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Lemov’s 49 Techniques: Transforming Student Outcomes

March 8, 2010

I discovered something new a few months ago: my toddler, Miles, responds *extremely* well to praise. He would do all sorts of things to get us to praise him. My husband and I found out that the term “little helper” is a really neat trick for teaching your child to control his own behaviour. I originally picked this up from an article on “training your husband” the same way you would train an exotic animal.

But I just read that this particular technique works really well in classrooms as well. For teachers, this is one of the tricks of the trade. Interestingly, little techniques like these have the potential to transform the entire education system– in a cost-effective manner to boot!

In an NY Times Magazine article, Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green provides a concrete critique of a basic flaw in the existing American education system– teacher training– and recommends a very solid solution. This article is insightful and practical. It  should be read by everyone who cares about education policy– I would even go so far as to say that this is useful for all teachers everywhere, not only in the US, but in all countries. It is so good that I’m offering the Coles’ Notes version in this post, with a small thought from me (at the end) on taking the conclusions forward into the policy arena.

Here is the puzzle that Green lays out:

When researchers ran the numbers in dozens of different studies, every factor under a school’s control produced just a tiny impact, except for one: which teacher the student had been assigned to. Some teachers could regularly lift their students’ test scores above the average for children of the same race, class and ability level. Others’ students left with below-average results year after year. William Sanders, a statistician studying Tennessee teachers with a colleague, found that a student with a weak teacher for three straight years would score, on average, 50 percentile points behind a similar student with a strong teacher for those years… Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, found that while the top 5 percent of teachers were able to impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one school year, as judged by standardized tests, the weakest 5 percent advanced their students only half a year of material each year.

So what is it that accounts for these good teachers being so good, and how can we produce more of them?

There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try….

When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for those magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. “Stand still when you’re giving directions,” a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once.

Teaching Techniques– the Missing Ingredient

Doug figured out that teaching was not innate, but that in fact, there were specific techniques being employed. And really good teachers had a full command of these as well as strong knowledge of their subject area. The problem was that teachers were being well-trained in their subject area, but not necessarily in these all important teaching techniques. Here is the core problem:

Traditionally, education schools divide their curriculums into three parts: regular academic subjects, to make sure teachers know the basics of what they are assigned to teach; “foundations” courses that give them a sense of the history and philosophy of education; and finally “methods” courses that are supposed to offer ideas for how to teach particular subjects. Many schools add a required stint as a student teacher in a more-experienced teacher’s class. Yet schools can’t always control for the quality of the experienced teacher, and education-school professors often have little contact with actual schools. A 2006 report found that 12 percent of education-school faculty members never taught in elementary or secondary schools themselves. Even some methods professors have never set foot in a classroom or have not done so recently.

The people who teach American elementary and secondary school teachers are not necessarily experienced in teaching in these environments. They do not teach their teacher trainees the basics of teaching: how do you capture the attention of your students and get them to follow your instructions?

Lemov thought that the best way to answer this question was to take the best teachers there are, break down their techniques, and then teach everyone else these techniques. Lemov has been able to categorize 49 of these techniques and he is about to publish a book on them. I, for one, am interested in buying it– not just for teaching my Oxford students, but also for dealing with my toddler! (And I am clearly not the only one who thinks that this is good stuff. His sales rank has gone through the roof: from 591,666 to 144 as of Thurs Mar 4 2010)

Subject Specific Techniques

Lemov wasn’t the only to realize that there was a gap in teaching techniques. Deborah Loewenberg Ball, now dean of education at the University of Michigan, came to a similar conclusion about the very specific techniques that are needed to be a good math teacher. She created a test to measure this aptitude: Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or M.K.T. She found that:

…students whose teacher got an above-average M.K.T. score learned about three more weeks of material over the course of a year than those whose teacher had an average score, a boost equivalent to that of coming from a middle-class family rather than a working-class one. The finding is especially powerful given how few properties of teachers can be shown to directly affect student learning. Looking at data from New York City teachers in 2006 and 2007, a team of economists found many factors that did not predict whether their students learned successfully. One of two that were more promising: the teacher’s score on the M.K.T. test, which they took as part of a survey compiled for the study.

And now others are following in her wake and trying to create similar bodies of knowledge for teaching other subjects.

OK, But Does it Work?

But the proof is really in the pudding. So far there is only anecdotal evidence that these techniques work.

Katie Bellucci… had been teaching for only two months, yet her fifth-grade math class was both completely focused on her and completely quiet. Pacing happily in front of a projector screen, she showed none of the false, scripted manner so common among first-year teachers…She even sent a disobedient student to the dean’s office without a single turned head or giggle interrupting the flow of her lesson.

