The End of the Rock Star Teacher

by Robert Pondiscio
February 15th, 2011

Note: A version of this post appears today on the website of Education Next, which recently asked me to review Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion and Steve Farr’s Teaching as Leadership.   The review of the Lemov will run in the upcoming issue of Ed Next, but is on the magazine’s website today.  A blog post about the Farr book appears here.   — rp.

The first five words of Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion, are “Great teaching is an art.”  This is not a promising start. 

Well over three million women and men stand in front of classrooms every day in the U.S.  It is too much to hope for, and always will be, that more than a small percentage of them will be artists, great, bad or mediocre.  The degree to which we pin our hopes for large scale school improvement on attracting artists and rock stars to the classroom is the degree to which we plan to fail.  With an average salary of $52,000—an income level on par with electricians, probation officers, and funeral directors – teachers will not be recruited exclusively from the top ranks of college graduates. 

All is not lost.  After dispensing with those five poorly chosen words, Lemov spends the next 300 pages of his remarkable book completely contradicting his opening sentence, demonstrating in convincing detail that teaching is not an art at all, but a craft—a series of techniques that can be identified, learned, practiced and perfected.  In doing so, he has produced what may be the most important education book in a generation.  His focused, obsessively practical study of what makes teachers effective could—and should—shift the terms of our increasingly vitriolic national debate from “teacher quality to “quality teaching.”  This is no mere semantic distinction.  The difference is not who is in the front of the room. The difference is what that person does.  Lemov’s achievement is to examine effective teaching at the molecular level.   By doing so, he may have rescued education reform from its implicit dependence on classroom saints and superheroes.   It is an indispensible shift.  If teaching effectively is something for the best and the brightest, rather than the merely dedicated and diligent, education reform is finished, now and forever.

“Many of the techniques you will read about in this book at first may seem mundane, unremarkable, even disappointing,” Lemov begins apologetically.  “They are not always especially innovative.”   Don’t be fooled by the modesty.  Under Lemov’s watchful eye, the subtle magic of solid craft work is revealed:

  •  “Many teachers respond to almost-correct answers their students give in class by rounding up. That is they’ll affirm the student’s answer and repeat it, adding some detail of their own to make it fully correct even though the student didn’t provide (and may not recognize) the differentiating factor….Great teachers praise students for their effort but never confuse effort with mastery.” (Right is Right, Technique #2)
  • “You should correct slang, syntax, usage and grammar in the classroom even if you believe the divergence from standard is acceptable, even normal, in some setting, or even if it falls within a student’s dialect—or more accurately, even if you perceive it to be normal within what you perceive to be a student’s dialect.” (Format Matters, Technique #4)
  • “Some portion of student noncompliance – a larger portion than many teachers ever suppose – is caused not by defiance but by incompetence: by students’ misunderstanding a direction, not knowing how to follow it, or tuning out in a moment of benign distraction. Recognizing this means giving directions to students in a way that provides clear and useful guidance….To be effective, directions should be specific, concrete, sequential, and observable.” (What to Do, Technique #37)
  • “Avoid chastening wrong answers, for example, ‘No, we already talked about this.  You have to flip the sign, Ruben.’ And do not make excuses for students who get answers wrong: ‘Oh, that’s okay, Charlise.  That was a really hard one.’  In fact, if wrong answers are truly a normal and healthy part of the learning process, they don’t need much narration at all.”  (Normalize Error, Technique #49).

Sweating the Small Stuff

Teach Like a Champion catalogues dozens of small but effective teaching techniques:  stand still when giving directions; ask students who have not raised their hands to answer a question, use “wait time,” a few seconds’ pause after asking a question before calling on a student to answer it.  Each is intended to improve classroom management, enhance student engagement, raise expectations, and to do so briskly.  Lemov is obsessed with time and the amount of it wasted in classrooms in moving from one place to another, putting materials away, or transitioning to a new lesson or activity.  “There isn’t a school of education in the country that would stoop to teach its aspiring teachers how to train their students to pass out papers,” he writes, “even though it is one of the most valuable things they could possibly do.”  By Lemov’s calculation, the time saved on such mundane tasks quickly adds up to extra minutes, hours, and ultimately days of instructional time over the course of a school year.   

If Teach Like a Champion fails to become a standard text in our schools of education, however, it will not be a function of the utilitarian thrust of Lemov’s observations.  More likely it will be his refusal to pay even lip service to the standard homilies of effective practice.  Guide on the side?  Self-directed learning?  No thanks.  Lemov favors students in rows as the default classroom structure.  “The layout is tidy and orderly and socializes students to attend to the board and the teacher as their primary focus,” he notes. “It allows teachers to stand directly next to any student they want to or need to as they teach in order to check work or ensure being on task.” (Draw The Map, Technique #11).  Culturally relevant pedagogy?  Substitute rap lyrics for lyric poetry?  “Content is one of the places that teaching is most vulnerable to assumptions and stereotypes. What does it say, for example, if we assume that students won’t be inspired by books written by authors of other races?” he asks.  “Do we think that great novels transcend boundaries only for some kids?” (Without Apology, Technique #5).

