Perhaps I ought to have begun with teaching. Two years ago, I probably would have done. The primacy of teaching then for me was that it was the everything: in a school with no schemes of work and no curriculum plan, part of my teaching was choosing my curriculum and then assessing whether I had effectively taught it.
Now, I’ve moved schools, and seen the benefits of a more stratified approach. All students learning the same curriculum, with the proviso that it be high-quality, is surely more equitable and manageable. I wouldn’t want my children learning Skellig if the folks next door were tackling Oliver Twist.
For some of the books in this series, I deliberated for weeks, going back and forth over which book to choose. The only topic I didn’t even have to think about was this one. Because, obviously:
Why is this book so good? Because it tells you what other books won’t. This book tells you the nitty gritty practicality of how you should set your classroom up and then what you do in it in order for learning to occur. You don’t go to a book like this for vision and broad strokes, although those too are present; you go to Lemov for practical guidance. This book is the awesome mentor you might not be lucky enough to have in your early teaching years; the fantastic coach you almost certainly will not have in later years of teaching.
I first encountered this book in a lukewarm Guardian article, and decided to give it a miss. A few weeks later, a respected colleague from an ARK school called me up, telling me something had completely changed her practice, and it was this book. I’m so glad I listened to my friend and not the Guardian. Why does TLAC work so well?
Lemov has painstakingly observed hundreds of teachers at work, (“there is no gap that has not been closed already by some teacher somewhere”) and has drilled down into what they do to be effective in their classrooms. The results are distilled into manageable actions anyone can take, with examples you can watch on an accompanying DVD. They’re not quick-fixes; they’re not gimmicks. They are habits which, if embedded, will change the amount your students learn and want to learn from you.
Lemov notes that “perhaps the most salient characteristic of a great teacher is her ability to recognize the difference between ‘I taught it’ and ‘they learned it.’” Too often, I find myself despairing that students still cannot embed quotations and analyse language, given how many times I have taught it. Lemov reminds me that there is always a tweak; always a way I can improve my practice.
Just some of the key habits Lemov advises include avoiding the use of yes/no questions; instead, we must use pointed questioning to distil the students’ true understanding. Cold-calling is the widely preferred method of questioning, ensuring that all students are primed and listening and always ready to respond to your questions – by which he means no hands up. (Incidentally, one major benefit of the prevalence of TLAC parlance is the creation of a shared vocabulary of teaching.) Alongside cold-calling, which transformed my practice, he advises “No Opt Out” – students can never be excused trying. Wrong answers are ok, not even trying is not: “everybody learns in a high-performing classroom.”
Yet for methods such as these to be truly effective, we must create what Lemov terms a “Culture of Error” in our classrooms – less ironic than it sounds, this means students need to be willing to “share their struggles, mistakes, and errors” so teachers “spend less time and energy hunting for them and more time fixing and learning from them”. This might seem like overly broad brush advice, but Lemov follows this up with precise examples of how to do this, which include narrating growth, celebrating improvement, and praising struggle (“great question!”).
On structuring a lesson, I can’t think of a simpler or more easily applicable method than Lemov’s “I do, we do, you do”: therein lies lesson planning. Firstly, the teacher models. Then, the class practises together. Finally, students practise independently. Peppered in this structure you can have your cold-calling; your “Turn and Talk” (a much nicer way of saying “pair share” to my mind, rolling, as it does, so much more easily from the tongue: “turn and talk to your partner about…”).
One of the most helpful additions to the new edition of TLAC is the section on reading, which I have revisited more than any other this year – again, full of useful tips on how to encourage students when reading aloud in class, explained in lucid detail and with helpful examples.
As frequently thumbed in my own copy is the section on managing behaviour. Lemov’s overarching idea of making the “least invasive intervention” has changed the dynamic in my most challenging groups. Helpfully, he details examples of these interventions: positive group correction (“I need to see everybody writing”), anonymous individual correction (“I need two more sets of eyes”), private individual correction (quietly, one to one, with the student in question), lightning-quick public correction (always followed up by praise).
For those who fear that the outcome of these techniques is the creation of tiny obedient robots, Lemov reminds us all to “seek not only to be both warm and strict but often to be both at exactly the same time.” We must be strict, and never excuse poor behaviour; yet just as imperative is to be warm and kind, and love our charges, infusing our corrections with reminders of this love.
TLAC distills what the best teachers do:
- Cultivate classroom culture, systems and routines
- Enforce high behavioural expectations
- Build trust
- Set high academic expectations
- Plan, pace and structure their lessons
- Increase cognitive ratio (making students do the thinking) through questioning, writing and discussion
- Check for understanding
To go on further would run the risk of plagiarism. In my view, to summarise, this is the book on teaching.