… her control of the classroom, she says, is thanks to the taxonomy, which she began to learn last summer, practicing different techniques in classroom simulations with her fellow teachers. The simulations were specific and practical; Bellucci told me she spent several hours practicing how to tell a student he was off task. “Without it, I’d be completely on my own,” she said. “I’d be in the dark.”

And there is more:

The best evidence Lemov has now is anecdotal — the testimony of teachers like Bellucci and the impressive test scores of their students. (Among the taxonomy’s users are a New Orleans charter school that last year had the third-highest ninth-grade English scores in the city behind two selective public schools; the highest-rated middle school on New York City’s school report card; and top schools in Boston, Milwaukee, Denver and Newark.)

But skeptics are right to be wary. Anecdotal evidence, no matter how uniformly positive it seems to be, can often be misleading. All sorts of biases are likely to be at work and these are not controlled for when you evaluate anecdotes. Jonah Rockoff expresses his cynicism that investing in teaching techniques like Lemov’s and Ball’s actually works. Why spend so much money on training when it has never shown any promise in the past?

The Perfect Conditions for a Field Experiment

There is an easy solution to this problem: if you want to know whether Lemov’s taxonomy works, all that needs to be done is to conduct a field experiment. This would be a perfect application for it.

Take a group of teachers-in-training and randomly divide them into two. (The group needs to be large enough to get statistical significance in the results. Use a matching technique if necessary.) Put one of these groups through the Lemov course, but not the other (to be used as a control). Track their students’ test scores (or some other way of measuring student outcomes) for some number of years, say 3-5. Compare the results.

If Lemov’s techniques work as well as we’d hope, then the results will speak for themselves. This will provide the proof that is needed. And if Lemov is right and this works, then experts like Rockoff will find it hard to ignore this kind of persuasive evidence. If it doesn’t work, then we know that there is another explanation for Lemov’s success to date. (E.g., Currently, teachers and schools self select into the programs which means that your sample may be biased to start with.)

In any case, this looks like it holds promise for school boards everywhere. I really hope that  a field experiment of some kind is conducted– I can’t wait to see the results!

Update 1: It looks like the Uncommon Schools page (home to Doug Lemov) has posted some helpful video clips illustrating even more of the techniques than are available on the NY Times page. Thanks to Divide by Zero for the tip.

Update 2: Friends have pointed me to Alfie Kohn’s research for a different perspective on learning.  Wikipedia has a nice summary of his views. Some thoughts on this that I posted for friends on Facebook:

From what I was able to glean out of his Wikipedia entry, I’d say that I also agree with Kohn, if it’s possible to have one foot on both sides of the fence. Ideally, the focus is on learning and standardized tests provide only an approximation of the learning that is going on– good schools realize this and use it as a general benchmark for measuring how well students are learning. It is not their only tool for assessment.

The key here has to do with resources available and individual student’s needs. Trying to carry out Kohn’s method with limited resources is tough. On individual needs, I think each person thrives in different types of learning environments. Some kids need discipline and structure, others do best in more creative learning situations. It depends the child.

But for most people, individual schooling is not possible and the class environment is a given, so the question is how to best improve classroom conditions and learning in that environment. This is where I think Lemov and Ball actually have important contributions to make.

Update 3: Bill Gates tweeted that he supports Lemov’s Taxonomy.

Update 4: I just put up another post on this issue. See Teacher Training and the Multi-Billion Dollar Question.

Update 5:  David Bornstein just wrote an excellent article in the NY Times (Apr 18, 2011) on Jump Math, a curriculum that has been phenomenally successful with helping kids learn math.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2010 11:23 pm

    I read the article and am not convinced. I would like to think that there is some silver bullet out there that all teachers could use to raise standards, but all the available evidence points in the other direction. Ultimately teaching is relational rather than technical, which means that it is very personal and dynamic. Therefore even if Mrs X in Michigan got great results using a taxonomy, even if you do exactly the same thing it won’t necessarily work. You can try, and there’s no harm in trying, but you will eventually settle into a teaching style that works for you, which will involve a mixture of different techniques and be shaped by your own personality and your students.

    The broader problem here is the idea that increasing student test scores is “education” and that this “education” can be achieved simply through the application of specific techniques. I’m glad that the article features someone else who stresses the importance of subject knowledge, i.e., substance over form, as this is often missed. But beyond that, the single biggest educational predictor is not whether a teacher knows a taxonomy or even knows their subject but rather the socio-economic background of the students. The attempt to blame teachers for poor outcomes – which is reflected in right-wing campaigns to sack “bad” teachers or the push for standardised testing and performance related pay – completely distracts attention from this fact by personalising what is a social problem. There is only so much any teacher can do when teaching kids in a ghetto.

