Doug Lemov is doing great work to publicise and disseminate the methods used by the best teachers: the ones who maintain firm discipline combined with positivity; the ones who insist on thorough mastery of knowledge and know the methods to make repeated practice vigorous, fast paced and effective. At the same time, he likes to insist that his work is not based on any particular ideology: it is simply pragmatic; it is about what works, pure and simple.
One of the themes of the whole Teach Like a Champion project is the difference that individual ‘champion’ teachers can make to their pupils. There is the famous case of Los Angeles school district, which was forced to publicise its findings about the huge impact made by the best teachers. John Hattie has commented on how crucial this is, to the point where pupils of a good teacher in a bad school do better than those of a bad teacher in a good school.
But we have to be careful about this sort of conclusion. One of the key reasons there are so many mediocre or bad teachers is the culture and the ideology of education that is promoted in the schools where they work, and the universities where they are trained. If they are catechised in progressive methods and prove to be good students, they may really believe that they are harming their pupils if they explain topics clearly, because that would be giving them the answer, when they are supposed to be finding it out for themselves. They may really believe that frequent testing is demoralising and discouraging for pupils. They may really believe that threatening pupils with sanctions for poor behaviour is fascist, and that pupils should be forming their own moral judgements, not having the values of bourgeois hegemony foisted upon them.
Likewise, if the senior management of the school where these victims of progressive indoctrination work has been infected by bad ideas, they may refuse to establish a proper, centrally organised discipline system. They may promote a curriculum that is all about transferable skills and discourage anything which smacks of the dreaded ‘rote learning’ of key knowledge. Thus their misguided ideology will tend to create a chaotic environment with a lot of vague, discussion based lessons.
No one would deny that a good teacher can make a huge difference. But how many teachers will become good teachers if they do not work in an environment that supports and encourages firm discipline and core knowledge? Only a few, very exceptional individuals will have the strength of character and intellectual independence to plough their own furrow in an environment that is hostile to learning, because it is so deeply infected with bad ideas.
We have to be honest about our limitations, and realise that most of us need a good school in which to become a good teacher. That’s why the work being done by chains such as Ark is so central to the effort to bring good teaching to as many classrooms as possible around the country.