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Building a Better Teacher

Elizabeth Green writes a fascinating article about Doug Lemov, a former teacher and school administrator and current education consultant who goes to schools and tells teachers how they could do better. Apparently all the information is available in “a 357-page treatise known among its hundreds of underground fans as Lemov’s Taxonomy. (The official title, attached to a book version being released in April, is ‘Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.’).” I’d like to see the list of 49 techniques right now, but maybe you have to buy the book.

Green writes:

Central to Lemov’s argument is a belief that students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions. Educators refer to this art, sometimes derisively, as “classroom management.” . . . Lemov’s view is that getting students to pay attention is not only crucial but also a skill as specialized, intricate and learnable as playing guitar.

A lot of this resonated with my own experience in several roles:
– Student
– Teacher
– Author of a book on teaching tricks
– Teacher of teachers

As a student–here I’m thinking of the classes I’ve taken in French and Spanish, where I have a bit of motivation but I’m not particularly talented–I’d typically prefer to relax, and one of the key roles of the instructor is to keep me focused. I also find it useful to have someone who can answer my questions. During the class itself, I’m most alert when I get to talk or listen about things that relate to my life. Easier to do in a language class than a statistics class, I’m sure, but still something worth thinking about, perhaps.

As a teacher, my #1 concern is to motivate the students to do their homework. Classroom time is fine, but the way they’ll really learn is by doing the stuff themselves. If I were teaching five days a week, high-school style, I guess I’d devote much of the class time to drill and practice.

As an author of Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks, I focus on very specific techniques for getting students involved in class. Some of these techniques are subject-matter centered (for example, the candy-weighing demo; see also the discussion at this link to get a sense of how these activities can spark further thoughts), others are more general, such as my approach to ask questions and then have students work in pairs.

As a teacher of teachers, I’ve seen the resistance of teachers (in this case, graduate students who teach undergraduate statistics classes) to techniques for involving students. The hard part, I think, is that trying something new can feel like a loss of control.

In Cold Call . . . the students don’t raise their hands — the teacher picks the one who will answer the question. Lemov’s favorite variety has the teacher ask the question first, and then say the student’s name, forcing every single student to do the work of figuring out an answer.

As noted above, I prefer the work-in-pairs strategy, but it’s the same family of ideas.

“I’m a huge introvert” [Levov said], explaining how, at Harvard Business School, he took a Myers-Briggs personality test that labeled him more introverted than all his other classmates. “It’s strange to me that I do what I do and that I like it as much as I do,” he said.

This reminds me of my own experiences. I have big weaknesses as a teacher and I find it difficult to get students involved. That’s why I have collected and promulgated all these tricks. Someone who’s truly a natural teacher doesn’t really need these things, I think, but if things are starting to fall apart in your class, it’s good to have some specific ideas for getting students back on track.

Another problem I’ve often had (as recently as last semester!) is that my goals for students–what they’re expected to be able to do when the semester is over–are often not well defined. When we don’t have a sense of where we’re going, our 15-week courses often fall apart somewhere around week 7 or so. But this should not be such an issue in high school.

Lemov and Ball focus on different problems, yet in another way they are compatriots in the same vanguard, arguing that great teachers are not born but made. (The Obama administration has also signaled its hopes by doubling the budget for teacher training in the 2011 budget to $235 million.) A more typical education expert is Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia University, who favors policies like rewarding teachers whose students perform well and removing those who don’t but looks skeptically upon teacher training. He has an understandable reason: While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research he can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. So why invest in training when, as he told me recently, “you could be throwing your money away”?

All I can say here is, I’ve talked a bit with Jonah Rockoff, and he’s really impressed me.

