Reflections on Teach Like a Champion, 2.0

I recently read Doug Lemov’s updated Teach Like a Champion 2.0.  I read it because I spend a lot of time in classrooms and I want to get better at spotting the things that enable teachers to improve.

I love Lemov’s obsession with the micro-techniques (‘instructional brush strokes’) of teaching.  Teaching is a complex process, and with so many variables to consider it’s easy to resort to intuition to explain good teaching.  A great teacher looks like a ‘natural’ – she is simply ‘being herself’ in the classroom.  Similarly, it’s easy to resort to generic advice – “high expectations!” “Don’t smile til Christmas!”  “More pace!” “Engagement!”.  Lemov blows these platitudes apart by focusing not on the manifestations of effective teaching but on the systems, routines and procedures that underpin it.

To take one example (Technique 7, Plan for Error), Lemov advises teachers to pre-empt incorrect answers to important questions before the lesson begins, and decide in advance how they might respond to these errors.

This focus on the micro-techniques reminds of me of Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis of running in a recent New Yorker interview: “I can say that the thing that pains me the most about non-serious runners is their failure to understand that running is no more a “natural” or “intuitive” act than hitting a topspin forehand is. Do not heel strike—ever! Do not run with a water bottle! Running is not weight lifting! Relax your upper body!”

By identifying, naming and showcasing the micro-techniques of teaching, Lemov provides a framework for teachers to make incremental improvements (‘concrete, specific, actionable’) to key areas of their practice, and for coaches and school leaders to support them in doing so.

I like Lemov’s insistence on getting under the skin of teaching.  It’s all too easy to skim along the surface of a lesson, noticing the manifestations of good or less good teaching, ignorant of the underlying causes.  This is particularly problematic when a novice teacher tries to learn from a more established one.  They might see the fruits of the established teacher’s labour, but not the groundwork that was laid weeks, months and years before.  I wrote last week HERE on the challenge of learning from great schools without resorting to shallow mimicry, and it’s a challenge that applies at classroom level too.

A teacher who has established impeccable behaviour doesn’t have to address disruption, so it might seem that the best teachers somehow circumvent poor behaviour, perhaps through personal wizardry or engaging activities.  Lemov’s demystifying approach reminds us that there are no shortcuts.  With more than a nod to Carol Dweck, he makes effective teaching less about the personality of the teacher and more about the techniques that all teachers can refine over time.

I love the optimism that pours from the pages of Teach Like a Champion.  With the right instruction, students from all backgrounds can excel; and with the right tuition and mindset, teachers can become effective in the classroom no matter what their starting point.   School improvement too often involves changing staffroom personnel.  Lemov provides a framework from which all teachers can improve their practice.

Given the paucity of professional development in schools, we should welcome the emergence of a textbook which allows teachers to take control of their own classroom practice.  Schools are often willing to send teachers off to a standalone training day for £250, yet for the same price they could buy this book for each department in their school.  Better still, I know plenty of schools that have adopted Lemov’s framework to create a shared understanding of effective teaching in their school, focusing on the specific techniques that are most relevant for their context.

Beyond the sometimes impenetrable Americanisms (“at bats”, “pepper”) the easiest criticism or query of Lemov’s work is whether these approaches actually make a difference to student outcomes.   I’m told that Lemov himself recognises that his focus has so far been refining the techniques, rather than gathering evidence of their impact.  But if we agree that Lemov has correctly identified features of effective teaching – calm, orderly classrooms in which all students produce high quality work – then his determination to unpick the systems, routines and procedures that underpin these features can only be welcome.

Lemov challenges teachers to bridge the gap between ‘I taught it” and “they learned it”.  This book gives them 62 techniques to do so.

School Improvement: Beyond Shallow Mimicry

Mimic: To imitate in a servile or unthinking way; to ape.

People love to mimic success.  We dress like our bosses; we make investment decisions based on last year’s market trends; we buy products endorsed by celebrities.  In education, we instinctively sense that if a school is successful then we ought to learn from it.  But how do we avoid our desire to learn from the best becoming shallow mimicry of apparently successful practices that we don’t truly understand, or that might not work in our own context?

The source of our problem is that we have a limited understanding of the ingredients of school success.  As Daisy Christodoulou says in Changing Schools “Measuring exam results, or the ‘outputs’ of education, will only lead to improvements if there is clear understanding of the ‘inputs’ which will cause improvement.  In the case of education, we do not have a clear, system-wide understanding of what causes learning.”

In my experience, some successful schools themselves don’t know why they’re successful.  So instead of being based on deep understanding, school improvement often relies on rules of thumb and fallacies.  One of these is the ‘halo effect’, which in education translates as ‘if a leader appears to lead a good school then they must know what they’re doing; let’s hope they can replicate it elsewhere’.

The features of success that we might notice when we visit a school are often superficial manifestations of deeper, more powerful forces operating below the surface.  We notice a school’s success in getting students to Oxbridge, but we’re ignorant of the work it’s done to win the trust of the middle class professional parents who were previously bussing their kids to schools out of town.  We notice the autonomy given to teachers in Finland, but we ignore the rigid and prescriptive training they receive before they are allowed to start teaching (see this brilliant paper by Tim Oates for more).

It’s difficult to get under the skin of schools so we end up imitating the effects of success, ignorant of the underlying causes.  We notice the what, while the how and the why remain elusive.

So we visit successful schools and then go back to our own schools and try to replicate what we’ve seen.  We introduce silent line-ups before each lesson; we enforce a strict dress-code and a longer day.  We name tutor groups after universities and we ask teachers to display details of the book they’re currently reading on their classroom door.  I happen to advocate some of these things, but we need to be curious about why they might work, rather than engage in shallow mimicry.

We can also avoid shallow mimicry by focusing on the things that really matter.  There are probably five fundamentals to school success: curriculum, teaching, assessment, leadership and behaviour/culture.    These are our building blocks of school improvement and it’s likely that all manifestations of success can – and should – be traced back to one of these fundamentals.

So when we see a successful school lining their students in silence before each lesson we should ponder whether it’s the lining up itself that makes a difference, or whether the lining up works because it serves as a constant reinforcement of established routines.  Or perhaps the line-ups are simply indicative of a strong culture of compliance.  Or maybe the silent line-ups are a red herring, completely irrelevant to the school’s success.

Finally, successful schools themselves can help us by constantly evaluating their work so that when interested parties come to visit they can point them to the things that really matter.  At Burlington Danes Academy I used to host visits from educators interested in the school’s transformation.  I showed them our dedicated teachers, our nurture groups, our inclusion unit, our rank orders, our after-school clubs programme, our curriculum model and our roster of inspirational guest speakers, but I couldn’t honestly tell them which of these features were the most impactful.

It’s not easy to learn from the best schools, but we can do better than shallow mimicry.