Thursday, December 02, 2010

Teach Like a Champion... and issues even champions face

After many positive recommendations, I finally downloaded Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion to my Kindle, and I've been rather enjoying it. Lemov, the managing director of Uncommon Schools, has spent quite a bit of time video-taping excellent teachers. He defines excellent teachers as those whose at-risk students outperform more privileged ones. He studies the tapes like a football coach, and has honed their craft down into 49 replicable techniques. As he points out, it's one thing to say that teachers should have high expectations for their students. It's another to figure out what that looks like at 8:30AM on Monday.

The techniques are not rocket science, but are also dazzling when you think about them. For instance, he advocates cold-calling on students. All well and good. But how do you cold call? Effective teachers ask the question first, then call a student's name ("What is 8 times 3? [Pause] James?"). If you call a student's name first and then ask the question, only the student in question does the work in his head. If you ask the question first, then call on someone, all of the students do the work in anticipation of being asked for the answer. This is a little thing, but makes a massive difference in class engagement. Another important technique is "Right is right." When teachers ask classes a question, they often reward a partially right answer by "rounding up." That is, they supply extra information that the student didn't give. Why not say, "I like where you're going with that," and then ask the student to elaborate? Near and dear to my heart, he also chides teachers for engaging in the whole debate of whether slang is a cultural difference that should be celebrated. Proper English, he says, is the "language of opportunity." Kids can speak how they want at home. At school, they should be trained in speaking in a way that will open doors for employment and college.

You can certainly see how a teacher employing Lemov's techniques would have complete control of a class and be able to guide students toward discovering and mastering concepts. However, as I'm reading the book, I can't help but think that all of these techniques work wonderfully when the students are all working at close to the same level. Lemov advocates checking for mastery among kids of all abilities to see how it's going, and he suggests differentiating by cold-calling on your advanced students with harder questions, and having bonus questions ready for people who can master work after three examples rather than ten. But what if the kid already knows the material at the beginning of class? Circling back until 80% of the class has mastered something is incredibly frustrating for the kid who doesn't need half an hour to learn how to round to a certain decimal spot. Sometimes, gifted kids cope by tuning out and studying something else in their desk -- reading a book for example. But most of Lemov's techniques are designed to stop kids from opting out. This makes perfect sense for kids who are defiant or struggling. But not for those who mastered the material long ago.

This is why schools need homogeneous grouping (or "readiness grouping" as we call it here). Such grouping best leverages the talents of great teachers by making sure they can push everyone in a class and not spend a disproportionate amount of time on people who need more help. It also makes life easier on teachers who may still be learning how to teach effectively. Even champions are going to struggle with a class that encompasses 5 or more different grade levels.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I've posted on "Teach Like a Champion" a few times:

I think there is some good material in the book, though it doesn't address teaching gifted students.

Lainie said...

Love the concept, love inspirational reading. Haven't read the book, but my question is this: By definition, does this mean that teachers who don't teach at-risk populations can't be considered excellent?

Laura Vanderkam said...

I don't think that was his point - more that often times, people say "oh, those kids do well but they would anyway." He's trying to identify a group of teachers whose kids do well despite other obstacles, and look at what those teachers have in common.

Anonymous said...

RE kids being on the same level: I have the *solution* to standardized testing! (Ha.) Test children in the fall according to where they were in the spring. If they passed their grade-level test in spring, give them the test for the next level up in fall. If they failed in spring, give them the same test in fall, or if they failed badly, go one level back. If they blew the top off the test in spring, give them the test two levels up in fall. Place students in the grade where they can do about 15-20% of the work, no matter what grade they were in before. That way, teachers can teach groups at similar levels, while students won't be stuck in "tracks" that are inappropriate, because each fall they can either repeat work or advance to the appropriate level. Define "Adequate Yearly Progress" as having all students advance at least one level per year--more for those who were behind. One year's progress would be "adequate" for advanced students *if* they were allowed to take classes at the appropriate level in the first place.

(Oh, and outlaw practice tests except in the last two weeks of school. Kids need to be able to do something besides multiple choice!)