Volumes have been written on reaching all learners in a classroom through differentiated instruction.  Lemov gives it a single, not very deferential paragraph:

“We’re sometimes socialized to think we have to break students up into different instructional groups to differentiate, giving them different activities and simultaneously forcing ourselves to manage an overwhelming amount of complexity.  Students are rewarded with a degree of freedom that’s as likely to yield discussions of last night’s episode of American Idol as it is higher-order discussions of content.  Asking frequent, targeted, rigorous questions of students as they demonstrate mastery is a powerful and much simpler tool for differentiating. By tailoring questions to individual students, you can meet students where they are and push them in a way that’s directly responsive to what they’ve shown they can already do.” (Stretch It, Technique #3)

Hold on, Professor Lemov.  What happened to “great teaching is an art?”  OK, Picasso, grab your paintbrushes, chisels and hammers and let’s get to work, he seems to say.  Doug Lemov is all about tools and makes no bones about it. “One of the biggest ironies I hope you will take away from reading this book is that many of the tools likely to yield the strongest classroom results remain essentially beneath the notice of our theories and theorists of education,” he writes.
Relentless Relentlessness

At no point in Teach Like a Champion does Lemov explicitly state that his goal is to wipe out the beau ideal of the rock star teacher.  He doesn’t need to.   If we’re fortunate, it will wither away once Lemov’s taxonomy takes root.   That moment can’t come quickly enough.  It’s an idea whose time has come to die. 

In the popular imagination, fueled by dozens of movies and TV shows, hero teachers are charismatic figures, endowed with an unshakable will, and a deep, abiding belief in the untapped genius of their (inevitably) unruly students.   Miracle-working mavericks, they defy the forces of mediocrity allied against them and magically transform a class full of those kids—the one the “system” and every other adult in the building—nay, the world—has long since given up on.  Goodbye poverty, gangs and mean streets.  Hello Harvard.   And if one teacher can work such wonders, surely it is not too much to expect them all to do it.  After all, it’s been done.  The exceptions prove what the rule should be.  No excuses.  Whatever it takes.  Relentless pursuit.  What part of every child can succeed at the highest level do you not understand?   

Outside of Hollywood, no single organization is more closely associated the heroic ideal of the rock star teacher than Teach For America.  Founded in 1990 by Wendy Kopp, it has trained over 20,000 teachers for some of the nation’s poorest and lowest-performing urban and rural school districts.   TFA corps members really are our best and brightest.  The top colleges and universities from which TFA recruits its corps members turn away the vast majority of their applicants; four years later TFA turns away more than 90% of those schools’ graduates that apply.  “Teach for America has become an elite brand that will help build a résumé, whether or not the person stays in teaching,” Michael Winerip of the New York Times observed recently.  Rightly or wrongly, it’s the “whether or not” that fuels the animosity of Teach For America’s detractors.

TFA does not apologize for the limited commitment it demands of its corps members.  Instead it describes its alumni as “a growing force of leaders working to expand educational opportunity from a variety of sectors.”  So it is that Teaching As Leadership, by TFA’s Chief Knowledge Officer Steve Farr, seems to serve two goals at once: it attempts to describe the attributes of effective teachers, while simultaneously burnishing the credentials of its corps members in the argot of business books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Good to Great.    Effective teachers are more than merely solid practitioners, they are leaders who set big goals, invest their organization (students) in working hard to achieve those goals, and work relentlessly to increase their effectiveness.  It’s an unnecessary and distracting conceit.  Teaching as Leadership bears a superficial resemblance to Teach Like a Champion.  Both are the product of years of teacher observations. Both stress the importance of setting high expectations, and dwell on planning and effective execution.  But where Lemov is specific and granular, Farr can be grandiose and imprecise (see Sidebar).  Teaching as Leadership defaults to describing what effective teachers believe.  Lemov describes what effective teachers do.  And what they do next.  And what they do after that.

Farr’s tone can be self-regarding as Lemov’s is humble.  The tautological subtitle of Teaching as Leadership is “The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap” and the book’s tone of unquestioning confidence risks doing a disservice to the new teachers who are the book’s target audience.  “Highly effective teachers set big goals,” is the first of Farr’s “six principles” of highly effective teaching.  Indeed they do, but so a lot of highly ineffective teachers.  If the “big goals” are too big, and if the teacher’s skill is insufficient to the task, frustration and resentment on the part of both student and teacher is too often the outcome.  Farr’s attempts to define how to set big goals can be maddeningly vague.  Big goals have measurable outcomes, they are driven by the students’ needs and interests, and they are inspired by high expectations, Farr tells us.  TFA corps members who actually wish to keep their students focused, attentive and working toward those big goals will want to keep a copy of the Lemov at arm’s length.

