“… and off you go, you have 5 minutes.”
Within 10 seconds the whispers start. “What are we doing?”, “What page are we on?” “Are we copying down from the board”. “I can’t be bothered, want to play noughts and crosses?”
“Right, stop and listen, I’ve just told you about the impact of Robotics on employment, you need to list three industries and explain how they have changed because of robotics. All clear? Good.”
“Sir, do we use the textbooks?”
“No, just from memory and the stimulus on the board (indicates some pictures of robots in factories, agriculture etc.”
“Can we use the internet for research?”
“No, just the stimulus and your memory of what I just told you.”
“Can you tell us again, Sir?”
Sigh. “OK robots are used extensively in car manufacturing……”
This was me about five years ago, before I discovered Teach Like a Champion, and other sources of material about deliberate practice, defined here as…
‘Deliberate practice […] is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further’Ericsson et al. 1993 quoted in “What is Deliberate Practice” by the Ambition Institute
Teaching a class is an unnatural activity, and novice teachers are often unaware of the highly-specialised skill needed to do it effectively. When I started I was supremely unaware of the importance of routines, cues and systems. I held a misconception that all failures to follow instruction were down to poor student choices: in effect I blamed the students for my lessons falling apart. I failed to recognise the importance of my practice in ensuring the correct choices were easier than the poor ones.
Specifically, in the lesson above, I had failed to do several things:
- Ensure everyone is paying attention to the instructions (and throughout the explanation, keep looking and be seen looking and correct any inattention in the least invasive way possible)
- Clearly articulate the means of participation, that they are to write in their books, using the stimulus on the board only, no internet.
- Check for understanding of the task, perhaps by asking a student to report back what the task is, ensuring the class’s attention is on the conversation between me and the student speaking.
- Signal the start of the task and remain looking, using non-directed correction and moving towards directed e.g. “That’s most of you working now, just 3 more to start… OK 1 left now, please get started… OK Robert can you get started please…. Great stuff, you have 5 minutes working in silence.”
- Walk the room, checking for misconceptions and misunderstandings as they work.
I do all of the above now, and my transitions are far more effective, the students make more progress and the lessons are calmer and more purposeful.
How did this come about, my improved effectiveness as a teacher? CPD and self-study of deliberate practice techniques. I read blogs and books, and eventually stumbled onto Teach Like a Champion (TLAC) almost by accident, but by 2020 my school had started to promote the book among other sources for teachers to self-study, and by 2021 had incorporated parts of it into our usual staff CPD. Once a fortnight the training would be called “Deliberate Practice CPD” and we would discuss a TLAC technique and take it back to our departments. This training was positively received by most staff who recognised that “sweating the small stuff” usually paid off in the form of more productive lessons. The bulleted list above is from “Brighten Lines”, a TLAC technique described here in full by Lee Donaghy. It’s fair to say that this technique alone improved my practice so much that it was worth the cover price of the book on its own.
If you’re reading this thinking “all of that’s obvious, though, I do all of that anyway”, then you are suffering the “curse of knowledge”, which I talked about here, and described as the failure to see a domain as a novice does, and to thus understand their needs. There is a parallel here with driving: we can probably all learn to drive without an instructor, just by repeatedly practicing. We would probably crash a lot, but eventually we would get there. Likewise, teachers have traditionally discovered what works in various unstructured and accidental ways, but many experienced teachers forget how hard teaching was in their early days. A good professional development curriculum is therefore a good thing, and books, blogs and videos can be part of that.
Critics of TLAC I’ve read online recently have made some interesting assertions, some of which I want to address now…
SLANT IS OPPRESSIVE, EVEN FASCIST
The recent Twitter conversation around SLANT and the discussion between Tom Rogers and Phil Beadle was fascinating. Much has been said about this by more articulate people than me, and I don’t want to re-ignite the arguments. But what struck me most was this response from TLAC author Doug Lemov, clarifying what he actually believes, regarding the best way to direct students’ attention where it is needed. He explains that he re-named the technique formerly known as SLANT to “Habits of Attention”, and the acronym to STAR:
- Sit up to look interested and stay engaged.
- Track the speaker to show other people their ideas matter.
- Appreciate your classmates’ ideas by nodding, smiling, and so on when they speak.
- Rephrase the words of the person who spoke before you so they know you were listening.
