Teach Like a Champion

The fourth book on my fall 2012 reading list was Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. Since I work in an industry where a football game warmup, contest, and post game counts as only three hours, I figure I’m allowed to bend time as well. This book fits with the fall theme, Perspectives from the Edge, because it’s not typical. One blog writer described it as samizdat literature, passed around secretly like Emmanuel Goldstein’s book in 1984. That’s not true, since one can easily purchase the book on Amazon, but it’s not part of mainstream education school training. Mr. Lemov makes that point on page 8. “There isn’t a school of education in the country that would stoop to teach its aspiring teachers how to train their students to pass out papers, even though it is one of the most valuable things they could possibly do.” I don’t know if this statement is true, because there are a lot of education schools in the US. Somebody somewhere likely does that. Nevertheless, overall the academic centers use Freire more than tactical guides like this.

Mr. Lemov holds an ideology very different from Freire, Apple, and Constructivists. In the Lemov classroom, the teacher must have control, as responsibility and duty. This claim appears many times, such as page 167: “It’s one of the responsibilities of the job to bring order and respect sufficient to protect all students’ right to learn to your classroom.” And on page 114, about cold calling students, “One of its positive effects is that it establishes that the room belongs to you.” Teachers should have control. In this book, says page 148, “control is more than a necessary evil. It often supports freedom.” Benign, enlightened control is a very good thing, and the techniques described should help a teacher establish and maintain that control.

I firmly agree with this fundamental assumption. In a K-12 school class, parents and guardians have transferred power and trust to the school and teacher. In a college class, my students pay me to help them. (Well, they pay the school, the administrators take a huge proportion and give me only a little … you get the point.) Enrollees grant me power and authority. I believe it a duty to accept and apply that warrant. A teacher should establish enlightened control because the leader should know more about the subject and the approaches to help learners gain knowledge. If not, why does one pay money? Why send a student on a bus every weekday? I could digress into a discussion of online courses, Khan Academy, and homeschooling, where people have decided that the power transfer has failed, but that’s not the point of the book. Perhaps some other time.

The most contrary review I could find comes from Ray Salazar. Mr. Salazar contributes to National Public Radio, which has a very different set of beliefs than Mr. Lemov. Here’s the key paragraph in the negative review:

The question this researcher wants us to ask when we see perfectionist discipline is, “What are students being socialized to do?” In Teach Like a Champion, students are being socialized to be passive, mob followers. They are being taught that recall of information is all they can, should, or be expected to do. The researcher also questioned why schools must institute militaristic, penal-system practices before they believe our students can learn. My response is that the priority in these schools is control–not learning.

We have reached a fundamental dilemma. Mr. Lemov counters this idea by saying on page 157, “Certain freedoms are overrated.” While students could be let free to organize their notes and study as they think, this leads to failure, particularly in environments without lots of positive models. “Too often teachers have not taken the time to teach their students step by step, what successful learning behavior looks like.” (p. 146) The ultimate goal of strict management is not control, it’s establishing discipline, in the second definition of my dictionary – controlled behavior from training that leads to success, “the path to college”.

Mr. Salazar believes that this tactical approach establishes only low expectations. “Instead of fulfilling the expectations of meek, passive, and low-achieving stereotypes, we need to teach so our low-income black, brown, and even white students create realities that contradict the history of oppression.” Teach Like a Champion starts from a different place, increasing standardized test scores. In the conclusion on page 310, “It [this book] starts with and is justified by the results it helps teachers achieve, not by its fealty to some ideological principle.” I can’t solve this dilemma, because it’s not solvable. Like many conflicts in current America, it’s about axiomatic belief.

I want to talk about what I learned from the book. In the technique list, I saw ways I could improve my classroom leadership: not settling for partially correct student replies, since Right is Right; planning lessons around I / We / You; keeping my praise more precise and meaningful; changing pace because even 50 minutes is too long for a single tone; and planning better questions. Chapter 9 on questioning is particularly praiseworthy, as is the concept of Ratio beginning on page 93. Ratio has a bad name; I’d label it cognitive distribution. This principle summarizes the book for me. Ultimately, students should perform the tasks and achieve success, but the teacher has the responsibility to preside and manage.

A successful lesson is rarely marked by a teacher’s getting a good intellectual workout at the front of the room. Push more and more of the cognitive work out to students as soon as they are ready, with the understanding that the cognitive work must be on-task, focused, and productive.

Understanding Ratio is the key to this book, where I believe Mr. Salazar misses the point. There are people that demand control for personal power. Mr. Lemov does not appear to fall into that category. The back cover of my copy describes the book’s purpose as to “unlock the talent and skill waiting in your students, no matter how many previous classrooms, schools, or teachers have been unsuccessful.” That’s what I desire, too, and why I think this book should become part of teacher training curriculum. My education school would instruct teachers on paper passing and other management techniques. Tactics are not sufficient, but good tactics are necessary to fulfill the teacher’s leadership responsibility.

Interestingly, one of the quotes on the back cover comes from Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP, Knowledge Is Power Program. My original spring list focused on KIPP, so we might have another foreshadowing moment. 🙂

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network: http://adam.twelvefruits.com
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