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Explaining KIPP's 'SLANT'

Elliott Witney blogs again with Deborah Meier today.

Dear Deb,

You've asked how we can reconcile our practices with the Golden Rule of "Do unto others what you would have others do unto you." Or, in other words, how aligned are our practices with our beliefs? That's a question I've been focused on since I was in college, and I deeply appreciate the chance to get into it with you.

I'll devote this second letter to discussing the educational practice you asked about, known as SLANT. This is a perfect example of how alignment between practice and beliefs is just as crucial—if not more so—than the specific practice itself.

SLANT emerged at our school in Houston as an easy way to explain to children some key elements of a stimulating learning environment. Engaged learners Sit up; they Listen; they Ask and Answer questions; they Nod when it makes sense to nod; and they Track the speaker—whether that speaker is a fellow student or the teacher. SLANT is a means to an end, not an end in itself—a distinction that is worth re-reading. The important thing here is that these elements are all in service of a greater goal: to maximize student learning time in classrooms while cultivating intellectual habits that can be useful in any learning environment. In order to understand that, let's look more closely at the five pieces of the acronym.

Sit Up. Not only does sitting up make you more energetic and engaged than slumping down in your chair, but it also conveys respect for the person or people in the room with you. This practice is as important in the classroom as it is in, say, a college interview. Sitting up might look different from student to student, or from classroom to classroom, but the important thing is that students show they're alert and engaged.

Listen. So much of classroom learning is based on processing what you hear—whether it's the teacher or a fellow student talking. When we encourage students to listen to each other, and to the teacher, their conversations become more layered and sophisticated. They can build on what was said before, instead of just relying on the basic understanding provided by notes and books.

Ask and Answer Questions. As a classroom teacher, I always encourage my students to ask questions, for my benefit as much as theirs. If a student cannot answer a question, or is too shy to ask, then the teacher is missing crucial information about what they understand and where they need support. Encouraging students to ask and answer questions is a way to get them in the habit of demonstrating their understanding themselves, rather than the teacher having to draw it out of them.

Nod. This one is really more about Non-Verbal Communication. It's the visual equivalent of asking and answering questions—we're helping students give their teachers cues about whether or not they get what's going on. It's the same as in any real-world conversation, where you let people know you understand by nodding or giving other non-verbal cues. As a teacher, nodding in the affirmative wasn't the only non-verbal cues I encouraged. Things like smiling and laughing were also great for letting me know that students were following along with me.

Track the Speaker. This is partly about showing respect for the speaker, but it's also practical: When students are looking at the person speaking, they have an easier time hearing what they're saying and processing that information. In the age of cell phones and other hand-held technology, teaching students to look at the person speaking has become even more important. A friend recently told me the story of her family reunion, where all the teenagers huddled in a dimly lit corner of the room, where the only sign of life was the glow of their smart phones—no one was talking to anyone else. In our classrooms (and probably plenty of other places) we want our classrooms to be places where students are truly present and engaged.

During my years of teaching middle school, I made sure to integrate the elements of SLANT into my lessons. For example, when my students studied To Kill a Mockingbird, I set up a college-style seminar discussion about Atticus Finch's notion of courage. Throughout the discussion, I encouraged students to sit up; to listen when others were speaking; to ask questions when they were confused (or curious); to give non-verbal cues when they understood what was going on; and to keep their eyes on the person speaking as the conversation bounced back and forth around the room. This is the kind of behavior that's expected in college-level courses, and by getting them used to it now, I aimed to deliberately set them up to succeed well into the future. It was about more than the behavior; it was about my belief that these behaviors are important for success down the line.

SLANT needs to be deliberately and carefully implemented; it takes practice and encouragement at the hand of an expert teacher. If done well, it can help build positive habits in students that persist through college and beyond.

For me—and, I'm learning, for you as well—the key to all this is intentionality. Are we making intentional decisions about what we do as educators? Are we actively trying to align our practice to what we believe? If we stay cognizant of these questions, rather than enforcing SLANT behaviors for their own sake, then we have a terrific tool for making our beliefs about education become a reality.

I want to end with a story, the kind of thing that makes all these discussions we have worthwhile. I just heard yesterday from a former student of mine, who graduated from college in Houston and moved to California. He told me that his time in my class and school helped set him up for success in college, so he is strongly considering a move back to Houston and to become a teacher himself. He is eager to give back to the community he came from, and to introduce these belief-based practices to a new generation of students. I couldn't be prouder.


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