Better teaching

Better teaching

My daughter-in-law is changing careers to become a teacher.  She and I have friendly debates about education.  As readers may remember, I believe that modern educationbadly fails society.  In centuries to come, we will wonder how humanity survived.  Then Annie recommended a book to me.  It has not changed my views entirely, but it has given me another perspective.  The book is “Teach like Champion 2.0”.


The principal writer, Doug Lemov, trains educators at Uncommon Schools, a non-profit charter school management organisation in the USA that he helped to found.  Charter schools are ‘independent’ schools that receive public funds. They are exempt from many laws and regulations affecting other state schools – if they continue to meet the terms of their charters. Charter schools, however, need to follow State-mandated curriculum.

Better teaching

Uncommon Schools began in 1997 and now manages 55 schools serving 21,000 students across Boston, Camden, New York City, Newark, Rochester, and Troy in the USA.

The book’s purpose

“This is a teaching book, a book about the actions inside the class-room rather than the policy decisions outside it,” writes Doug in his introduction.  In other words, he does not discuss what is taught (that is policy) but how it is taught.  His measure of success in teaching is pupils’ results in state tests.  These are the basis for university entrance in the USA.  Doug considers that state tests ‘do a pretty good job’ at assessing basic education.  However, “they are necessary but not sufficient.”  Everyone needs core skills. But we also need to be able to think and analyse. 

He contrasts this with Asian schooling which values rote learning of core skills.  Asian curricula argue that the more automatic your basic skills become, the more time and energy you will have to focus on creativity and higher order skills. 

Over the years, he has collected and assessed many teachers doing remarkable work.  One way he chose exceptional teachers was this chart.    

Better teaching

The chart shows the 2011 results of sixth grade maths in New York schools assessed against their pupils’ poverty rate.  Sadly, but not surprisingly perhaps, this shows clearly that poor pupils do less well in tests than better off ones.   Look, however, at the circle in the top right-hand corner.  One school (and there are others close to it on the top line) dramatically succeeded even though its pupils were among the poorest.

What was happening at this school to make it so successful?  In the next 400 pages and a CD of videos, Doug explains.

The techniques

The book covers many hundreds of proven ideas that are practical, down-to-earth, and usually simple.  One low-key example is that of a teacher who ‘breaks the rules’ by asking his class to pass out papers instead of doing it himself.  By giving the students precise instructions and measuring the time taken, this teacher not only enthuses his class.  The practice also saves enough time collectively over a year for eight additional days of teaching!

The substantive techniques include:

  • The difference between ‘I taught’ and ‘they learned’.  This section includes many ideas to ‘check for understanding’
  • Academic ethos.  By this the author means the importance of setting the maximum level of academic rigour.  
  • Ratio.  Getting the balance right between knowing enough and being able to use what you know to reason and analyse.
  • Behaviour and culture.  Probably the most important aspect everyone would agree.  But, specifically, what do you do to build that?

This is a book densely packed with ideas – and not just ideas but practical examples of how to implement them successfully.  It is a wonderful co-operative effort from many teachers.  Most teachers would find it stretching to absorb and tough to implement.  Few would doubt the book’s value.

Doug concludes:

Artists, athletes, musicians, surgeons and performers of a thousand other varieties achieve greatness only be attending to the details of their technique….when I suggest is that teaching is an art, I mean that education is difficult…and takes attentive development of technique to master it.

In short, what is good (in this book) is good only because of the process of constantly refining and adapting techniques in the relentless drive for excellence.

by sean Kong
by sean Kong

Further thoughts

I have been in business all my life.  I have mostly worked in large organisations and now advise them from time to time.  There are many parallels between excellence in teaching and excellence in managing people and businesses.   The ideas for better teaching techniques apply, with very little adaptation, to management.  Here are a few examples:

  • ‘Teach Like a Champion’ shows teachers how to improve their students’ ability to write clearly and interestingly.   Writing well is an important part of every executive’s life and career; 
  • The word ‘countdown’ in Doug’s book is a form of target setting – getting something done right in an agreed time;
  • ‘Excavating errors’ means recognising mistakes as valuable learning and not for blame;
  • And if only some managers would learn how to discuss (hold a meeting) better.  The teaching techniques recommended here are standard training course modules for better meetings.

Creating a positive yet demanding classroom culture depends on discipline, good management, control, influence, and engagement.  How close this sounds to a successful business approach.

This book is not a business training manual.  It is, rightly, specific to the teaching profession. But the techniques and lessons are relevant to almost any enterprise.  Above all it makes the point eloquently that improving any skill is about practice, diligence in the search for excellence. 

More important perhaps that it shows that, whatever one may think of education policy and national curricula, excellence in teaching – on its own – can result in excellent results.  

Thank you, Annie for introducing me!

Worked on the article: