kitchen table math, the sequel: Lemov's taxonomy

Friday, April 9, 2010

Lemov's taxonomy

Lemov spent his early career putting his faith in market forces, building accountability systems meant to reward high-performing charter schools and force the lower-performing ones to either improve or go out of business. The incentives did shock some schools into recognizing their shortcomings. But most of them were like the one in Syracuse: they knew they had to change, but they didn’t know how. “There was an implementation gap,” Lemov told me. “Incentives by themselves were not going to be enough.” Lemov calls this the Edison Parable, after the for-profit company Edison Schools, which in the 1990s tried to create a group of accountable schools but ultimately failed to outperform even the troubled Cleveland public schools.

Lemov doesn’t reject incentives. In fact, at Uncommon Schools, the network of 16 charter schools in the Northeast that he helped found and continues to help run today, he takes performance into account when setting teacher pay. Yet he has come to the conclusion that simply dangling better pay will not improve student performance on its own. And the stakes are too high: while student scores on national assessments across demographic groups have risen, the percentage of students at proficiency — just 39 percent of fourth graders in math and 33 percent in reading — is still disturbingly low. And there is still a wide gap between black and white students in reading and math. The smarter path to boosting student performance, Lemov maintains, is to improve the quality of the teachers who are already teaching.

But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed.

[snip]

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.

It was the tiniest decision, but what was teaching if not a series of bite-size moves just like that?

Lemov thought about soccer, another passion. If his teammates wanted him to play better, they didn’t just say, “Get better.” They told him to “mark tighter” or “close the space.” Maybe the reason he and others were struggling so mightily to talk and even to think about teaching was that the right words didn’t exist — or at least, they hadn’t been collected. And so he set out to assemble the hidden wisdom of the best teachers in America.

[snip]

The most damning testimony [concerning teacher training] comes from the graduates of education schools. No professional feels completely prepared on her first day of work, but while a new lawyer might work under the tutelage of a seasoned partner, a first-year teacher usually takes charge of her classroom from the very first day. One survivor of this trial by fire is Amy Treadwell, a teacher for 10 years who received her master’s degree in education from DePaul University, one of the largest private universities in the Chicago area. She took courses in children’s literature and on “Race, Culture and Class”; one on the history of education, another on research, several on teaching methods. She even spent one semester as a student teacher at a Chicago elementary school. But when she walked into her first job, teaching first graders on the city’s South Side, she discovered a major shortcoming: She had no idea how to teach children to read. “I was certified and stamped with a mark of approval, and I couldn’t teach them the one thing they most needed to know how to do,” she told me.

[snip]

When Doug Lemov, who is 42, set out to become a teacher of teachers, he was painfully aware of his own limitations. A large, shy man with a Doogie Howser face, he recalls how he limped through his first year in the classroom, at a private day school in Princeton, N.J. His heartfelt lesson plans — write in your journal while listening to music; analyze Beatles songs like poems — received blank stares. “I still remember thinking: Oh, my God. I still have 45 minutes left to go,” he told me recently. Things improved over time, but very slowly. At the Academy of the Pacific Rim, a Boston charter school he helped found, he was the dean of students, a job title that is school code for chief disciplinarian, and later principal. Lemov fit the bill physically — he’s 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds — but he struggled to get students to follow his directions on the first try.

...[H]e decided to seek out the best teachers he could find — as defined partly by their students’ test scores — and learn from them. A self-described data geek, he went about this task methodically, collecting test-score results and demographic information from states around the country. He plotted each school’s poverty level on one axis and its performance on state tests on the other. Each chart had a few outliers blinking in the upper-right-hand corner — schools that managed to squeeze high performance out of the poorest students. He broke those schools’ scores down by grade level and subject. If a school scored especially high on, say, sixth-grade English, he would track down the people who taught sixth graders English.

He called a wedding videographer he knew through a friend and asked him if he’d like to tag along on some school visits. Their first trip to North Star Academy, a charter school in Newark, turned into a five-year project to record teachers across the country. At first, Lemov financed the trip out of his consulting budget; later, Uncommon Schools paid for it. The odyssey produced 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.”)

Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green | NY Times | March 2, 2010


20 comments:

Allison said...

A taxonomy is not a theory of teaching. Is there no coherent way to clarify the principles? How much overlap is there between this and Englemann and Carnine's Theory of Instruction?

Maybe we need handicaps for teachers. This class is a 78; you're at 92 teaching it. Need to improve your golf swing? Or need to improve putting? Need to improve your blackboard technique? Or your ability to get students to reply?

On a slightly less flippant note, the Amazon re

Allison said...

uh...sorry,

Not all of the Amazon 5 star reviews appear to be written by instructivists.

Ms. Hunter said "When I teach the Peace Through Fiction creative reading method to middle-school students, I definitely will focus on using these key techniques from the book: Threshold (#41), The J-Factor (#46), The Hook (#12), Everybody Writes (#26), Wait Time (#25), Strong Voice (#38), and Emotional Constancy (#47).

The book as a whole will better inform all my classroom visits and help me to more effectively support the teachers with whom I partner.

My interests in bibliotherapy and Peace Through Fiction give me a special interest in the book's passages on text connections. I agree with Mr. Lemov's assertions that "Thoughtful connections can often be the jumping-off place for inferences about the text. . .Effective connections can also help students see the story from a character's point of view by accessing their own analogous experience. . .It may also be that people naturally make connections, and so the skill doesn't need to be taught so much as managed and guided. The skill is in making connections effective and focused." (303-304). These perspectives are simpatico in letter and spirit with both bibliotherapy and Peace Through Fiction, thus benefiting my work specifically. "

Allison said...

uh...sorry,

Not all of the Amazon 5 star reviews appear to be written by instructivists.

Ms. Hunter said "When I teach the Peace Through Fiction creative reading method to middle-school students, I definitely will focus on using these key techniques from the book: Threshold (#41), The J-Factor (#46), The Hook (#12), Everybody Writes (#26), Wait Time (#25), Strong Voice (#38), and Emotional Constancy (#47).

The book as a whole will better inform all my classroom visits and help me to more effectively support the teachers with whom I partner.

My interests in bibliotherapy and Peace Through Fiction give me a special interest in the book's passages on text connections. I agree with Mr. Lemov's assertions that "Thoughtful connections can often be the jumping-off place for inferences about the text. . .Effective connections can also help students see the story from a character's point of view by accessing their own analogous experience. . .It may also be that people naturally make connections, and so the skill doesn't need to be taught so much as managed and guided. The skill is in making connections effective and focused." (303-304). These perspectives are simpatico in letter and spirit with both bibliotherapy and Peace Through Fiction, thus benefiting my work specifically. "

Laura M. said...

A taxonomy is not a theory of teaching

True, but my sense (from reading a few excerpts, which leads me to think it is similar, though with a different focus, from Fred Jones's Tools for Teaching), is that it is not, in fact, a theory of teaching, but a theory of how to interact with students in a way that allows you to teach.

Englemann has some interaction components, but my sense is that his greatest strength is in perfecting the way students need to practice in order to optimize understanding and retention.

The biggest weakness with Englemann's approach, I think, is that 1)it is very costly and 2)it requires more planning than absolutely necessary for good teaching, and limits the range of what can be taught to what has already been developed and field tested.

Which doesn't mean it isn't incredibly useful--in cases of clear-cut academic and intellectual need, cost doesn't matter as much as getting at-risk kids caught up as quickly as possible. And in one-on-one home tutoring situations, it can be awfully convenient. But it is a very top-heavy method of teaching, which, as I said elsewhere, can be overkill in some situations.

Catherine Johnson said...

Laura has a more subtle take on the book than I do, and I haven't read Theory of Instruction.

Offhand, I would say the overlap is huge.

This is direct instruction (small d) and teaching to mastery.

I notice that a number of core principles in Engelmann/Carnine, such as the idea that you are constantly teaching one new thing while going over 4 already-taught things (I think that's the number), thus helping students make connections and generalizations, are present in Lemov's techniques.

Catherine Johnson said...

it requires more planning than absolutely necessary for good teaching

Lemov's taxonomy requires a HUGE amount of planning --- and a fair amount of that planning, I think, would have to be repeated every year since one of the things these teachers do is memorize the questions they're going to ask, along with the particular students they're going to ask them of. (I may be overstating - will post something from the book.)

On the other hand, once you've got a set of questions memorized, figuring out which students are going to be asked what is less work.

Laura M. said...

Lemov's taxonomy requires a HUGE amount of planning

Oh, I can see that (just, again, from reading about and implementing similar principles through Tools for Teaching, and I can't wait to get my hands on Lemov).

You know, I might just have gotten it backward--it might actually be that the flaw I see in DI is that it doesn't require *enough* planning on either the teacher's part or the student's part.

Let me be clear that I am awed by Englemann, and I taught my 4 yr old to read w/ the 100 lessons book.

But there are some subtle differences that I think might make the Tools for Teaching/Lemov (as I understand Lemov based on excerpts, at least) type of approach at least somewhat more scalable.

Laura M. said...

it might actually be that the flaw I see in DI is that it doesn't require *enough* planning on either the teacher's part or the student's part.

Actually, scratch that. That's not right either. My sense is that they both involve different kinds of planning, but I couldn't say more than that. I need to actually read more than an excerpt of Lemov before I can start thinking about it in earnest.

concerned said...

Thank you Catherine! Ordered my copy this morning!

Alan said...

National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

A Trip To The Number Yard is a math book focusing on the building of a bungalow. Odd numbered chapters cover the phases of the project: lot layout, foundation, framing, all the way through until the trim out. The even numbered chapters introduce the math needed for the next stage of building and/or reviews the previous lessons.

