TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Part 2: Follow-up Q & A with special guest Doug Lemov

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Editor's Note: We spoke with Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like A Champion (now in its revised 2.0 version), Reading Reconsidered and Practice Perfect to discuss the challenges facing teachers today and how certain habits can lead to some being less effective than others. Below is a slightly adapted version of our conversation. (Follow Doug on Twitter @Doug_Lemov).

Q) In your experience, what are some of the core things teachers need to accomplish to be effective in the classroom?
Teachers need several different things to succeed. First, as Erin pointed out, they need to have a strong, positive classroom culture, one that not only prevents negative behaviors but fosters an enjoyment of school and encourages students to do things that are productive and supportive of learning. Also, teachers need to reward kids for their attentiveness with engaging content and rigorous lessons. Those things are really critical, though they are easier to describe than they are to do.

I would say it's also important for teachers to ask themselves, "Who's doing the work in my lessons, me or my students?" One of the fastest ways to make sure it's the kids doing the work and not the teacher is to increase the amount of in-class writing they do. When you ask a question and take a hand, one student elaborates on the answer but when you ask the class to write their response, every student answers and has to put it in writing, which is cognitively demanding.

The fourth thing is checking for understanding, distinguishing the "I taught it" from the "They learned it" to know whether mastery of the content has truly taken place.

Q) Would you agree with Erin on the importance of frequent, low-stakes testing?
There's a lot of research coming to the fore on the positive effects of this type of testing, which is a way of asking students to constantly recall the information that they have learned in a variety of settings. So, yes, I think it makes sense. In addition "Cold call," a technique I discuss in my book, is in some ways a form of low-stakes assessment. It's when a teacher poses a question to the entire class, but immediately calls out a specific student for the answer. This creates a constructive tension where students know at any point they may have to recall and re-engage previously learned content at any point in the lesson. Students then know they have to stay in the game. When the mind has to work to recall things frequently learning increases.

Q) Why is it that some teachers struggle to be effective?
Well, first of all teaching is incredibly difficult work. I mean of course people struggle at it. But we do want people to nail the manageable aspects of the craft so they can move on to mastering the more challenging ones. A good example of a manageable challenge that teachers struggle with is failing to build a positive culture in the classroom. And when teachers are struggling to do so, they know it. It's very possible that you could struggle to be sufficiently rigorous and not really know or feel it every day, but if you are struggling with culture and don't have a classroom where kids do what you ask them to, it's uncomfortable and you know you're not doing right by kids. It's unfortunately a very common experience.

It's challenging to get 30 people in a room to do the most productive thing. When you add to that that we're talking about 30 young people whose motivations may vary and who may have varying levels of interest in the endeavor you are asking them to work on, it's a very, very challenging thing to do.

Q) What about rigor, which you mentioned is something teachers may not even realize they're struggling with?
Right. As I mentioned earlier, if I'm a teacher, one question I'd ask myself is "Are kids writing every day in my class?" The other question I'd ask is "Are my kids doing reading and generating knowledge from text every day?" We know that students can learn from talking to their peers, what's more challenging when they reach college, and what so many eventually struggle with, is having to do a lot of learning on their own strictly from text. 

Q) How can teachers struggling with rigor get their students to write more in class?
It usually boils down to doing more lesson planning. Teachers shouldn't be doing too much of the cognitive work by answering questions for the students. So planning well and ensuring questions are demanding and rigorous, and also that there is time for students to write and revise their writing is crucial to upping the rigor.

Arguably my favorite technique in Teach Like a Champion 2.0 is called "Art of the Sentence." Ask kids to distil or respond to a complex idea in only a single sentence. There's power in scarcity of writing. If you can only write a single sentence, you have to use syntax in a way that really captures nuance. It disciplines your thinking and grows your range as a writer. My second favorite technique in the book is one called "Show Call." I take a student's work and put it up on the projector. Then we start a class discussion of how to make it better, more precise, and focused. And then I have the whole class revise their own sentences accordingly.

Q) What do you wish teacher prep programs would take away from your research on high performing teachers?
I guess I wish that teacher preparation dealt with realities a bit more than it did theories. It's really important how you ask your questions in the classroom, what prompts you use to get kids to do something and when you ask them to revise their work whether you can get everyone to follow your instructions. These things are so important. We should honor and respect the craft of teaching enough to study it deeply.

The solutions to the challenges and difficulties so many teachers face lie in the classrooms of high-performing teachers. We should be studying these teachers for the solutions to teaching challenges. First, because they're the ones who have found the highest-value solutions to the problems, and second, because doing so honors the profession.

In the long run, if we're going to draw the best people to the profession, actual teachers have to participate in generating the knowledge base of the field. It can't always be people from outside the field. We have to make the study of the best among us intentional and honor those teachers by learning from their work.