Doug Lemov’s first great insight was that many of the problems teachers face are both widespread and entirely predictable. His second was that the best teachers have found ways to deal with those problems. And his third was that it might be a good idea to write down – or even better film – how those great teachers solved the problems so that a wider audience could benefit.
That may seem incredibly simple – but then the best ideas are often those that make you think “why the hell didn’t someone think of doing that earlier?”
And it’s remarkable how little knowledge about teaching is codified. 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.
At the Policy Exchange / Teach First lecture that Lemov gave on Wednesday evening, he explained the value of identifying the routines used by the best teachers and then training others by helping them practice these routines until they stick.
To some extent he was preaching to the converted – the talk took place in King Solomon Academy (KSA) where the value of practice-based professional development is well understood. Of course KSA is also the school which has just secured an incredible 93% 5A*-C including English and Maths for a cohort in which 58% of pupils were on free school meals. The two things are probably not unrelated.
During the Q&A, though, people did raise the standard criticisms of the Lemovian model. Isn’t simply teaching trainees a bunch of routines, turning them into technicians rather than inquiring professionals developing their own practice? Moreover doesn’t the focus on compliance suggest robotic children too?
His response was that structure and freedom are inextricable. Being given the toolkit to solve the simple, endemic problems of behaviour management, or even how best to hand out papers, doesn’t turn the teacher into an automaton, instead it gives them the space to focus on the things that really make the difference: deep pedagogy; love of subject and building relationships with pupils.
Likewise being able to control a classroom doesn’t mean that you have to hold pupils in a permanent state of quiet obedience. Indeed having that level of control gives teachers the space to be more inventive. Throwing a group-work exercise into a lesson is much easier to do if you can bring the class back to order in ten seconds rather than ten minutes.
This relationship between freedom and structure is there in any field. Knowing grammar doesn’t make someone a great novelist but it’s pretty hard to write a novel if you don’t know any grammar. Great artists don’t confine themselves to basic techniques but they know what those techniques are and can call on them when necessary.
Initial teacher training and, beyond that, continued professional development need to focus on much more than just practicing routines; but what Lemov has shown us is that there is a place for these kind of techniques in creating the thinking space for professional inquiry.
His model also offers the opportunity for those entrepreneurial teachers who have developed highly effective techniques to have an impact on millions of pupils beyond their own classroom. It is crazy, as Lemov put it, that we spend all our time worrying about the bad teachers and so little time identifying and celebrating the good. It’s a lesson we’ve taken on board at Teach First with our “Spotlight” process which involves filming some of our most effective teachers and sharing their practice across our network.
Sam Freedman is Director of Research, Evaluation and Impact at Teach First. Formerly he was Head of Education at Policy Exchange.