Focusing on quotidian teaching techniques, Lemov under-promises and over-delivers; Farr does the opposite.  “Without exception, the strongest teachers we have studied tap into an amazing phenomenon of human psychology: the self-fulfilling prophecy of high expectations,” he writes.  “These teachers recognize that we get from our students what we expect from them.  These teachers’ every action is driven by the insight that high expectations cause high achievement.”  An amazing phenomenon, indeed.  High expectations do not “contribute to” high achievement.  They are not even a necessary prerequisite. They cause it.  This is rock star teacher stuff of the worst order.  If our students fail to achieve it is because of the “inundating smog of low expectation” or our own “weak internal locus of control”—a failure to believe that we as teachers can control events that affect our students. 

Highly effective teachers also “invest students and their families in working hard for extraordinary academic achievement.”  Effective teachers, Farr writes, “convince their students that they can reach their big goals if they work hard enough, and that doing so will make a real difference in their lives.”  Farr approvingly cites the testimony of two teachers who were unable to make contact with their students’ parents over the phone:  “We would just start taking kids home, and we would wait at home until the parent came home, and we would just make home visits constantly,” recalls the unnamed TFAer. “If we needed to go meet a parent at work or wherever, we just made it happen.”

One wonders what Lemov, a man obsessed with the amount of teaching time lost to handing out papers, would make of a teacher who spends hours at a student’s home waiting for a parent to return from work.  Teaching As Leadership fairly groans under the weight of such anecdotes.  It is surely not a coincidence that Lemov spends no time whatsoever in Teach Like a Champion on the need to inspire children.  High expectations are essential to student achievement, but Lemov does not see “high expectations” as an occasion for grand gestures.  It’s about running a classroom where participation is not optional, standards are defined and maintained, and no apologies are made for rigor.  As always, it’s a matter of craft and technique.  “Mastering those techniques will be far more productive that being firm of convictions, committed to a strategy, and, in the end, beaten by the reality of what lies inside the classroom door in the toughest neighborhoods of our cities and towns,” says Lemov.


The Teachers We Have

Teach Like a Champion is not the perfect book.  Its advice is broadly applicable, but its sweet spot is elementary and middle school teachers in low-performing urban schools.  Veteran teachers who work in other settings may wonder what all the fuss is about.  Inexperienced and struggling teachers, however, will regard it the way a drowning man regards a lifeboat. 

Since it was published in April 2010, Teach Like a Champion has received glowing reviews and media attention, including a cover story in the New York Times Magazine.  Seldom has a book been better timed or more urgently needed.   In the past year, the issue of teacher quality has achieved escape velocity, breaking from research and policy briefs and becoming a minor public obsession.  Firing bad teachers, the cover of Newsweek breathlessly reported, is “the key to saving American education.”  The Los Angeles Times created a storm of controversy when it published value-added data based student test scores for over 6,000 local teachers and put a picture on its front page of “one of the least effective of the district’s elementary school teachers.”  The documentary Waiting for Superman made teacher quality the issue du jour with Thomas Friedman, Katie Couric and Oprah Winfrey jumping on the bandwagon.  The cause-and-effect relationship between great teachers and student achievement is something that even those who pay little attention to education now“know” to be true.  The reverse has also become conventional wisdom.  Since great teachers cause student achievement, low achievement, ipso facto, must be a product of bad teachers.  “Just fire bad teachers” has become the “just say no” of the education crisis. 

You go to school with the teachers you have, not the teachers you wish you had.  Walk into a struggling urban school and you will mostly find well-intentioned people working hard and failing.  And more often than not, they’re failing despite doing precisely what they’ve been trained to do.  The proper question is not how do we get rid of bad teachers, but how can we make our existing teacher corps more effective?  Thus perhaps the highest praise that one can heap on Mr. Lemov’s book is that for the first time, it makes helping teachers improve their craft work on a broad scale seems not merely sensible, but achievable.

37 Comments »

  1. What an excellent article and I definitely need to pick up “Teach like a Champion” now. I’ve come more and more in my life to believe that one of the cruelest things we do to new teachers is perpetuate this myth that great teaching is an art. The more we can do to de-mystify the mechanics that make effective teaching possible the more we will do to increase the quality of teaching across the board.

    And yes, it does help that I’m not very artistic at all. Things like this give me hope that I too can be effective one day. Heh.

    Comment by Rich0116 — February 15, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

  2. @Anthony It could very well be, Anthony. But I feel out of my depth on high school. Hopefully others who teach at that level and are familiar with the book can weigh in. I will say, however, that have seen some of these techniques employed to good effect at a small number of high performing urban charter high schools.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 15, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

  3. I am a TFA alum and enjoy this blog, especially the honesty and common sense you bring to most of your critiques. However, I notice that at various points you rightly praise Rafe Esquith–the ultimate rock star teacher!–while here you berate “the rock star teacher” and affiliate the idea with TFA. Even Esquith does not advocate teachers all doing things the same way. His rhetoric and practice probably lies on the “art” side, although I’m not sure art and craft have to be dichotomized. (Indeed, Teach Like a Champion was one of the resources my program director in TFA put in my hand.) You also dismiss pretty cheaply all the “craft” that is described in Teaching as Leadership. Pretty sure a good teacher needs some of both.

