Perhaps in partial acknowledgement of the controversy surrounding SLANT, perhaps in conceding that some minor errors had been committed in order to hide the systemic issues with the pedagogic regime he’d helped found, Lemov coined a new acronym – STAR: sit up, track the teacher, appreciate your classmates’ ideas, rephrase the words of the person who spoke so they know you were listening.

So, the command to nod at all times initially seems to have disappeared, and the idea of appreciating other people’s ideas seems sweet, but we are still in the realms of the moronic inferno; we are still enforcing complete control over the way in which children sit; we are still controlling the students’ gazes; and the final command is, again, a Pavlovian instruction from a theorist who fails to understand the organic nature of classroom interactions.[1]

What is the point of a compulsory instruction as to exactly how to respond to your classmates? This is not how authentic communication works; this is not freedom of expression; this is not freedom of any type; this is its opposite. Classroom conversations cannot be as proscribed as this; children need to be able to express themselves freely, to investigate ideas, to respond to each other in manner they see fit. For student discussion to operate in a properly nourishing way, it needs to have a degree of freedom, a concept that appears to be anathema to the supporters of ‘Teach Like a Champion’. It’s plausible that one might use this as a technique from time to time, though I can’t say I’ve ever had cause to employ anything similar as it would feel mechanistic, but to proscribe that all classroom conversations follow exactly this model is to fundamentally misunderstand the complex relational skill of managing classroom discussion and to misunderstand how human expression works.

Doug and I had an initially relatively heated exchange via direct messaging on Twitter, and he pointed me in the direction of what he currently thinks about what one might describe as ‘attentional training’. It is called ‘Tracking in Classrooms: What I Really Think (and Wrote)’. In it, he writes “the technique Habits of Attention seeks to establish routines that cause students to focus their attention during class and build stronger attentional habits.”[2] Look at the language here. Once, again, it is coldly bureaucratic; once again, it feels devoid of empathy. 

We head in the direction of the video Doug suggests you watch in which the classroom culture you see is described by Doug as “fun and funny and scholarly”. I’d venture an opinion that it isn’t. The children in the video are being trained. Yes, there is subject content, but the experience appears highly uncomfortable for the children, and the pace is exhausting. Doug argues that enforcing children to turn and face the speaker in what appears to be a militaristic manner promotes “pro-social”[3] body language. There is theory here, but what is communicated in the video is the system’s complete control of the children in it. He asks us to consider “how attentive, confident and productive they are.”[4] This is not a conclusion anyone experienced might draw from such evidence. What I note is how cowed, how controlled, how ‘compliant’ they are. 

They are forced to wiggle their finger in a show of appreciation of what one speaker says. This system of teaching forces children to do things that are totally pointless, and one wonders whether this is the intent: if you can make a whole system full of children do something pointless, in the words of Lady Macbeth, with whom this version of pedagogy seems to share a certain sociopathy, “what cannot you and I perform …?”[5]

Referencing books with titles as frightening as ‘Atomic Habits’, Doug explains his justification for the nodding and tracking: 

“Shaping students’ habits of looking can lead to a profound change, not only in their actions and cognition, but in those around them. For example, engaging in behaviors that show a speaker that you are listening carefully – nodding, for example, and looking interested – are often self-actualizing. They cause you to pay better attention and cause the speaker to feel a strong sense of affirmation and belonging as well.”[6]

Look at the amount of certainty in this bold series of completely unevidenced suppositions: “Shaping students’ habits of looking can lead to a profound change.” Where is the academic research or, indeed, any form of research to back this up? Having where you look being put under strict military control, and recall here that in the military, when, for instance, there is a march past, there is strict control of gaze (“eyes right”), will apparently “cause you to pay better attention and cause the speaker to feel a strong sense of affirmation and belonging as well.”[7] The first of these assertions feels ‘sciency’ but isn’t science. As regards the latter assertion, as I’ve said, I’ve taught children who had been trained in this manner. It didn’t cause any sense of affirmation. It just freaked me out.

He describes the teacher in the videos as “deft”. This confuses the meaning of deft with that of bludgeoning. There are also a lot of modal verbs in it: ‘could’. There are direct, provable causations in a classroom and, when you have years of experience, you’ve tried the ‘could’ and replaced it with ‘does’ or ‘does not’.

He makes the wild error that many people make about eye contact. “Eye contact and body language are the means we use to show someone that they matter and belong.” This is an un-evidenced assertion. Prolonged direct eye contact is an evolutionary signal that you are going to hit someone. I agree that both these areas need to be the focus of teacher attention, but the focus should be on the teacher’s use of body language and lack of eye contact and how this should be managed so as not to prompt animal responses in students. Not making eye contact is often the key. The control here is the control the teacher has over themselves.

It is chock full to the brim of un-evidenced claims, and the references are all to populist science and psychology, not to genuine academic research.[8] “You don’t learn well if you’re slouching.”[9] How does Doug know this? I am having quite an enjoyable slouch while I am typing this, and I’m learning quite a bit. On the nodding bit of SLANT, he claims that nodding your head “shows interest in another person’s ideas, it also causes you to engage actively in listening.” No, it doesn’t. It causes you to look like you are being controlled, coerced into compliance. And compulsory nodding has not disappeared from the instructions either; it is merely concealed, a switchblade behind an arras, and appended to the ‘Appreciate Your Classmates’ Ideas’ section with the instruction that a child must do so by “nodding, smiling, and so on when they speak.” And here we are again: the compulsory instruction to smile. You will show your happiness (even if you are so profoundly and deeply unhappy at being controlled that you are contemplating suicide).

