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The science of great teaching

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By Carol Lloyd

Bite-size teaching techniques

By far, the most useful fodder from the emerging field of “teacher effectiveness” comes from Doug Lemov’s Teaching Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.

To be clear, Lemov hasn’t conducted double-blind experimental studies — something that could and should now be done to test whether his observations are correct. What he has done is analyze the behavior of the best teachers at Uncommon Schools, a group of successful charter schools in New Jersey and New York that serve mostly low-income, urban children.

His perspective is breathlessly simple but devilishly detailed. According to Lemov, great teachers use repetitive classroom-management techniques to make optimal use of every moment, implement high expectations, and differentiate learning. Based on his observations, Lemov has carefully described these techniques to show how, taken as a whole, they empower teachers to reach more students at a variety of levels and still keep the focus of the class.

What makes the book (and the accompanying video clips of teachers demonstrating the techniques with real students) so riveting is that it captures the detailed craft of teaching from its most banal (how to call on kids in class — see "cold call" in the sidebar) to its most elevated form (how to inject joy into your lesson plan — see "the J factor"). Exceptional teachers draw from a shared bag of tricks (as developed by the charter schools where they teach), but taken together they offer a powerful picture of what it takes to keep a class fully engaged in learning every moment of the day.

Lemov’s observations on great teaching offer an inspiring, if sometimes painful, reminder of what engaged learning can look like (and how some teachers don’t have the requisite classroom-management skills, high standards, or planning skills to accomplish this). Watching Lemov’s teachers at work is breathtaking and, if your child isn’t blessed with a teacher with such skills, a little heartbreaking too.

Reality check

Being able to recognize a great teacher is all good and fine. But since when do parents have any power over motivating, choosing, training, or hiring teachers? Isn’t that the province of the politicos, unions, and principals?

Sure, parental influence in the arena of teaching is limited. Still, parents influence teaching every day in many ways. We choose schools, we lobby principals to get certain teachers for our children, and we communicate and collaborate with teachers on projects. Though individually we don’t always get to handpick the perfect teachers for our kids, we do have the ability to affect standards around teaching every time we interact with teachers or principals. And taken together, the potential power of parental expectations about great teaching for our children is immeasurable.

