Thursday, April 2, 2015

What does it mean to Teach Like a Champion?

The following is a guest post from someone who reached out to me to share their concerns about a particular training that they were involved in. They wanted to remain anonymous, so I sat on the post - waiting for the time to be right. A recent Tweet by Chris Robinson, and the ensuing conversation reminded me of the post.
 So here is Part I of the guest post (with some editing on my part):

In addition to molding young minds, full time, I also have a part-time job training and supporting a handful of first-year math teachers. Every other week, I lead the three-hour evening-time seminar that these newbies must attend as a compulsory step on their path to Level 1 certification.

Image from B & N
This year (my second year in this role), the organization that hires me to do this work is rolling out a new curriculum. Said curriculum is built almost exclusively around Doug Lemov’s 2010 publication Teach Like a Champion [TLAC], which has received much attention in recent years. It was the subject of a feature-length New York Times piece, and is now the go-to resource for folks looking to adopt the zero-tolerance, no-excuses approach to running a classroom or school. 

Lemov refers to TLAC as a “taxonomy of effective teaching practice.” In addition to outlining an abundance of strategies for those who want to develop a particular (read: highly structured) classroom culture, the book offers guidance on backwards design, writing learning objectives, checking for understanding - and much more.  To the experienced teacher, many of these techniques are intuitive, although (notably) not encompassing or novel.  To the apprentice, however, they are the opposite of intuitive. Such is the plight of the first-year teacher, and therein lies the value (and draw) of this book.

This past weekend, I attended a two-day training designed to prepare me to use Lemov’s taxonomy as a tool for teacher development.  During the training, a facilitator explained and modeled each of the duties that I would be responsible for executing, at my seminars. In brief:
  • First, I describe and ‘sell’ the featured TLAC technique.
  • Next, I model the technique for participants or share a video exemplar. For example (hat tip to Ilana Horn)
  • After the ‘live model’ or video, we analyze and discuss the technique.
  • Finally (this is the crux of it all), participants practice the techniques via ‘teacher role play.’ As this happens, I coach them (and they coach each other) using Lemov’s pre-established criteria for evaluation, with an emphasis on “actionable, bit-sized feedback.”

During ‘teacher role play,’ for those not familiar, one 20-something practitioner teacher addresses and interacts with her peer group (also 20-something practitioner teachers) as though it were composed of students of the appropriate (K-12) age level.  In these pre-planned scenarios, the teacher is expected to implement TLAC techniques such as “No Opt Out” (to ensure that all students provide correct answers), “Break it Down” (to clarify student misconceptions), “Right is Right” (to insist upon the maximum level of accuracy and completeness of a student response), and “Stretch it” (to push students’ thinking to higher levels of rigor).

The driving idea, here - and it an appealing, alluring idea - is that teachers, like all professionals, can become more effective through practice. The curriculum very firmly prioritizes concrete application over discussions of pedagogy or educational philosophy. Practice trumps theory; as the curriculum handbook explains, practice is “essential to improvement …  it is imperative we dedicate significant time to practicing the techniques.”

While I like the idea of giving teachers real, concrete tools, the methodology doesn’t entirely sit right with me. Initially, I thought the problem was that perhaps I’m too awkward. Could I allow myself to inflict upon these innocent, freshly minted young teachers a challenging, inauthentic, contrived experience, which would certainly make me cringe if the roles were reversed? The more I mulled this one over, the more convinced I became that my objection - my uneasiness - was more complex than my mere aversion to discomfort.

To Be Continued


  1. One of my strongest objections to the TLAC tactics is that it creates a culture in which students are encouraged to hide any trace of confusion. The problem with that culture is that it flies in the face of all the research that shows that surfacing student misconceptions is one of the most powerful ways of *addressing* those misconceptions!

    I agree with you this model of "teaching" is contrived and inauthentic, in addition to being authoritarian.

    Bring on Part 2.

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  2. Are there descriptions of these techniques? I am now curious about what is meant by "No Opt Out" and "Right Is Right" and also wonder how a highly structured room like this could then encourage high levels of rigor ("Stretch It").