    • March 9, 2010 12:31 am

      Hi Lee,

      Your reservations are exactly why a field experiment is needed. Run the experiment and let the results speak for themselves. If it works, then maybe we’ll all have something to cheer about.

      I do think you missed Green’s point though: she was not blaming teachers for poor outcomes and it’s obvious to one and all that socio-economic background is the key predictor of outcomes. Rather, if you take all the great inequalities in society as a given– since the world can’t be changed overnight– and you work within these parameters, then maybe, just maybe, Lemov and Ball’s approach offers some hope for educating those who have typically received the worst treatment from the public system. It’s not a perfect solution, but if these standardized and teachable techniques can deliver the suggested results, then I really do think it has the potential to transform education in the US.

      In the meantime, I’m going to buy the book because I think the small things matter, and university lecturers like me and you get little (if any) training in how to teach– we need those 49 techniques more than the average elementary or secondary school teacher. I’ll let you know if it’s any good!


      • March 12, 2010 8:23 pm

        I know this isn’t a formal experiment (control groups, etc), but as far as results go, Uncommon Schools have done exceptionally well using Lemov’s Taxonomy:

      • March 16, 2010 3:57 pm

        Hi Helpful,
        The data that have been highlighted in the graphs are interesting but not useful in proving effectiveness. As I mentioned in the post, the best proof is going to come from conducting a policy experiment and I do hope that one is done with Lemov’s Taxonomy. But the Uncommon Schools data (Lemov’s home) doesn’t tell us anything about key confounding factors– i.e., other factors that could explain how well these schools are doing. For example, I know nothing about the socio-economic backgrounds of the students of Uncommon Schools relative to the other districts. I also know that Uncommon Schools is doing its best to recruit top teachers– that is going to bias the results right off the bat.

        Also, there is no information about a year on year comparison in terms of how well the schools are doing. I would want to know Year 0 test results, then have the Taxonomy introduced throughout the school, followed by test results one year later. Or if you want to see if this works within Uncommon Schools, they could run an internal experiment. Teach the techniques to half the teachers, but not the other half and assign students randomly to the teachers. Those who get taught the techniques should show better results.

        I feel intuitively that these techniques work and that they could have a transformative effect on education, but I think the missing piece here is some good robust evidence. I do this kind of research (field experiments) and know that it can be easily done with a few smart people and a little bit of money. It seems crazy to me that that there are billions of dollars waiting to be invested and they’re not spending the $100,000 or $200,000 it would take to get some nice robust results on a teacher training program that holds so much promise.

        p.s. Sorry for the delay in replying– your comment got caught in my spam filter.

    • C'est Moi permalink
      March 20, 2010 10:04 am

      Of course there is only so much that a teacher can do. But that does not apply to teachers in the ghettto only. I teach at a so-called very good secondary school, attended by wealthy as well as shack-dwelling youngsters. In my experience (PLENTY!) it is not necessarily one’s finacial circumstances that make the difference. As far as I can see, the Most Important factor in learning is WANTING TO LEARN. If a youngster believes that he doesn’t need to know what is dished up for him as a curriculum, one is faced with a negativity that is hard to overcome. One of my final year students informed me that he could earn 4 times my teachers salary by replacing water filters at households, and what does one want more that that? He informed too that he had no respect for teachers – they were stupid to put up with teenagers at such a lowly pay.

      I believe techniques to “catch” youngsters in a situation where they cannot but learn, and enjoy to learn, will be beneficial. And for that reason only I would love to lay hands on Lemov’s 49 rules, just to try them out myself!

  2. March 9, 2010 3:48 am

    Ah, teaching teachers how to teach. 🙂 Something that I would certainly look forward to reading more about. Certainly, I’ve seen enough subject-mastered-teachers that have no business being in front of the proverbial chalkboard (or projection screen) since teaching is not reciting/reading off of the notes thrown up on the board anymore than knowing how to Wii!golf going to get you to the Open Championship.

  3. March 9, 2010 11:34 am

    Hi HS,
    Now you’ve got me worried– I think I might be one of those subject-mastered teachers who have not had any formal tuition in “how to teach”. No group needs Lemov’s techniques more than university professors and lecturers!

    • March 9, 2010 1:40 pm

      *G* I look forward to reading about your teaching experiences. It was only at the University level did I see the whole “read-off-the-notes” phenomena appear in full use. 😐 Suffice it to say that if there was one way to persuade folks from paying attention, standing in the middle (or the back) of a hall reading what was on the board (a la PPT presentations) was a great way to get people over bouts of insomnia. Mind you, this was 10+ years ago. I understand the current round of collegiate-level teaching (at least here in North America) involves students/attendees already getting access to the PPT screenshots and then lectures/sessions involve adding to that information.