It is clearly emancipatory in intent. But what it intends and what it may well be are opposites. Doug has the good grace to appreciate the concept of the “psychological safety” of the children being paramount, but I question whether students feel even remotely psychologically safe in these classrooms. Enforced compliance does not make people feel safe; it makes them feel hurt and panicked and resentful. I’ve touched on the concept of psychological safety earlier: in order to feel it we must feel included, allowed to asked questions in order to learn, contribute ideas and be able to challenge the status quo while not being ridiculed or punished for doing so. Are the students subject to such a regime allowed all of the above?

We achieve psychological safety is group situations from the belief that, within the group environment, we are free to experiment without fear of either punishment or shame. The environments which prompt shame in children through, for instance, the public demerit, are acting actively to make children feel psychologically unsafe. The children in such institutions will, therefore, be vastly less likely to be in any way experimental, less likely to venture an opinion. 

When in a situation in which we fear the judgement of others who are above us in some hierarchy, we seek the pallid version of safety that is found in ‘neutral compliance’. Inside, we may be agonised, but we may not express that agony as expression of any idea outside of the orthodoxy becomes punishable. A totalitarian environment does not want ideas. Ideas are dangerous. They overturn unacceptable things. 

A further video is given us as an example of good practice. There’s a nice turn and talk activity in it, and Doug, when describing it, has the warmth to claim that “in a good classroom, everyone’s voice matters”,[10] with which I deeply agree, but the militarisation of the transitions is, again, petrifying. Children are actually clicking their fingers at each other while one of them is speaking to show compulsory appreciation of what the speaker is saying. I’d be inclined to believe that having a whole class of kids clicking their fingers at you in an alleged show of appreciation is more likely to be scary than it is anything else. It’s also completely f***ing ridiculous, comedy of the blackest variety, and the videos that accompany ‘Teach Like a Champion’ unintentionally parody the alleged seriousness of the text time and time again.

Doug writes of the student who was speaking, “he speaks earnestly and with depth. He would not do that if their eye contact and body language did not encourage him to; if they slouched and looked away out the window. No one would. Left on his own, he might have sat silently but here he is drawn out into the sunlight of his peers.”[11] The use of modal verbs here reveals this statement to be the total supposition that it is, and the metaphor is egregious. The supposition continues in the claim that to oppose the totalitarian methods in ‘Teach Like a Champion’ is to be a ‘sentimentalist’, and that such teachers “mean well but love to be loved”[12] and that such people “see being both demanding and caring of pupils as mutually exclusive.”[13] This is characteristically dismissive of the opinions of expert others: opinions of teachers profoundly more qualified than Doug to pontificate on teaching from the position of more than four years’ experience. It is gruesome. To Doug, my loved former colleague, Paul Read, who has been teaching in a deprived community for thirty years, is a “sentimentalist”. Paul’s proper hard, and he sure as hell ain’t sentimental. We would both be insulted if we weren’t too busy teaching kids.

The fact that ‘Teach Like a Champion’ and its notions of students and lessons being subject to ‘efficiencies’ has risen during a period of right-wing government is not un-coincidental, and the further fact that influential voices support it assertively, dismissing any objection without the need to properly rationalise their support for the text leads one to believe that you do not have to be an expert in anything other than toadying and pandering to the powerful to be highly rated by recent governments. The endorsements of ‘Teach Like a Champion’ are, to me, generally those of the inexpert endorsing the same because they share an ideology and political affiliations and are chiefly interested in money. Its bureaucratization of learning comes from a view of humans as things: things to be controlled, things to be ordered. It is profoundly wrongheaded. There are historical precedents. The personal hubris of guru-types who have consumed the Kool-aid of their own rightness can have crashingly negative consequences.

What is mystifying is the association of the book with the evidence-led, ‘research informed’ movement since Lemov himself, in a section called ‘The Irony of What Works’, outlines that the techniques espoused in the book, while based on a study of American teachers who get ‘uncommon’ results for their students does not match up to much of theoretical basis of teaching (it’s all theory; he’s not a practitioner; he’s a theorist). There is nothing whatsoever about cognitive science in the book, and it seems an odd marriage: one of the vanguards of a movement that would describe itself as research informed and evidence-led has done only a version of ethnographic research, has done little evident reading (there are 12 references in the whole book) and has evidence of only one arguably repressive and extremely specific culture of teaching. Its popularity does reveal how very, very little that those that support it know about the subject. It knows nothing valuable about teaching, and nor do its followers.


[1] Though Doug does acknowledge that you can drop this bit if you so wish. In which case …?

[2] Lemov, Doug, Tracking in Classrooms: What I Really Think (and Wrote) 5 April 2023

[3] Lemov, Doug, Tracking in Classrooms: What I Really Think (and Wrote) 5 April 2023

[4] Lemov, Doug, Tracking in Classrooms: What I Really Think (and Wrote) 5 April 2023

[5] Shakespeare, William, Macbeth Act I, Scene VII

[6] Lemov, Doug, Tracking in Classrooms: What I Really Think (and Wrote) 5 April 2023

[7] Lemov, Doug, Tracking in Classrooms: What I Really Think (and Wrote) 5 April 2023

[8] Some irony here, no?

[9] Lemov, Doug, Tracking in Classrooms: What I Really Think (and Wrote) 5 April 2023

[10] Lemov, Doug, Tracking in Classrooms: What I Really Think (and Wrote) 5 April 2023

[11] Lemov, Doug, Tracking in Classrooms: What I Really Think (and Wrote) 5 April 2023

[12] Lemov, Doug, ‘Schools have focused too much on observable behaviour’ interview with Jess Staufenberg, Schools Week (December 2021)

[13] Lemov, Doug, ‘Schools have focused too much on observable behaviour’ interview with Jess Staufenberg, Schools Week (December 2021)

Added Sat, 6 Jul 2024 20:37

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