Review: Teach Like a Champion

10th March 2015

I see teaching like walking a tightrope. Each step requires a thousand tiny imperceptible adjustments – some consciously made, others automatic – each one edging you and the students along, inch by inch. Tip too far one way towards controlling everything and you’ll lose the interest of the students, tip too far the other, by giving away all your power, and the lesson will lose purpose and direction. It is a difficult balancing act and for this reason, much like learning to walk a tightrope, it takes teachers many hours of practice and application to become an expert.

This is the idea that sits at the heart of Doug Lemov’s, Teach Like a Champion. Teaching, he says, is an art and to get any good at it teachers have to practice the elements of effective or ‘champion’ teaching. To identify these elements Lemov watched hundreds of hours of lessons and then formulated a list of sixty-two techniques, which, he says, good teachers can use to turn themselves into great teachers.

Lemov is careful to point out he is not prescribing the only method of teaching; rather, he is laying out a list of techniques teachers can use to improve. What makes a ‘champion’ teacher, he argues, is the discretion they use when they are using and applying the tools of their trade: “I’ve tried to write this book to help artisans be artists not because I think the work of teaching can be mechanised or made formulaic. There is a right and wrong time and place for every tool and it will always fall to the unique style and vision of the teacher to apply them.”

This is crucial to how this book should be read. It is not a bible, where every word must be valued as gospel, rather it is a technical manual – a how to guide – that should be read with an open and critical mind. Many of the sixty-two techniques are, as Lemov points out, “mundane and unremarkable”, the kinds of things all teachers would agree with – set high expectations, plan carefully, be consistent – while others are more contentious.

How you interpret and use this book will depend on how you think about education and your own professional values. I’m not keen on thinking of learning as a transport system and so the chapter on ‘delivering’ lessons left me cold. While those teachers who think attempting to engage students in learning is a waste of time will doubtless find the ‘J-Factor’ techniques (aiming to excite and inspire students) all rather silly. J is for Joy.

My own reading of Teach Like a Champion was coloured by watching a number of short films featuring Lemov’s Uncommon Schools network in America. I have to say I found them uninspiring, even depressing. There were no smiles, no laughs, no sense of enjoyment or inspiration, rather the lessons seemed entirely focused on the teacher as instructor. In all the clips, even those featuring young children, the students, or scholars as they are called by Uncommon Schools, were sat facing the adult at the front. There was little interaction between students and nothing I would consider self-discipline, just complete obedience to the rules. The teachers were taking few risks and demanding little from the students in terms of independent or intradependent learning. It all seemed safe, contained, and boring.

As teachers, we all carry with us our own values and beliefs of what good teaching means. For me, community is at the centre. I can’t see a classroom without looking first for the opportunities children have to participate, make decisions, and co-operate. For other teachers these things are an irrelevance, even a distraction. What they look for is unquestioning compliance, an orderly work-space, and a business-like atmosphere. Our views of what constitutes a learning culture are entirely different.

Because we are only human, we make snap decisions as teachers all the time about what we see, hear, and read about education. New ideas get dropped into labelled compartments depending on whether they contradict or confirm our pre-existing views. We all do it and it can’t be helped.

So, despite what I had seen in the Uncommon Schools films, I tried to read Lemov’s book with an open mind and, I will be honest, I learnt a lot. There is much to admire in the researching and bringing together of so many practical ideas. Many are useful, some are excellent, yet I never felt comfortable with its underlying values. For me, Teach Like a Champion tips the balance too far in the direction of unquestioning compliance and does not talk enough about sharing power and building classrooms as communities of learning. It is a bit like being in a school where there is plenty to admire, but you just cannot see yourself working there.

First published in Teach Primary Magazine


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