only a rare student will raise her hand.9 The learning journey is forestalled when students must risk social transgression to embark upon it. “Regardless of how strong the logic of your pep talk,” Peps Mccrea writes, “few pupils will ask more questions in class if they sense it will result in being mocked by their mates.”
But in Christine’s classroom, to raise your hand and to begin to formulate a thought is to bask in the warm glow of acceptance and encouragement. The culture in her classroom does not just allow students to take this necessary risk, it lovingly draws them into the light. It is profound and beautiful—a gift to young people, and most of all to the hesitant and reluctant. But what you see in her classroom is not something that will happen naturally, among any group of people, unless the teacher intentionally builds it.
There are people who will tell you that building such culture is coercive and repressive, and sometimes that this is “controlling Black and Brown bodies.” I hope this discussion will make it clear that this is a not the case.10 To ask students to be attentive to their bodies is to create opportunities for their minds and spirits; to help them build habits that help them focus is to help them harness the power of their thinking. When classmates intentionally signal belonging and encouragement to one another, they release them from invisible barriers that constrain them, barriers that for some students will exist in the majority of classrooms they will enter in their lives. To shape these signals is to give students power and community in place of dependence and isolation.
Eye contact and body language are the means we use to show someone that they matter and belong. Understanding our evolution as a species can help us to understand why.
Let’s start with our eyes, which have a white outer portion called the sclera. In all of the other primates, the area surrounding the pupil is dark and as a result you cannot clearly track eye movements. Scientists explain this singular aspect of human evolution via the Cooperative Eye Hypothesis. Humans act with a level of cooperation unseen in the mammal kingdom. As a species we survived because of this unequaled ability (and desire) to coordinate and collaborate. For most of evolutionary history to be cast out of the group was certain death. Our eyes have adapted to look the way they do because the information contained in the gaze of our peers—Am I accepted and respected? What is my status? Do I belong?—is central to survival. “For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other. We used signals long before we used language,” says Alex Pentland of the MIT Human Dynamics Lab.11 Our physiology is designed to communicate these signals and we are profoundly sensitive to what is told in our peers’ eyes— even if we are often unconscious of it.
“Belonging feels like it happens from the inside out,” summarizes Coyle, “but in fact it happens from the outside in.” Students in Christine’s classroom feel like they belong because their peers are signaling to them that they belong—and that they still belong—just possibly they especially belong—when and if they participate in learning.
The original version of this technique—and its name—referred to acronyms such as SLANT, which several outstanding schools used to articulate the signals of belonging and attentiveness that people use when in groups:
Ask and answer questions
Nod your head
Track the speaker
Especially crucial elements from that list were tracking the speaker—that is, following the person talking with your eyes—and sitting up—you don’t learn well if you are slouched, or at all if you have your head down on your desk, and allowing yourself to check out physically causes you to check out mentally. If we care about young people, if we believe their learning and their futures are important, we can’t allow them to simply opt out of attending to learning.
Handy acronyms such as SLANT allow teachers to explain and reinforce the component behaviors: “Don’t forget to SLANT” or “Check your S” (that is, make sure you’re sitting up); “Please track Guadeloupe while she shares her answer.” Or simply calling on Guadeloupe by saying “Track Guadeloupe, please.” But there can be challenges with these acronyms. First, they focus on the action without always fully describing its purpose and a good thing can easily become distorted when the purpose isn’t clear. The component parts of SLANT, for example, are easy to manage and so teachers—perhaps a struggling teacher for whom an orderly classroom has been elusive—can lock in on the behavior without pursuing its purpose.
An additional challenge can be that managing attention behaviors can prove successful enough that it can lead to a spread in managing behaviors less clearly tied to attention: hands folded on the desk; back flat against the chair, and so forth. To be clear, these behaviors are not something I’ve discussed in Teach Like a Champion, but I have certainly seen classrooms where they are reinforced in a counterproductive way and sometimes in the belief that this book endorses them. Reminding students who are at risk of becoming distracted—or who are sending unsupportive messages to peers—to Track or SLANT can be useful; telling students to keep their feet flat on the floor or interrupting them when they are productively engaged in a discussion to tell them to fold their hands on the desk is not.12 What if they want to take notes?
Habits of Attention also implies asking students to track us as teachers at times. There are people who will tell you this, too, is a form of tyranny, but telling children they needn’t pay attention to adults is a cheap version of freedom to trade an education for. “When parents asked me why their students should have to track me when I spoke, I explained, ‘If I can’t see your son’s eyes I don’t know if he heard. I don’t know if he will be able to complete the learning task,” my colleague Darryl Williams says of his school leadership days. “I explained it from an equity perspective. One of the reasons we get students’ attention is to give them the opportunity to be successful at a task.” That’s an educator who is clear on his purpose and who understands what supports autonomy for young people.
To address these challenges, I’m going to propose what I think is a better acronym—with the caveat that I think each school or classroom should reflect individually on any acronym they choose. Are these the tools we think will build positive attention habits in our students? If students work hard and meet these expectations, will it improve their ability to learn in a positive way? The answer must be yes, or the expectations are not worth including. But if the answer is yes, you should not shrink from including them.
With all of that in mind, it’s clear that there’s information we can add to descriptions of attention habits to provide more consistent reminders to teachers and students about their purpose. Consider the “N” in SLANT, that is, nodding your head. This not only shows interest in another person’s ideas, it also causes you to engage actively in listening. Here is an updated list for Habits of Attention, with the acronym STAR, revised to emphasize purpose more clearly:
- Sit up to look interested and stay engaged.
- Track the speaker to show other people their ideas matter.
- Appreciate your classmates’ ideas by nodding, smiling, and so on when they speak.
- Rephrase the words of the person who spoke before you so they know you were listening.
In this acronym you can see I’ve added details about purpose. Nodding is included in the “appreciate” step to emphasize the importance of appreciating your classmates. That said, you might replace the “Appreciate” A with an A called “Active listening” (to help you focus and show that you value your classmates). “Sit up” includes a purpose as well, so you look interested and engaged. You’ll also notice that I’ve brought in an idea from the Habits of Discussion technique, “rephrasing,” but you could drop it if you wanted, perhaps replacing it with something else. Again, I am describing options here because the behaviors described in any acronym (and the expectations) should be carefully thought through at the school or classroom level. My version of STAR may be helpful, but the adaptations you make to it will make it even better.
There’s one other piece that’s needed, though. Habits of Attention only work if they become habits. You can see how important this is to Christine Torres. Her classroom culture is strong—exceptional, you might argue. It’s warm and encouraging and inclusive of all. It’s fun and funny and scholarly. And yet, she is still shaping and reinforcing and lovingly correcting for Habits of Attention all the way through. She strikes a careful balance. If you have to explain and remind every time you want eye contact to validate a speaker, then it will become a constant disruption to the conversation you are trying to honor. But just because things are going well does not mean she forgets about maintaining the environment. She reinforces it lovingly, early, and often with a hint of humor so her reminders are gentle. Having an acronym helps her because it allows for easy abbreviated reminders.
Some details to notice from Christine’s class:
- Frequently she reminds students to track in advance via the language she uses to call on a student, as in segment 1: “What did the girl do in the situation? Track, Etani …”
- Occasionally she narrates the positive to make the norm more visible, as in segment 2: “Track, Azariah. Jada’s tracking; Juju’s tracking.” Once she reminds a student to reciprocate the signal—to turn and face his classmates as they are tracking him. Other times she reminds students indirectly and playfully as in segment 4: “Ooh, Jasmine, girl, wait until you have all eyes.”
- You can also see habits in formation. Notice how, without her asking students to, students turn and engage face-to-face and expressively in their Turn and Talk. Many a teacher can tell you tales of flat affect and disinterest expressed in pair conversations, but not in Christine’s class.
- The culture carries over, too, in the moment when she calls on Nate without asking for tracking … still his classmates turn to face him. The signal of belonging is loud and clear.
- The montage ends with Christine asking for students to track her. She’s giving them a key piece of information. It’s critical that they hear and attend. By asking for tracking she signals the extra importance of the moment. Students lock in and, without her asking them to, adjust their own posture.
That said, even a well-established routine is a default—understood as the base condition but a condition that can be changed or turned off. I witnessed an example of this in Torian Black’s history class at Freedom Prep in Memphis one morning not too long ago.
During his lesson he gave students a variety of reading and writing tasks to complete in groups. The tasks were complex and afforded students a significant amount of autonomy, so it was important that they listen carefully and get the directions right. His gentle reminders to “make sure you’re listening” were accompanied by a warm and gracious smile. This not only communicated trust and caring but confidence. As a result, things were pretty crisp and class time was spent on the activities as planned.
