Lemov’s 49 Techniques: Transforming Student Outcomes
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.