At the very least, the new findings about great teaching show us one ideal. It may not be enough, but it’s a beginning.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"We know so little about this study. Why would I ignore obvious factors in a classroom like curriculum and class size because a Stanford Economist is at the head of the study. Indeed, a great teacher can be more effective, and children in that teacher's classrooms may make great leaps in learning; however, children ca respond to and connect with teachers for very idiosyncratic reasons, and it can't be distilled to a formula. I don't find necessarily better teachers in classrooms with kids who score better on tests, any more than I find better service or products in businesses who make more $, whether or not an economist tells me I should. "
"I think this is a lot of hype worth nothing. It would be unfair if I didn't say I am a teacher and a very good one. Know I don't claim to know everything under the sun but I do know how to get you to learn anything under the sun. I am an artist here to help others on their path in life. I love people and enjoy working with others that want to learn. I understand what it feels like to be frustrated or overwhelmed and maybe even disinterested but I DO NOT, I repeat I DO NOT LIKE BEING PUSHED AROUND. I don't do it to my students and I don't like it being done to me. Unfortunately, so many of our administrators are under the radar for underperformance or not making benchmarks, that they pressure educators as if we were flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant. I won't be belittled like that for any job. I didn't pay all that money for a degree to be treated like my students' performance is microwaveable or pressure cooked and will be ready in a certain amount of hours. No! t realistic when it comes to the human experience. For that reason, I cannot allow myself in a classroom where administrators are failing educators. They lie to the public to save face and behind close doors they are the abused, abusing. Speak up...know your administrators for who they really are.... "
"It is so hard to be objective about your children's teachers. I have learned the hard way, that I don't have to like or even be friendly with the teacher. I do have to trust their ability to educate my child. For some reason, both my children had a difficult time in first grade. Personally, I did not get along with either of their teachers. Neither teacher could communicate clearly about my children's progress. Yet, one teacher was definitely better than the other. In one case, it took my child a whole year to catch up from what she had missed in first grade. The other teacher was not easy to speak with or to get information from, but I saw my child make dramatic leaps in all areas of learning. The best way to see how the teacher is is to pay attention to your child's progress. Children learn at different rates, but you know your child the best. You know if he or she is performing at their best. Get involved early if there is a problem. "
"yeas some days you should 'sit in' and visit with your child's classroom and observe the teacher's behavior, and teaching skills. You would be just as surprised as I was, when my 6yr old grandson's teacher threw up her hands in despair, and abruptly walked out of the classroom when a student she called on did not respond with the correct answer. Parent's will never know what goes on in their child's classroom if they do not pop in from time to time."
"Very nice job on the video clip. The teacher is focused on the 4 children. Where is the rest of the class, and what are they doing during small group time?"
"The article didn't give me a simple list of what to look for in a great teacher. Though it was a real eye opener of the stats that great teachers do vs not so great teachers do. And there where some great comments from parents, but in general the article left me wanting more. Besides, here in PA, especially where we live, we have great schools. Actually there are very few 'bad' schools in our general area. But as great as the school / teachers are, there are always a few bad apples out there."
"The only way parents will find the teachers effective is if they themselves do a good job at home in preparing their children mentally to make good out of every teacher. Any child can learn something from any teacher if they would make an attempt to comply with their part. Nowadays, students try to get by with minimum effort. Don't get me wrong but I do beleive we also need to find a way to detect effective parents parallel to finding effective teachers."
"Carol Lloyd says, ...since when do parents have any power over motivating, choosing, training, or hiring teachers? Isn't that the province of the politicos, unions, and principals? That is all right except that politicos and unions don't choose, train, or hire teachers. And even motivating is a stretch since their roles, especially unions, is pretty well circumscribed by law. What is missing is the role of local central administration in all this. Those nice people at the School Board and Superintendent's office are supposed to handle these matters."
"This was a very informative perspective on exceptional teachers. When I met my sons teachers for the 1st time one in particular caught my attention as well as my heart. As I stood waiting to greet her she addressed a student with her mother present and let it be known that she isn't allowed to dress in the clothing she was wearing and would be sent home. She let it be known that she had high expectations for her students and the only way a student fails in her class is if they don't show up for class. She has found creative ways to get the students engaged and stated that she does not send home homework because the students simply don't do it. So she used every minute of her time in class to see to it that her students are learning and quality time is spent teaching. Standardized testing is so unfair to the teachers and students. The teacher could be do her best but if the student refuses to learn and do his part then the teacher should not be held accountable. That ! works both ways."
"It is interesting how the author describes Lemov's teachers in a charter school. Public school educators don't like the competition that charter schools offer to parents. Most charters are more successful than the traditional public schools because of better screening of teachers and the lack of interference from unions."
"I agree with you Carol about what to look for in Great Teachers. As an unemployed middle school teacher, who has been with the students for over 10 years, the word 'science' of teaching is frustrating. My opinion is that teaching is a 'calling' not a career so to speak. I have such a sense of yearning to teach and connect students with knowledge that I drove across the country from LA to NYC in order to find a classroom of students who can benefit from my skill as an educator. I was one of the first 8,000 teachers layed off from Los Angeles Unified School District, being lowest on the totem pole so to speak. What I am finding is that there is an unspoken expectation in the new description of a 'highly qualified teacher' and that is that they must be under 35 years of age. It is sad really that there is discrimination according to age. Each teacher is a unique individual and conveys the curriculum in varied ways. A major aspect of schooling is the social perspective. Students are learning how to discern the teacher's expectations. Society is not made up of 'cookie cutter characters' who all act and behave the same. Students learn valuable social skills in school. I tell my students 'study to the teacher.' That is the methadology of every college student who succeeds. I realize that my views are a bit skewed at the moment, what with not being hired by a principal that could be my son's age, but my passion to teach has never wained. "
"In every school in every school district, parents need access to valued-added evaluations based on pre-and post-testing results like the analysis of LA teachers the LA Times did recently. School districts would be required at the parents' request to provide free tutoring to students of teachers who scored below a certain minimum rating; perhaps some of the cost of extra-curricular tutoring could come from the teachers' pockets. That would provide a great incentive, otherwise known as money, to improve teacher performance. Teachers rated as excellent could earn extra money as mentors for less effective teachers. It would also help for an organization to produce a 'best standards' information packet for parents, which would be distributed at the start of each school year. 'Best standards' would describe the best teaching practices, such as returning graded tests to students so students can learn from the tests, rather than reusing tests year after year. This would give parents some objective indicators in assessing teacher performance. "
"Nice article - does a good job of summarizing and pointing to some interesting research"
"I was lured in by the email title saying 'Read our parents' primer on the latest findings on what makes a great teacher � and why you should care.' Do you really think it is a primer? I feel no more enlightened than when I first started reading the article. Not uncommon for your site though. But this time I was annoyed enough to comment."
"I find the topic is very apt and useful. Thanks GREAT SCHOOL . I am sure by sharing and caring we all can contribute for a better planet."
"the long article in itself is proof of the complexity of the subject. as soon as you layout the list for effective teaching you are assuming every student in your class needs similar motivations and would learn at the same pace and that we all know is not true. i look at teachers these days and all i think is, 'gosh they look stressed'. think how much fun kids are having learning in his/her class. in my opinion steps should first be taken to motivate our teachers, remind them what fun it is to mold young minds instead of handing them list/studies that delineate 'effective' teaching. "
"What a great article! I am a preschool teacher and director of a private parochial school and I would like to think that I have some of the qualities listed as a great teacher. I do know that I LOVE teaching and look at each new year as an opportunity to observe the miracles of early child development. For me it is such a privilege that parents entrust their little ones in my care. I truly feel blessed to be able to do what I do!"
"monitors in the classrooms are the answer to discipline & teaching skills. large screen tvs with top notch instructors are the future."