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Time is on their side: Teachers are using countdown clocks as a classroom tool

Doug Lemov, author of “Teach Like A Champion” and “Teach Like A Champion 2.0,” talked about the technique called “Work The Clock,” where there is allotted time for each classroom activity.
Doug Lemov, author of “Teach Like A Champion” and “Teach Like A Champion 2.0,” talked about the technique called “Work The Clock,” where there is allotted time for each classroom activity. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Watching presidential candidates struggling to squeeze their debate statements into 30- or 60-second bites reminds me they are just like kids in class. Timers are becoming key to school instruction, which some teachers like and others do not.

I first noticed this in the late 1990s when I came in contact with the “Success For All” program. It engaged students by having teachers time their lessons so they did not bog down. Success For All is still going strong, with around 500,000 students in 1,000 schools, but its emphasis on time has spread to many other programs.

Two books written by former English and history teacher Doug Lemov, “Teach Like A Champion” and “Teach Like A Champion 2.0,” have emphasized timers, along with dozens of other techniques, to help students absorb and understand what they are learning. The two books are among the most successful teacher guides ever, so far selling 1.1 million copies.

Lemov wrote his books after making videos of some of the best teachers he knew. He broke down what he saw into 49 techniques in the first book and 62 in the second. Here is what he said in the first book about what he calls “Work The Clock.”

The teachers he watched provide lessons “in highly specific increments, often announcing an allotted time for each activity: ‘Take three minutes to answer the questions in front of you.’ They mix in frequent countdowns to pace their class in completing tasks and emphasize the importance of each second: ‘Pencils down and eyes on me in 5-4-3-2-1.’ The countdown lends a sense of urgency to class time, reminding students that time matters and hastening them along to the next step.”

Moderators of presidential debates keep things moving to provoke clashes that inspire headlines and increase ratings, but Lemov said his teachers employ a more inspirational approach: “Imagine you acknowledged two students, Brooklyn and Brian, because they were ready in exactly the manner you’d asked. If you acknowledge them in the middle of a countdown (for example, by saying: ‘5, 4, . . . Brooklyn’s ready! . . . 3, 2 . . . Brian’s sitting up and ready to roll! . . . and 1.’ . . . You are calling attention to behavior that not only meets but exceeds expectations.”

Such techniques have been around a long time but have never gotten such attention. A contributor to the California-based Center for the Collaborative Classroom website said teachers should do for themselves what they do for students. “Listening to me talk about how to write an essay will not improve student writing,” the contributor said. “In order to keep myself from droning on too long, I time myself.”

Timers have become a daily tool for teachers in several of the nation’s largest charter networks, including Uncommon Schools, where Lemov is a managing director.

TV moderators push hard for concision because in broadcasting, time is precious. Why shouldn’t classroom time be treated the same way?

In his second book, Lemov describes the modern devices that can be used, including “an overhead stopwatch — one of those LCD clocks you can project on the overhead or on the wall.” A spokeswoman for the 96 IDEA public charter schools said, “The vast majority of our classrooms have big red timers attached to the whiteboard at the front of the classroom with a magnet.”

The kind of lessons Success For All and other high-performing programs use are sometimes scripted. Teachers are given model language that has worked in other classrooms. Many teachers and education schools don’t like that, even though the approach has been shown to raise achievement. MDRC, the nonprofit policy research organization, did a study showing kindergartners in Success For All did significantly better in phonics than those in control groups. However, 55 percent of the Success For All teachers said the program was too rigid or scripted, compared with only 20 percent of control group teachers using other programs.

Such feelings still exist. Timers are unlikely to spread to every classroom, but maybe the TV networks can learn something from the educators who use them. “5, 4, . . . Kamala’s ready! . . . 3, 2 . . . Bernie’s sitting up and ready to roll! . . and 1.”

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