Russ Roberts

Doug Lemov on Teaching

EconTalk Episode with Doug Lemov
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools and author of Teach Like a Champion talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about teaching and education. Drawing on his experience working in charter schools with children in poverty, Lemov discusses what makes a great teacher and a great school. Lemov argues that practice and technique can transform teaching and education. The conversation concludes with a discussion of how EconTalk might be made more valuable to its listeners.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: November 21, 2013.] Russ: Now in a recent talk you gave, you tell the origins of your book, Teach Like a Champion. You were looking at New York State test scores, and there's a negative relationship between school performance and how many of its students come from homes below the poverty level. But you notice something interesting beyond that negative correlation. Tell us what you noticed and what you decided to do about it. Guest: Sure. As you said, at first, there was a lot of hand-wringing because you can see that the zip code that you are born to often determines the scholastic outcome, the school you go to. While we were wringing our hands, someone pointed out, for any level of poverty, even 100% of the kids in the school living in poverty, there are always schools that defy expectations. There are always teachers who defy expectations. And despite all the difficulties and challenges and ravages of poverty, there are people who beat the odds. And so we realized the we can worry about the [?], that we can worry about the problem or we can worry about the solution. And so, it struck us that we could be out there and looking for those teachers who are in the upper right-hand corner of the graph, people who have 95% or 100% of their kids living in poverty and who are still achieving credible outcomes for their students. One of the interesting things about it, if this were any other sector other than education--Silicon Valley in which it figured out how to put immense amounts of additional memory on the chip for the same amount of size--people would be engaged in industrial espionage, trying to sneak into chip fabrication plants to figure out what it was that made one plant's results so incredible. But in education that wasn't part of the culture, that wasn't what we did. And so we just went out and started watching people and I could identify people who were in the upper right-hand corner, the outliers. Russ: What hat were you wearing? Guest: Well, at the time I was wearing several hats. I was working as a consultant for a group of schools that were trying to get better, and I was in the planning stages of working for Uncommon Schools, so like just like business school, thinking data-wise like uncommon[?]. And so, fascinating, I went to some of these classes, and as soon as I went to two or three of them, I had my second 'Aha,' which was: I'm not coming back without my video camera. Because what incredible teachers do in their classrooms is so remarkable and breathtaking that no one is going to believe this or really be able to understand what the teacher did unless I show it to them. Russ: And we'll put up some links--some of those videos are online, and if you get the book, it comes with a DVD that has lots of examples of great teachers doing these techniques. But after you gathered these techniques and you held some workshops, you were surprised at, one, how fabulously appreciative the teachers were of the workshops, and how six months later very little happened for them that was different. So, talk about why your initial attempt to implement some of these techniques failed. Guest: Yeah. We talk about this a lot. We have a name for it. We call it the 'Get it/Do it gap'. And this exists with almost any complex endeavor. But I think we often fail to recognize that teaching is a performance profession, and that you do it live in front of 30--an audience of 30 or so, four times a day, and sometimes it's a very skeptical audience of 30. And so, having a great lesson on Tuesday guarantees you nothing about Wednesday's lesson; you teach all over again. And if you are crashing on Wednesday and you ask a question and all the kids look at you funny or they won't sit down when you ask them to, you can't hit Pause like you are a lawyer, say, and call up some other lawyer and say, 'What does this Latin phrase mean?' You can't say, 'How do I get them to sit down?' You're live. And so what we realized was the way that people in professions that acknowledge that they work live, that they were performers, prepared was by practice. And by doing things over and over again before they went into the game. And that a tennis player or a surgeon or a musician would never dare to get up on the stage or walk on the center of court without having hit, you know, thousands of backhands or done thousands of scales before they walked in the room. And so this was the genesis of the book Practice Perfect, was just how do you prepare for complex tasks, you practice. And we sort of outlined the vision for how you do that. And it's a little bit ironic because if I asked a room of 100% typical educators from around America, 'How often do you practice what you do in the classroom before you walk in the door, before you walk in the doors and play the game?' they would look at me funny. But since having this realization we are working practice into our workshops and into our schools. And the results have been pretty incredible.
5:42Russ: Well, most of us who lecture at the university level, teach at the university level, we practice on the job. If we are lucky, after decades of teaching we learn some things. But I think most teachers at the university level, and tragically most teachers at the high school level who are not so much lecturing, they are interacting, you get into a rut. You get into a particular set of habits that you do groove, but they are not the good habits. They are the not-so-good habits sometimes. And there's a lot of learning that gets left behind as a result. Guest: I think that's very true, and it reminds me of a story of two teachers in one of our schools. One of them was a teacher named Maggie, and she was a reading teacher. She was actually quite a good reading teacher, but she was struggling with discussions. And what happened is she would start discussing a book, and when she got--sometimes kids give you an answer that is totally unexpected, and, for want of a better term, totally wrong. And when she would get an answer like that, she didn't really know how to handle. Russ: You don't want to say, 'That's a stupid answer.' Guest: Right. She was surprised. So she would step in with a comment that she wasn't happy with that would basically shut down the discussion. Let's say they were discussing the Diary of Anne Frank and she would say, 'No. Anne is afraid because she thinks the person knocking at the door are the SS (Schutzstaffel), and they would take her away.' Or, you know, it's the Nazis and they are going to take her away. And so, this would have the result of clarifying the mistake that the student would make but it would totally kill the discussion. And she was very aware that she was doing this. But she couldn't fix it. In the same way that you noted it by college professors. Teachers are often aware of their habits but they are hard to fix. So she went to her principal with it, and he said, 'Nikki,' another teacher in the school, 'is really good at this part of the discussion. Why don't you check in with her and see if you guys can do some practice together? They got together and what Nikki suggested was, 'Let's get together for 10 minutes 3 times a week, and you read me questions from your lesson plan that you are going to ask that day, and I'll pretend to be a student, and I will give you a totally unexpected, wrong, answer. And you can just practice reacting to it and responding to it.' And so they would do this. And then Maggie would ask her questions to Nikki and Nikki would ask her questions back at Maggie so they both played both roles. They kind of laughed about it and they reflected on the answers. But after three or four weeks, Maggie was so comfortable responding to strange answers that, you know, her classroom was completely transformed. And the most interesting part of the transformation was she no longer really had to think about how she was going to react to a strange, wrong answer because she could do it intuitively, she'd done it so many times. And her mind could be on the book or on the next question she was going to ask. And so, not only did she get better at it, but she freed up her cognitive processing capacity to worry about other things. Russ: That's beautiful. Guest: I think it's a really fascinating story. One, because it's something you wouldn't actually think would respond to practice. But two, it also suggests that one of the ways to be successful in teaching, or in any other performance endeavor, is to practice the things you don't want to think about during the game. But you think that what I should practice are the things that are most important during the game. And that is true. But one of the things you can also do is practice things--once you automate something, it frees your mind to think about something else. So, things like remembering not to ask yes-or-no questions, or tricks of behavior management--dropping your voice an octave when you give a student a correction on their behavior or whispering the correction to them. Those are all really simple things that are hard to remember to do during the game. But if you practice them a few dozen times beforehand, it happens without you thinking about it, and your mind can be free to think about the math or the history or the science.
9:29Russ: Let's talk about a couple of the techniques that you mention. The book has 49 techniques for teachers. And those of us who are teachers--and I know we have a lot of listeners who are teachers--will find them interesting and useful. But I want to give the general listener some of the flavor. We're not going to go through all 49. But I want to give for general listeners the flavor of what we mean by a 'technique', because I think for a lot of people, unfortunately for some teachers, they'll think, 'What's a technique? I lecture with a [?] make sure my voice is loud enough. Or looking--eye contact--is really important. Those are not really what the techniques are. So let's talk about--the first I want to ask you about is 'at bats.' What is the technique that you call 'at bats' and it has lessons that go beyond teaching. Guest: Yeah, it's interesting the book [?] on practice. So, at bat--the idea that we often ask, we think that the process of learning ends when students can get it right. But really to be able to do something and to be able to do something well enough that your mind can be thinking about the next, more complex, thing you are going to learn, you need to have done it a lot. And so, getting one--being able to do one problem where you add fractions with unlike denominators right does not mean you've mastered adding fractions with unlike denominators. You really need to be able to do 20 of them or 100 of them and do them in different permutations. And so I think one of the things that we realized we weren't doing in our classroom is giving students, when we got to the point where they understood how to do something, enough practice at it that they drove it into muscle memory and they knew how to do it and they knew how to do it with confidence, and they'd done it over and over again, and they'd seen different variations on it. And so they were able to execute. My son was a first-grader, he went to back-to-school night and his teacher said, 'Oh, I promise you I won't give them, you know, problem sets in math and won't ask them to do problems over and over again', and I thought to myself, that's fine; please do. Because you should know I'm doing it at home and nothing could be more useful for him than to have done it over and over again, in fact, that often bears out in watching my own children. In math. They've come to love math, but for a couple of years they had experiences where they would do one problem right and move on to the next thing, and then a week later they wouldn't know how to do it. Russ: Yeah. I think the fascinating thing about math, and this happens in economics as well--you teach a concept and you think, well, now they know the concept, so now they can apply it. So, I'll just give them an example that's just a little bit different. And then you show them that example, and they go, 'Well, we've never seen that before.' And you are thinking: What do you mean? We've done 20 of those. But they don't--they needed to do 50 so that it was so ingrained they could see the connections. And 3 is certainly not enough. Guest: And to be able to stack up [?] the calculation to think, Oh, I know how to do this problem; this is a ratio problem. You have to be comfortable enough, having seen enough of them, to make that leap. I think it's interesting though that this also applies outside math in ways that probably aren't intuitive to all of us. I think one of the key skills that is behind the reading gap between students