What seemed to me, to be missing from the debate around SLANT was that “Track the speaker” meant track whoever is speaking, including the student contributing to the class discussion. Note also the following two bullet points which clarify the rather strange “Nod” direction in the previous version: the point of SLANT/STAR was always to encourage listeners, both teacher and student, to appreciate and value everyone’s contribution in the classroom. This is a far cry from the recent mischaracterisations of SLANT as a form of oppressive teacher control.
While we’re on SLANT, I note that “S” for “Sit up” does not say “Sit bolt upright” as Phil Beadle claims in the interview above, nor is that implied anywhere in TLAC or in any CPD I have attended. I simply get “eyes on me” and deal with any students turning away as non-invasively as possible, but I’ve seen no evidence to support schools that use TLAC insisting on “bolt upright” posture. Indeed, here is Doug Lemov clarifying just that in his recent blog:
An additional challenge can be that managing attention behaviors can prove successful enough that it can lead to a spread in managing behaviors less clearly tied to attention: hands folded on the desk; back flat against the chair, and so forth. To be clear, these behaviors are not something I’ve discussed in Teach Like a Champion (my emphasis), but I have certainly seen classrooms where they are reinforced in a counterproductive way and sometimes in the belief that this book endorses them. Reminding students who are at risk of becoming distracted—or who are sending unsupportive messages to peers—to Track or SLANT can be useful; telling students to keep their feet flat on the floor or interrupting them when they are productively engaged in a discussion to tell them to fold their hands on the desk is not. What if they want to take notes?TRACKING IN CLASSROOMS: WHAT I REALLY THINK (AND WROTE) – Doug Lemov 4th
Lemov could hardly have made it more clear that “bolt upright” is not suggested by any of the TLAC techniques.
“Habits of Attention” (the technique formerly known as SLANT/STAR), “Brightening Lines” and the other 47 techniques are a goldmine of ideas for improving classroom practice, and if implemented thoughtfully can help transform a classroom from a disorganised place of unrest and confusion to a thoughtful community of learning.
“Habits of Attention” signal that our words (of both teacher and student) are important because they convey our ideas, and everyone’s ideas are worthy of our attention.
“Brighten Lines” ensures that everyone understands what is expected of them, reduces confusion and increases the opportunities for learning and making good progress.
TLAC is “all or nothing”, you’re not doing TLAC if you do SLANT without the N, for example.
This is an odd criticism. TLAC is described on the publisher’s website thus: “Teach Like a Champion provides educators with a set of techniques, a shared vocabulary, and a framework for practice”. Nowhere does the author suggest that it’s “all or nothing”. In that same Lemov blog mentioned above, he says this:
In this acronym [STAR] you can see I’ve added details about purpose. Nodding is included in the “appreciate” step to emphasize the importance of appreciating your classmates. That said, you might replace the “Appreciate” A with an A called “Active listening” (to help you focus and show that you value your classmates). “Sit up” includes a purpose as well, so you look interested and engaged. You’ll also notice that I’ve brought in an idea from the Habits of Discussion technique, “rephrasing,” but you could drop it if you wanted, perhaps replacing it with something else. Again, I am describing options here because the behaviors described in any acronym (and the expectations) should be carefully thought through at the school or classroom level. My version of STAR may be helpful, but the adaptations you make to it will make it even better.TRACKING IN CLASSROOMS: WHAT I REALLY THINK (AND WROTE) – Doug Lemov 4th
So from the author’s pen: TLAC is a helpful guide to what works elsewhere, to be implemented and adapted by thoughtful, experienced practitioners and novices with expert guidance in their own settings. The “TLAC is all or nothing” criticism is just a “No True Scotsman” fallacy.
TRACK THE SPEAKER AND COLD CALLING ARE CHALLENGING FOR VULNERABLE STUDENTS
I have taught a great number of vulnerable students in my time. Oliver (not his real name) was in my form a few years ago. Oliver was autistic and found eye-contact hard, so I didn’t insist on it, just that he wasn’t paying attention to anything else such as a book or computer. He also found answering in class challenging, and responding well to cold-calling near-impossible, so I worked with him on how to make a reasonable adjustment. I would go up to him discreetly during a task and say “if I ask a question about this topic in 2 minutes can you get an answer ready?” If he was willing then I would ask and he would answer, and over time his confidence grew. Oliver’s gratitude-filled, handmade good luck card to me when I left that school remains one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.
Daniel has ADHD and shouts out or makes other involuntary noises. I am understanding about this, so if I ask a “hands-up” question and he shouts out without putting his hand up, or I cold-call someone else and he answers, or simply interrupts someone else with an outburst, I’ll accept this in good grace, and the class naturally understands that I’m making a reasonable adjustment for Daniel. I use TLAC to maximise learning, but crucially, I’m not a monster!