    Comment by Chris Schumerth — February 15, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

  4. @ Chris. Thanks for the kind words. It’s not the rock star teacher I berate. It’s the all too common idea that rock star teacher is the basic job description. There is one Rafe Esquith and three million jobs to fill. My guess is the number of rock star teachers is greater than one, and less than three million–and much closer to one. The point I intended (and I think expressed clearly) is that we cannot pin our hopes on superstar teachers. We need to find a way to make the merely diligent successful. Lemov’s book is an important first step in describing just how that might be done.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 15, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

  5. Standing and applauding (too bad you can’t see it). I fully agree with everything you wrote about Lemov’s book–and suggest that the content applies, in spades, to secondary teaching, no question (and I say that as a teacher who spent 29 of her 30 years in HS and MS classrooms). I even appreciated your crack about straight rows–a totally irrelevant issue About Which Much Is Made.

    Haven’t read the “Teaching as Leadership” book, but in working with first-year TFA teachers, they described the book as full of platitudes that had a tendency to deflate, rather than inspire them. They were looking for specific things: a lesson plan for teaching POV, a solution to non-stop chatter (it’s neither straight rows nor discussion clusters–you can’t feng shui attention), a reason to believe that things would get better.

    Lemov’s book would certainly provide a useful set of ideas for all teachers–those with no experience and those who’d been successful for decades.

    Well done.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — February 15, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

  6. Robert, this is a persuasive review. I agree with your overall point that we need to think of teacher quality as something that can be developed. I also see that Lemov healthily eschews a good deal of nonsense.

    Where Lemov goes overboard is in his insistence that students always have something to do and that they know the purpose of each activity. This may diminish their already low tolerance for momentary stillness, ambiguity, etc.

    I am not talking about gobs of unstructured time. I am not in any way crying out for vague lessons where students discover the material themselves. I refer to those seconds here and there, those important seconds, of not having anything to do and not knowing exactly what the purpose is.

    Constant activity leaves you little room to think. Lemov seems to buy the idea that a student who is involved in the lesson will show it physically at every moment–writing, tracking, etc. This is not necessarily so. A person sometimes needs to look off at an angle to put some thoughts together. Some students may be listening closely and not taking notes. The visible traits of involvement can be deceptive.

    Those moments (in school, short interludes) of having nothing specific to do can be immensely helpful. They can be opportunities to mull something over, remember something, pull thoughts together, or just be still. If students don’t learn how to handle such moments, they will be always in need of something to do, whatever it may be. This does not prepare them well for situations where there may be nothing immediate to do or where they are expected to think quietly about something.

    Nor is absolute purposefulness possible or helpful for all subjects. Suppose you are in college, taking a lecture course in art history. The professor can tell you what the topic of the lesson is. He or she may even tell you what questions will be addressed. But the most interesting parts are the side observations, the things that will not end up in a bullet point.

    Again, I am not saying that lessons should lack purpose or that students should be left with nothing to do. I am distinguishing between the idea that students should always be active and purposeful and the idea that the absence of those things, for short stretches, is very important. Most subjects, moreover, demands a little stillness. When everything keeps moving, moving, moving, the very subject is affected.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 15, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

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  8. @Diana: I agree. Students have some sort of absurd rite of passage to blurt out the words, “I’m done” or “I’m bored” as many times during the school year as possible. I am often reminding my students that I am not there to entertain them. Silence and stillness instills patience and individual thought. Likewise, I am not advocating for nothingness.

    Students have an array of acceptable activities for students when they complete an activity, I structure things this way in order to promote independent choice and I get great results. There is very little down time in my room because my students understand the expectations within the walls. Engagement happens.

    The review is good and sounds much like what has been told by pioneers in the industry in the likes of Wong and Jones. I think the real message here is that we need a teaching core that no matter where they received their degree from and no matter for how long they choose to teach in their careers, are committed to teaching. Along with that commitment needs to be a forever and passionate thirst to further one’s own professional development.

    Comment by Clarky — February 16, 2011 @ 9:18 am

  9. Diana,

    I see now (I’m not too swift) what Robert meant when he referred to my “orthodoxy” regarding individual instruction. Not sure how much either of our philosophies will actually traction in the world of school.

    Thanks for the lesson.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 16, 2011 @ 9:48 am

  10. Robert,

    I support and laud reforms that address classroom practice as opposed to simply standards and fiscal reforms. These have too long been the overemphasized focus of our school reforms to date.

    That being said, I am compelled to ask, “Are Lemov’s micro-strategies (many “good”) mere common sense?” Passing out paper strategies?

