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September 19, 2012

The opportunity to create more champion teachers

by Allison Akhnoukh

Since being published in 2010, Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion has been heralded as the preeminent playbook for effective teaching.  I’ve read the book several times now, each time hoping for the inspiration that so many others have found.  Each time it leaves me the same: completely overwhelmed by what we are asking today’s teachers to accomplish.

Over the past 10 years I have spent countless hours in the classrooms of aspiring champions – new teachers, veteran teachers, teachers working in district schools, charter schools, and private schools. When a teacher can effectively utilize all 49 of Lemov’s techniques in perfect harmony, it is feat at which to marvel. Much more commonly observed, however, is the teacher trying heroically – yet unsuccessfully – to fully engage each of his 30 students in the lesson he stayed up half the night planning. Lemov has provided us with an essential framework for instruction and classroom management. Yet the much more pressing question is how we can create the conditions that make “achieving the championship” more achievable and sustainable for all teachers. I believe that blended learning holds that promise.

Lemov organizes his 49 techniques into seven overarching themes. Because seven is easer to tackle than 49, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to examine the role that blended learning can and cannot play in helping to create more champions within each of these themes:

1.     Setting High Academic Expectations. No matter how good the technology, students will always need to be surrounded by adults who set high expectations and hold them accountable for achieving at the highest possible level. Teachers need to do so, as Lemov points out, “without apology” and particularly for those students who have been led to believe either by themselves or others that success is out of reach. There are ways, however, that a blended-learning environment can make the task of setting high expectations for every student more feasible. First, online content can be structured in such a way that a student will be forced not to “opt out” until they demonstrate mastery of a concept. Second, and perhaps more critically, a teacher can spend focused time with an individual student while the rest of the class is working online. Without the pressures of engaging an entire classroom, the teacher can provide undivided attention where needed to ensure all students are meeting the high expectations that have been set.

2.     Planning that Ensures Academic Achievement. The need for strong planning remains absolutely critical in a blended-learning environment. What becomes possible, however, is the shift from classroom level to individual student level planning. “Beginning with the end in mind” can focus on a particular student’s learning path; setting “manageable and measurable objectives” can be informed by real-time, student level data. The reality today is that our best teachers, particularly early in their career, spend much of their nights and weekends lesson planning. Although it may be feasible to do this through brute force at the classroom level, attempting to do so at the individual student level becomes effectively impossible. In order to create plans that differentiate for each individual student, teachers will need to depend on the growing number of resources available through online content, learning management systems, and data analysis tools. Harnessing these tools will in turn make these essential planning skills more accessible for a larger subset of teachers, allowing them to focus their time on how to best personalize the curriculum for each student rather than building each lesson from scratch.

3.     Structuring and Delivering Your Lesson.  One of Lemov’s techniques that’s gotten the most traction – and for good reason – is the notion of “Ratio”, the proportion of the cognitive work students do versus teachers. Although many teachers understand the importance of students doing the work, few are able to create the conditions for success within a classroom of 30 students. Most revert to the “sage on a stage” method of teaching. Making an increased “ratio” more accessible to the average teacher is perhaps one of the greatest promises of a blended-learning environment. Students are required to do their own cognitive work while engaging with the online content. Yet equally, if not more, promising are the opportunities created by the individual and small group attention that teachers can now provide to a subset of students while the others are working online. With a smaller number of students at any one time, teachers can focus on pushing the ratio of higher order thinking through Socratic seminars and other targeted strategies of instruction only possible in a small group setting.

4.     Engaging Students. If they’re not engaged, students won’t learn. Many of the techniques Lemov describes depend on a heroic teacher with the personality of a “Vegas” performer. In order to keep the engagement of an entire classroom at once, teachers in a traditional setting must strike the perfect balance between being a stand up comedian and a drill sergeant. It’s a feat that few can accomplish. In contrast, a blended-learning environment can more feasibly harness student’s intrinsic motivation through online content that is differentiated and contains immediate feedback. That said, there are several critical roles that teachers must still play regardless of what can be provided online. Similar to setting high academic expectations, most students will depend on adult support to keep their engagement level high. When the going gets tough, nearly every student will be tempted at times to disengage. Teachers need to ensure that students stay focused and engaged. But again, the blended-learning environment allows teachers to target and differentiate their support in a much more manageable manner.

5.     Strong Classroom Culture. Ensuring a strong classroom culture is critically important in a blended-learning environment. Tight transitions are essential and yet perhaps even harder to accomplish because of all the technology to be navigated. Many of Lemov’s techniques, such as having a strong “entry routine” remain important for teachers to master. Many of his techniques, however, are necessary only in an environment where 30 students must be streamlined into one cohesive entity; they therefore become obsolete in a blended-learning classroom. For example, “Do Now”s (a commonly used technique for keeping students on task while waiting for whole-group instruction to start) can become “Start Now”s, which allow each student to dive into their individualized content as soon as they enter the classroom. Similar to the notion of engagement, a strong classroom culture becomes that much more obtainable in an environment where students are intrinsically motivated. Rather than drilling students into compliance around the critical components of SLANT (Sit Up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod your head, Track the Speaker), a blended-learning environment will hopefully create the conditions where students will want to be more fully present through individualized learning and targeted small-group engagement.

6.     Setting and Maintaining High Behavior Expectations. Similar to academic expectations, high behavior expectations are critical regardless of the learning environment. Teachers will always need to be the owners of this within their classrooms.  A blended-learning environment, however, may make it more feasible for the average teacher to find her “strong voice” when more students are actively engaged and less interventions are required. Additionally, it’s important to reevaluate what teachers are striving for “100% compliance” around within their classrooms. For example, in a blended-learning classroom where students are engaged deeply in their individualized learning plan, the occasional side bar conversation or student listening to music while working may not be something that runs against a positive classroom culture.

7.     Building Character and Trust. Together with setting high expectations, ensuring each student feels cared for and supported on his learning journey is perhaps the most critical role that a teacher needs to play. Unfortunately, however, this role often gets relegated to the bottom of the list because there is so much whole-group direct instruction and content delivery that needs to occur. Additionally, with 49 techniques to master each and every day, it becomes virtually impossible for the average teacher to preserve the “emotional constancy” that Lemov describes to be so critical. A blended environment affords teachers the opportunity to connect individually with each student and differentiate to both their academic but also, when necessary, personal and emotional needs.

Skeptics of technology-enhanced instruction are quick to assert that teaching is a craft that can never be replaced. I couldn’t agree more. The strength of Lemov’s framework is that it articulates for us exactly what that craft looks like when effectively mastered. The fact of the matter is, we simply don’t have enough – or even remotely close to enough – champion teachers in our schools today. To be clear, it’s not for lack of effort, motivation, intelligence, or passion. It’s because the job we’re expecting our teachers to accomplish is superhuman. Far from replacing our teachers, a blended-learning environment holds the potential of making the job more accessible for more individuals. It provides the opportunity to create more champions.

Allison Akhnoukh has been working in education reform for over 10 years, most recently with the KIPP Foundation supporting the growth and sustainability of the network of charter schools. While studying at Harvard Business School, she worked with Clayton Christensen on early research that led to the creation of Disrupting Class

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