This type of project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

If we really want kids to learn math and to have the lessons be valuable, we need to change the mode of teaching. Our kids can master the math that most adults need. We can’t continue to have class rooms full of math drudges. Instead, we need to change our tactics and teach math via real life projects.

Alan Cook
info@thenumberyard.com
www.thenumberyard.com

lgm said...

Alan, interesting theory. Real life counting of kidney beans to figure out how many there and how many ways you can make '5' doesn't matter to a first grade student who hasn't mastered 1:1 correspondence or who is too emotionally disturbed to effectively participate. Whole class full inclusion and sorting by age is NOT working. We need to go back to flexible acheivement grouping and teach ALL students at their instructional level, whether that's the same as the kid at the next desk or not. And if that means someone needs two extra years or two less years before they enter high school, I"m fine with it. Let them ALL develop their brainpower.

Niels Henrik Abel said...

Instead, we need to change our tactics and teach math via real life projects.

And then you lose the kids who are genuinely interested in math and would be bored to tears with projects. Maybe that type of stuff is fine for life skills / voc ed or some such thing, but I guarantee you the brighter kids would tune out in the absence of any significant mathematical challenge. I know I would.

Catherine Johnson said...

Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.


That's not what the champion teachers in Teach Like a Champion are doing.

They are directly teaching abstract math.

Catherine Johnson said...

And then you lose the kids who are genuinely interested in math and would be bored to tears with projects.

That was one of the most poignant statements I've heard at a board meeting.

A dad whose children are both math kids (he and his wife are, too) said that his daughter had called Trailblazers "Failblazers" -- and that Trailblazers was disheartening and discouraging to children who "intuitively get math."

Catherine Johnson said...

This type of project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun.

Hi Alan - I can't get onto your site at the moment, so I can't check out the book. My feeling about real-world math is that if you're going to do real-world math you should do shop -- not endless, ersatz statistics-slash-counting projects.

That said, I have to quote my son on the subject of grownups making math more enjoyable for kids:

"Don't they understand? When they make math fun it's more boring!"

I think he was about 10 when he said that. He was (& is) NOT a math kid, by the way.

There are a lot of kids who just don't find projects fun. Exactly the opposite, in fact.

And kids can handle -- and enjoy -- abstract concepts.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm 100 pages in, now, and I do think Lemov should be talking to Engelmann and the precision teaching people. As I read, I especially feel the absence of a superb, field-tested, and validated curriculum.

Nevertheless, the techniques these teachers have developed are all fromt he direct instruction "playbook."

One difference: Lemov's teachers seem to do no grouping at all -- and I think that's a sign of the missing field-tested curriculum. (It's also a sign of the relatively homogeneous student population in the schools he visits.)

He has an interesting passage about using questions instead of groups to differentiate instruction.

Catherine Johnson said...

Here's The Number Yard (pdf file) - looks good.

All construction workers must have, and know how to use the tools of their trade. A vital tool that is often unavailable for use on the job site is math.

Carpenters, plumbers, concrete workers and weekend hobbyists struggle through the tallying of figures - feeling doubt and insecurity about the numbers. Excellent tradesmen have been too intimidated by math to consider getting their contractors’ licenses.

Lumberyard and hardware store workers fumble numbers leading to embarrassment and a waste of their customers’ time.

Laura M. said...

As I read, I especially feel the absence of a superb, field-tested, and validated curriculum.

I'm personally interested in whether there can be a kind of "new synthesis" of the DI approaches that work best and the "Champion Teacher" approaches that work best.

My gut feeling right now is that DI is best for countering dampened IQ/temporarily raising IQ (long enough for kids to acquire longer-lasting skills), while "Champion Teacher" approaches improve executive function, or at least provide artificial executive function (which kids can learn to recreate for themselves as they increase competency).

So, DI=mastery; Champion Teaching=general competency (competency in a meaningful sense, not signifying doing the bare minimum).

Catherine Johnson said...

Laura- Interesting - I'll mull.

One thing: Lemov's taxonomy is ALL about mastery. I just haven't posted any of those excerpts yet.

His teachers definitely 'teach' executive function and 'how to be a student.'

Laura M. said...

One thing: Lemov's taxonomy is ALL about mastery.

Hmm. I probably was stating the DI vs Champion distinction in too exaggerated a way.

Using the quote you posted more recently, about "I/We/You," my experience (which, to be clear, has been limited to homeschooling w/DI) is that DI has more of an "I/You" model rather than "I/We/You," though since I've used older materials, that may be different in more recent versions.

It's the "We" step that interests me--it delays mastery a little bit, but, again, I think in favor of building competency along with mastery.

Which isn't to say, again, that the field-tested curriculum couldn't make "champion teaching" even more incredibly effective. It's exciting to think of how the two approaches could work together, but it would be tricky to find the right kind of synthesis.