    And what of the teacher(s) who need these spelled out to succeed/survive? What chance do they really stand in the reality of an urban middle school? What happens to them when a situation arises that’s not in Lemov’s list?

    Yes, our schools will be better off with these strategies avaibale for ALL, but is this somehow a reflection of the caliber of individuals we are accepting into our teaching ranks? People unable to walk and chew bubble-gum at the same time? And what of Finland’s lesson – accepting only students from the top third of the pool to teach?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 16, 2011 @ 10:18 am

  11. Robert, I realized later that I used the phrase “teacher quality” when you explicitly distinguished between “teacher quality” and “quality teaching.” I realize that this distinction was part of the very point of the review. But I avoid using “quality” as an adjective. I see it used often in that way and am not sure how it differs from “good.”

    Paul, yes, you may be right. Neither of our philosophies appears to be “ascendant” at this point. But that doesn’t mean they should go away. Sometimes a given philosophy or model needs a bit of a “yes, but,” at the very least.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 16, 2011 @ 10:27 am

  12. @Paul Hoss:“Are Lemov’s micro-strategies (many “good”) mere common sense?” Passing out paper strategies? And what of the teacher(s) who need these spelled out to succeed/ survive? What chance do they really stand in the reality of an urban middle school? Is this somehow a reflection of the caliber of individuals we are accepting into our teaching ranks?”

    No. It’s mostly a reflection of the kinds of students who are in that urban middle school, their habits and perspectives. And knowing some of those simple strategies–including things as prosaic as passing out papers–gives teachers a running start on their very difficult and nuanced job of instruction.

    While I agree that we should be setting the entry bar into teaching higher, even “smart” (however defined) teachers struggle with myriad personal-interaction and structural dilemmas when attempting to run an efficient and organized classroom. Pedagogy is a real thing, and far more complex than your walking-chewing potshot.

    What sets Lemov’s book apart from the hundreds of other ed-books full of similar “tools” is the practice and thoughtful analysis (Lemov’s) that backs them up.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — February 16, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  13. With all due respect Nancy, strategies for passing out papers does fall into the walking/chewing category. All “teachers” have spent the majority of their lives in schools, many as students for a long time. They’ve experienced the mundaness of this task countless times in the world of academia. And yes, I believe it does reflect on the poor caliber of individuals we accept into the ranks of teachers, and their apparent lack of pragmatism and common sense if they actually need help with such a classroom chore.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 16, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

  14. I’m with Nancy on this one, Paul. I spent three years working as an adjunct professor with first year TFA corps members. All anyone ever wanted to talk about was classroom management. You’ve got to learn how to swing a hammer before you can build a house.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 16, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

  15. Guess I would have to contend if you’re a young adult and cannot swing a hammer, construction may not be in your future and you need to investigate alternative employment. Just as if you’re a young adult looking to try out for the Celtics or Knicks, you better have some worthwhile NBA skills.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 16, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

  16. It was a simple analogy, Paul, not to be taken literally. The reason the Lemov book appealed to me so strongly was because it reinforced something I have long believed: that teaching is more a craft than a profession (and certainly not an “art”). I’ve always seen parallels between teaching and writing journalistically. The best journalists I know understand their beats (crime, politics, the arts, etc.) then find their voice as writers. Same thing in teaching. You master your subject and find your voice. But there are elements of craft work that undergird both. But here’s the difference: you can become a good writer before you hire on at a newspaper. Most of us have been writing in one form or another all of our lives. You don’t get to develop teaching techniques and classroom management skills until your first day on the job. Thus assuming that these are low-level skills is, I think, wrong. It took me well into my second year, and really my third as a teacher before I felt competent running my classroom.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 16, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

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  18. You’re right, Robert. It takes at least a couple of years on the job to become relatively proficient as a teacher. Simply establishing a comfortable routine can be daunting for some neophytes.

    My hope for Lemov’s book is that many new teachers will not find it necessary to avail themselves of all his strategies; that it can serve as a reliable resource for folks having difficulty in one area or another. As I stated above there’s much “good” in his book and could serve to get more than a few folks over their initial stumbling blocks.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 16, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

  19. Love the discussion, Robert. Will read Lemov’s book to help lift me out of Seattle winter gloom. Sounds to me as if following Teaching Like A Champion’s formula can shape an apprentice into a journeyman then on to craftsman, master, artisan and dare I say “artist” if one is suitably impressed with the creative product? The very progression, while as warmly traditional as the post-feudal guild system, seems positively radical chic vis-à-vis current education orthodoxy. Hurray for Lemov and brain coaches everywhere! I was afraid they’d been wiped out in the pogrom following the great facilitator paradigm shift.

    Comment by Fred Strine — February 16, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

  20. The End of the Rock Star Teacher « The Core Knowledge Blog…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

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  21. Good review Robert. Enjoyed it.

