The Planning Section of Teach Like a Champion

There is little to disagree with in this section, though I note that the mildly horrendous ‘Do now’ imperative hailed, yet again, from the ever-expanding list of imperatives in ‘Teach Like a Champion’. (The other imperatives in this section are ‘name the steps’ and ‘control the game’ (!) – the techniques are fine; the language is unconscious of its own implications.) Lemov bases his lessons around an ‘I do/we do/you do’[1] structure which is logical enough, I suppose, and there are some genuinely good bits in this section: the acknowledgement that a decent teacher will often deviate from their lesson plan, the observation that what goes most wrong with starter activities (aside from going to the bother of actually doing them: they’re a total waste of lesson time – get to the point, teacher) is the teacher spending too long on them. He understands the importance and usefulness of mnemonics and is correct that students need to be actively taught to take notes, though his mooted technique for doing so is a little linear. His ‘Use Two Stairways’ technique is high order and is excellently explained.

His section on reading aloud is controversial, however, and his assertion that not making students read aloud is “routinely ignored by top teachers”[2] is perhaps false and makes one believe he might not have seen such a teacher in action. He is good enough to list the objections, and his logic for rebutting them is based in the truth that the only thing that develops reading fluency is the student reading aloud (probably to another human). He has techniques to encourage and support the slower readers and, overall, I thought this section of the book had a softness and a care to go with its excellent technical analysis that other sections lacked. I almost never make students read aloud in class, but I can accept that this is a difference of opinion, and Lemov is quite convincing here. I might be wrong. He might be right.

However, the constant repetition of ‘transaction costs’ locates us firmly in neoliberalist economics. Everything is about making teaching more efficient, and it is no real surprise that this, the constant talk of efficiency, has been used as the basis of a movement that ultimately, results in the destruction of teacher autonomy where graduate professionals are provided scripts that they read aloud at children. The worldview that sees teaching children as a scalable activity that can be learned by anyone with just the replication of a few bludgeoning techniques clad in dogmatically expressed imperatives was, I suppose, inevitable during a period of ever widening inequality; it is arguably another ugly manifestation of the fact that we have been governed by the delusional for a decade-and-a-half.

Accepting Lemov’s good intentions and his positive desire to change things, well, he has. However, and this is often the way with well-intentioned people who do not necessarily think about the wider implications of what they are doing, not necessarily for the better. If Lemov had not invented himself, someone more malevolent might have done so. This set of pedagogies based on transaction costs all too willingly gives away what, ultimately, it will be used for: the de-professionalisation of teachers, the wilful ignoring of the existence of students’ human rights, the destruction of teaching as a graduate profession, the reduction of education as a financial cost, more dollars on the dividend and less on taxes. “Small differences in transaction costs can have a large effect, so it’s critical to reduce them.”[3] Ain’t that the whole current universe contained in one bare sentence?

The business metaphors get souped up in a stultifying section on reading (yes, children reading books is seen through the metaphor of business-speak). In a section entitled ‘Hurdle rate and meaningful reading’, Doug goes so full-on city-boy in his drive for efficiencies that we lose any detectable sense of context. The concept of hurdle rate, which is, in essence, teachers only doing things they think are useful in terms of student learning, describes “a rate of return on [the teacher’s] investment of her time.”[4] He goes on to tell us that the idea of hurdle rate “comes from business”[5] (you’re kidding me, feller!), and the question a teacher must ask is whether any investment of a technique will “yield a stronger return”[6]than another technique. There’s almost no point commenting on this, but I will. We’ve all used metaphors that don’t quite work before, but the fact that these come from a landscape, that of finance, which might see the children in charter schools and community schools in the UK as being just so much metaphorical meat in a metaphorical abattoir, means they are inappropriate items of language with which to speak of the education of working- and lower middle-class children. And, yet again, they use language to dehumanise a human into an efficiency, something that is subject to cutting, to reduction.