of privilege and students who don't have the opportunity, or between strong readers and weak readers of any type is vocabulary. Vocabulary--the strength of your vocabulary, and interestingly the depth of your vocabulary--correlates very strongly to achievement. Better than almost anything. And interestingly, depth of word knowledge correlates better than breadth of word knowledge. In other words, if you really know your words and how to use them in 16 different scenarios and you know what words go with them and you know what nuance the words have, you do better than if you know a little bit about a lot of words. And so to really master a word, how many times do you need to practice a word to own it? 20, 30. How many times do you need to use a vocabulary word to own it? 20 or 30 times. And probably in different situations. You need to use the adverb form. And then the adjective form. And then the noun form. And so one of the things that we realized it was really powerful to do with vocabulary instruction, and I think you can do this whether you are a teacher or you are a parent, is--word play is deeply important. And I think that for a lot of teachers and parents, spend their time on vocabulary trying to arrive at the definition. What do you think the definition of 'mimic' might be? Russ: That way you can pass a vocabulary test, which is something that happens occasionally in life. But most of life, vocabulary is useful outside the test. Guest: Yeah. If you'll suffer me geeking out on this a little more, if you spend your time trying to guess the definition, you have kids with imperfect knowledge trying to guess the definition. But if you give them the definition in the beginning and spend those 5 or 10 minutes practicing, you know, playing with the word--When might you mimic something? What is the difference between mimicking and imitating? Can you think of a time when you mimicked? Would a tyrant ever mimic? What would happen if you mimicked a tyrant? Lots and lots of word play like that. Kids are much more likely to understand the word and its nuance and depth. And interesting, as Isabel Beck points out in her [?] outstanding book on vocabulary called Bringing Words to Life, she says, if words overlap in meaning by 80% or 90%, 'mimic' and 'imitate', say, we tend to teach them as synonyms. But what's important for reading perspective is the difference in the words. That 'mimic' means to imitate but in a pejorative sense, that you are making fun of someone. And so if you teach those words as synonyms when you come across them in the reading you won't get the implication of the text, and it will fail to help you from a reading comprehension respect. Russ: That's fabulous-- Guest: It's the differences there that are more important than the similarities. And they get the idea that lots of at-bats, lots of word play, deep knowledge of words is one of the most powerful things we can do for students. Russ: So, you call it 'at-bats' because the way to become a better hitter is you've got to swing the bat about 1000 times a day. People think there's a lot of subtlety to hitting. I'm a huge student of hitting, actually, as a former Little League teacher and as a baseball fan. Guest: Interesting. Russ: I'm interested in technique generally, teaching being one example. I'm fascinated by how some things are easy to teach; others, such as singing, it's not so easy. Because you can't really hold your elbow the right way for singing the way you can with a baseball bat. But anyway, it's called 'at-bats' for that reason, right? Guest: That's right. Get some experience. Like to have the [?] coaching. I don't know much about baseball but my first teaching I got asked to coach the baseball team, and so I had this buddy who was an All American in college and he had a friend who was an outstanding coach, and I got half an hour with him over coffee. And asked him all my questions, coaching based on--and he cut me off in the middle and said, 'Listen. It's about at-bats. Don't get fancy, don't get cute. Put the ball right down the plate and have them swing the bat 100 times at least a day. The basic thing has to be intuitive. Do that over and over again. Next question.' And in some ways, that's kind of the inspiration for the idea of doing something till it's intuitive till you can do it in your sleep. It not only allows you to do it better, but frees up your mind to be thinking about something else while you are executing. You can't have insights about what you are doing with a math problem if you are churning through the calculations. The calculations have to be, have to almost happen by themselves; and then you think, 'Oh, wait, there's an easier way to do this'. 'There's a simpler way to do this.' Russ: I'll just tell a quick batting story. I took my kids to a batting coach once, and they are swinging away. And the coach is helping them work on something and I mention to the coach while the lesson is going on, I say, 'Can you believe that back foot, they are not squishing the bug, they are not rotating their hips,' or something, whatever I was noticing. And the coach looks at me and he said--very smart man--'I think it's good to work on one thing at a time.' And he was right. I saw 8 things that were wrong, and you can't fix 8 things. I know you are a big fan of small steps.
17:44Russ: I want to talk about one more technique, and then we are going to talk about some general issues. Now, Arnold Kling, who is an educator and author who has appeared on the program, one of his themes about education is that education is feedback. It's telling students what they know and don't know and it's teachers learning what they know and don't know, what their students know and don't know. Talk about what call-and-response is, as a technique, and how it works. And cold-calling, as well. Guest: Yeah. Maybe I'll start with cold calling. Because actually to me, cold calling is one of the most powerful techniques you can use just to boost the academic rigor of a classroom instantly and powerfully. And the idea that cold-calling is calling on students regardless of whether they've raised their hand. In most classrooms, a teacher asks a question and then a bunch of kids raise their hand and the teacher thinks, 'Who should I call on?' But what cold call does, and then those students have a question, but cold calling makes it so that everyone answers the question. And then you decide who shares the answer. So, what it means is I ask a question, what's 3 times 5, and then I say, you know, 'Russ?' And if it's clear that I'm called on, if I say, Okay, I'm going to cold-call now, be ready: '3 times 5 is what, Russ?' Then everyone in the classroom, all 30 students in the classroom have done that problem in their head. And they are anticipating that it might be them cold-called. And so three things happen. One, you get great engagement, because students know they have to be on their toes and they have to participate and they can't sort of choose to opt out of the class for all or part of a lesson, because they can be called on at any time. And so they are engaged and they are thinking along, whether they are doing the cognitive work, whether or not they get called on. Number two, it just can speed up the pacing of the class. I think we've all been in the classroom where the teacher says something like this: 'Let's see, I'd like to go over Number 2 on the homework. Who would like to answer Number 2?' Seeing the same three hands. Russ: And everybody else who doesn't get called on checks out. Guest: Right. 'I'd really like to hear from the boys in the back. Do I need to remind you all that participation is graded in my class?' So, a couple of things happening there. One, yes, a bunch of students can now--[?] I just wasted 15 seconds, pleading with my class to answer questions. And if you multiply that, how many questions get asked over the course of the year, an incredibly massive amount of times, wasted pleading with students to participate when you could just say, 'Who would like to answer? Let's go over Number 2 on the homework. Ross, what did you get for number 2?' Right? And it doesn't have to be a gotcha. It can be better when it's an invitation to a real conversation. But then all of a sudden all that time that was wasted and all the energy that gets sucked out of the room by hearing the teacher plead for participation is gone. And class is fast and energetic and engaged. And the last reason why cold-calling is so deeply important is it allows you to check for understanding. You are kind of a sports guy. The great basketball coach, John Wooden, said, It's not whether you taught it; it's whether they learned it. And if you ask me--when I rewrite Teach Like a Champion--the technique that I am going to put first in the book, in the first chapter, and it's going to get its own chapter, is: Check for Understanding. Russ: It's huge. Guest: On the fundamental criteria, the fundamental attribute of a great teacher is his or her willingness to be, to seek and see the differences in how you taught it [?]. So I[?] learn that one of the things that I need to do when I've taught something to my students is to be able to take a sample of the room, and see how well they know--[?]--great, so let's go over the Stamp Act. Who passed the Stamp Act and when? What was the reaction in the House of Burgesses? What did the Governor of Virginia say about that and how did the rest of the American colonies react? And if they can answer those questions then I have a pretty good sense that they've learned it. But if I only rely on the students who raised their hands to tell me, I'm instantly getting a statistical, a flawed statistical sample. Because the kids who raised their hands were more likely to know it than those who didn't raise their hands. And so I have to be able to check for understanding reliably; I have to normalize the experience of my saying, 'Eric, what do you think? Great. What about you, Sarah? And Alan?' So that I can call on anyone I want to at any time to check their knowledge. Russ: Now, what does a cold-caller do when a student says, 'Can you repeat the question?' And then says, 'I don't know.' Just opts out anyway. So they are sitting looking out the window. You call on them to get their attention. And they are not paying attention. They don't want to. Guest: Yeah. It's great. One of the keys to doing cold call well is to make it to engaging students before they get off task. But obviously this happens. And so one of the techniques I might use, there is a technique called 'no opt out.' Which is, let's say I ask you a question. So, say I ask you, 'Russ, What governing body passed the Stamp Act?' Russ: I don't know. Guest: You hit me and say, 'I don't know.' I say, 'Great. Let's think carefully and we'll make sure you get there. Daphne, what governing body passed the Stamp Act?' 'Parliament.' 'Great. Back to you, Russ. Who passed the Stamp Act?' Russ: Parliament! Guest: Right. And then over time you learn that you are not going to save any work for yourself by saying, 'I don't know.' Because you are going to ask the question anyway in the end. And so then over time, hopefully, I would say, maybe instead of having Daphne giving you the answer, I might say, 'Daphne can you tell Russ what governing body did not pass the Stamp Act, and maybe that will help him realize which one did. Russ: Oh, that's beautiful. Guest: And say, the Continental Congress; it had nothing to do with the Continental Congress. Great; it was not a governing body in the United States; now can you tell me who passed the Stamp Act? Russ: Beautiful. Guest: And obviously one of the keys to doing this well, one of the other techniques in the book, called 'emotional constancy,' which is, as soon as I get mad at a student for struggling and being wrong, I do two things. One is to teach that student that they shouldn't try to hide their errors from me, because I'll get mad at them. And the result is it's harder for me to find their errors, and harder for me to check for understanding and ensure their knowledge. And so, I try to avoid that. But the other thing is when I insert my anger, I dilute or I destroy the sense that getting it wrong, getting it right, is the normal state of learning. Of course you got it wrong. Of course you struggled, of course you got [?]. If you could answer all the questions there would be no sense of my asking them of you. And so I want to normalize error and make it safe to be wrong in my classroom. And so teachers have to do that when they do these techniques, like cold call and no-opt-out. That aspect as part of the classroom is critical as well.
