TLAC, Language and Cold Call

The book and the techniques contained within it are full of imperatives such as, “Standardize the Format”,[1] to which one might be tempted to respond, “No, you standardise the format. I’m not in the mood today.”[2] And, as Ian Cushing has pointed out in his paper, ‘Language, Discipline and Teaching Like a Champion’, in which he seeks to “explore how the disciplining of language correlates with the disciplining of the body”,[3]  there is a certain linguistic conservatism in the book, which might be taken as an indicator of other forms of numb traditionalism. 

The language is full of business speak. Murgia points out that the names we give things is where totalitarianism starts.[4]Cushing states that “The neoliberal discourse of TLAC is characterised by hostile sport and business metaphors (e.g. ‘high-performance’; ‘cold call’; ‘transaction cost’; ‘on your marks’; ‘strategic investment’; ‘hurdle rate’).”[5] It is worth observing that calling a technique for teaching children ‘Cold Call’, which is a direct marketing technique from call centres, is likely to result in it being as unwanted by the children as a cold call generally is by an adult. ‘Cold Call’, where you pick on a specific student to answer a question (followed by no opt out when you refuse to accept that they don’t know what they don’t know) was adapted by Lemov from a technique used at Harvard Business School. This makes sense. It has always felt to me to be mechanistic, stilted, inorganic and deeply inauthentic.

Cushing also highlights – and this is salutary, as you will see later in this book – that it is the teachers who are the heroes in Teach Like a Champion, not the students.[6] Provided they have been ‘Put on the Path to College’, the children feel relatively incidental. The slightly silly title of the book – “Teach like a what? Oh, come off it. This is a graduate profession” – gives a further sense that the teachers are the heroes, the champions, the stuff of legend. Recall here the function of legend in relation to colonial abuse. Legend wants to excuse the brutaliser from experiencing guilt; reality wishes to reveal the level of his brutality. There is something of the Christian missionary to it.

There are almost no stories from Lemov’s time in the classroom: so few, in fact, that it is a surprise when one finally appears on page 70. One gets the sense that one is being lectured at by someone who knows little about the game on an experiential level: he is preaching about how to perform a role he hasn’t properly inhabited for very long at all. When he uses the rather officious phrase, “acting on the data is risky. I mean that in the psychological sense,”[7] he is talking about being responsive to the assessment of students’ answers. And there is some insight, but it isn’t deep, and one might be tempted to respond: “No, it isn’t. It’s just what teachers do. It’s pretty basic really.”

And then there are the videos.[8] I find many of these terrifying.[9] To imagine oneself as a student in some of these classrooms is to imagine a lifetime of therapy as an adult. There is little in the way of softness. A series of generally very young teachers with the erect posture and military bearing of drill sergeants, of whom the best that might be said is that they have excellent voice projection, run students, in rows, through a series of blindingly fast-paced drills.[10] Not only do the teachers appear to be inexperienced, but they all have, despite Lemov’s claim that great teachers possess their own way of doing things, exactly the same ‘house style’. Their positioning is all wrong; their spatial awareness is poor; they seem unaware of sightlines; and most seem uninformed by any knowledge of how animals respond to threat. There is pace but no play; efficiency but no ludic element to the lessons; discipline but little joy. The first episode of laughter in the classes is in Video 18.

The classes are so heavily routinised that one is almost breathless with fear while watching them. One lesson in the series contains evidence that seems as if it might damn the whole approach.


Teacher clicks fingers five times.

Students put their hands up.

Teacher: I like these hands.

Teacher selects student.

Teacher: Track Sherwin.

Class all turn around instantaneously to point their gaze directly at Sherwin.

Sherwin offers answer.

Teacher: Who agrees with Sherwin?

Class all immediately turn their heads to the front.


And this is great practice? It is all incredibly efficient, but it is also extremely controlling, gratuitous and, I would argue, militaristic. The children in these videos seem to have been filmed in the act of survival.

