I’ve made no secret over the years of my admiration for the work of Doug Lemov. When I was a new and clueless fifth grade teacher in 2002, his essential book, Teach Like a Champion, was unfortunately still a few years away. My first year or two of teaching would have been better—and more importantly, better for my students—if everyone in a position to educate and train...er, develop...new teachers had the instinct and insight Lemov put between covers a decade ago: There are certain things effective teachers do that makes them effective, and that by observing those competent women and men, we can identify and isolate those moves, name, practice, and master them. No one has done more than Lemov to make teaching teachable.
Just in time for a school year that is starting under a Covid-19 cloud of uncertainty, Lemov and his TLAC colleagues have pulled together a timely new book, Teaching in the Online Classroom: Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal. I’m not crazy about the title because I’m not convinced remote learning and hybrid models are anything close to a “new normal.” If a natural disaster forces you to evacuate, even for an extended period of time, your intention is to get back home—your once and future normal—as soon as possible. Until then, you do the best you can to recreate the habits and routines of your disrupted life. Gregg Vanourek’s recent Fordham report on how high performing charter networks adapted in the spring underscores that one of the big things they did was try to recreate as close to possible a normal school day and stick with familiar school routines.
Lemov and his co-author in the edited volume’s lead essay, Erica Woolway, understand this clearly. “No one asked for the world to change, but it has,” they write. “As teachers, that means there’s work to be done.” By their own admirable admission, they acknowledge “the absolute necessity of getting better at what we do now, no matter the circumstances.” The patented TLAC focus on practicality that has helped a generation of teachers achieve competence quickly is very much in evidence. “We won’t be making any Ted Talks on the seamless, frictionless, automatic teaching future waiting for us if we could just embrace technology,” Lemov and Woolway write. Amen.
On balance “the experience of learning online will likely be less productive for most students than classrooms are. It may be profoundly so for many, and in a way that impacts the most vulnerable learners most,” they observe. Covid-19 has created a “second, educational pandemic” that is best fought, they insist, by focusing on “the core of the craft.” Note the word, since it undergirds what makes Lemov’s work in this and previous books so vital: Let others natter on about how teaching is an “art” or how teachers are born not made. No, teaching is a craft. The distinction matters, as does the mindset, if we are to have any hope of making it something millions of men and women can do competently—online or in person.
The book is divided into seven brisk and readable chapters, reflecting and respecting that the clock is ticking, and that our students don’t have the luxury of allowing us to fumble our way forward through trial and error. Like Lemov’s legendary “taxonomy” of teaching techniques that gave rise to Teach Like a Champion, the new book names and describes techniques that are unique to remote learning with links to about thirty video clips to show them being used. An entire chapter, for example, is given to tactics intended to “dissolve the screen,” or heighten awareness of the back-and-forth exchanges between students and teachers that still exists, even when learning happens at a distance. “It’s not merely connecting to let kids know that we care about them (though hopefully there is plenty of that),” note chapter authors Jen Rugani and Kevin Grijalva. “It’s establishing a connection through the work so that kids feel both accountable and connected at the same time.” Another chapter takes on perhaps the most prodigious challenge of the new (not) normal: how to create and sustain a culture of attention and engagement from a distance, particularly when lessons may vary, occurring in real time or “asynchronously.”
To the degree teaching has a common language (check for understanding, cold call, ratio, wait time, etc.), it’s because Lemov made an obsessive study of effective teachers and gave it a shared vocabulary. This is something TLAC critics routinely misunderstand. It’s not “do this because Doug Lemov says so.” It’s “here’s is a technique that we see successful teachers doing time and again that you can do in your classroom.” It demystifies teaching, empowers teachers—and benefits kids.
The work of Lemov and his Teach Like a Champion team represents one of the few clear victories to emerge from the ed reform era, but it would be a mistake to associate his work exclusively with the urban-charter-school world from which it emerged. TLAC trainers are more likely these days to be working with traditional public school teachers and leaders, even international school personnel, than urban charter schools. But it’s no coincidence that so many high-performing charter schools bear Lemov’s thumbprint: high levels of teacher turnover inherent to those schools mean they can least afford to wait for teachers to hone their craft, find their voice, and feel fully in charge of their classrooms. In the fall of 2020, that impatience and urgency applies to nearly every school and teacher. It may not be possible at all to “teach like a champion” remotely. But we don’t have the time to experiment and fumble our way toward effectiveness. Lemov’s new and timely book is probably our best shot to make the best of the turbulent and unpredictable school year that’s now upon us, ready or not.
SOURCE: Doug Lemov, editor. Teaching in the Online Classroom: Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal (Jossey-Bass, 2020).