P.S. I came to this article by following a link from Seth, who unfortunately attaches this to a general criticism of all scientists, researchers, and professors. I don’t really have the energy to argue with Seth and his commenters on this one, but I would like to point out one thing, which is that Seth refers to peer review as a “bizarre view of economics (thinking someone should pay you and get nothing in return).” I don’t think that’s bizarre at all: everyone wants to get paid for doing nothing, right? The really bizarre view of economics, which Seth seems to be endorsing here, is the theory that well-paid scientists are really giving their employers and customers “nothing in return.” This is not to say that I endorse any simplistic idea that everyone is paid exactly what he or she is worth, but rather to suggest that it’s hardly a bizarre view for a well-paid person to think that he or she is providing something valuable to the people paying the bills.

Seth also describes peer review as some sort of strange thing:

Scientists have an amusing spin on this: They call it “peer review.” The amusing part is that somehow no one else’s opinion should matter. . . . (E.g., all journals must be peer-reviewed.) As far as I can tell, professors act this way — try to impress colleagues — in every academic department.

First of all, nobody is stopping people from publishing in non-peer-reviewed journals. I publish in a non-peer-reviewed journal every day! Second, there’s a reason we try to impress our colleagues: it’s called communication. Talking about “trying to impress colleagues” sounds like one of those “we’re all bonobos trying to signal status” sorts of explanations. Speaking for myself, I don’t always enjoy the peer review process–there are journals that I avoid because their peer review is so irritating–but I need to communicate with my colleagues to move the field forward. I can’t do it on my own, and, unlike Doug Lemov (the teacher profiled in that above-linked article), I haven’t been fortunate enough to have a major newspaper feature article devoted to my research. I don’t see why I, or any other academic researcher, should feel embarrassed about “trying to impress colleagues.” The way to impress colleagues is to do good work. That said, many of my disagreements with Seth on such matters doubtless arises from our different personal experiences in academia.

You are free do dismiss these comments, however, given that my statistical research is currently supported by the Institute of Education Sciences. I’d like to feel that that these methods could be useful to researchers with all sorts of different perspectives, but who knows.

P.P.S. On an unrelated note, I get irritated when people link to newspaper articles and just describe the subject of the article, or maybe the publication, but not the author. Reporters do a lot of work! I think they deserve some credit. Certainly, if I publish an article in the American Journal of Sociology or whatever, I’d like people to know that I wrote it; I don’t want them to attribute my efforts to the AJS or Columbia University or the Institute of Education Sciences or some other organization that is associated with me but didn’t actually write the damn article.


  1. Tom Richards says:

    The book's up for pre-order on Amazon and you can use the Look Inside option to check out the taxonomy itself.

  2. Steve Sailer says:

    It's usually too much to ask public school teachers to play Good Cop / Bad Cop rolled into one. Schools need to invest in a few intimidating discipline specialists to whom the Good Cop teachers can send their bad apples before they ruin the whole class.

  3. Seth Roberts says:

    "Many of my disagreements with Seth on such matters doubtless arises from our different personal experiences in academia." I think I read Thorstein Veblen at a more impressionable age than you.

  4. Andrew Gelman says:

    Tom: Thanks for a link. I think I'll buy a copy. I suspect these ideas will be useful to me, both in teaching and in writing my new intro statistics book, in which I'm trying to link the technical material with teaching tricks.

    Steve: Could be; this is an aspect of education that I know little about (beyond my experiences of being sent to the principal repeatedly in elementary school).

    Seth: I've never read anything of Veblen's, so I guess you're right on that one. Still, I find it hard to believe that Veblen's writings would've impressed you so much if they weren't in line with your own experiences in the Berkeley psychology department.

    Don't forget, also, that statistics is different than many other academic fields. People like me become statisticians (rather than mathematicians) to a large extent because they want to do useful work and not limit themselves to pure theory.

  5. Rhonda says:

    The problem with this solution is the kid that doesn't want to be in class. He or she knows that all he/she has to do is "act out" and he/she will be sent out of the class–usually for the duration of class. A much better solution is for the teacher to work with the student, in class, to improve his/her behavior so that the content can be learned. The content cannot be learned if the student is not in class!