Lemov and the Playbook

I’m almost done with Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like A Champion. It’s gotten a lot of press, both good and bad, including an article in the New York Times Magazine before the book was even published. Yesterday I gave a copy to our Middle School director, a former football coach, with these words: “You need to give a copy of this book to every teacher in this school. It’s the playbook for your team.”

I don’t know whether he believed it or not. Whether he believed me or not. ( I am leaving after all; he has both all the reason in the world to trust me, and none whatsoever.)

But the role of a playbook is to give a quarterback and his team options. Those options include plans for offense. Plans for defense. Plans to test the opponents’ will; plans to show one thing to weak opponents while confusing spies in the stands for the NEXT, much-stronger team; plans to build team morale and team culture.

What Lemov has done is write a playbook. It’s a pretty strong playbook. It gives a standard language to all of those teachers who use it. It gives a series of patterns for day to day and week to week play, and it gives a set of patterns for teachers to observe in their students and responses to give.

I wish I’d had this book thirteen years ago.

But more, I wish that my school had this book ten years ago, fifteen years ago and made people read it. I think what this book has taught me is that schools need a playbook — even if this isn’t it. “Here is a standard set of 25 things that we do in the classroom. We do these five or ten once every day; we do these six every other day; we do these nine once a week.”. It doesn’t have to be 20 minute lessons. In fact, it would be better if it weren’t.

So often, we throw teachers into a classroom with a “teacher edition” of a textbook, a blank grade book, and an attendance roster. Wouldn’t it be nice to give the new guy a copy of your playbook, so he knows what to do when you pass him his first group of kids?

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  1. Interesting. I knew you would have a thoughtful answer.

    The last point – the “tech based learning program” that would meet your “hurdle rate” definition – I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything except programming that would do that. It’s because the computer is mediating a dialog between the child and the task. Not replacing a teacher, but providing useful feedback in the form of error messages and when the program doesn’t do what you expect.

  2. How did you find the balance between “tricks” to get kids attention, strategies to nudge up test scores, vs. things that will get kids really thinking? I haven’t read the book yet, but the few strategies profiled in the NY Times magazine seemed more focused on the former rather that the later. Really interested in your opinion.

    • I think part of that is, New York Times journalists have no idea what kids do all day in school, or teachers. So the techniques profiled in the New York Times seemed to be the flashiest and most obvious.

      Let me take one simple technique, which is listed in the chapter about reading. A kid may know how to form the adjective, “clarified” from “clearly”, but the kid next to him may not. So ask both questions, explicitly. Ask for a definition of clearly, then ask for the adjective, then ask for the adjective in a sentence. Ask another kid for the noun clarification in a sentence. Ask another kid for the definition of clarification. If someone says, “I don’t know” give them a chance to throw the question to someone else — as long as you pretend their lifeline didn’t speak, and the original kid answers the question. Again. Ask how a clarification is different from a correction, and how it’s similar to but not the same thing as a restatement.

      You’ve just thrown nine-ten-eleven questions into the kids’ cognitive arena. If you’re asking the question first, and then naming the student (and not permitting a student to opt out of any question, or get by with a half-baked answer, or with incomplete sentences), you’re making every kid do the cognitive labor of thinking of his or her answer — and then comparing their answer with the answer actually offered.

      Yes, it’s a trick. And no, if you’re just offering the same seventh grade pablum to ninth graders, you’ll get inadequate results. If you’re working from great, hard literature… If you’re quizzing not just about parts of speech and sample sentences… If you’re scaling up questions every day from easy to hard… If you’re interspersing challenging, randomized reading with the questions…

      Then the students are in the cognitive arena, doing battle with a monster of a text. They’re unlocking word meanings, gaining strategies for decoding, managing intellectual challenge, processing audio and visual cues, taking notes….

      The results aren’t instant. But the engagement is. The students want to be smart. They want to be called on. They want to do well. And in order to do well they have to know how to read, how to find information, and how to engage in conversation in an academic context.

      Then there’s the reading strategies.

      The kids I teach like projects, but many of them don’t do them well on the computer or off. They lack the reading skills to make meaning from text, so they get information superficially right, but don’t delve deep. They read poorly so they write poorly, and their spoken thinking is sloppy.

      I don’t have a good enough “tech-based learning program” yet after a year to beat the hurdle rate of teaching good communication skills, thinking skills, and reading skills that come from engaged reading with thought-out sequences of questions.

  3. Well said. It’s a play book. Unlike you I am not close to finishing the book although my goal was to read it through as an overview. I’ve read chapters 1 and 2 twice but then skipped to chapters 5 and 6 which have greatly strengthened what I learned from 1 and 2. I feel like I will be perfecting the “plays” for years to come but am excited to now be on the team.

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