Author and Washington Post education blogger Jay Mathews recently featured Doug Lemov’s book, Teaching Like a Champion, in a column. I’m not as high on its publication as he and so many others are (such as The New York Times), however.

A few of Lemov’s 49 techniques: No. 15 Circulate — Move around the classroom to engage and hold students accountable. You should be strategically moving around the room during all parts of the lesson; No. 12 The Hook — When necessary, use a short, engaging introduction to excite students about learning. This introductory story, analogy, prop, media, status or challenge is meant to capture what’s interesting about the material and put it out front; No. 42 No Warnings — Warnings tell students that there is a certain amount of disobedience that is allowable and that it is not only tolerable but expected. Effective teachers act early, reliably and proportionately.

Don’t get me wrong about its content: I suspect that Mr. Lemov and I are very much alike and we will have an interesting and fruitful discussion if we ever meet. You see, I base much of my delivery of learning activities inside and outside the classroom on similar “performance behaviors” (or “artistic procedures”* as Madeline Hunter describes them), using them to establish a positive relationship with my students (especially focused on SEL tenets).

It is the publication, not the content, I have a serious issue with. Or, more specifically, how the publication is received and used. In the hands of an experienced and fully metacognitive professional Mr. Lemov’s techniques can be easily employed by the reader with little or no coaching (although having critical feedback during practice and implementation is desirable). However, new and relatively inexperienced teachers will likely see these techniques as ends in themselves, rather than means at the interface between audience and the educator’s tactical and strategic context. In fact, they will likely be presented with these 49 techniques as such.

Let’s call it the inappropriate and counter-productive commodification of teaching techniques.

Let’s step back a bit for a broader perspective. The techniques Mr. Lemov writes about are hardly new (although this does not detract from their value). Reference Madeleine Hunter’s Model for Teaching from two decades ago. She highlighted the importance of “artistic procedures” in the effective teaching professional, regarding teaching as a kind of “performance behavior like music, like dancing, like athletics, like surgery,” behaviors which must be automated so they can be performed “artistically at high speed.” A comparison of the key elements of Hunter’s 20-year-old model with Lemov’s techniques results in effortless slotting in of Lemov’s “performance behaviors” into Hunter’s categories.

But let’s go back even further: how is what Mr. Lemov has done substantially different than Dale Carnegie’s “Golden Book“? Or Tony Robbins’s programs? While Carnegie, Robbins, Hunter, and Lemov recognize these behaviors as keys to their and other professionals’ successes, the reception of their work has been too-often over-simplified by training retailers and their audiences. Madeleine Hunter despaired at this commodification of her methodology. “To successfully internalize her model of instruction, Hunter recommended about two years of dedicated study, with coaching as an essential component. She believed that the lack of coaching both during and after inservice training of any kind is a grievous error, with the result that teachers rarely translate theory into “artistic procedures” (Goldberg 1990).

This is consonant with a statement Jay made in his blog, “One professor told me education students can’t be motivated to embrace such methods until they are in a rough classroom fighting to survive. The ed schools give them theory and practice in digestible form, and send them off. If they don’t get a good mentor teacher, they are in trouble.”  This is perhaps the most important sentence in the review because: (1) teacher prep programs (training retailers) do not provide any significant support in this area to teacher candidates, and, due to their current structure, will treat Lemov’s techniques as “tricks;” and (2) given the current “done that/check-off box” approach to on-the-job professional development (i.e., no active coaching and assessment of outcomes), Lemov’s (or Hunter’s) valuable insights will be given short-shrift.

Thus Teaching Like a Champion then ends up de facto relegated to the self-help aisles at Barnes and Noble.

This is why only experienced, effective teachers are in a position to absorb and perfect these performance behaviors and metacognitively place them in the tactical and strategic fabric of their learning plans with little support.

And this is where the real crime occurs. Because it is unavoidable that these great skills are commodified into nicely packaged “tricks” of classroom management, the much-needed focus on truly improving teacher prep programs and making pd authentic is further dismissed (actually, avoided). Based on my own experience in technology sales and teaching, I truly believe the development and effective employment of performance behaviors like these 49 techniques are crucial to successful classroom learning, but I’m certain teacher ed programs — pre-job and on-the-job — will do them a tragic disservice primarily through the erroneous message exclaimed by the manner in which they are “delivered.”

Similarly, I also believe, like Hunter, that for our jobs to truly become a profession, teacher colleges need to extend their active engagement with their students into the first few years of the job; an apprenticeship. It is ridiculous to believe that a 22 year-old, fresh out of college, can be expected to survive — much less thrive — by being put into a room alone with 120 children with absolutely no adult contact. Ever. I can’t think of any other profession that does that; even McDonalds recognizes that employees do not know everything Day One and can get significantly better through real training (with measured outcomes) and coaching! What’s with that?!

This might even put a dent in the attrition issue. As it stands now, teacher colleges should be posting something Dante-esqe over their portals, like, “Abandon Hope All (50% of) Ye of Still Being a Teacher Five Years After Graduation!”

In re-reading the NYT’s cover piece on this book, I’m struck by the number of experts who assert that teachers are born, not developed. This best epitomizes the attitude –
“As Jane Hannaway, the director of the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute and a former teacher, put it to me, successful teaching depends in part on a certain inimitable “voodoo.” You either have it or you don’t. “I think that there is an innate drive or innate ability for teaching,” Sylvia Gist, the dean of the college of education at Chicago State University, said when I visited her campus last year.”

Voodoo? Does it strike anyone else as ironic and inexplicable that the “expert educators” in the country are unable to identify specific behaviors and think of ways to foster them? This is akin to a teacher saying to a parent or student, “We’re here to make the student successful, although I’m unsure what that is or how to do it; it’s voodoo to me.”

Who’s kidding whom? Reminds me of the chutzpah of NEA president Dennis Van Roekel in his reaction this month to the idea that schools may be  over-hiring staff during flush budget years (and then having to lay them off when the stimulus money stops): he said he couldn’t believe any school would hire more teachers than needed. He says this, apparently with a straight face, while school department after school department across the country — facing the close of the fiscal year — is using up budgeted funds, knowing that you “use it or lose it” and that it won’t be funded at that level next year unless you do.

And on that note, my dependable standby Eric Hanushek comes through with this analysis, “Cry Wolf! This Budget Crunch is for Real.”

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