Reviewed by Dina Strasser
Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov
This past July, my state, New York, hired a crack team of analysts to determine whether our state math and English exams
in grades 3–8 were aligned to both national
exams and our high school exams.
The result: a radical and depressing raising of
state exam cut scores. As the 7th grade English
teacher of a class that included high-needs
students with individualized education plans,
English language learners, and
one-third kids in poverty, I
had been satisfied with my
students’ scores. Now, with
my students’ passing rate sunk
to 62 percent, I was looking
Cue Doug Lemov’s Teach
Like a Champion: 49 Techniques
That Put Students on the Path
to College. After five years of
observing and videotaping
classrooms serving students
living in poverty, Doug Lemov
has compiled a “taxonomy” of
specific techniques that distin-
guish great teachers from those who are merely
good. In Teach Like a Champion, Lemov discusses
each of these techniques in detail (and includes a
DVD showing the techniques in action).
Elizabeth Green’s 2010 New York Times
Magazine article “Building a Better Teacher,” which
profiles Lemov, is essential reading. My own
reading of the book’s assertions, though, has
been ambivalent. Let’s begin with the problems.
“Philosophy”—Not a Dirty Word
Lemov writes that many of these tools “remain
essentially beneath the notice of our theories
and theorists of education” (p. 7). In fact, he
frequently speaks disparagingly of theory and
“philosophy.” To those who might feel that
the techniques run contrary to the education
theories they have been taught, he responds that
he didn’t write the book “to engage in a philosophical debate” (p. 9).
Characterizing philosophy like this is misleading, however. All educators, even Lemov,
subscribe to some kind of philosophy—a set of
beliefs about learning. To imply that the techniques are philosophy-free conveys a sense of
objectivity that the techniques do not earn. It
also hides the fact that Lemov actually subscribes to an extremely well-defined education
philosophy: speed in all things, constant monitoring, absolute compliance, college as the pinnacle of education, and teacher as ultimate
authority. This “not-a-philosophy” permeates the
Lemov dismisses the school
contexts in which his
observations take place.
I don’t have space to discuss ways in which
neuroscience, psychology, and other schooling
models suggest that this philosophy is limited.
My point is that without such a discussion by
thoughtful practitioners, no informed application
or evaluation of these techniques is possible.
The Limits of “Data”
Lemov uses the scientific gravitas of the word
data multiple times. However, the book is not
science and shouldn’t be treated that way.
The most important flaw in how Lemov
presents information is that he dismisses the
school contexts in which his observations take
place. Lemov didn’t target successful individual
teachers across diverse schooling situations;
instead, he first identified “successful” schools
through looking at test scores. Many of these
are within his own charter school organization,
Uncommon Schools. Why is this important?
Because in such schools, the culture is likely
maintained not just by lone-wolf teachers, but
also by administrators and families. This is
undoubtedly the case in Uncommon Schools.