24:49Russ: So what is call and response? And then we'll move on. Guest: Call and response, we see primarily as an engagement technique. Which is: I say an answer aloud and I expect the whole class to give me a response in chorus. So, I might say--let's say, I'm reviewing multiplication facts. I might say, 'Let's do some multiplication facts: 3 times 5, Class, on two; one, two; and you would all say, 15.' And you would say, 'Great.' And then if I multiply that by 3 more you actually get? And then the whole class would say, 45. Great. Divide it by 9 and I'm left with? 5. And the idea is that a., it causes everybody to do the cognitive work, as opposed to the one student who I call on; and b., it's sort of high energy, back and forth, a little bit like a workout. Russ: Yeah. Guest: And so it can be really--I know the principal of a really great school, it's a primary school, and he says he wants his teachers to do 5 call-and-responses in the first five minutes of a lesson. So every student feels like he or she has a back and forth with the teacher, engagement, is actively participating in the classroom. Russ: It's also a very effective pop quiz, because you see a very crude but very effective pop quiz, you see that 60% of the students answered, you realize: Maybe I didn't cover that so well. Or they all hesitate, and you realize you'd better go over it three more times. I used to do it all the time, teaching economics. It's one of my favorite techniques. I loved it. And it does energize everybody. It's a fabulous strategy. Guest: Can I tell you one other great trick for a pop quiz that your saying that just reminded me of? Russ: Yeah, sure. Guest: So, it requires multiple choice questions, and multiple choice questions can be rigorous as well. So, this teacher I'm thinking of is a math teacher, and he calls the game 'rock-scissors-paper'. Gives the kids a set of math problems, let's see: say it's a pop quiz, last night's homework had 5 problems; so have them complete them, and say, 'Okay, number 1. Rock, scissors, paper.' And the kids slap their desks three times and they hold up one to four fingers, depending on which answer they thought was the first question. So he can instantly scan the room and say, 'Okay, the right answer was 4.' And 15 kids got 4, but 10 kids didn't, and of the 10 kids who got it wrong, 8 of them said answers which was number 2. So now I know a., I have a problem here in terms of mastery, and b., there's something about answer choice number 2 that fooled them; so I'm going to go back and re-teach it and take a particularly close look at answer choice number 2 and understand why that was distracting to students. So that the idea of just making the answer visible through hand signals is a really effective way to gather a ton of data very efficiently and quickly. Russ: That's clever. Yeah, I like that a lot. Although when I used to teach that kind of technique, I would often make choice number 2 deliberately wrong in a way that I thought would fool them so that they could see that they didn't understand it. Which is another part of this feedback story--that it's important that students see what they don't understand, not just, 'I understand that; I can move on.' Guest: Yeah. Essentially you are going back to where great teachers go, which is that after you've made error visible and learned from it, then you want to invest in sort of analyzing error--that error is actually one of the most powerful teaching tools. Russ: Yeah, that's fabulous. Guest: Asking questions like: Why would someone have chosen number 2; what's the reason? What's right about wrong answer number 2 that fooled you? Those are really powerful. Russ: Why did you go down that wrong path so far? Why didn't you see that it was dangerous? But you didn't; so you've got to read the warning sign there.
28:31Russ: Now we have had David Epstein on this program talking about the role of practice versus genetic ability in sports, actually. And his book is partially, not totally--but it takes on Malcolm Gladwell's claim that with practice you can do anything. I'm a big fan of practice. But I'm also aware of the limitations of the human body and the human brain. Do you think great teachers can be made? Can you take a bad teacher, teach him the 49 techniques, and teach him--and I don't know if we ever covered this, but your point, your first set of workshops didn't work because people didn't practice. We get into practice. So you practice it, you make it work for them, you show them how it works; you unleash them back in the classroom. How much improvement do you think you can get from a teacher who starts off lousy from these kind of techniques? Guest: I do emphatically believe that teachers can be trained, that teachers can be taught. And I would just say that I fear for what it says about our belief in education if we don't think we can train people to be, teach people to be good teachers. Russ: That's a good point. Guest: I think we can teach people to be economists. I think we can teach people to be accountants. We think we can teach people to be surgeons. We don't think we can teach people to be teachers? There's a deep and disturbing irony to the assumption that teaching is something that cannot be taught. And I just reject it. And I think our experience rejects it. I don't think that that implies that every single person can become a great teacher. I think that people who are willing to learn, who have the mindset of openness, I would say that if we can't make them at least effective teachers, and many, many of them really good teachers, and make all of them significantly better, then we have to ask ourselves questions about the training that we offer, because it's broken. Russ: Do you think it varies-- Guest: The first obligation of an organization is to make its people better. Russ: I totally agree. Guest: There's differences in some ways. You mentioned David Epstein's outstanding book. Which I love. Even though I'm obsessed with practice. But I think his book is also to some degree about the rare--we know what it takes to be an elite athlete, to be a world-class sprinter. And so, do I know for sure that you could get every teacher to be the top one-tenth of one percent of teachers? Perhaps not. I think there are things that are maybe beyond training there. Should we be able to get 90% of teachers into the top quartile--or whatever, into [what used to be] the top two quartiles? Absolutely. And I think that's where people maybe misunderstand David's book. I think he strongly[?] believes strongly in practice. What he's saying is: When you get to the world of elite performance now, it's not enough to practice; that you have to have the right physiology, because there's so many people clamoring for those few spots--the starting blocks. And so you have to have had the foresight to be born with the right physiology. But I think that's sort of a special case of elite performance. Russ: Do you think it varies by field? Do you think it's easier to make a great math teacher better? A good math teacher a great one, and a good English teacher a great one? A bad math teacher a good one, a bad English teacher a good one? Guest: Well, I think it varies by field for sure, in that--I think there are really three domains of knowledge that you need to master to be a great teacher. One of them is general teaching techniques. I think that cold call and checking for understanding are really important for any teacher to know how to do. And how to manage a classroom, so when you walk in a classroom full of [?] 16-year-olds and you'd say, 'okay everyone sit down,' and the kids say, 'you sit down.' If you don't know how to handle that situation, it doesn't matter how much you know about math. You are not going to win. So, one, there's general teaching knowledge, very powerful. And then there's subject-specific content. If you don't know the math, you don't have deep knowledge about literature and how it works, you are not going to be very successful. And that part is very hard to train. In a training setting you really have to have your content knowledge beforehand. And I would say a significant issue in teacher training is the level of content, knowledge [?]. But some of the middle group of skills which are sort of content-specific approaches--how do you teach reading? How do you teach math? There are obviously specific things--the science teacher, the history teacher, the music teacher do it differently. And so I think there are certainly--each endeavor in teaching is different in that it requires different skills. And specific knowledge in that area. I'd say they are all uniquely difficult. I wouldn't want to opine on which one is most difficult. I would say that the one that we see the most difference in how we hire for is reading teachers: that each book requires a different active insightful interpretation and it's just a level of intellect and interpretation that reading teachers tend to be harder. People who are going to be successful as reading teachers tend to be a little bit harder to identify in the selection process than are math teachers, where we feel like we can find someone relatively reliably through our selection criteria.
34:16Russ: Well, let me ask you about that, because I was going to get into it later. How do you find, when you are involved day to day in running a school, you've got these bright-eyed, chipper 22-year olds, maybe 24-year olds if they've been to graduate school. They all look pretty similar coming out. How do you decide who the good ones are, at least to get started? Guest: Yeah. Over time, it's interesting. Selecting people becomes such a critical area of what we do. One of the most important things we do is we ask people to teach. I think that a lot of hiring for teaching involves talking to people about teaching. And what you get is people who can talk about teaching, and people who articulate, and who often can be really reflective. They can describe all the nuances and challenges and the perversities and the ambiguities and the paradoxes. And that is very different from being able to get in front of a class and do it. And in fact an ability to articulate all the paradoxes and ambiguities in some ways probably inversely correlates to your ability in knowing how to get up in front of the class and do it. So the first thing that we figured out was we should limit the amount of time we spend talking to them and we should see people teach. And ask them to come in and teach a sample to us and our kids and see how they do. And so that proved to be incredibly revealing. But as someone really passionate about feedback, what we then learned was that even more important than watching someone teach was watching them react to feedback after they are teaching. So now we have someone in to teach a sample lesson and then we sit them down afterwards and we give them feedback. And we say: Here are a couple of things that we loved from your lesson and we thought were just great. You handled this situation really well; loved this question, super job there. If you were part of this organization, we think teaching is important enough that we would constantly give you constructive feedback, too. Here are two things we think you could have done differently in the lesson to make it more rigorous. So, first I'm looking for how are they reacting to this. Are they writing it down? Are they open minded? Do they ask questions about it? Are the folding their arms and saying, 'Yeah, well I couldn't really do that right then because'--are they defensive about feedback? And in the long run, someone who is open to feedback, who scores a 6 in skill but is thirsty for feedback and hungry and wants it, I'm going to hire that person over someone who comes in an 8 or an 8.5 but who is a little bit defensive and doesn't want to hear someone tell them about their teaching. So ultimately the 6 is going to pass the 8 pretty quickly, especially if I keep her for 5 or 10 years, which is what I want to do. And she's going to take other people with her, because of her [?] mentality. But then the most interesting thing we realized is instead of just watching people take feedback and inferring whether they are good at it, we should just ask them to come back and re-teach. 'Great. When you come back, we'd love to see you implement cold call, and see if you can check for understanding more deliberately during the lesson and make sure you have a really good sense of how the kids are doing. And then tell us afterwards what you thought they learned well and what they didn't.' So that someone who is able to take feedback and then apply it in the next lesson, I'm buying. I just think that's someone that, if we can't put that person to great use changing the lives of students, we're in the wrong--it's us who is the problem and not them. Russ: That's a tough test, though, given what you said earlier about practice. So, many of those teachers, they're brand new; they've never cold called; you are giving this new technique. They might be excited about it but they might not know how to do it. I guess the best ones would say, 'How do you do that?' That's right. Well, the very best ones might ask: Can I practice that right now? Russ: That's a very high level. Guest: Or we'll suggest it, and we'll say, 'Why don't you pretend that--there are two or three of us in the room, so why don't you pretend that we're students right now? Why don't you ask us questions, pretend to cold call?' 'Great, try it this way; try it that way.' Someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves like that and risk being wrong, in the short run, to be able to get it right in the long run, can like--I just think that teaching attracts such incredible people who are so willing to do whatever it takes to change the lives of others, who are so altruistic and inspirational, that in some ways what I love about this process is it unlocks those people who are just--they are the most important people in our society. Democracy is predicated on education. The economic--you're an economist. The economist Eric Hanushek ran a 40-year analysis-- Russ: Many time guest on this program. Guest: Oh, great. He's brilliant. And so he ran a 40-year analysis of test scores, education test scores in Latin American countries, and their GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth rates. And the test scores explained 80% of the GDP growth rates over 40 years. So the people who determine how fast we learn more, how much we develop, how much our brains grow determine our economic viability, not as individuals but as a nation. And they determine our democratic viability. They are the most important people in our culture. And so I love to find people who are great at that work. To me, a process that identifies them, I just find it incredibly exciting the moment you realize you are sitting in the room with someone who is going to be a great teacher, and they don't even know it yet, but you know if. Russ: Yeah.
