`I want to honour all the things that teachers are doing'

28th November 2014 at 00:00
Doug Lemov explains why he's upgrading to Champion 2.0

Doug Lemov is the closest thing that teaching has to a cult celebrity. Those who know his work either regard him as a superhero or, to use his own words, believe he has "horns and a tail".

A former classroom teacher, Lemov is the author of the hugely successful book Teach Like a Champion - a collection of techniques aimed at improving classroom practice. This teaching bible adorns the shelves of many a young teacher.

The tall, unassuming educator is releasing an update to his best-seller in the New Year. Teach Like a Champion 2.0 aims to "elevate" some of the techniques in his first book and give them greater emphasis.

Both the earlier version and the forthcoming edition are catalogues of effective teaching methods that Lemov has gleaned from thousands of hours observing the lessons of the very best teachers in the US.

He filmed the lessons and played them back to painstakingly analyse what it was that teachers were doing. He used the same method when coaching his son in their beloved football (he is at pains to point out that he means this in the true English, not American, sense of the word).

The reason for the update, Lemov explains, is that he understands much more about what makes good teaching than he did when he penned the first edition four years ago.

"I wanted to write some of the things that I overlooked or de-emphasised too much," he says. "I also wanted to honour all the things that teachers were doing with the ideas from the book that I hadn't thought of. I would walk into the classroom of a teacher and they would be using a technique but just be doing something totally brilliant with it, and I would be like, `I can't believe I didn't think of that.' "

Lemov freely admits that his original motivation for recording good teaching was to improve what he saw as his own failings in the classroom. The light-bulb moment came when he realised that too often the work of good teachers was being kept hidden in their classrooms.

At first he used his videos as a professional development tool in Uncommon Schools, a chain of charter schools in the US that he joined in 2005. But colleagues soon convinced him to turn them into a book. What he wasn't prepared for was the celebrity status it would bring.

"I thought 10 people would buy copies of the book, and I really expected to be attacked and vilified and that people would want to shout at me about it, but that didn't happen so much," he says. "I've been really struck by how deep the hunger is to understand the work of teachers better."

It is Lemov's unfaltering eye for detail, his ability to pick up on the "instructional brush strokes" - as they are described in his book - that has made his writing so popular and led to his cult hero status.

"I like to explain things, to categorise things. I like to set out how things work," he says. "I don't know whether I am good at it, but I like to think that way. I guess I am a rationalist - things happen for a reason."

It is even apparent in how he talks. Every answer Lemov gives to a question comes with one or two examples to illustrate the point he is trying to make. Another notable quality is his knack for seeing lessons through the eyes of a student - something he believes all the best teachers have.

"I think that one of the things that great teachers have is that they're constantly thinking about the experience of the classroom through their students' eyes," Lemov says. "One of the techniques I understand much better now than I did in the first book is `double plan'. What great teachers do is plan what they'll be doing but also what their kids will be doing."

He gives an example of how students always know which classes they can get away with misbehaving in and which they can't. Firing a rubber band across the room would be tempting in one teacher's lesson but unthinkable in another's.

"You always remember the teacher who you thought had eyes in the back of their head," he says. "And the best teachers do things to make students realise they can see what they are doing so they don't do it, and it's a technique called `be seen looking'."

Critics point out that Lemov has merely put names to the methods that have been used in the classroom for years, things that an experienced teacher would be doing in any case. His first book was labelled "49 gimmicks" by a teacher writing for The Huffington Post, who described Lemov's work as another attempt at offering a "magic bullet" to cure education's ills.

But the educator says that one of the main aims of his book is to share best practice, and this is facilitated by creating a common vocabulary.

Few teachers have had such an impact on the everyday language of teaching. Although it is more evident in Lemov's native US, the use of terms such as "strong voice", "culture of error", "be seen looking" and "cold calling" are increasingly entering the lexicon of UK teachers, particularly those making their way through the Future Leaders programme or joining the expanding workforce of the Ark academy chain.

The most striking aspect of Lemov's work, and one that also draws strong criticism, is his emphasis on teaching as a performance art. Although Lemov makes great use of highly choreographed training videos, detractors claim that subject knowledge is the most important factor in teaching. The rest, they say, comes with experience. This is something he dismisses out of hand.

"Take a surgeon or a great character actor: in those professions your background knowledge and your intellect are seriously important," he says. "[They] have to understand deeply the systems of the body and how they work. But then they still have to perform. Surgeons have to practise suturing, so that they can do it in their sleep.

"Oftentimes you want to automate a practice or train on relatively mundane things to free up your cognitive capacity to think about more important things during a performance.

"You're performing but that doesn't change the fact that there is deep intellect behind it. There is an intellectual base and you allow yourself to access the intellectual base by sometimes practising mundane things. It's telling that surgeons never have to apologise for practising suturing."

For every critic, however, Lemov has dozens of disciples who are keen to read his work and pass it on. And perhaps his popularity is partly down to the fact that he repays this respect in kind.

As he writes in the introduction to his new book: "Every day, in every neighbourhood on the near or the far edge of hope, there are teachers who, without much fanfare, take the students who others say `can't'.and turn them into scholars who can."

For Lemov, the real superheroes are the teachers - only without the cape.

Champion moves

1990-93 Teaches English at Princeton Day School in New Jersey, US

1995-96 Associate instructor of English, Indiana University

1997-2000 Founding teacher and later principal at the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School in Boston

2003-04 Takes an MBA at Harvard Business School

2005-present Managing director of Uncommon Schools' True North Network, New York State

2010 Teach Like a Champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college is published

2012 Co-authors Practice Perfect: 42 rules for getting better at getting better

2015 Teach Like a Champion 2.0 is due to be released

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