  4. Kate permalink
    March 17, 2010 4:21 am

    Hi Christine,

    Thanks for bringing these articles to my attention. I also found the articles on Lemov and MKT etc to be really fascinating.

    I had the pleasure to work for the Teaching Resources group at uWaterloo while a grad student there and I learned that there are also great books about teaching at the uni level. For example, Weimar and McKeachie are usually good for practical approaches:
    * Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice by Maryellen Weimer
    * McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers by Wilbert James McKeachie


  5. March 18, 2010 3:15 pm

    Thanks for the tips Kate! I’ll have to look them up.

  6. March 21, 2010 6:15 pm

    Excellent. These taxonomies are the tried and true techniques for teachers over time. It is paramount that it is no longer necessary to discover them on one’s own. A teacher can enter the field tooled and ready. Geoffrey Canada’s work with parents and families complements these teacher techniques. When I taught in a language immersion school, every day our grade level team lunched and shared what worked and our disappointments of that day. We honed our techniques. Both native speakers and English-native speakers who had learned the second language, worked together. Extraordinary teacher development occurred.

  7. March 22, 2010 5:18 pm

    Hi Jodi,

    I remember reading about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone last year. Much like Doug Lemov, his work is also inspiring. ( Along with KIPP, I think these experiments in education are showing where the education needs to be headed. The next question seems to be one of scaling up these programs.


  8. Byron Gordon permalink
    June 26, 2010 3:23 am

    Hello Christine,

    I found your blog after googling Lemov’s Taxonomy. My fiancee is a school compliance manager at a post private secondary school and is currently studying for her master’s in higher education. We constantly have conversations and disagreements about how to improve public schooling in the United States.

    So I did come across Green’s article and found it fascinating, albeit not terribly helpful in helping me understand how a “great teacher” actually works with a student in imparting knowledge to solve a problem. For example, I’m very interested in Lemov’s 49 techniques. Green’s examples were not at all helpful in explaining how a great teacher imparts knowledge on a subject that a student is then able to process and regurgitate it showing that they have understood it and can reason about the topic as well.

    I went to Amazon and watched some of the videos that are posted showing examples of Lemov’s 49 techniques. But here is what I’m not getting. One of the videos gives an example of cold calling where a teacher has all of his students stand up and be prepared to answer a difficult question. In this case, it was in the area of mathematics. I was very impressed at how most of the students were able to answer the problem the teacher stated. And these weren’t simple 2+2 math questions.

    But what it did NOT show me was how the teacher went about instructing his students in understanding HOW to approach these complicated mathemmatical problems and be able to resolve them and arrive at the correct solution. This is what I’m interested in.

    What I see instead are techniques at controlling behavior in class. I’m not seeing how a teacher actually gets a student to learn what it is you’re trying to teach them.

    So let me ask you. Have you read Lemov’s 49 techniques yet? Does he discuss or give examples at how a teacher instructs a student in a particular topic? How does a great teacher get a student to understand and comprehend the nature of a topic and be able to contemplate and offer back critical analysis of the subject?

    I’m considernig purchasing the book but I’m not interested in reading about techniques at how to keep your classroom at attention, although this is an important feat in and of itself. I want to understand how a great teacher actually get his or her students to understand the nature of the subject matter and be able to process it and provide feedback that they understand it.

    I was a poor math student. And I felt that none of my teachers were ever able to successfully impart upon me the knowledge and reasoning required to successfully arrive at the correct solution. My brain is slower than most, I guess. And math was one of my worst subjects. As I watched these young black kids resolve these relatively complicated problems, I could not help but be impressed as I never could imagine my being able to answer those mathematical questions given how poor I was in the subject. I realy want to know if I had been taught by a teacher who was exercising the 49 techniques if it would have made any difference in my academic achievement.

    Thank you.

    • June 29, 2010 9:39 pm

      Hi Byron,

      I wish I could answer your question directly, but I have not yet read Lemov’s book. Still, I have the same impressions of the book that you do: a lot of it is about variations on classroom management. (If there are others out there who have read it, I hope they will take a stab at your question.)

      I agree with you that in some of the sample videos, the students look brilliant. Presumably, these special teachers have some special gifts, but the techniques enhance these natural talents. A bad teacher who uses the techniques will presumably be a less bad teacher; a good teacher who uses the techniques will become a great teacher. Beyond this basic point, it seems hard to say with any kind of certainty how well any individual student (like you) would have done in math if those techniques had been used in your classroom.



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