39:38Russ: Now, a lot of people claim, when confronted with various ideas for improving schools or changing school systems that there's no really good metric for what determines a good teacher. We understand that test scores alone aren't valuable because some people get the good students, etc.; there's all kinds of other variables. And so people say, well, we don't know who the good teachers are so it's unfair to have merit pay or whatever other--or principals shouldn't have a lot of power because they can do arbitrary things. I feel very differently. I know in my kids' school all the good teachers and all the bad ones, and in particular, I know which ones are good for my kids. Now it may be that someone else disagrees with me because they have different--their kids may have different needs. That's totally understandable. But the idea that somehow it's just a black box--and I'm asking that because you describe, and I love this, you describe teaching as a craft. And craft by definition is not science. There are maybe techniques and practicing things may make you better, but as we've already said, some people are gifted in certain ways; their sensitive to what's going on in the room in ways that other people can't, and they'll never implement the technique that other people do. Always be better; always worse. So, in any school, there are differences in performance across those teachers. Do you think the administrators in a good school know who the good teachers are? Guest: Well, the answer to that question is, to me, is yes. There's data out there--it's interesting; I think this is a classic case of misapplied data. Invariably once a year someone quotes me data that says, well, the average principal it turns out is not a very good judge of a good teacher, and if you ask the average principal to correlate their own perception of teacher effectiveness to value-added gains or some strong, reliable measure of data, they are not very good. And that may be true. I'm a little bit suspicious of that because usually people who make that argument are actually--they don't want to use the test, either, as an objective measure. So I don't know what they are measuring against. But I think what that does not mean is that excellent principals are not good judges of teachers. And in fact, excellent principals, strong principals, are great judges of teacher quality. And this is proven in the data. In fact this is the definition of a great principal--someone who understands what good teaching is and then can identify it and support it. And so to me it underscores a couple of things. It underscores the incredible important of school leadership and how school leadership would have to--autonomy and accountability have to live together in an organization, and we have to free our school leaders to make real decisions so that they can really influence what happens in their schools. And hold them accountable for it. And that I believe passionately in educational data. I think it has flaws, for sure. It will only get better by our using it. But I think where it's most powerful is as an organizational management tool. And when I see a school district or a state publish its teachers' test scores in the newspaper, I just think that's wrong. One, this is not the way to treat people. But two, I think that educational data is really powerful in the hands of good managers. And so a good principal who is accountable for test scores at the school level can take scores of individual teachers and say, 'Aha. I have a hypothesis from looking at these test scores that this teacher is struggling in math. And I've seen her teach and it's borne out from what I've seen her teaching. And I think that now I know what to do to fix it.' Or, 'I think it was a one-year thing; I think this class has gotten better.' Or, 'I've seen it borne out in multiple years.' It's a management tool to be used by a manager, to drive organizational results as opposed to--the point of accountability should be the school, and then the manager of the school should have the flexibility to hold individual teachers accountable. And that doesn't necessarily mean that teachers--you know, it means there will have to be differences in the rules about how teachers can be-- Russ: Assessed. Guest: Promoted and developed and assessed. And just as important as shaking hands with the teacher and saying, 'I'm so glad that you want to teach, but your results aren't good enough for the kids who get one chance to learn, and so I'm going to have to ask you to go back to training or to work somewhere else.' That is a conversation that I have had with people. It is not pleasant, but it has to be done. And teaching is such hard work, such intellectual work, that it's folly to assume that that conversation doesn't have to happen and you can protect all jobs equally. But just as important as that is the conversation with the great teacher, where I say: I have always known that you are great and I watched your teaching inspire me, and now I have data to show how much you change kids lives; and I want to talk to you about how to make your influence better and I want to reward you in every way that I can think of. And I want you to tell me the things that can make you happy professionally, the opportunities you want, so I can make you love this work and do it forever. We also fail in that conversation. We fail in that conversation worse than we fail in the dismissal conversation and it's more important. Because more desperately sad than losing out on great people who don't enter the teaching profession because the labor dynamics of the sector are dysfunctional, are all the great people who leave the profession because they will never be differentiated from their least competent peer. Russ: I couldn't agree with you more.
45:12Russ: Now, when you wrote Teach Like a Champion--it came out in 2010, at least the paperback that I have. And it says there were 10 Uncommon Schools, this chain of charter schools you are involved in. There are now I think 32. Is that correct? Guest: I think it's up at 38 this year. Russ: So my question is, following up on what we are talking about with teachers: How do you evaluate teachers? Is it a formal process? What kind of feedback do you give your staff? Because my impression is a lot of schools--and this is universities through K-12--there's not a lot of evaluation. People say we can't really evaluate it. Guest: And there's several forms of evaluation. The first thing that has to happen is, our first obligation is to make people better. And so one of our rules of thumb is every teacher should be observed at least every 3 weeks. If it's for 10 minutes that's fine. But if I'm really looking to understand a teacher, I'm going to have to sit in their classroom, and I'm not going to be able to see them with the dog-and-pony show where they know I'm coming on March 3rd. It's better for them and better for me if I see a wide array of statistical data points on what happens; I need to understand what's typical in their classroom. So I need to be in there constantly. And my focus to be in their classroom, my goal for being in there is to make you better. And at some point to have a conversation about whether you are doing this job well enough. What I want my teachers to be happy when my principals walk in the classroom because they know they are going to get help. When Teach Like a Champion--right before it came out there was an article in the New York Times Magazine about the book, and there's a picture in which I was standing in the back of the classroom taking notes on the teacher. And someone wrote in a comment, like, 'Clearly this guy doesn't know anything about running a school, because how humiliating for the teacher to have someone evaluating her and making notes on her in the back of the classroom while she's teaching.' Like it must make her incredibly stressed. But in fact the teacher in the classroom, a teacher named Katie Bellucci, has since become one of our top teachers and a senior teacher in the school, who is happy to have me in the classroom because we have a great working relationship. And she knew that my purpose in being there was to help her make the most of her incredible skills and become a great teacher. Which she really has become. I just think of the sad and cynical view of the profession, to have to divide between administration and teaching. And so I think that the first thing that has to happen with evaluation is it has to be done in the spirit of, my goal is to make you better. Now at the Uncommon Schools do we go the next step? Yeah, of course. There's a mid-year performance review and an end-of-the-year performance review for every teacher. It's not based on a single observation; ideally it's based on dozens and dozens of observations, not only of the classroom but of the work that students do that comes out of your classroom. I look at your lesson plans, I look at interval test data, I look at tests that you write and all of the inputs students do in the classroom, talk to your department chair. And so then we have a conversation. The principals at Uncommon Schools are great principals and they are really good judges of good teaching. And yes, they use also objective data like state test scores. But, there is evaluation at some point. But it comes long after a long-standing conversation about, let me help you become the best teacher that you can be. And so even that conversation hopefully is grounded in a foundation of trust. And if it comes down to: You've worked so hard and I'm grateful for how hard you've worked; or, I've asked you to work hard and to be honest you have not been willing to put in that work, and I understand why and I understand why there are hundreds of [?], but I have to tell you that this is not the school for you. It happens very rarely. That conversation can still happen built on the foundation of trust. But I really believe the McKinsey study--everybody quotes from the McKinsey study as the best [?] in the world said, 'The quality of the school or school system can never exceed the quality of its teachers.' So I think we're only going to be good if our teachers love working for us, if they feel trusted, if they feel safe, if they feel they are never going to be done an injustice by the evaluation system. It's based on complete trust and the notion of making them better, and if that doesn't happen in an organization, you are dead.