    Comment by MG — February 17, 2011 @ 8:37 am

  22. I agree with you and Lemov on most of the specific practices, but I disagree on two points. If or when Lemov isn’t transformational it will not be due to his indictment of progressive artifacts. You have a different take on this, but from what I’ve seen, progressive mantras were dead before I started teaching 19 years ago.

    More importantly, his sweet spot is high-poverty SELECTIVE MIDDLE SCHOOLS. He doesn’t even mention classes where the kids who didn’t make it at KIPP are superstars, years ahead of the rest. The editor was remiss in not making him even try to distinguish between instruction in selective schools and neighborhood schools. He might assert that the difference is not huge, just like I argue it is huge, but he owed it to readers to address that issue and show that his theories can work in the toughest schools.

    In 1985, when James Herndon was lampooning Reagan era “reforms,” he ridiculed their teacher quality craze, and did a hilarious spoof on better ways of handing out papers. Lemov has good specific points, but not the silver bullet that would prevent deja vu all over again.

    Its also weird that he would, correctly, assert that teaching is leadership, and deny that it is inspiring leadership. That cute distinction may point to his fatal flaw. Though obviously insightful, Lemov does not obey the standard conventions for the exchange of ideas. He doesn’t follow social science 101, and attempt to qualify his finding, or acknoweldge other persepctives.

    And that gets back to your perceptive comments on TFA and reform. You don’t use the phrase, but they’ve got a lot of bait and switch going on.

    Comment by john thompson — February 17, 2011 @ 9:46 am

  23. Excellent comment, John. Whether or not teaching is an art, it is a profession that requires discernment, and I see certain kinds of discernment absent from Lemov’s book. He doesn’t qualify his recommendations; he doesn’t address differences among students or student populations or the assumptions underlying certain techniques.

    Teachers need to do this, and they need examples of others who have done so. As you suggest, “inspiring leadership” is an aspect of teaching (and I would include quiet leadership in this). As Paul says, Lemov’s book should be a resource, not the answer. I am wary of situations where teachers will be expected to adopt it as a package.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 17, 2011 @ 10:02 am

  24. @John @Diana I don’t think Lemov would hold his work up as The Answer. Rather it’s a meticulous study of specific techniques that have proved effective for the teachers he has studied. Ironically, I think that the leadership meme is central to Steve Farr’s thesis, and it proves to be weakness of his book. While neither addresses this directly, I think Farr would be much more likely to insist that in order to be successful, a person must have a certain set of ideas or characteristics. Lemov would likely see success as more a function of actions than beliefs, and attainable by a broader set of teachers. And I think that’s exactly right.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 17, 2011 @ 10:09 am

  25. While I agree with John and Diana–there are many things that Lemov’s book is not, including a conceptual framework for any theory of education, progressive or traditional or whatever– I’m not sure it’s fair to criticize a book for what it isn’t. (Regardless of the subtitle, which Jossey-Bass must have put there as a signal to attract a particular group of eager-beaver teachers.)

    Robert said it well: the book is a toolkit. And they’re far better tools (including ways to pass out paper, not to mention conduct a Q & A session and other more substantive techniques) than dozens of “tool books” based on a particular theory or philosophy.

    I went into the book prepared not to like it, frankly. I was put off by the KIPP-ishness. But I did like it, very much.

    I think it would be an excellent book for a novice (even a brilliant, just-out-of-Yale-type novice), because it’s all about pedagogy (a word that is seldom spoken in Policy World, and a far more important concept than “classroom management”).

    I’ve watched hundreds of videotapes of candidates for National Board Certification–confident veteran teachers–who could benefit from Lemov’s thinking about questions and discussions. It would be a terrific book for a faculty to read and dissect, wouldn’t it?

    BTW, I really hate it when teachers claim that teaching is an art. It ends up being an art, a completely individualized set of beliefs and skills–but it begins as a science. There *are* better, more effective (standards-based and observed) ways to do things.

    Pretending that someone is either a good teacher (because of her artistry, his prestigious degree, or her high IQ) or someone isn’t (because they need advice on how to efficiently structure classroom basics) takes us right back to where the discussion about quality teaching was a decade ago: the (ahem) false dichotomy of content vs. pedagogy.

    Pedagogy, pedagogy, pedagogy. It’s a real thing.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — February 17, 2011 @ 11:34 am

  26. Nancy,

    You make very good points, and I find myself swayed by them. At the same time, some of Lemov’s techniques go so deeply against my grain that I wish he had qualified them in some way. (Not all–many of them make a great deal of sense.)

    Take, for example, “Props.” You will not catch me dead or alive saying “Two stomps for Imani!” I love the ripple of applause, even though it cuts into precious instructional time by taking a few more seconds and isn’t entirely controllable.

    I recently spoke with someone (I’ll call her Petra) who had led a group of superintendents in a discussion of literature. When the seminar was over, the host said, “Let’s give Petra a woo!” Why did the superintendents have to be told to give her a “woo”? Why not clap, why not individually express appreciation?

