Thursday, March 19, 2015

The revolution that could change the way your child is taught

STOP THE PRESSES! In his op ed, Brooks linked to this BRILLIANT article, which appeared in the UK's The Guardian, about Lemov's work. It's the article of the year so far:

After years of debate among academics and politicians over how to raise teacher standards, the problem is being solved by the practitioners. And it has become apparent that the noisy argument over "bad teachers" was drowning out a much better question: how do you turn a bad teacher into a good one?

And what makes a good teacher good?


In 2010, the Los Angeles Times triggered a minor earthquake in a city familiar with such events. The Los Angeles school district – the second largest in the United States – had collected detailed data on the performance of its roughly 6,000 teachers, that it had not released. The newspaper used a freedom of information request to get its hands on this database, and after conducting an analysis, published a list of all the teachers in Los Angeles, ranked by effectiveness. It turned out that the very best teachers were getting results that were not only much better than low-ranked teachers, but twice as good as good teachers. At the very top of the list was a woman called Zenaida Tan.

Tan taught at Morningside Elementary, a decent if unremarkable school with an intake of mainly poor students, many of whom struggled with English. Year after year, students were entering Tan's class with below-average ability in maths and English, and leaving it with above-average scores. You might imagine that before the Los Angeles Times published its rankings, Tan would have already been celebrated for her ability by her peers – that her brilliance would be well-known to fellow teachers eager to learn her secrets. You would be wrong on all counts.

When the Los Angeles Times sent a correspondent to interview Tan, they found her quietly carrying out her work, unheralded except by those who had taken her class and knew what a difference it had made to their lives. "Nobody tells me that I'm a strong teacher," Tan told the reporter. She guessed that her colleagues thought her "strict, even mean". On a recent evaluation, her headmaster noted she had been late to pick up her students from recess three times. It was as if Lionel Messi's teammates considered him a useful midfielder who needed to work on his tackling.

There is entrenched resistance, in the education establishment, to singling out individuals, even to praise or emulate them. The only options for Tan's evaluation were "meets standard performance" and "below standard performance". But if Tan and others like her go unnoticed it is also because they do not look the part. Ask someone to describe a great teacher, and they are likely to conjure up someone like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society: eccentric, flamboyant, prone to leaping on to desks. When we see a teacher effortlessly commanding her class's attention, our instinct is to put it down to some quality of their personality – great teachers, it is said, just have something. They are possessed of an innate ability to inspire.

Sam Freedman, the head of research at Teach First, which places high-achieving graduates into schools with disadvantaged intakes, said that even among teachers, there is hostility to the notion that what they do can be analysed and replicated: "The idea of learning heuristics seems bad because you're not discovering your inner teacher." But the myth of the magical teacher subtly undermines the status of teaching, by obscuring the extraordinary skill required to perform the job to a high level. It also implies that great teaching cannot be taught.

At training college, budding teachers learn theories of child development and are told about the importance of concepts such as "feedback" and "high expectations". But they get surprisingly little help with actual teaching. Imagine being told you need to show high expectations of your students. "It's like telling a kid to get better GCSEs," Jenny Thompson, a teacher at Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, told me. The reason teachers respond so enthusiastically to Doug Lemov's ideas is that he is right there with them at the front of the class.

Tall and wide-chested, Lemov is built like an American football player. In fact, his favourite sport is soccer, which he played at college in upstate New York. His coaches there did not spend much time discussing the game in the abstract. Instead, they told him to "narrow the angle" or "close the space". In his books and workshops, Lemov talks about what pace to move around the classroom, what language to use when praising a student, how to adjust the angle of your head to let students know you're looking at them. Teaching, he says, is "a performance profession".

Sports coaches know that what looks effortlessly achieved, like the way Roger Federer hits a backhand, is in fact the product of countless hours of practice and analysis. Faced with a problem – a weakness in their game – they break it down into parts and work on the execution of each one before putting it all back together. Successful sportspeople have what the psychologist Carol Dweck calls a "growth mindset" – the belief that talent is intelligently applied effort in disguise. The ones who understand this principle best are those born without the supreme talent of a Federer – the ones who have had to strive for every millimetre of improvement.

The best teachers do not necessarily understand how teaching works, because their own technique is invisible to them; sports psychologists call this "expert-induced amnesia". When the Los Angeles Times asked some of the teachers who topped their list what made them so effective, one replied that great teachers simply love their students and love their job: "You can't bottle that, and you can't teach it."

Doug Lemov is on a mission to prove that talented teacher wrong.

The revolution that could change the way your child is taught 

Doug Lemov believes great teachers are made, not born – and his ideas are transforming education

Doug Lemov says teaching is a performance profession. Photograph: Graham Turner

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