Teach Like a Champion Update Heightens Focus on Instructional Practice

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 03, 2015 5 min read
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Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion, which puts forth a detailed instructional taxonomy for teachers, flew off the shelves when it was published in 2010. For the Albany, N.Y.-based educator, that suggested one thing: Teachers are hungry for help in mastering the techniques of their craft.

Five years later, the interest in “practice based” teacher preparation has grown, in no small part due to journalist Elizabeth Green’s well-received best-seller Building a Better Teacher which profiled Mr. Lemov’s efforts and those of several other teacher-educators.

Now, with the release of Mr. Lemov’s update to his taxonomy—and with promising developments in university-based attempts to deconstruct the craft of teaching—proponents are facing the challenge of incorporating the use of practiced-based methods into teacher preparation writ large.

Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion.

“One of the questions is that there are so many places that do teacher education,” said Pamela L. Grossman, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education. “First we have to know exactly what it is we’re proposing, and how easy it is to do with the places that have already bought into the idea. And then we have to confront the challenges and constraints around field experiences.

“Not in all places are people able to go directly from rehearsing something in the teacher ed. classroom directly into a school,” she said.

Version 2.0

Mr. Lemov’s framework is based largely on his experiences teaching and observing the practices of high-performing teachers, many working in the Uncommon Schools charter school network, where he is a managing director.

The updated version, which was published in January, obliquely addresses one of the more frequent criticisms of the book: that it’s meant to inculcate in teachers and students the behavioral norms in so-called “no excuses” charter schools, a term Mr. Lemov dislikes.

“I do think, for better or worse, there are people out there, both advocates of the book and skeptics, who perceive it to be all about behavior management,” Mr. Lemov said in an interview.

In fact, the most heavily updated portions of the book focus on instructional techniques. Version “2.0" of the book contains far more detail on different strategies for gauging student understanding, including one key expansion: establishing a culture where students feel safe making mistakes, which allows for a teacher to recognize where a student’s understanding has broken down and to re-teach that aspect of the lesson.

In the new version, Mr. Lemov also details additional pedagogical techniques on what he calls “ratio": making sure students do lots of challenging cognitive work in a classroom. A chapter on using writing to boost classroom rigor, for example, includes the recommendation that students summarize complex ideas in single sentences—something that pushes them toward the use of more varied syntax.

Mr. Lemov underscored that the taxonomy is not a recipe, but rather, gives teachers discretion about which practices to use and when. “I’m uncomfortable with the idea that people think it’s a formula,” he said.

At teacher Kacie Evans’ school in the 700-student Morris County district in Alta Vista, Kan., educators have been honing one of Mr. Lemov’s techniques per year. The middle school teacher is a fan of “cold calling"—a technique designed to elicit participation from all students in class discussions.

“I like it for the engagement,” Ms. Evans said. “You know everyone is paying attention.”

Teacher-educators at traditional universities, meanwhile, have been researching a key question related to Mr. Lemov’s work: How might certain teaching practices vary based on the specific content area being taught?

Ms. Grossman is among teacher-educators participating in a research group, the Core Practice Collaborative, that is tackling that question. The effort includes scholars at the University of California Los Angeles, the University of Washington, and the University of Michigan, among others. Participants are using common methods to instruct candidates in core teaching practices in English/language arts, science, history, and mathematics. Eventually, the group hopes to make training materials on the practices widely available to teacher-educators.

“We pretty much all agreed on the practice of facilitating classroom discussion. We’re trying that out across content areas,” Ms. Grossman said. “But the practice of modeling—which is making visible the cognitive processes—is something the history and ELA groups could agree about and found useful, and the math and science group are still considering. Where can we get that consistency across content knowledge? Where does it fall apart, and why?”

Questions of Scale

Scaling up the adoption of practiced-based ideas into methods classes so far appears to be a relatively slow and unsteady process.

“There has been much more response from districts and from people directly working with schools, than from schools of education,” Mr. Lemov said about his taxonomy. “There, it has been more moderated.”

One possible reason for the Teach Like a Champion book’s popularity among already-practicing teachers is that the taxonomy provides some techniques that are immediately applicable in classrooms—pushing students to explain why and how their answers are correct or make sense, for instance.

But some content-specific techniques of the sort not directly addressed by Mr. Lemov’s book, such as leading the discussion of a poetry text or novel, take repeated practice to master, noted Peter Williamson, the director of the secondary teacher education program at Stanford University. And that means giving prospective teachers plenty of structure and time to learn them.

Ideally, he said, teacher-candidates could go straight from rehearsing such teaching practices with their professors to testing them with pupils in a K-12 setting, and receiving near-immediate feedback.

“That’s a wonderful model, but it requires a great deal of capacity—the right kinds of schools, and people who can move between university and school settings very fluidly,” he said.

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Teach Like a Champion Update Lifts Focus on Technique


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