    These are little things, but as long as we’re “sweating the small stuff,” I’ll admit that this stuff gives me hives.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 17, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

  27. Nancy,

    Pedagogy is indeed a real thing but thus far it has been relatively absent from the ed reform debate. That’s one reason I appreciate Lemov’s work/book.

    While standards and fiscal reforms have both been worthwhiloe endeavors, shouldn’t classroom practice be deserving of at least equal scrutiny?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 17, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  28. @Diana,

    Two woots and a random stomp for your comment. (laughing)

    Here’s my take on props: It’s true that many students (including mine, who come mostly from advantaged homes) do not automatically respond with brief positive feedback to their peers. Nor do they make eye contact–or even pay the baseline courtesy (attention) to others in their classroom. Lemov noticed this, and gives teachers a quick, do-able, time-limited technique to build this essential (cliche’ alert) learning community skill. It’s a whole lot better than scolding students for being rude or distracted. Or spending a lot of time wondering why kids these days have the attention spans of gnats–or how a moment inspired by appreciation turned into a loss of teacher control and teaching time–or despairing over rude, heedless behavior modeled on TV 24/7, etc. etc.

    If your students are focused on and applauding each other–or great ideas–or moving moments in literature–then you’re far past a need for “props.” But I’m guessing that you made clear–upfront– your expectation that students would attend and respond to certain key events in the classroom. You have your own (more palatable and civilized) version of props.

    But–lots of classrooms do not have any manifestation of props–either the rigidly structured Lemov version or the civilized Ms. Senechal version. I see Lemov’s technique as a starting place, not just for tough kids, but for all kids in this distracted world.

    As for the superintendents being directed how to express appreciation, I’m with you–kind of ick.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — February 17, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

  29. Nancy,

    You are right. I just pulled out the book. I should have done that before commenting by memory. The book is a toolkit.

    My complaint should have been directed towards the people who use a toolkit, misrepresent it, and politicize it.

    Had I taken longer and thought, I might have complained about Wendy Kopp, who is in my mind for her spin regarding the 20th anniversary of TFA. I might have complained, and compared Lemov work and Kamras’ IMPACT, because both represent ideals. I might not even complain about Kamras, who wrote the Forward, because IMPACT in the hands of a different chancellor could be a constructive tool.

    Or maybe I should have not complained at all. My complaint is a general one. “Reformers” often will say anything, and misrepresent anything, in order to advance their position. Perhaps traditional reformers should always model at a higher level.

    When I re-looked at the book, I remembered what I thought when I first read it. It does not provide evidence for either the data-DRIVEN or the traditional reformers. It is a tool kit.

    The problem is that for a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It is not Lemov’s fault that his book is used like a hammer. It will not be his fault if districts use him like a magic asterisk and justify cutting alternative education and socio-emotional supports.

    Nancy, also, I read the book prepared to like it, and like I said I agreed with almost every specific. I’m glad you made me go back to the book, because my compaints have arisen from the spin that occured since it was written. The spin was fresh in mind. My first reaction to the spin – that Lemov proves no such thing – would have been much much more appropriate.

    Comment by john thompson — February 17, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

  30. Nancy,

    Thanks for the woots and random stomp, heh heh!

    Props were one thing that went very well in my classes. In some circumstances, I would explain to the students when to applaud and why it was important. In others, I just gave the cue by clapping, and they would join in (without getting carried away). This was at inner-city schools in poor neighborhoods.

    Of course, I have strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. As far as the weaknesses go, I can see where some of Lemov’s suggested techniques would be very helpful. And in my stronger areas, they give me possibilities to consider.

    Overall, though, I would strive for something just a little looser than what he tends to recommend. Not much; just a little. Many students are capable of handling it, others can learn, and it affects how the subject can be taught. Of course, if the students weren’t ready for the looser approach, I would give them something more structured. But I would look toward relaxing it somewhat over time.

    It might seem that I am making a big deal of a minor distinction. But to me there’s a great difference between students who can handle a little uncertainty and students who cannot. The latter group will have a tough time in high school and college, where they are expected to deal with difficult subjects and to collect themselves without precise directives. If Lemov’s techniques are supposed to set students on the path to college, then they should make room for a dollop of the unknown.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 17, 2011 @ 8:37 pm

  31. I laughed out loud when the reviewer mentioned Lemov’s opening salvo about the profession being an art. Last summer I spent a not-inconsequential amount of my personal money on this book and wanted to throw the book against the wall when I read that statement. The only thing that kept me reading was the prospect of a teeth-grinding, fist-clenching visit to my local post office in order to mail the book back.

    I chose to read on rather than return, and I am glad I did. I’m a high school teacher with twelve years’ experience, and I now recommend the book often to all the high school teachers I know. It is, indeed, good stuff when viewed as a toolkit from which you can take what you need. One of the complaints many teachers have about professional development is that it often doesn’t offer concrete strategies that you can take into the classroom the next day. This book gives you those, even for the high school level.

