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.
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.