GOOD TEACHERS ALREADY DO EVERYTHING IN TLAC
Great! I’m glad for you, but if this is your position then please recognise you got here through a long and painful journey of learning what works and what doesn’t. You will have taken a few steps back at times, and eventually arrived at a practice that works well for you. Not everyone is there yet, so I welcome the opportunity that TLAC presents to novice and improving teachers: the chance to try techniques that many others have had great success with, well-explained with helped videos and lots of valuable background including the research that is behind it.
A related claim that pops up often, including recently on Twitter, is that TLAC is claiming “credit for inventing pedagogy”. This is also a strawman, as Lemov points out that TLAC is a collection of good practice, not brand new ideas. Here’s Lemov in his own words again…
How do you answer staff who claim TLaC is just common sense? “I know how to pass out books!” is a quote I have heard.
The comment doesn’t bother me. Honestly, if it is “common sense” to a lot of teachers that the ideas in the book are effective and can help you make your classroom work, then I am happy. If I have merely collected a lot of things that teachers know work and if teachers have a place to go where they can find lots those solutions, well I’m really happy with that. If you know some of the ideas already, great. Other people may not. There may be others that can help you. Or studying what you already do a bit of could help you be even sharper. I guess for some people “useful” is faint praise. They want to be brilliant or innovative or original. In the end I am more interested in what’s effective than what’s new or “innovative” or makes me look like I thought all this stuff up. I didn’t. that’s what makes it valuable.Stephen Tierney interviewing Doug Lemov in his Leading Learner blog, 2016.
COLD-CALLING IS JUST “NO HANDS UP QUESTIONING”, WHY THE AWKWARD NAME?
Perhaps you do the techniques but hate the acronyms and “jargon-y” names for the techniques? Teaching practice is a domain of specialist knowledge just like the domains we teach (Computing in my case, or maths, or history). We usually call it pedagogy, but whatever you call it: learning to teach, discussing what works and what doesn’t work; communicating this knowledge to others is difficult without shared names for things.
“Cold-calling” is a memorable, 3-syllable name for a specific technique described in TLAC. At it’s heart is asking a question and then choosing students to respond by name, rather than asking for raised hands and asking someone who has their hand up. (The reason is ratio, read more here, but I don’t have time to discuss that today.)
TLAC techniques all have short, memorable names such that practitioners can discuss techniques easily and build CPD around them, and everyone knows what is being discussed, and can look in the book or online for further information by searching the term. If you don’t like the term, use another one. If you must (as one critic recently said on Twitter) you can call it “asking kids who haven’t got their hand up” if that is more palatable to you. But I leave as an exercise for the reader, which phrase is clearer, easier to communicate, and more memorable.
Complex concepts in every domain of knowledge must be named. Jargon is just another word for technical terminology, and teaching is already rife with jargon, which is not inherently a bad thing, it speeds up conversations between experts. Here are some teaching jargon phrases off the top of my head: working memory, restorative justice, fixed-term exclusion, MFL, DBS, walking-talking mock, SpLD, Safeguarding, inquiry learning, time-out pass, reduced timetable, think-pair-share…
If you don’t like the terms, don’t use them, but don’t expect others to immediately know what you mean if you’re using an imprecise phrase instead of a well-established “jargon” phrase.
Finally, on the name of the book… I myself wrote a book recently, on teaching computing, you may have heard of it, I called it “How to Teach Computer Science“. It wasn’t always going to be called that, working titles were “Computer Science Teaching Handbook” and “Computer Science Teaching: The Fine Manual” (because I wanted to tell people to RTFM). I settled on HTTCS after a conversation with my copy-editor, who liked the idea of a “How To..” title. Is it a bit arrogant? Definitely, but I would like to sell a few copies, so a snappy, positive title is a good idea. One of the oddest criticisms of TLAC I hear is the “title is arrogant” or similar, and “Lemov just has a product to sell”. Yes, it’s designed to sell. As an author I’d like to get paid for my work, I’m sure Lemov feels the same. If you disagree with TLAC, why not broaden the debate with a book of your own, rather than arguing against the author’s right to get paid for his work?
TLAC helped me become a better teacher. It wasn’t the only way this could have happened, but I’m glad TLAC exists because without it I might not have made as much progress quite as quickly. The techniques help me achieve and maintain a warm, purposeful atmosphere and maximise attention and thought on that which is important: the learning. But as Lemov didn’t quite say (but probably would): you do you.