What about having an organic conversation during which students are allowed exploratory talk? This kind of investigative, dialogic approach is generally absent from the videos (there are a few examples). Mainly, unless the teacher tells you to give an answer, it appears you are an un-elective mute in a champion teacher’s classroom. The children here are blank slates. Recall what the psychological and neuroscience communities think of this as an idea; they completely reject it. It is not held to be a valid idea by any serious academics.

The obsession with using 100% of the lesson and having the kids on task 100% of the time means there is no wasted time in a champion teacher’s lesson. This is the point of them, but it is also the most profound and mortal criticism you might imagine. The idea of the 100% lesson is a theory that doesn’t survive any brush with reality.

The filmed lessons that Lemov asks us to regard as excellent practice seem to run on the pitch of barely repressed, panicked performatism, which cannot be good for anyone, teachers or students. There is no descriptive praise. Students come up with superb answers and receive a “well said” for their pains.

The imperatives continue. “Praise risk taking.”[11] It is a useful piece of advice, but it is made incongruous by the fact that the teachers in the videos are all following the same orthodox line. To get students to feel comfortable taking risks, you model taking risks, and there is no pedagogic risk-taking in these videos; they are devoid of it. The concept of psychological safety is important here. We achieve psychological safety in group situations from the belief that we are free to experiment without fear of punishment or shame. One could make a strong argument from these videos that neither teachers nor students feel at all psychologically safe. While some teachers have a gentler touch than others, and some clearly have nice dispositions, not a single pedagogic risk is evident. Almost no one goes off-script. The teaching is staid; the classrooms are lifeless, bloodless, stultifying chambers in which there seem to be no space for the personalities of the kids.

Teachers’ language is infantilised in Teach Like a Champion 2.0. High-level teachers make hundreds of complicated linguistic decisions every day, yet Lemov seems to think you can script what they say. These scripts read like ridiculous flowcharts in which both children and teachers are treated like idiots. Witness the following. It is suggested that, when a student makes an error, the teacher says, “I’m really glad that you made that mistake. It’s going to help me to help you.”[12] It appears to be in the style of a human written by a poor early iteration of artificial intelligence. When a student points out a teacher’s mistake, it is suggested that they say, “Oooh, you all just caught the best mistake I’ve ever made! This is great!”[13] No, Doug, this is not great; this is not great at all.

The fact that it is also placed as the final piece of guidance before we enter Part 2 on ‘Academic Ethos’, which is basically having high intellectual expectations of the students, sounds a satanically ironic klaxon so loud that you almost feel like covering your ears and your eyes and sobbing “Make it all go away”, as one might imagine the kids suffering this approach would be tempted to do every night they return home. Teachers don’t speak like this because our job is to lift the language of the students by modelling how experts speak. If you spoke to students in this way in some of our rougher inner-city schools, you would be greeted with short shrift.


[1] Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, p. 59.

[2] ‘Plan for Error’. Nope, sorry, not in the mood for that either.

[3] Ian Cushing, Language, Discipline and ‘Teaching Like a Champion’, British Educational Research Journal, 47(1) (2021).

[4] Michela Murgia, How To Be a Fascist: A Manual (London: Pushkin Press, 2018), p. 14.

[5] Cushing, Language, Discipline and ‘Teaching Like a Champion’.

[6] Cushing, Language, Discipline and ‘Teaching Like a Champion’.

[7] Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, p. 70.

[8] See

[9] Although Hilary Lewis’s first-grade lesson is beautifully prepared and exquisitely gently presented (Video 6), and the teacher Eric Snider appears a genuine talent (Video 20).

[10] The origination of the drill – an English word, which is often modified by the adjectival phrase ‘close order’ – comes from the military. Primo Levi describes it as “insipid violence” in The Drowned and the Saved (London: Abacus, 1989), p. 131.

[11] Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, p. 71.

[12] Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, p. 81.

[13] Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, p. 81.

Added Fri, 10 May 2024 14:19

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