49:52Russ: So we recently had Lant Pritchett on as a guest talking about his book, The Rebirth of Education. One of the themes of that book is that the trappings of a great school do not make a great school; there has to be something living, beating at the heart of it; there's something systemic and organic about a great school. So you can have all the best Smartboards and all the best student-teacher ratio; you can mimic Finland--which I should have said 'imitate'--you can imitate Finland. Guest: Or mimic them, frankly. Russ: Well, probably. So, we can do what Finland is doing. And of course in a horrible school system that imitates what Finland is doing will remain a horrible school system. It will just have a high teacher-student ratio or whatever Finland is doing that has been successful. So, I'm curious about the scatterplot we talked about. We've got a school in the upper right corner, meaning high poverty and high achievement. Which is an outlier, but it exists. It is not a literal outlier. It's not like there's one school that has managed to do it. There are dozens. Unfortunately there are hundreds that are down at the bottom, but there are dozens that are doing it beautifully well. There's something systemic going on there. It's not just I assume that it has teachers who have mastered the best techniques. Something. What I'm going to suggest, especially after what you just said is that those schools have found a way to motivate, or at least to attract teachers who are motivated. Because teaching, despite what everyone believes, is hard work. It's not something you just do on the side. As you said, it's a performance profession. If you believe you can just stand up there in front of those 16-year olds and go through the motions, you are going to get kicked. And unfortunately avoiding going through the motions means working. It means preparing, it means practicing and drilling the things you need to be doing; it means contact with students outside the class in all kinds of ways. Guest: [?] caring and respecting you, caring about you and respecting you enough to say, look, that lesson was not the best work you can do. And I want to help you to do the best work that you can do every day. Russ: So why is it that some schools, not teachers--we've been talking about what makes a great teacher. What makes a great school? Guest: I think you are spot on. A school is greater than the sum of its teachers. And a great school is an organization that makes people better. We talk about this a lot because we try and recruit great teachers. But in the end if I do what you said, which is I attract great teachers to my school, in the big picture that's a Pyrrhic victory. There's an amazing teacher across the city; she teaches 30 kids in her classroom; I convince her to come to my school; she teaches my 30 kids; her results are outstanding. It's just 30 kids. It's a question of which 30 kids, but it's just 30 kids who are getting stronger. The question is: does my organization make her better, so that those 30 kids get even better, and so that she rubs off on everyone so that 30 kids in someone else's classroom are better because she is there? And so I think that this boils down to culture, among the adult--and an environment of team spirit, or about excellence; and we are going to do this together. We are going to build each other up. And there's going to be a culture of candor in doing it. We're going to build each other up. It's about training; it's about skills. I think that people like to win and like to be a part of organizations that they know make them better, where at the end of the day--who wants to commit their lives to doing hard work when at the end of the day they are not sure that they won? Everyone wants to play for the Yankees. Everyone wants to play--you want to play soccer, you want to play in the Champion's League. You want to be able to look back and know that you won. And I think that schools are special because they make people. In the end, they respect people; they honor them for their skills and they make people better. And if they are better at making people better, you are on your way to building a culture where people feel trust and appreciation. And they don't mind working hard because what greater gift is there than to work hard for something you believe in? Russ: And yet, despite that--it's a lovely thought--our school system in America doesn't generally, reliably create those schools. And I would suggest there's something not so healthy about our system. You've made a decision, and I honor it and have tremendous respect for it. You are working for the charter school system; it's making, I suspect--I don't know, but I suspect--you are making a big difference in 30 times 20 times 20 times 38--whatever it is, schools that you are involved in. It's a desperate, somewhat poignant attempt to make an end around a system that's dysfunctional. And I'll say why it's dysfunctional. It's dysfunctional because--Lant Pritchett talked about the parent who stood before his village having heard that his kids had learned nothing in 5 years--not just disappointing test scores. They couldn't read and they couldn't do simple math problems. They had learned nothing. And the headmaster of that school said, 'Well, that's because you are stupid. What do you expect?' This poor man said, 'My life has been a donkey's life. I wanted my kids to have something different. I trusted you and you betrayed me.' And the headmaster laughed at him, basically; and gets away with it. We don't have that level of dysfunctionality in the United States, fortunately. But unfortunately we have a lot of schools where parents don't have choices because they don't have the money to send their kids to private schools. They can't afford to move out to a good neighborhood; they are stuck in that lousy neighborhood. We have this bizarre system. Guest: There are people who say that we don't have school choice in this country don't know anything about real estate prices. Russ: Right. Well, that's the problem. We have something like school choice, but it's very expensive. And people who are of limited means can't make those choices that other people can. Those people have great schools--as Lant Pritchett also talked about. You live in a wealthy suburb in America, you have good schools, partly, I believe, because the parents can send their kid to a private school, so they have to compete. Guest: I would also say that one of the dirty little secrets of American education is that what they have at schools is have tremendous selection effects. Russ: Correct. Guest: I don't always know that our schools--I have a funder who funds my work training teachers. And you know, my passion is inner city work. He said, 'I get that you are passionate about inner city work. And you can relax because I am going to fund you. But here's the one thing I ask of you. The dirty little secret of American education is that our middle class and our upper middle class schools are terrible, and they are going to get their lunch eaten by Singapore and China, India, and parts of Europe, and they don't even realize it because they have a selection effect. And so I want you to do at least one set of trainings for suburban schools somewhere to see if it works. Because that's the thing that I care about. I don't care about the inner city,' he said to me. 'I care about the middle class, upper middle class suburban schools'-- Russ: The so-called gifted kids. Guest: 'The current economy, this is the place that's going to drive our current economy, the so-called talented kids are not talented enough; and it's going to be the death of the American economy.' I have to say, I thought about that long and hard, after I walked out of that meeting with him. It's scary. Russ: I'm not that pessimistic. I don't think it's the death of the American economy. What I do think is we've shortchanged a lot of people. Guest: It's his words, not mine. But I think--look, there is an achievement gap everywhere. Russ: Fair enough. Guest: There's a rich/poor achievement gap. There's an achievement gap between what are schools are and what they could be. I have three kids. There's a gap between the schools they go to, the schools that would be the equivalent to what they deserve and what they are. Anywhere. There's a gap between us and the best schools in the world. The benefit that we have in inner city schools is that generally people get the urgency. I think in suburban schools people are often pretty insulated from the urgency. One of the best suburban principals I know, I started working with her teachers and learned a bunch of really great stuff; and her biggest struggle was that she just said, 'Just leave me alone. We're fine. Can't you see these scores? We're great. We're still in the name of the[?] school district tier. Why are you doing this? Why are you trying to become excellent?' Russ: And those kids are getting SAT tutoring; and that's part of the reason their scores are so high. There is a lot of missed opportunity, and the incentives I believe in our current school system are not conducive to excellence. And it's a tragedy.
58:49Russ: Let's talk about EconTalk, if we could. This is an entertainment and educational program. I always say it's both. If it's not educational, I don't want to be involved in it. If it's only education, it's not going to get as many listeners as it would if it is entertaining. Guest: You're not going to ask me to sing, are you? Russ: No, absolutely not. But you could be juggling while we are talking in the background, and there's no harm in claiming it because it's not verifiable. What I'm thinking about in reading your book and talking to you today and getting ready for this interview made me wonder. This is a nice podcast; people like it; they send nice emails. They say--you out there say you've learned things from this. Which touches me deeply. I bet you could learn a lot more. I bet I could structure this program in ways that would help you learn more. I bet I could do things outside of the hour-long interview that would help you learn more. Now, some of you out there do an amazing thing. You listen to each episode more than once. Or special episodes more than once. Some of you tell me you listen to them 4 and 5 times. That's one way to get more out of it. It's impressive. It touches me again. But I bet there's some simpler, less time-consuming ways I could make it better, and I'm curious if you've thought about--not EconTalk per se, but audio, conversation as a way of learning and what perhaps might be done on the Internet that would improve these kind of educational opportunities. Guest: Hmmm. That's a fascinating question. This is a little bit outside of my area of expertise. And I didn't have a lot of time to prepare for the question. But one thing that I think really passionate about--two things. One is writing. I don't think you really understand something until you have conquered the process of disciplining it into words. A professor of mine in college described the difference between a notion and an idea, and he said that a notion was half an idea; but when you put it into specific words and into syntax and are disciplined about saying what it is and what it isn't, when you've written it down on paper, then it becomes an idea. And so the first thing I would want to think about would be giving people the opportunity to process in writing. I think it's one of the forms of rigor that we miss most in our classrooms, in the United States generally, that if every class ended with students writing one carefully-crafted sentence capturing the complexity, one of the most challenging ideas from that hour of instruction, education would be much more rigorous. And so I guess I would ask: Is there a way for your listeners to write in response to the program to process what they've taken away from the program? And of course there are all sorts of electronic tools right now that you could use to gather data from that and give people feedback on their writing. The people I know who do the best work around--[?] and online modules and online training are really good about making it constantly interactive and making it come down to a lot of writing. And so that would be at least a place that I would start, okay? I don't think you know it until you can put it in writing. Russ: That's a great idea. I'm going to think about that. Guest: I found out every time I tried to write a paper in college--I thought I understood the play until I had to write about it. Russ: It also helps you remember it. My last question. you are doing some amazing things. You are growing. Your Uncommon Schools--you are up to 38. I'd love for you to have 250. Are you a voice in the dark? Do you feel you are part of something that is changing? Or are you just influencing the people who are right around you? Are you optimistic for the future? Guest: I'm really, really optimistic. I go back to my observations[?] about the incredible people who have become teachers in this country. They are not going to be paid well. They are not going to get the respect they deserve. Their work often--and yet they do it anyway. I think the thing that surprised me most about writing Teach Like a Champion is how open people have been to working with me and with my team, and how much they've reached out and wanted to learn and wanted to engage us. And I'm talking about schools outside of the charter sector. And often outside the urban school sector. School districts in every strength[?] and variety around the country; school districts around the world. And schools and school systems have reached out and said, we talked about this, can we come to one of your workshops, could you do a training for us? I'm just humbled by the willingness of people to hear me out. People have every incentive to say, 'oh, that guy? He's a part of that vast conspiracy. He's a part of charter schools. He's a part of, you know.' But generally people in education--you might think that they would think that way, but the majority of them don't. I think there are a few loud voices that are full of invective, but for the most part people in the teaching profession, the education profession want to make schools better and they are willing to look at any tools that they think can get them there, no matter where they come from. My colleague Paul Bamberg says that 'Buy-in is an outcome, not a precondition.' That if training is good, people come to believe in it, of course people walk into the relationship with their arms metaphorically folded, because they've been there before. But if your work is really good, that they will open their arms and they will give it a try. And we've found that pretty consistently. So the workshops that we do, a lot of them are outside the charter school sector. People have been really receptive and we've learned a ton from watching them use the techniques. And that's a lot of what's in Teach-Like-a-Champion 2.0, what we've learned from people using it. I'm very optimistic about the people in the teaching profession and I look forward to the day when there's more autonomy for them. I think autonomy comes with accountability. And there are more ways to honor them for the work that they do.