    As for micro-strategies being common sense…I’ve come to believe there are very few things which are actually common sense. I think it’s common sense to avoid large, predatory animals and small, poorly-behaved Chihuahuas. I think it’s common sense to eat when you are hungry and sleep when you are tired (a bit of common sense many teachers ignore, often by necessity, almost every single day). Much of what we consider to be common sense is stuff we’ve been taught is so mundane that we should consider it common sense – the key phrase being “we’ve been taught”. Passing in paper procedures? Never saw it once when I was a student. Every teacher did it differently, and I adapted. As a teacher? Seeing it modeled for me in my first year by my mentor was a light bulb moment, and I don’t consider myself dim.

    Lemov’s book may not become curriculum material simply because it says what common thinking and fads in education don’t: Structure isn’t the enemy of self-expression, content knowledge isn’t the enemy of discovery, and routine isn’t the enemy of creativity.

    Comment by redkudu — February 18, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

  32. It’s sad to have to admit the US may be behind other countries in a subject like science when schools in Texas can’t figure out whether to teach evolution or creative design (vodoo).

    It’s quite another issue to have to admit our national school deficiencies when teachers in Japan are perfecting their teaching in something like multiplying fractions through “lesson studies” while US teachers are struggling with the best methods on how to pass out or collect papers. And no, the latter is NOT as important as the former. Heaven help us!!!

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 19, 2011 @ 10:14 am

  33. Wow.

    I think this is the first thread in ed blogging history where some minds changed. Honestly: I defy anyone to show me one.

    Props to Robert, Diana, John, and Nancy for their thoughtful discussion!

    Comment by MG — February 19, 2011 @ 10:17 pm

  34. I am in the process of pulling my child out of a rapidly declining DC public school. It always has had challenges, but the last two years have seen high turnover and low moral and subsequent increase behavioral problems and academic failure. Last month I was in the teacher resource room where I found 30 of these books still neatly wrapped in plastic. When I asked I was told “that is how they are trying to turn us in to charter schools. It is stuff teachers should already know how to do.” Don’t ask me about the contradiction there, but I have also noticed these type of comments on the Amazon page for the book. I think we underestimate how many teachers are not helped because they also find it hard to imagine how managing paper flow can help. That is bridge I think needs to built between administration and staff that is broken here. Given current union/teacher/government relationships I wonder if either side can step back and see how these smaller issues can matter.

    Comment by CWDC — February 20, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

  35. Wow- I’d like to know how to get my hands on those 30 books “still neatly wrapped in plastic”. One of the ways we are planning to turn around one of our elementary schools is by converting it to a Core Knowledge school (beginning Fall 2011!) and by rallying the new staff around the principles embodied in Teach Like a Champion. Challenging but exciting times. Thanks for the outstanding review.

    Comment by Dawn — March 1, 2011 @ 4:40 am

  36. I heard about the Lemov’s book about a year ago and was so excited I started a book club at my Southern California school site before the book was even released. We began meeting as soon as our books arrived. Speaking for myself, the change has been life changing for both me and my students. I began with the techniques that seemed to address problems that frustrated me and the response from the students was immediate. I added more techniques as I felt more comfortable with the new environment I was creating. We take the state tests in two weeks and both the students and I are excited to show how much we’ve learned. I plan to reread the book soon to identify which techniques to learn for continued growth.

    Comment by Janet — March 26, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

  37. It’s a toolkit. And that’s all is is. I read the book, interpreting how the techniques would look like in a workshop-structured classrooms. I didn’t agree with everything (especially the suggestion to use Round Robin Reading!), but thought there were some useful ideas.

    And then I watched the video clips. Holy cow! The video clips changed the tone of everything I had just read, and not in a positive way. (I am leading a book discussion at my building. I think seven of the clips I could show without feeling like I have sold my soul. Twelve are alarming.)

    While I watched the clips, I thought about how I would be profoundly sad and completely outraged if my own children had teachers treat them in this way (as demonstrated by the clips): aggressive tone and strange affect and facial expression, public shaming, structure of teacher holding the “power”, lack of partner work and student collaboration, ineffective classroom environment (rows rather than clusters- how the heck do you “track” in rows?), no “gathering place” beyond k-1, so many right sand wrong/ regurgatory questions rather than requiring critical thinking, doing “broken record repeating” with instructions rather than saying it once, lots of seat time, snatching papers form under them without making eye contact, and not recognizing that the techniques are not always culturally sensitive.

    This is a great book for beginning teacher, like Harry Wong’s book, but skilled and savvy workshop teachers whose content knowledge is matched with strong pedagogy will read so many pages for about 2-5 techniques to incorporate. This book is no magic pill, but it’s fine to be in the tool box.

    Some basic tenets of the book (all students are working all the time, recognizing all right answers, strong management systems are essential) are important to consider, but can be achieved in other ways that would also support critical thinking skills (as required with Common Core Standards!).

    Comment by MaryinA2 — April 3, 2012 @ 12:58 am

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