How do you make teachers teach better? US educator Doug Lemov thinks he has some answers and has documented them in a book, Teach Like a Champion, which is informing a generation of teachers, first in America and now in the UK.
Though few may have heard of him, Lemov is a growing influence on education in the US, where he runs 16 charter schools across New York, New Jersey and Boston called Uncommon Schools. His influence is spreading to the UK, where politicians and education policymakers are lapping up his ideas.
Former education secretary Michael Gove, his successor, Nicky Morgan, and colleagues at the Department for Education will be familiar with Lemov’s methods, while any young teacher on a Teach First programme is virtually obliged to have a copy of his book. An updated version is being published this year.
The book is intended to be a manual for teachers, providing practical knowledge and proven techniques that will make them teach better, and enable their students to get better results.
It is less Dead Poets Society, a harsh sceptic might say, than How to Teach for Dummies. One Chicago teacher blogged: “Lemov’s book contributes to the deprofessionalisation of teaching. He sends the message that anyone can do it – if they read the right manual.”
Former Gove adviser Sam Freedman, a Teach First director, is more enthusiastic. “The reason Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion is one of the most popular books for new teachers, including Teach First participants, is because there are so few other places to look for simple routines that will help develop a good behaviour culture, enable rapid assessment and so on.”
Lemov is on a 10-week sabbatical in the UK, funded by the Ark Schools network, giving lectures to policymakers and workshops for teachers. Last month he delivered a lecture at the Policy Exchange, the rightwing thinktank set up by Gove in 2002; last week he held a two-day workshop for school leaders, costing $1,000 (£620) per person.
When we meet in A rk’s London offices, Lemov is with his two children who have just had a maths class – taught by dad – and after our interview he plans to take them to Sir John Soane’s museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. (No Madame Tussauds or London Dungeon today.)
Lemov had wanted to be a professor of English literature. His specialism was journals of scientific interest. Then he turned his attention to improving the educational achievement, and therefore life chances, of children from deprived communities in the US.
What makes him different is that he offers a practical approach to making teachers more effective in the classroom. It isn’t magic. We don’t have to go to Singapore and copy how they do it. Somewhere here, in a school in Market Harborough or Hexham or Hatfield, some teacher has come up with an idea or a solution that can make a real difference in the classroom. All we have to do is use the data from their results to find them, analyse how they’ve done it, then share it with others.
One problem here, it turns out, is that we do not have enough data. “We are way ahead of you,” says Lemov. “In the last 10 years we’ve been able to measure annual progress of kids systematically. If there’s one thing that would improve the UK education system, it’s data.”
How do teachers (and pupils) feel about that? People may like to think their work is immeasurable, says Lemov, but these days the price of failure is too high. “Teachers are very anxious about being measured, then they find out how useful data is, and teachers who use data come to love it.
“We live in a different society than we did 30 years ago. We had good working-class jobs in the US. They are gone now. It’s a knowledge-based economy now and it’s not right to say we are going to risk sending kids out there who are not prepared. I would like to be unmeasured too, but it’s not a defensible position.”
Lemov’s book is subtitled “49 techniques that put students on the path to college”, and even the most trivial classroom activities – such as dealing with requests for toilet breaks or handing out papers – are addressed. For example, Doug McCurry, founder of the Amistad academy in New Haven, Connecticut, has perfected a technique for handing out materials swiftly and effectively that Lemov calculates could save 63 hours during a school year.
Another technique is “cold calling”. The problem with teachers asking questions in class, waiting for children to put their hands up with the answers, is that the children decide whether to participate. Lemov favours a no opt-out approach – there’s no show of hands, everyone has to be prepared to answer. “I decide as the teacher who is going to say the answer out loud, but everyone in the room does the work. A very identifiable, actionable thing you can do to change the dynamics in the classroom.
“It’s teaching as a craft – making it better. Teachers soldier on in anonymity, we never honour them. To me it’s the most important work in society. Part of my goal in this book is to make them visible.”