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Steve Sedio writes:

An uplifting podcast!

This reminds me of a clip from "Waiting fro Superman", where the new superintendent finds an inner city 8AM class full and energized, then a 9AM, those kids are cutting class, because the next teacher wasn't worth their time.

Considering the power of the teachers unions, (as well demonstrated in "Waiting for Superman", how do we apply this?

Education is important!

Automation and outsourcing are taking over many unskilled jobs, and increasingly, tools reduce workload of the remaining unskilled jobs.

And, it goes well beyond knowledge. This method of education will make employees more comfortable with management. For example, feedback from front line employees is hugely important to corporate competitiveness. This teaching technique will increase employee participation in their company for the better (profits, and self esteem).

How do we get this program incorporated into all schools?

Krishnan writes:

Enjoyed listening ... I sure hope he is not a lone voice - that we do something to recognize the urgency of poor schooling, poorly prepared teachers and students ...

Unlike you Russ, I am pessimistic about even the "suburban" schools - true, there are and will always be a group of kids who will excel and go on to power the economy of the future ... but there are signals that not all is well ... grade inflation is so bad that many more students are graduating with 4.2, 4.5 or higher GPA's on a 4.0 scale (so you wonder about the 3.5 student who is in reality a 3.0 or lower student) ... Kids are not as well prepared as we may imagine (on the average that is) - and while granting some of Lant Pritchett's stories, the sheer numbers of students in India, China - and Singapore, Japan, Korea will be tough competition for the home grown ...

There is indeed an urgency to educating the kids in the "suburban" "good" schools ... so just as Lemov indicated that we are not doing enough with the good teachers, we are not doing enough to improve the average to good student to become really good in these "suburban" and "good" districts ... (and the resistance to change in these good districts is fundamentally the same as it is in the poorer districts - teachers do not have autonomy, the good ones are not encouraged, the bad ones stay no matter what ...etc etc)

Cowboy Prof writes:

Russ and Doug,

Tremendous podcast. I have several comments that I will compartmentalize into separate posts.

First, this podcast is being sent to all the graduate teaching assistants in my department as a recommendation, and will become a requirement for the ones I directly work with in the future. I also plan to send this to my son's school teachers. Your audience is about to expand.

Second, this was a nice "corrective" (or I might say "addendum" or "caveat") to Epstein on the Sports Gene. As I started listening to Doug talk about the importance of practice -- taking "at bats" -- I immediately thought about Epstein's (proper) skepticism of the 10,000 hour rule. I know that this needs to be set into the context of declining marginal returns to practice, and thus I was glad that Doug later mentioned this. Epstein is dealing with the elite ("rarefied air"), but we all still need practice to develop skills that become intuitive.

I also really enjoyed the discussion on whether teachers can be made and Russ's very brilliant point that if you can't teach teaching, you really can't teach anything.

Cowboy Prof writes:

Second comment.