When teaching ‘Macbeth’, one of the first things I’ll introduce students to is the idea that one’s linguistic lexicon[7]affects one’s behavioural lexicon. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth start speaking like the witches first, and this is then appropriated into how they behave. Any education system that bases its language around the language of finance is possibly going to make its treatment of the humans in that system subject to the behavioural codes of the realm the language has been taken from. The worrying lack of identifiable empathy here moves into the realms of the frightening, and it is a wonder that a graduate profession of intelligent people has not, thus far, called this out for what it is. Using the language of finance to describe how you manage the learning of children is arguably quite dangerously wrong. It is possible it will lead to those children being dehumanised, being treated as products.

In the following pages, we see causation in action. We are advised to place a hand on a student’s shoulder and are advised to do so “subtly.”[8] Here are my own imperatives: do not do this. It is invasive. Do not do this. You have no idea of the student’s previous experience in the realms of human touch. 

Put simply, there are two areas of the body in terms of physical contact: the ‘vulnerable’ and the ‘non-vulnerable’. The surprising thing is how few non-vulnerable areas there are: the back of the hand, the lower and the upper arm. There are two grey areas: the shoulder and the top of the back in the middle. All the rest are vulnerable. If you are going to use positive touch, and this is subject to debate and to all manner of cultural sensitivities, you stick to the unambiguously non vulnerable areas. Doug’s suggestion, though, and I restate, I am utterly assured of the gentleness of his intent, if practised by the inexperienced or by those prone to zealotry, could have highly damaging results for everyone concerned.

The lack of knowledge of animal response to threat is all-encompassing in this section. Whereas Doug is right to note, in a section called ‘Break the Plane’ (step out of the proscenium) that the teacher needs to get in among the kids, otherwise he or she is not ‘of-the-band’ and is transmitting their fear, his lack of understanding of positioning and its importance is fully reflected in the videos that his book has influenced or been influenced by. He advises that unless you break the plane, the students own the classroom, not the teacher.[9] There is no sensitivity to how teacher proximity might impact on vulnerable or anxious children, the “they” here is depersonalising and, well, Doug, they do own the space. It’s theirclassroom. It’s for themThey learn there. Schools are for the benefit of the children, not the adults. If you do not have this primal level of understanding, things will go wrong. I know this because I have been in the classroom for nearly thirty years.

He also advises us to ‘Position for Power’.[10] No. Don’t. Not in your individual classroom interactions with students. Position to not trigger responses to threat, position for rapport, avoid any mention and consideration of power unless you are handing it over to the kids. It is a wholly unworthy concept to be used in a classroom unless you are examining the way in which authoritarian systems obtain it and then use it to ruin the lives of the uneducated, or the fact that under such systems the citizens’ obligations are to do exactly what they are told, no more, no less, and they have no rights at all: all the power comes from above and no one below has any say. Arendt writing of totalitarianism has it that such power structures, such systematic destruction of individual will is un-liveable, that co-existence with such a form of being governed is impossible.[11]

The advice to stand looking over a student’s shoulder while they’re working because it communicates control subtly but pervasively[12] is telling, in that it seems, perhaps unconsciously, to want to intimidate the student. With a class you know extremely well, this technique can be used with the wryest and gentlest of smiles that says, “You know what I’m doing here: I’m playing with the idea of making you feel just a tiny bit uncomfortable, and I can do this because you trust me,” but, broadly, I wouldn’t recommend it. It seems the kind of advice a new teacher might receive from a newish teacher; it seems the kind of advice someone who is not very experienced might provide. It is threatening and off-putting for the student, and a teacher who is overly concerned with control could be argued to not have enough of it over themselves or of their motivations to be able to enter a classroom possessed with a set of values the students’ parents would want you to hold.


[1] In which I have recently been trained. I learned nothing.

[2] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College pp172.

[3] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College p177.

[4] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College pp181.

[5] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College pp181.

[6] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College pp181.

[7] I am aware that this is a tautology.

[8] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College pp185. Do you not find the word ‘subtly’ chilling here? Suggestive of something else? I cannot help but do so.

[9] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College p184.

[10] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College p187.

[11] Arendt, Hannah, Preface to Part Three: Totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Penguin Random House UK: London 1966) pxxxiv.

[12] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College pp187.

Added Wed, 3 Jul 2024 13:57

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