Classroom craft for a modern age

21st May 2010 at 01:00

Book review

Teach Like a Champion; By Doug Lemov; Published by John Wiley Sons, #163;18.99

Doug Lemov's book comes with a DVD and I made a bad mistake in watching the DVD first. It's like education meets Police, Camera, Action!

It comprises lots of video clips of American teachers employing the 49 techniques that the author says create great teaching. There are also plenty of barked, rapid-fire instructions and passive children sitting in serried ranks. To me - a Doug Lemov virgin - it seemed initially to be all about regimentation and discipline, with everything except orange jumpsuits.

Then I read the book.

Lemov is a remarkable educator from the United States - and if any nation needs remarkable educators, it's the US. But before we Brits get smug, their problem is our problem - succinctly stated in the introduction to the book as "demography is destiny".

In Lemov's words, "students' test scores are highly correlated with the amount of money their parents make and the zip (post) codes where they live".

While many of us may lament the postcode lottery of our education system, Lemov applies a forensic intensity to unlocking what happens in those schools in deprived areas where teachers achieve extraordinary results. He comes up with his 49 insights.

Lemov's findings take us back to what we always knew - that teaching is a craft. Michael Marland taught us this 30 years ago in his groundbreaking book The Craft of the Classroom. He wrote of an "art" in teaching and organisation: "Every teacher must be proficient in this art. The encouraging thing is that it can be learnt, practised and improved."

This was the craft of the classroom - a set of discrete, learnable skills that allow us to help our students succeed.

Lemov talks of teachers as "artisans" using a range of techniques (emphatically not "strategies") to take learning to another level, with a set of skills which suddenly seem bracingly obvious in their conception.

Take the example of teacher Doug McCurry, who spends an hour teaching his classes how to hand their exercise books in and out in the most efficient way. It soon takes the class 10 seconds. But he takes out a stopwatch and makes them do it in eight.

Lemov calculates that "McCurry has taught his students a routine that will net him thirty-eight hundred minutes of additional instruction over the course of a school year".

In the process, he has also quickly established a feel-good sense of what every student can achieve and established his authority. It is the craft of the classroom for a modern age.

If the example of dishing out books seems trivial, we soon get into the meatier stuff. "No Opt Out" means that no student is ever allowed to say "I don't know" in response to a question: every one of them will be expected to respond. Thus, the incentive not to participate is punctured.

"Cold Call" avoids the bland tyranny of "hands up" whereby the same old clique answer the same old questions. "Pepper" is the relentless use of questions to drill down into an idea.

If, at times, it all smacks of regimentation and routine, that's a reminder of what great teachers do. They establish their classrooms as sanctuaries of calmness and security so that, irrespective of a child's background, the important and magical stuff can then happen: learning.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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