What do exceptional teachers do that others don’t?

The strategies used by exceptional teachers

This is a very under-researched question but we are beginning to get some answers. What makes brilliant teachers brilliant is not who they are, but what they do in the classroom, and some of the techniques they use anyone could adopt.

Doug Lemov works in America, and he went to some of the very best achieving schools in the worst areas of social and economic deprivation. Then he asked these schools if he could watch their very best teachers, and camped out in their classrooms. He found these exceptional teachers often used similar strategies, which were key to their success, but often under the radar of most educational research.


One such teacher achieved the top mathematics results in his county, but 80% of his kids claim free school meals, almost all were from minority ethnic backgrounds, and 90% counted as poor. Yet his students achieved a 100% pass rate, surpassing the results of others from privileged areas.


Lemov studied about 50 such teachers, and found that they used a great deal of Whole Class Interactive Teaching (See ‘Teaching Today’ or ‘Evidence Based Teaching’) with very high expectations and very high participation rates. They were strict but caring, and saw these qualities as two sides of the same coin, “tough love”.


Lets look at a strategy used my most of Lemov’s 50 teachers, ‘No Opt Out’. It deals with students who, in response to a verbal question from you, says – ‘I don’t know’.


No Opt-Out

Here is a bit of dialogue showing the strategy being used to teach students how to calculate percentages. The teacher has already explained and demonstrated the process, and is now getting the class to calculate 7% of 320, with her guiding and writing on the board:


Teacher: What’s the first thing we do with this one? William?

William: Don’t know

Teacher: Carl?

Carl: We need to divide 320 by 100.

Teacher: Good, why?

Carl: Because dividing by 100 gets us 1 percent.

Teacher: So what’s this first thing we do William?

William: Divide by 100

Teacher: Yes. And why?

William: To get 1%.


So the teacher goes back to the student who “failed”, to get him to try again, and to succeed. This will only work of course if the teacher almost always goes back each time to any student who doesn’t succeed with a question. Then students will expect this return, and so prepare their answer. They will listen very carefully to the other students getting the answer correct, and to their justification of why that is done, knowing that they will have to explain this themselves in a moment.


You will need to use this method with some skill if you are to avoid two problems: students repeating an answer they don’t understand, and students getting wrong answers. Let’s see a teacher using No Opt Out while dealing with both these problems. It is a weak Level 2 catering course.


Teacher: Why do we store food in a refrigerator? Harry?

Harry: To keep it cool.

Teacher: Yes, and why do we want it to cool?

Harry: Tastes better.

Teacher: Well, partly. Who can help Harry?

Alex: Germs don’t like it cold.

Teacher: What is the advantage of that? Susan?

Susan: Stops food poisoning.

Teacher: Why?

Susan: Because the bugs don’t grow in the cold.

….(remember it was Harry who gave the initial unsatisfactory answer)….

Teacher: Germs don’t grow in the cold. Okay Harry, so why do we use fridges?

Harry: To keep food cold so we don’t get food poisoning.

Teacher: And how does the cold stop food poisoning?

Harry: Because it stops the germs growing. The cold does.

Teacher: Excellent.


Teachers often don’t ask enough of these “why?” questions but without them students will not understand, and so will quickly forget.

Some supplementary questions that help these dialogues are:

Who agrees with that answer?

Who disagrees?


This No Opt Out strategy has other advantages:

  • Weak students end up succeeding, this fixes their misunderstandings, but also raises their self belief as learners
  • There is a hidden message that success depends on doing the right thing, listening, and attending. The method demonstrates that everyone can succeed if they try. Lemov points out that “Get it wrong; then get it right” is the fundamental process in learning, and this strategy makes that happen.


“No Opt Out” embeds high expectations and could be used at any academic level and in any subject. But don’t expect any new strategy you experiment with to work straight away. You will need to get used to it, and so will your students. You could use it just in sections of your lesson, first warning your students. You might need to explain why you are using the method, and how it works. Try it on a reasonably good class first.


As with any new method, ask your students how they feel about it afterwards, and whether it would help their learning if you did it slightly differently. But don’t give up on it if they tell you they don’t like it because it makes them work harder!

There is a lot of talk about ‘high expectations’, less talk about how it can be achieved in the classroom. There is a lot of talk about ensuring all students succeed, and again less about how this can be done. Studying excellent teachers is beginning to show us how, but we need to do this so much more.

Click here for a pdf with more detail and do get Lemov’s book now in second edition.

Are you prepared to help?

I have never tried this method myself and don’t work in ordinary classrooms now, so would somebody mind trying this method out for me? If you can try it long enough to see whether it works, or not, I would be very interested to hear from you: my contact details are on my website www.geoffpetty.com or you could leave a commment after this blog. Perhaps you could even video your lesson to show us how it works in practice!? Then I could put the video on my website.


Geoff Petty 2011


Further Reading

Doug Lemov (2010) ‘Teach Like a Champion’. Jossey-Bass

Geoff Petty (2009) ‘Teaching Today’ 5th Ed. Oxford University Press – see chapter 24 on Whole class Interactive Teaching

Geoff Petty (2009) ‘Evidence Based Teaching’ 2nd Ed. Oxford University Press – See chapter 9 on Whole Class Interactive Teaching, and chapter 15 on dialogue, questioning, and the self correcting classroom.

4 thoughts on “What do exceptional teachers do that others don’t?

  1. What resources can encourage to develop the habits of mind? And, how are resources different from tools? Can you give examples from your research tools and resources?

    • I’m a bit puzzled by this question as I didn’t mention either resources or tools in that post. Maybe its an assignment you were given?

  2. i have to disagree with your comments on “What do exceptional teachers do that others don’t?” as i do this every day in my teaching practice. I break things down to the simplistic factor and use a scaffolding teaching method to build on learnt knowledge.

    • Well it’s great that you do that, maybe you are an exceptional teacher, or maybe you will become one when you use some more strategies that exceptional teachers use.

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