Every Minute Counts

I’ve learned much of what I know about teaching from colleagues, but when I started teaching high school, there is one book that I found extremely helpful: Every Minute Counts, by David R. Johnson (1982, Dale Seymour Publications, with great illustrations by cartoonist John Johnson). In the 37 years since the book’s publication, society has changed, math education has changed, and I’ve changed. I decided to take another look at it, to see how well it’s holding up.


Early on, Johnson shares his goals as a teacher. Here are three good ones:

  • I will give no options for nonparticipation.
  • I will allow students to make mistakes without fear of failure or embarrassment.
  • I will encourage student interaction during a portion of each class period.

After listing his eight goals, he adds: “I don’t remember a single day when I can honestly say that I have achieved all of them…” That’s evidence that the author is an actual teacher, not someone promoting the latest fad. In fact, the whole book confirms that: it consists of a mix of big picture ideas and specific implementation ideas about everything from homework, to the daily routine, to assessment, all of it stemming from one teacher’s experience.

The most useful part of the book, both in the 1980’s and now, is the chapter on “The Art of Questioning”, in which he presents some great ideas about how to run a class discussion. He starts out by challenging what he calls the “one-on-one questioning method” (you ask a question, get the correct answer from a student, and move on, without knowing whether anyone else in the class understands what you’re talking about.) He then offers a list of 20 “try-to” principles of questioning. (Yes, twenty!) Here are three of the best:

  • Try to avoid yes/no questions.
  • Try to follow up student answers with “why?”
  • Try to ask for reactions to a student answer.

Johnson’s overriding philosophy of class discussion is two-fold: on the one hand, the questions should get all students to engage, and on the other, student answers should reveal to the teacher the extent of student understanding. He discourages us from asking “Does everyone get this?” or similar questions, which rarely yield accurate feedback about what is really going on. He believes it is the teacher’s responsibility to figure out who gets it. This leads to his key insight: he needs answers from every single student. To achieve that, he has the whole class answer questions using the “paper-and-pencil method.” He asks a question, has all students write down their answers, and he walks around to see what they wrote. This way he can proceed with the lesson with full knowledge of who’s on board, whether he needs to backtrack, and so on. (Of course, there are other ways to get this sort of whole-class feedback, which I should probably discuss in a future post.)

To make this method more efficient, he lays out the student desks in a half-circle, with the teacher at the center — what he calls “a U-shape arrangement”. This means that no one is sitting in back, and the teacher can quickly see all the students’ work. Unfortunately, this is not optimal for student collaboration, so this is not a suggestion I would take up. Still, even in a collaborative classroom,  teacher-led discussions play an important role. David R. Johnson’s techniques for genuine student engagement in class discussions are mostly excellent, and far superior to the standard pseudo-interactive lecture format, where a small number of vocal students finish the teacher’s sentences.

In fact, his ideas on questioning would make a great topic for a math department meeting, and for targeted visits from colleagues to your classroom. It appears the book is still in print, or is back in print, so you may want to get a copy.

Oh, one more thing. Johnson ends the book with 15 discussion starters, most of which address common student misconceptions. Here are three of them:

  • Which is greater, x or -x?
  • When is 1/x greater than x?
  • Are some numbers greater than their squares?

— Henri

9 thoughts on “Every Minute Counts”

  1. I used to call on random students in class. I don’t now, because I know how hard that is on the ones who have anxiety. I think often about how to get more participation. (I’ll be buying this book. Thanks.)


  2. Re: student anxiety. Allow students to discuss answers/thoughts before random calling which holds students accountable to thinking about every question asked. Respond positively to all answers. If the student answer is incorrect, respond with “That answer would have been correct if I had said…..” This allows all the class members to continue thinking about the difference between the original and alternative questions. Then you can ask student to revise his/her answer or call on another student.


    1. To be honest, I agree with both of you. There are no hard and fast rules in teaching: context is everything. Much depends on your classroom, departmental, and institutional culture, plus your own personality and how well you know the particular student and the class. That said, there are many ways to increase participation, all of them learnable. Maestrak’s suggestions are very helpful, and are among the techniques I use, along with some of the ideas I learned from Johnson and from Project SEED. (I’ll have to write those up some day!)


  3. Henri, Like you I found this book and two others he wrote very helpful when I started teaching and continue to dip into them 25 years later. I’m no historical revisionist (there’s enough of them around right now) but I googled David Johnson recently wondering if he was still with us or had done any other writing and it’s very sad to note that his life ended in some disgrace which for me tainted what are/were such interesting and valuable snippets of classroom wisdom.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s