Still The Teachers’ Champion

  • Still The Teachers’ Champion

TS: The updated version of Teach Like a Champion features an extra 13 techniques; have any of the original 49 changed significantly? What have you learnt since you wrote the first book?

DL: The changes are the most exciting part, and it’s not just that I’ve added techniques. There are actually three types of changes.

First. Yes, I’ve added some techniques. There’s a whole chapter on writing for example, with five techniques for managing the written lives of students to increase Ratio and maximise participation. That’s probably the part of the book I’m most excited about. I love writing and think it’s arguably the most rigorous form of thinking a student can do. And I just didn’t deal with it sufficiently in the first version of the book. So I think teachers will find some of the new content there really exciting and useful at pushing kids to higher levels of thinking and achievement.

Second, I’ve tried to reorganise many of the idea to communicate a bit more about what’s most important. Teachers constantly (and rightly) ask, “Ok, 49 techniques, but what first, and what’s most important?” That’s a smart question; of course some things are more important than others. So I tried to add emphasis on core ideas and to de-emphasise some things that were useful but, frankly, secondary. Check for Understanding is a great example of something that I prioritised. In the first version of the book it was one technique- #18 to be specific - and buried in the third chapter before At-Bats and after Break It Down. But really if there is one single thing a great teacher does, it is to distinguish, as the great coach John Wooden put it, between “I taught it” and “They learned it.” If I could characterise a master in one trait, it would be the ability to make that determination and then respond to it effectively. So in writing the new version of the book I watched and watched and watched for details on how teachers did those things. The result is not one technique but two full chapters in which I try to reflect on four questions: How do you better gather data through asking students questions? How do you better gather data by observing students? How do you make it easier for yourself to take action in the face of data showing insufficient mastery? and How do you build a culture where students are comfortable exposing and talking about their own mistakes rather than hiding them? Not coincidentally, those two chapters are now the first chapters in the new book. I’m trying to say, “This is bigger than just a technique, it’s at the core of what you do.” Some ideas on the other hand got gracefully demoted. They appear in side bars or in a supplementary online appendix because while they’re good, they are not as important as something like Check for Understanding, say. Take a Stand is a good example of that. I like it. It’s useful. But compared to more important things you can be doing it’s a distraction.

Third, I’ve added ‘2.0’ guidance on a lot of existing techniques. This is because I’ve had four years to watch great teachers use and improve the original techniques. And what happens when you give a great teacher a useful tool is that they instantly start to think about making it more rigorous. There were so many ways I learned from how teachers used the original ideas I had to coin a phrase for it. I call it the ‘virtuous cycle’: a teacher takes a technique like No Opt Out and says, “you know it’s good when a student who can’t answer repeats the correct answer at the end of the questioning cycle, but it’s a lot better if you then ask that student another question to see if he or she can apply it. Or if you ask him or her to describe what they did incorrectly the first time.” So No Opt Out and a bunch of other techniques are now full of ‘2.0’ level guidance gleaned from teachers in the field.

Anyway I’m really happy about all these changes. When someone tells me “Oh, I read your book” I am equal parts humbled, honoured and mortified. Because I’ve learned so much more about what teachers really do that the first book feels a bit obsolete. Or did; I can’t wait for people to get the new version!

Do you think that mastery of the techniques you describe could enable anyone to teach? Anyone? Maybe not. There are some things that technique cannot teach you. It can’t teach you subject-area knowledge for example. And if you don’t know the math, no amount of behaviour management and Checking for Understanding is going to help you with that. But if you have knowledge and you have the desire to learn and grow as a teacher, I think it’s our obligation as a profession to make you successful. Too often the people with the knowledge – of physics, say, or medieval history - are asked to share their knowledge in front of 30 skeptical 14 year olds who can be very adept at coopting a lesson or who have a history of struggle with learning. Those knowledgeable souls have no idea how to address a lot of the cultural and academic challenges that implies and so they leave the job. Those people deserve to succeed. And teachers who are already good deserve to understand small details they can add to their teaching so they can constantly grow and develop. If those things don’t happen, people leave the most important profession in society out of frustration. So, to answer your question more directly, I think that most people can become very good teachers if they are willing to work at it and reflect and remain humble. Not easy but far more doable than it currently is. And I think the value of being able to do help more people get better faster is immense. The real question isn’t how we allocate great teachers equitably in our society, but how we make sure there are enough great teachers to go around. Teachers themselves know how to make that happen and this book is my contribution to helping ensure that their wisdom gets disseminated. Would you say that your approach to CPD is focused on maximising academic attainment? Yes. The measure of what we do must lie in how much students learn and our goal must be to maximise learning. We should seek not just good teaching so much as best teaching. It’s not enough to know that students are learning when you teach them. The question is are they learning as much as they could, as rapidly, as durably and as equitably as they could? Doing our best to assess and learn from what students have gained from our efforts protects not only them but us; as teachers, we are always at risk of doing what feels right even when it does not maximise long-term durable student learning. What worse outcome could there be than to labour though our careers intending to make a difference and to have done less than we might have? It’s fair to say that many teachers in the UK often feel undervalued at the moment, by society and government. Is this also the case in the States? Where do you think the problem lies, and is there a solution? Yes, unfortunately. One part of it is that teachers get “told” a lot. They are expected to implement ideas about what they do that come to them as if from on high. The intellectual content of our work is generated by people who do not really do the work every day. But think about it. There is no achievement gap that some teacher somewhere has not found a way around. We just don’t know who she is and how she does it. If we are serious about building the stature of the teaching profession we have to not only find our best practitioners but treat them as intellectuals, builders of the field’s knowledge - like software designers. We should not only be able to shout from the hill tops “This woman at the end of this cracked linoleum hallway. She is worth her weight in gold to the children of Sheffield or Hackney or Portsmouth.” We should also let her then participate in building the intellectual capital of the field. We should honoir great teachers by studying them and make teachers’ role as entrepreneurs - constantly solving seemingly intractable problems - more public. That is one sure path to the respect and status teachers deserve.