14 Sep 2021
Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion (TLAC) books are ubiquitous on CPD library shelves. When I trained in 2015 the first iteration was considered the holy grail of educational books; it offered pragmatic, actionable techniques to help beginner teachers build procedures and routines to manage their classrooms and improve their instruction.
This third instalment is also marketed for trainees and NQTs, while Lemov himself pitches his writing to more experienced teachers and school leaders. Both are right. Whether you’re a trainee writing a paper on behaviour management, a middle leader coaching your team on teaching disciplinary literacy or a senior leader improving your school’s CPD programme, you will find a veritable treasure trove of useful strategies here.
Familiar too will be Lemov’s characteristic anthropological approach. He refers throughout to his “field notes” from hours of classroom observations to uncover the “secret tools” of master teachers, who he views as artisans.
The result is an(other) astonishingly ambitious and generous book that attempts to break down the art of teaching into its component parts. But what sets this edition apart is its grounding in cognitive science and evolutionary biology.
Working with Sweller, Kirschner and Clark’s definition of learning, Lemov endeavours to connect the book’s 63 techniques to the overall goals of forming habits, forging a sense of shared identity in the classroom and, most importantly, affect change in students’ long-term memory. The way cognitive science is woven throughout the chapters not only adds an important element to TLAC’s original purpose, it also offers teachers who are unfamiliar with its central topics the distinct benefit of Lemov’s clarity of explanation.
Another way TLAC 3.0 deviates from earlier editions is the extent to which Lemov rails against our “culture of distractions” and argues for schools to insulate and protect students from the excesses of social media. According to Lemov, “Reading as we know it is locked in a death struggle with the cell phone, a battle it is losing badly.” For those of us who witness the pernicious influence of these devices on our students’ attention spans and overall mental health on a daily basis, it’s hard to disagree with him.
So it’s no surprise to see him take on the proponents of teaching “21st-century skills” by pointing out that “too many classrooms presume that doing a task with technology or on a screen adds value”. But even more reassuring for teachers using TLAC techniques who have found themselves accused of “carceral pedagogy” or “controlling Black and Brown bodies”, it is refreshing to read Lemov’s simple retort that “a classroom must be orderly for learning to take place”. How did this become a controversial statement?
But if the book has a weakness, it is that Lemov spends too much time agonising over charges brought against his work. I’m not convinced anyone who believes cold-calling is cruel or “oppressive” should be taken so seriously. But Lemov addresses these concerns in a courteous and restrained manner. In fact, far from dismissing criticisms outright, he has reflected on them and adjusted a number of his techniques accordingly. The highly contentious SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer, Nod your head, and Track the speaker), for example, has been re-baptised STAR (Sit up, Track the speaker, Ask and answer questions, Respect those around you).
But despite striking a conciliatory tone for the majority of the book, Lemov pulls no punches here. He calls out a “sentimentalism” that leads some to lower their standards, and points out the hypocrisy of some of his critics in no uncertain terms. For example, he laughs off the controversy around his insistence that teachers have an obligation to help students master Standard English with a simple backhanded compliment: “For what it’s worth, they [the critiques] were all written in impeccable Standard English”.
This is Lemov at his best, believing fervently that real social justice can be achieved through making classrooms “radically better”, and giving teachers the tools to do it.