Teach Like a Champion. New money for old rope?

old rope

If you have not heard of Doug Lemov yet, you almost certainly will have soon. Lemov is an American ‘student of great teachers’, who spent years identifying great teachers and then breaking down their practice to find what made them more effective than their colleagues. Lemov classified and gave techniques used by these “Champions” distinctive names before writing them up into a book, called Teach Like a Champion or TLAC, which comes with a CD containing real-life demonstrations.

TLAC techniques are gaining more and more traction across the English education system with individual schools, large academy chains and ITT providers enthusiastically adopting them. Reactions have not been wholly positive. While criticisms of the techniques themselves are rare, there does seem to be some feeling that Lemov offers nothing new; that in effect he has simply wrapped tried and tested methods in new names, which are then sold as revolutionary new pedagogical practice.

To experienced, good teachers numbed by years of ‘new’ initiatives Teach Like a Champion provides fertile ground for cynicism. It is very American and contains lots and lots of jargon, buzzwords and acronyms. Many of these do indeed describe elements of practice common in English classrooms. Meeting children at the door becomes “Threshold” technique. Bell Tasks become “Do Nows.” No hands up becomes “Cold Calling.” Plenaries become “Check for Understanding,” or “CFU” for short.

I am not being at all disingenuous in writing that I understand the misgivings. Had I not read the book, as an experienced and I hope at least reasonably effective teacher, a zealous newly promoted Assistant Head fresh from a course banging on about what I already did as if it was some sort of panacea would infuriate me beyond words, especially if they used Americanisms like “the quarterback.” I can barely imagine my reaction if I was told, out of context, to try doing the “Disco Finger.” But having read TLAC, and now using it daily in my new role, I think such cynicism and defensiveness to be misplaced.

Reading TLAC as an experienced teacher was interesting. Lots of what was in it I did already; I had routines for giving out paper. I did cold call. I was seen looking. But, along with the techniques I did well were things I either did badly or did not do at all. My favourite was a section on “rounding up answers”, which means taking a simple answer from a child, adding a detailed explanation to it and then crediting the student as if they had really supplied a sophisticated answer. “Yes, James! Well done! You are right in saying “Goebbels” was a reason Hitler rose to power because he was in charge of propaganda! And I know you were just about to say that he knew simple messages were more effective than complicated ones. You were probably just about to go on to say..” This made me laugh out loud because I recognised that I still did this.

So, even as an experienced teacher, there was plenty to learn. But, as important as it is to note, this isn’t the main reason why we would be wrong to react defensively to Lemov’s work.

When I read TLAC I was in my twelfth year of teaching and for a lot of that time I had not been very good. Perhaps there are a few very lucky teachers who knew instinctively how to be great the first day they stood in front of a class, but I was not one of these teachers. I got better slowly, stumblingly and gradually. I learned where to stand, how to give instructions and everything else largely through trial and error. If something worked I kept doing it. If something did not, then I stopped. The children I taught last year certainly got a much better deal than those I taught a decade ago. Had I been given TLAC at the beginning of my career I would have saved years, and the children I taught would have got a better history education much faster.

The most significant contribution made by TLAC is that it makes the implicit, explicit and demystifies what might otherwise be mysterious. If turns ‘they just have it’ into ‘they have it becauses they do this.’ It shows what works and provides a common language in which it can be discussed. Just as calling a chord “E” allows musicians to communicate clearly, calling an entry routine “Threshold” allows teachers to quickly focus on the individual elements of that technique and then improve. Of course, some of the terms are jarringly American but I think we can forgive Lemov this given that neither he nor his team pretend to be from anywhere else.

There is an inherent irony in criticising Lemov, and those influenced by him, for reinventing the wheel because, by rejecting his work out of hand and offering nothing as an alternative, we actually force inexperienced teachers to do just that. Given how frustrating I found the early years of my career I would spare them and their students this pain. Great teacher training is not, of course, limited to the places that use Lemov’s work but those that do use it have good reasons. So I will quite happily “Be Seen Looking.” I will stand at my “Threshold” and I will, when required to, do the “Quarterback” without complaint. In an educational landscape in which inexperience seems to be more and more common, we do not have the luxury of allowing teachers to find their own way unguided. Allowing this would be a disservice to the children entitled to a first class education right now – knowing that their ineffective teacher might be competent sometime in the future is cold comfort to those whose results and life chances are on the line.



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