Thursday, March 25, 2010

Effective classroom teaching

Building a Better Teacher, an excellent article in the March 2nd New York Times Magazine, introduces and summarizes some astonishing lessons in effective classroom teaching.

Doug Lemov set out to become a teacher of teachers, good teachers, excellent teachers. The problem: No one seemed to know what makes an excellent teacher.
Among the factors that [have been proven] not [to] 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.
So how does one find out what does work?
[Lemov] 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. . . . 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.)
The results of Lemov's study are not obvious. They deserve study.

At a recent conference,
Lemov played a video of a class taught by one of his teaching virtuosos, a slim man named Bob Zimmerli. Lemov used it to introduce one of the 49 techniques in his taxonomy, one he calls What to Do.

The clip opens at the start of class, which Zimmerli was teaching for the first time, with children — fifth graders, all of them black, mostly boys — looking everywhere but at the board. One is playing with a pair of headphones; another is slowly paging through a giant three-ring binder. Zimmerli stands at the front of the class in a neat tie.

“O.K., guys, before I get started today, here’s what I need from you,” he says. “I need that piece of paper turned over and a pencil out.” Almost no one is following his directions, but he is undeterred. “So if there’s anything else on your desk right now, please put that inside your desk.”

He mimics what he wants the students to do with a neat underhand pitch. A few students in the front put papers away. “Just like you’re doing, thank you very much,” Zimmerli says, pointing to one of them.

Another desk emerges neat; Zimmerli targets it. “Thank you, sir.” “I appreciate it,” he says, pointing to another. By the time he points to one last student — “Nice . . . nice” — the headphones are gone, the binder has clicked shut and everyone is paying attention.

Lemov switched off the video. “Imagine if his first direction had been, ‘Please get your things out for class,’ ” he said.

Zimmerli got the students to pay attention not because of some inborn charisma, Lemov explained, but simply by being direct and specific. Children often fail to follow directions because they really don’t know what they are supposed to do. There were other tricks Zimmerli used too.
I encourage you to read the article. And if you're a teacher, maybe you'd like to get a copy of the book--due out on March 29th.

--For some inspiring 40-some-second videos of excellent teachers in their classrooms, go here.

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