But here was my favorite part. As he reviewed a portion of the directions, Torian said, “No need to track me; you can just read along on the page in front of you.”
Later he summarized the directions and used that phrase again in a warm and quiet voice, “No need to track me.” So students read along.
I love that phrase … “No need to track me.” It does several things at once.
First, it reminds students that there is an intact expectation in the classroom that listeners track speakers. But it also shows intentionality on Torian’s part. A really useful rule of thumb for managing a classroom is Because you can does not mean you must. Could Torian enforce the expectation that students track him while he gave direction? Yes. Must he? No. And in fact he wanted them reading the directions, not looking at him in this case. Or perhaps he wanted to give them an inch of extra flexibility because they were so on-point. He gave them permission not to follow the default while reminding them that it was still the default—a perfect and elegant way to prevent ambiguity. But he also reminded them that the lack of tracking was intentional and not an accident. The system and the exception coexisted happily and his phrase allowed Torian to turn off the tracking default temporarily while reinforcing it as an expectation.
Let’s close then with two examples of what classrooms with strong Habits of Attention look like. First, check out the Keystone video of BreOnna Tindall’s classroom. Her students look at each other as they share their thoughts about The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. You can feel their confidence as their ideas are validated by the group. The importance of their contributions is reinforced at every turn and so the scholarly side of students is drawn out, even for the students who are at first hesitant to speak. The environment, the culture, changes them.
But notice in particular how, after the initial Turn and Talk, one student, Adriel, is called on to share his response. It’s a Cold Call, by the way. Adriel hadn’t raised his hand. But voice equity is important. In a good classroom, everyone’s voice matters and BreOnna expresses that with her Cold Call. Is Adriel nervous? Perhaps. But in addition to BreOnna’s sincere interest and gracious smile, his classmates track him to show his ideas matter to them. This draws him out. They snap occasionally as he speaks to encourage and appreciate his thinking. In the glow of their respect, he speaks earnestly and with depth. He would not do that if their eye contact and body language did not encourage him to; if they slouched and looked away out the window. No one would. Left on his own, he might have sat silently but here he is drawn out into the sunlight of his peers. Changing the social cues he sees changes his behavior. He is discovering that his ideas are worthy of appreciation from his peers. A classroom with strong Habits of Attention I noted earlier, is like a bright mirror. It reflects its students’ talents, but it is changing them at the same time.
Adriel’s relationship with BreOnna certainly influences his work in school, but not as much as the interactions with his peers do. Thus BreOnna has sought to shape and guide them so they are as beneficial as possible.
Notice also that BreOnna calls next on Renee. She’s got plenty to say as well and we can see that she knows the culture of the classroom will embrace her cerebral reflections. But notice also how she builds off of Adriel. This happens in part because of the classroom’s habits but it’s important to recognize that Habits of Discussion rely on Habits of Attention. She is attentive and focused during both the Turn and Talk—when she tracked and nodded and encouraged and so locked into her conversations—and while Adriel was speaking. Her answer reflects strong attention habits.
Finally, check out Denarius Frazier’s tenth-grade math classroom at Uncommon Collegiate High School in Brooklyn (Denarius Frazier: Solutions). Using Habits of Attention with high schoolers might seem daunting but the results are surprisingly similar. As you watch, I hope you note the high “ratio” in the classroom—it’s the students who do the work. They actively engage in tasks both challenging and worthy. The level of the discussion is high. You might also note the open-mindedness of Vanessa, who begins to defend her answer, recognizes her mistake, and changes her thinking without defensiveness. Look at the still image of the moment when this happens. The eye contact—tracking—is important and so are the facial expressions. The moment happens because she is receiving strong signals of psychological safety and belonging throughout: her classmates’ eyes and faces and body language say We are with you.
What we’re seeing is in part unnatural. At least it starts that way. At first, no group of people will of their own accord behave in a manner educationally optimal for the group as a whole. So it may be true that students begin tracking mostly because a teacher has asked them to. They are nudged, to use Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s term for an environment that encourages optimal decision making from participants, but once the nudge has happened, the action often becomes their own, a vehicle by which they express a culture of belonging and supporting one another of their own volition. They feel the difference and having felt it, embrace it. The classroom is more humanized than “dehumanized” by the tracking.