Top of my Christmas list this year was Doug Lemov’s Teach like a Champion. I think the Initial Teacher Training we run is good in many ways but the extent to which trainees get specific, concrete advice on ways to improve their teaching depends very heavily on the skills of the mentor in school. Where the mentors are excellent, the advice and target-setting are really specific and the trainee can try new techniques out immediately. But a lot of mentors don’t manage this, even though they are very supportive generally. I wondered whether ideas from this book could fill some of the gap. Having read it, I think it’s a great book with plenty to say to those involved in ITT in the UK but maybe it’s not such a good choice for a trainee’s reading list. I’ll come back to what it does have to offer in a minute: caveats first.
Lemov draws on a number of outstanding teachers for examples but I get the impression the total number is not actually that high. In effect he has spent time in the most successful classrooms within a linked chain of charter schools serving a particular demographic, and has made the assumption that anything he sees replicated across these most successful classrooms must be a factor in the success of these outstanding teachers. I guess he doesn’t make any claims that his observation system is particularly systematic, or rigorous in its approach, but there is no doubt that he is pretty convinced himself that this is a list of the techniques used by outstanding teachers. A coach and horses could be driven through this methodology except that there is something fundamentally sound about the basic premise, as long as the reader appreciates that some of the techniques may be much more effective than others and some may even be counterproductive; that what works in these classrooms may not work in all classrooms; and that there is a chance that Lemov has missed something deeper and more elusive that makes these techniques work for the teachers observed but fall flat if applied by others without this deeper something in place. In particular I notice that the behavior management techniques are almost entirely devoted to keeping classes on track where behaviour is basically okay already. Nothing about establishing class rules, really. Nothing about what to do when a bout of fake coughing starts round the room, or deliberate, invisible tapping under the desks. Nothing about how to respond to the pupil that tells you to fuck off when asked to move. Not even an in depth description of the full procedure to follow when you first ask for silence, wait for it, don’t get it, and still have half the class chatting rather than one or two individuals. I have a suspicion that these things either don’t happen to the teachers Lemov was observing, or they do and were dealt with at the start of term, before Lemov’s observations. I can’t believe the schools in question don’t experience these things at all; in fact I should think these are the sort of schools that need metal detectors and security guards on the doors just to keep guns off the premises. This thought, that Lemov may be missing something fundamental, worries me quite a bit, but, although that’s a pretty hefty disclaimer, I think we need more of this kind of thinking in the UK ITT system. Those who still think that university tutors spend their entire time filling the heads of trainees with theoretical flights of fancy and a selection of bogus teaching techniques born of the summer of love are way off the mark. I can’t vouch for all providers but we provide a mix of subject knowledge focused on anticipating misconceptions, basic teaching skills like how to plan a lesson around your learning objectives and how to check progress as you go along, questioning technique, and so on, knowledge about whole school issues like SEN, and lots of time (2/3rds of the course) in school observing, practising, and improving. Almost all the whole school stuff and a series of sessions on behavior management, AfL, pace, and other tricky areas, are delivered by outstanding practitioners from local schools, and I think nearly everything we do is focused on helping trainees make the most of their placements. However what we don’t do are regular, repetitive opportunities to identify and practise individual techniques. And I think we should! It’s to this aspect of our current practice that Lemov speaks, and actually this was my primary motivation in reading the book. What the book does do exceptionally well is isolation of individual techniques. “No Opt Out” isn’t just presented as one of a dozen elements of effective questioning, it’s described as a single entity, to be understood, and practised, on its own, until mastered. I think this may be the thing that would make most difference to my trainees, particularly those to whom teaching doesn’t come so naturally. In the classroom there is just too much going on for an inexperienced teacher to get much focus on specific techniques. In fact it’s a testament to the quality of the trainees I work with that they manage to do so quite as effectively as they do. What if I could remove some of that pressure? What if I could give them the chance to make the classroom a place for stress testing rather than tentative first steps? Maybe that could lead to something really exciting. And then what if we could meld Lemov’s instinct for addressing the issue of ‘What Works’ as a blow by blow account of action at the coal face with Hattie’s academic rigor, and something like David Weston’s teasing out of nuance in the data? What if Schools of Education in universities were somehow turned on their head so that the function of at least some of the research was driven by the need to inform ITT? Then we might really be motoring on the evidence based highway.