I teach a large lecture Intro to Political Economy course that is largely an "economics for political scientists" course. Nonetheless, I do get some econ majors who are double majoring, minoring, or just need general ed credit. Many of those econ majors see the course as a "blow off" and often skip lectures, only to be surprised on the midterm.

What I found about the econ majors is that they have the "I learned the concept and know it, next" syndrome, but cannot easily apply the concept, nor do they have an intuitive knowledge of the topic.

For example, we talk about rent and rent-seeking behavior. If I ask an econ major what rent is, they can easily tell me that it is "this area underneath the supply-demand curve." But when asked to give me a concrete example of how to get it, they are stumped. And as Russ notes early in the podcast, they might have one or two examples, but cannot generalize beyond those examples.

To dovetail with one of Russ's other sub-themes of EconTalk, I fear the mathematization (or the "engineering mentality") of economics makes the teaching very easy, but retards the learning process.

(By the way, this is the huge advantage of the audio podcast format for learning economics and what makes EconTalk so great. You cannot easily "do the math" in an audio format, and thus are forced to explain the concepts in more vivid imagery, often offering up numerous examples. I worry that "vidcasts" -- which can produce colorful graphs -- might undermine this.)

Cowboy Prof writes:

Third comment.

I like the emphasis on practice in the early portion of the interview. I've taught my political economy course for about 20 years now (roughly 25-30 times in different venues). Admittedly, I don't think I became very good at it until about the 12th time I did it, and it still goes under modifications and improvements.

But there is a related problem to the repitition process. After about 15 or 16 times doing this course, I often find myself thinking that the course is too easy. "Everybody must surely know these absolutely intuitive and fundamental concepts and theories, right? Is my course too easy?!"

The popularity of the course ("pat on back") means that it is regularly offered as a large lecture course (150 - 250 students). For a significant period of time, I never really had any feedback via "cold calls" or the other techniques mentioned because that was the realm of my teaching assistants. However, when I started to use online discussion boards, I was absolutely amazed at how non-intuitive those "intuitive" concepts were to most students. The online discussion board has become my favorite area where I can get students practice and develop their intuitive understanding. Students who do make use of these forums report that they learning is substantially enhanced.

(Sidenote: While I do practice many of the techniques that Doug mentions, particularly in my smaller classes, I do realize that I tend to "punch back" pretty hard in Q&A sessions and may scare off some discussion. As such, I found a great deal of useful advice here, showing that even old dawgs can be taught new tricks.)

Robert Bienenfeld writes:

Russ:

I really like this podcast. As we get towards the end of 2013, what are your top ten books you would recommend for the last year?

Thanks,
Robert

Sarah Tantillo writes:

This is great! I would love to read the rest of the interview. Where is the "more to come" from 48:00 &ff?

Thanks,
ST

[I'll type it up when I can. It could be a while. Glad you like the typed Highlights. My suggestion is that you just listen to the episode. I don't always have time to type them up right away.--Econlib Ed.]

Brad Calder writes:

What I would not give to make this guy Sec of Education.

David McGrogan writes:

This has to rank in one of my top 10 favourite Econtalk episodes. As an academic teaching at a university I found it enthralling.

One thing that bothers me about university teaching is how little contact time I have with the students. The courses I teach have two types: 2-hour seminars once every two weeks with a 1-hour lecture every week; or two, 1-hour weekly lectures with a 1-hour seminar once every two weeks.

Consequently, there seems such a little amount of time to actually "practice" and work as a teacher to reinforce learning through the use of these techniques. I can't help but feel that a reduction in lecturing would be a massive boon to teachers in freeing up time to devote to engaging students in practice, practice, practice.

Derek Osborne writes:

Wonderful podcast! There have been so many great podcasts on this site about the importance of education and teachers, but this podacast did a great job describing how we can get there. What makes a good teacher and how some one can become a great teacher.

There is one question that I was hoping would be asked during the podcast but wasn't (or at least I didn't hear it which is equally likely). Much of the emphasis of the podcast covered on the job training for teachers. Although I think that is great, why isn't there a larger push to train teachers in college? Shouldn't the majority of college courses cover how to teach and lead a class room environment?

Gene H writes:

This was an excellent podcast. However, as a high school teacher (taught in a Title 1 school) I do find it frustrating that MOST of the interventions I see, read or hear about are (seemingly) exclusive to elementary and middle schools. Rarely do we see how this works at the high school level. I fear, except in very rare cases, that many of the gains (and teacher techniques) spoken about are lost once kids hit 9th grade and beyond. High school kids are a whole different ballgame in my opinion. I equate it with trying to teach a content subject standing in the middle of I-95 facing traffic. You gotta be alert at all times or you will get run over. I was roadkill more often than not. :)

SaveyourSelf writes:

Great interview. Exciting guest--Peek of his career; Fresh from the front lines; Optimistic and Energized. I have but one caveat.

Right at the start of the conversation he said, “…if this were any other sector other than education--Silicon Valley in which it [a company] figured out how to put immense amounts of additional memory on the chip for the same amount of size--people would be engaged in industrial espionage, trying to sneak into the chip fabrication plant to figure out what it was that made one plant's results so incredible. But in education that wasn't part of the culture, that wasn't what we did.”

He makes a great point with that statement but misses the larger picture. A more accurate statement would have been, “…if this were any sector other than a monopolistic one like education…” There are other monopolistic sectors in the United States with identical monopoly-cultures. The military, the department of motor vehicles, the police, the firefighters, the pharmaceutical industry, the healthcare industry in general, the finance industry, the education industry…in short everything the government touches. The culture of these monopolistic-industries is understandable given that Human behavior is predictable when we know what incentives individuals will experience. Monopoly environments reward undesirable behavior.

In exactly the same way Mr. Lemov’s behavior—his hunger for information and techniques that improve the quality of his company’s services—are predictable given that he exists within the competitive part of the market for education. He is not a government employee. The government, in fact, is his primary competition.

So I, too, celebrate Mr. Lemov’s energy, ideas, and commitment; but I would caution anyone who cares broadly about education that the greater solution is not so much found in his specific ideas as in the features of his environment that rewarded him for seeking, testing, developing, and communicating those ideas in the first place.

Todd Mora writes:

I still can't believe this is totally free! It is amazing the quality of the guests and interviewer in these podcasts. Thank you Dr. Roberts for taking the time and expense to enlighten us.

I share your podcasts with everyone I know. I know people get tired of me quoting you and your guests, however, there are very few venues that provide thoughtful dignified discussions on important topics like your podcasts. I have even started using your podcasts to make my book selections, just read "The Sports Gene" fascinating book and much more enriching with the accompanying podcasts.

Thank you.

Wilfrid writes:

When I saw the author, that he was from a charter school background, and that his book titles look like they came from Buzzfeed, I was fully expecting 60 mins of union bashing. My biases got out in front of me and it was impossible not to listen to this and feel the great passion he has for students and their learning. He comes across as incredibly humble about his own approach and the impact he has on schools, teachers and students. Already looking up his books. Wonderful stuff.

nichtich writes:

This comment may offend some people, especially teachers and people who have relatives and friends in teaching profession.

Good teacher is overrated. Of course a wonderful teacher can do amazing things to her students, changing their lives even. But for primary school and middle school level, and on a "mass" education standpoint, it's just too difficult to make every teacher a good teacher. In order to achieve it in national level, it requires a fundamental shift in social structure.

A good teacher is like a good blacksmith. From years of experience and sometimes a struck of genius he can do amazing tricks and creates very nice products. But in order to make everybody afford such products it would require a vast army of master blacksmith, which would just not happen. Instead we have factories, which designed by a small group of people with knowledge even greater than a master blacksmith but only needs somewhat ok level worker to create products of excellent quality.

The style of learning that focus on teacher lecturing students in a classroom is an ancient one. That's before the invention of printing, and surely before the internet. And while before learning was a luxury for the rich, now it's provided to everybody. It's mass production now, from the tools to the needs.

When a factory owner faces the problem of less than desired quality, one option is to have better workers as the guest is arguing here. Of course you should train your workers and boost their moral, but there's only so much you can do. You can't expect them to be masters of the field. If they are, why would they work for you as an ordinary worker? What most factory owner would actually do is to develop better tools and design better procedures and better quality control systems. You still need a core of experts for designing and upgrading the system, but for average worker you would like the requirement be as low as possible.

So although I admire the guest's work, it doesn't solve the problem. I'm sure it'll be a good read for anybody who wants to become a great teacher. But for others it's just not answering the right questions. What we should do is to design the system and tools to make "ok" teacher achieve master level results.

