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July 18, 2012

A hope for future irrelevance

by Michael B. Horn

I had the opportunity recently to revisit Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, which was published in 2010.

It remains a good work that describes how teachers in today’s factory-model education system can make improvements in their teaching practice to bolster student learning.

Lemov cheekily says early on that one of the biggest ironies in writing the book is that several of the techniques he describes “remain essentially beneath the notice of our theories and theorists of education.” Although that may be true, there is increasingly strong cognitive science research that backs up many of his findings—and it has been good to see the up-start Relay Graduate School of Education teach many of the practices.

That said, one of the biggest ironies I noted was how much of the book’s techniques may be, to varying degrees, irrelevant for the jobs of teachers in the future, as online learning continues to grow in blended-learning settings and remakes the learning environments in schools. If that growth takes place in competency-based learning environments, this will be even more the case.

In my mind, that irrelevance can’t come soon enough for our students and our teachers (and not just because 49 techniques might seem like a long list!). What’s more, in an increasing number of schools around the country that I’ve visited, this isn’t a futuristic vision; many of these techniques have already been rendered irrelevant, even as their fundamental cognitive underpinnings remain critical.

Take the first technique in the book, for example: No Opt Out. As Lemov writes, “One consistency among champion teachers is their vigilance in maintaining the expectation that it’s not okay not to try.” In essence, students aren’t allowed to opt out by muttering “I don’t know” and seeing the teacher move on to the next student. Through a variety of tactics, Lemov shows how teachers should always return to a student who passes to give the right answer. This is smart, raises expectations, and makes good sense. But in a blended-learning environment where each child is moving along in an online curriculum likely at her own path and pace, it’s also irrelevant, as this good practice should be embedded naturally. That is, a student should not be able to move on to the next concept until she has fully mastered the current concept, which means that there is a natural environment that doesn’t let anyone opt out. Indeed, the majority of online learning systems today allow schools to not let students move on until they have mastered at least 70 or 80 percent of a given concept.

The book also talks about how teachers should shift from a mindset of “What will I do today?” to “How will I accomplish what I need to master today?” As Lemov writes, “The second question focuses the teacher on the goal: What exactly does she want her students to be able to do when the lesson is over?” Again, that’s smart in today’s outdated system, but it also assumes that each student will be doing the same “lesson.” When students have control over time, place, path, and pace, as they should in blended-learning environments, that second question is no longer the right one either but instead must turn to “What does mastery of a particular concept or standard look like? How will I know if a student has achieved mastery?” This is more of a student-centric focus, as opposed to a teacher-centric one.

We also learn that “Not only do the most effective teachers plan their activities, often minute by minute, but they script their questions in advance.” This practice is literally impossible, however, when every student is in a different place. Of course, pieces of this—particularly the scripted questions—might be relevant for portions of the day when teachers might bring students together to have group conversations that deepen the learning, but planning to control all the activities minute by minute in a blended-learning environment is a non-starter.

Lemov also talks about curriculum a fair bit—from making sure that teachers don’t back down from the choice of rigorous material because they are pandering to students to not being apologetic for the choice of material. Good tips. In the future, however, these techniques should be less relevant in a few respects. First, they assume to some extent that all teachers will be the designers of lessons. Some will continue to play this role, but the majority will not, as there should be a flourishing of roles for teachers, from mentors to content experts that help tutor to those that focus on non-academic problems. Also, the online software or curriculum will obviate the need for lesson planning for most teachers, even as some teachers may have to figure out how to extend curriculum and offer other pathways though the learning for different students. To the extent online learning is offering the learning experiences or introducing the next objective, it’s doubtful that the system will feel the need to be apologetic.

Other techniques that may fall into “less relevant” include such ones as “Stretch It,” which is designed to help “meet students where they are and push them in a way that’s directly responsive to what they’ve shown they can already do,” and becomes more embedded in a blended-learning environment; “Wait Time,” which is designed to help all students have a moment to answer a question, but isn’t relevant when each child is working at her own pace online; “Do Now” to help focus students on a particular learning activity when they enter the classroom; and several tips around varying pacing for the entire classroom, which become more irrelevant when each student has a unique pacing schedule. There are undoubtedly many others that fall into the category of future irrelevance as well.

The underpinnings behind these techniques will remain important in the future—blended learning environments ought to embed them. But as techniques that every teacher will need to master, I hope that they, like our current factory-model monolithic education system, will be relics of the past.

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