Yavor S writes:

Mr. Lemov appears very talented and ambitious. We could expect teachers to be like professional athletes who live and breathe their craft, constantly and enthusiastically practicing and improving.... not many will be able to do it at all and even fewer will be able to do it consistently without burning out while enjoy it for years and years. We all like to achieve and see achieved excellent results but this very often comes at a price that is simply too high. Every week we hear how we can be exercising and eating much better, how to be much better citizens in a democracy, how to be better parents and husbands, how to be better at being happy and not depressed etc... The problem with this excellence thing is that it is extremely costly and excellence in one area (in this case being the best teacher one can be) crowds out almost all other endeavors one has to be above average or at least decent in others. I am not embracing mediocrity here but let's be honest with ourselves - how many of us are both willing and able to really embrace and deliver excellence? Mr. Lemov's approach is not a system-wide solution but a strategy to offer islands of excellence for the teachers and students who opt into that system. And as far as self-selection goes and freedom of choice go - that's great. But this is not a choice we'll ever make or be able to enforce as a society without having a huge offsetting cost in other areas of life.

Daivd writes:

Interesting podcast! As a social studies teacher in an urban high school it really got my attention.

First off, there was a lot of discussion about teaching strategies revolving around "who, what, where, and when" questions, but little about engaging students in processing "how and why" questions. Personally, I can do amazing lessons if I only had to stick to the "who, what, where, and when" material. But teaching becomes significantly harder when moving to "how and why" questions.

Secondly, Mr. Lemov seems like he would be a great administrator. In my twenty year teaching career, I have had 14 principals and countless of assistant principals. I can honestly say that of that number, I have felt valued and respected by less than 5. This is the very sad reality of administration in public schools, and why everything Mr. Lemov says must be taken in context. He can do great things at his school. But unless he and a few more like him come to my school, my faculty will continue to feel demoralized, devalued and disgusted by the officious treatment of questionably competent administrators.

MarkOS writes:

Brilliant as usual. I especially enjoyed the last question about how to improve Econtalk. Was that off the cuff or planned? I get the feeling that Mr Lemov will get back to you with a list of ideas once he has time to mull it over. Seems like that kind of guy.

Equally impressed, as usual, with the comments. For those who rightly identify systemic issues and burnout, I would recommend the book "Professional Capital" by Hargreaves and Fullan. I would suggest this as required reading in how to deliver Mr Lemov's ideas across districts and even nations.

As ever thanks to Russ and his team.

Steve writes:

Great podcast. Makes me want to quit my job as an engineer and become a teacher.

thanks Russ,
--steve

tspare writes:

I loved this podcast. I especially liked the how to link conceptual understanding to practical usage though practice. At the same time I got how kids learn very differently and that teaching is really a performance art. I have kids so this would help me teaching things to them. I just need some practice first (wife is not going to be happy).

As far as improvements for econtalk, here are a few things I came up with even-though I think its great already.

- Maybe have a top 10 list of questions for the topic that people can suggest and vote on. Then we can bring the guest back for discussion on those topics

- Maybe have a running best list of best comments. I know hacker news runs a algorithm on figuring out and rank the comments which would be useful here.

- Have a buy link so people can buy the books that are discussed and therefore hopefully pay back the guest.

- Maybe a counter so Russ would know how many people listened to the talk and a voting button to gauge how many people where interested in the topic

Daniel Barkalow writes:

I think the most important point from this podcast is that, while maybe we can't make everyone a great teacher, this program should be able to make everyone a not bad teacher, and that would actually be a huge improvement over the current situation. Furthermore, this program has as big an effect making teaching less frustrating for teachers as it does making them more effective. From what was discussed, it doesn't even sound like it would obsolete a lot of lesson plans. So it seems to me like a teacher would benefit from doing these things, even if they did not get any additional administrative respect, because it's not any more effort and it's more pleasant.

What teacher wants to plead with the back row to participate? What teacher wouldn't like to hear their students call out of the right answer in unison? What teacher wants their students to do unexpectedly badly on tests? Admittedly, some teachers would rather deliver lectures than lead discussions, but that's the only thing I could imagine a teacher missing when adopting anything discussed in this podcast.

emerich writes:

Lemov’s comments and insights were a rare combination of inspiring yet practical. I don’t think I ever got to the end of an Econtalk podcast before and found nothing the guest said I can object to or disagree with, or find other than wise.

How refreshing to hear him say (contrastingly to your previous guest Lant Pritchett) that even the schools in those “great” US suburban districts fall way short. All three of my kids went through one of the best school systems in the country (New Trier district, Illinois). Fairly common was the experience of my son in an “advanced” high school English class, where the materials and homework were demanding but the teacher gave 0 feedback. Did he come out of the class with an increased appreciation for literature and writing? He came out of it "not believing in" fiction. What’s the risk to a teacher in a “top” school who decides to put in just token effort? Not high. There’s little point in complaining to either the principal or the teacher, we learned early on. All you get is a condescending lecture about how your child “will do fine” and of the dangers of “hurrying” your child.

The system is dysfunctional all the way down. Thanks to Lemov we do see there's a much better way.

cjc writes:

Teachers must be taught in College. They must be taught the skill of teaching. Unfortunately not much of this happens. Teachers are taught about teaching, but not taught to teach. Teaching teachers involves imparting specific skills. The instructors and Professors do not seem able to do this. And in fact they and many respondents to this podcast believe that it cannot be done. They believe the average college student cannot absorb these skills or rather should just divine them as some gifted teachers do because they are not taught as skills should be taught.

But, though the eminent Professors are failing to train young college students in complex skills, almost every campus has someone who is successful in a very similar endeavor. The Head Football Coach. Yes, the Coach takes as delivered college students and trains them in the complex set of skills associated with football. I am not talking of the performance skills, I am talking of the cognitive skills. Learning activities and sequences, learning responses to specific situations, applying those responses in real time in stressful situations. Learning to adapt to changing situations. These young college students learn these complex skills because they are taught them. The Coach uses daily practice, repetition, classroom lectures, feedback and yes, advanced technologies like video. How many Professors video tape teachers in action and then critique the films? Coaches do this weekly. How many professors require a student to repeat a complex task until it becomes automatic? Coaches do this daily.

There is not a doubt in my mind that if the Professors and instructors borrowed much from the football coach and applied it to teaching teachers the skills required for effective teaching we would see remarkable improvements in our system.
But I am not holding my breath. The performance of the Coach is evaluated every Saturday afternoon by the alumni. And if they fail to develop the right skills in their students they are soon gone. The Professors are evaluated by no-one, and anyway, they have tenure.

Colin Fernandes writes:

This podcast ranks as one of the best in 2013. I was in a university setting for years and work at a Bank now. This has motivated me to want to teach again. The ideas Lemov discusses can be used by anyone - not just educators - I am hoping to use some ideas and techniques with my current team - and I hope not to forget or revert back to my old ways in 6 months. Excellent work Roberts. I anxiously await each Monday morning to see what I might learn from these great podcasts.

Matthias writes:

Pair this one with a podcast from earlier this year

http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2013/08/hanushek_on_edu_3.html

where the interviewee claims that if we can improve our lowest performing teachers, something like lowest 4%, we could have incredible improvements on average educational outcomes and then, twenty years down the road when those students enter the work force, GDP. The trick is to getting those lowest 4% to listen to this episode on becoming better teachers.

Kendall writes:

@cjc

There is not a doubt in my mind that if the Professors and instructors borrowed much from the football coach and applied it to teaching teachers the skills required for effective teaching we would see remarkable improvements in our system

Having coached and taught for 20 years I would like to point out a couple of advantages a coach has. The first is the players have volunteered to be there. The second is if a player doesn't want to cooperate with me I can send him packing. If teachers could get rid of 2 or 3 students who have no desire to learn, the result would be remarkable in many lower level classes.

Kendall writes:

I really didn't hear anything in the podcast about teaching strategies I haven't heard numerous times during my 20 years of teaching. It seems to me the question is are there enough people who your guest would hire at his school to staff all of the schools in the country? If not, then I don't see how his success helps us improve teaching as a whole in this country.

Colin Cumming writes:

Kendall

Having coached and taught for 20 years I would like to point out a couple of advantages a coach has. The first is the players have volunteered to be there. The second is if a player doesn't want to cooperate with me I can send him packing. If teachers could get rid of 2 or 3 students who have no desire to learn, the result would be remarkable in many lower level classes.

You are missing my point completely. I am talking about training teachers in college. They are there by choice and we definitely want the Professor to scrub them out if they are incapable of learning how to teach kids. Instead there is virtually zero coaching of these aspiring teachers.
Lemov's system is based on providing the coaching that should have been done in college. But it is very rarely done. So there is no feedback loop to help teachers learn the skills required. Lemov provides that feedback. Coaches do that every day.

Kendall writes:

Colin,

I did miss your point, thanks for the correction. I would agree teachers in training should have opportunity to practice teach on a regular basis starting in their first year as opposed to a few weeks of student teaching at the end of their degree program.

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