Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on the needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students during this challenging and chaotic time.

Our first interview in the series is with Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon Schools and author of Teach Like a Champion, a beloved book by new and veteran teachers that has sold over one million copies and been translated into ten different languages. Doug speaks about the challenges and opportunities distance learning provides, and shares advice and best practices for the transition.


Marc Porter Magee: Welcome. This is our first of what we hope will be a series of interviews with thought leaders and educators tackling this new era of distance learning. I’m really excited to have Doug Lemov with us for the inaugural interview.

Many of you may know Doug Lemov from his time at Uncommon Schools. He started as a teacher. He was a principal. He ended up being the managing director, supervising many schools. He’s also the author of many books including the best-seller, Teach Like a Champion, which has sold over a million copies. I’ve seen it many times in bookstores. It’s been translated into 10 languages. And he manages a team that now focuses on how to improve teaching and help kids in schools across the country.

So thank you, Doug. Welcome and thank you for calling in.

Doug Lemov: Thanks for having me on. It’s great to catch up and great to talk about teaching.

So if this was a normal year, we’d be talking about all the things that you and your team tackle. I wonder if you could just let us in a little bit to your world, how you’ve been approaching this, and then we’ll talk about this new era.

Sure. You mean just how I’ve been just approaching teaching generally?

Exactly. So what is the Teach Like a Champion approach?

I think it’s both a process and then a set of principles. I think the process is learning about teaching by studying teachers, specifically by finding high performing teachers who make a difference in kids’ lives in neighborhoods where kids are generally cut off from opportunity and where the challenges of teaching are greatest. Let’s start by learning about what works best studying teachers themselves.

I just think it’s deeply important for teachers to participate in generating the knowledge base of the profession. Think of something that happens, for example, in the medical field. Doctors are not just practitioners; they’re also constantly feeding back information to the profession to help it understand its work better. And I just think it’s an important way to professionalize the craft of teaching.

So part of it is a process. We videotape teachers. We study teachers all the time. People sit around several times a week peeking out on watching a 30-second clip of a teacher, rolling it back again. What did she say? That’s so interesting. Why did she say it that way? Why did she say it this way as opposed to that way?

So that’s how I spend my time. And that’s resulted in 62 techniques in the latest version of Teach Like a Champion. But if I had to group it into a set of key principles, I would say it’s, one, ensure the engagement of every student in the class. Kids can be sitting in the room, but that doesn’t mean they’re engaged, and that’s one of the key tasks of the teacher.

Number two, push for rigor. How do I make sure the kids are doing as much of the thinking as possible and it’s as rigorous as possible? Personally, I just believe deeply in the role of writing in the classroom. I would love to make all classrooms more writing intensive.

And then I think it’s important for teachers to acknowledge that classrooms are first and foremost cultures. And that means that they shape people’s behaviors. And a great classroom shapes the behaviors of students in it by making them more attentive, more rigorous, more willing to work, more supportive of one another, more academic, more positive, because that results in more learning for everyone. So I think those are a couple of the sort of common themes throughout the work that my team and I do.

I’m sure like a lot of people in the education world, about three or four weeks ago you got hit with this completely unprecedented situation where we had to remove the school building from the culture of people who lead and teach in schools. I wonder if you could give us a sense of how your team went about trying to approach what it meant to translate these practices into this new era of distance learning.

It’s been so fascinating, because at first I think we asked ourselves how we’d be relevant. We’ve spent 20 years studying what teachers do in classrooms and now classroom does not exist for teachers for the next couple of months. But then I think we went back to what we do and started saying it’s a process. It’s a process of studying teachers and watching them carefully. The team is really insightful and they’re really good at that.

So we went from watching video together two days a week to watching video together five days a week. And just watching as much footage as we could of teachers in online settings trying to instruct students, to try and learn as fast as we could what appeared to work, what the key decisions were, what kinds of things went wrong and we could learn from those things. And so the process has been, like everyone else, we’ve had to turn on a dime.

The process bit has been strangely consistent in a lot of ways, in that it’s about studying teachers. And I think a lot of things that we’ve found and think that we believe about online instruction. Everything’s the same and everything’s different, like who’s paying attention. And it continues to be a really, really fundamental question times ten. But the challenges and the tools are different. So everything’s the same and everything’s different.

I feel lucky to work with the team that I have; I think they’re tremendous people. And so we’re starting to try to push out guidance that we know that teachers will use and adapt and apply in their settings. One of my favorite phrases about what we do is, the only thing we know for sure is that some of what we do is wrong. I hope it’s a small part, but even if it’s right generally. An idea can be right generally and wrong in a certain setting. So it’s a great idea to do but it’s wrong at this time or it doesn’t work for this teacher.

So I think one of our fundamental premises is just approach the work with a lot of humility and be careful about rushing to judge. And I think we’ve tried to balance that with a need to get guidance out to teachers quickly, because they’re living it and it’s real and suddenly they’re in a brave new world.

It feels like that process of adaptation and experimentation is going to be key, because so many schools are in this new era. And yet there’s probably some principles we can keep in mind. I know that you and your team have been at the forefront of applying cognitive science in how we think about instruction. Are there a few principles there that you think everyone should keep in mind?

I’m so glad that you asked about cognitive science, because it’s so relevant and so important. Two things I think are especially important about cognitive science. One is just understanding working memory and how it influences what we do in the classroom. And one of the most simple things about working memory is that working memory is incredibly powerful and it’s capable of great insight, but it’s also extremely limited in its scope. You can really think about one idea of any depth at a time. And if you try and think about three things at once, either you stop thinking about one of those things – you force something out of your mind – or you forget the things that you were thinking about or both.

So one of the things that happens when you’re doing online instruction is you start—when it’s synchronous, meaning we’re all here together in a web room or Zoom call or Google hangout—I start talking, and then I’m overloading them with information because it’s hard to be interactive and so I’ll just tell you my whole 20 minutes worth of information straightaway. Well I’m overloading working memory right there, and the likelihood that people will remember the second half of anything beyond the first couple of minutes of what I’m saying, starts to decrease or diminish with marginal returns.

And then I think attention is the most overlooked principle. In education generally, you can only learn about what you’re paying attention to, and managing the depth and duration of people’s attention is really important. And people struggle for attention times ten in a screen environment. They are far away from you. They are insulated from social and cultural cues that you use to maintain their attention. And they’re in a setting on a screen where they are used to maintaining their attention for fleeting periods of time.

One of the best books that I’ve read in the last year or two is Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf. It’s about the influence of screens on reading. The average task duration during the day of someone who’s working on their computer on a screen is something like two and a half minutes. And when you read–you probably realize this when you read on the screen, you feel your eye pushing down the page trying to skip over text. Skimming, a state of partial half-attention, is the new normal in that setting. And so when we’re online, first of all, our kids are looking at us. We’re a tiny image in the corner of a screen. So a lot of our cultural tools are missing. And they’re in a setting where they’re socialized to pay limited attention. And so we have to be super, super attentive to tools to maximize engagement and attention and to managing working memory. Short bursts of information, opportunity for kids to wrestle with it, use it, consolidate their memory, do something with the content that we’re giving them.

Challenging to do, but doable online. Back to more information than, again, opportunity for kids to use it. And if we don’t do those things– it’s incredibly challenging what teachers have been asked to do on short notice, but we’re not going to be successful if we can’t implement those ideas.

What do you think we should expect in terms of outcomes from students, ways of trying to measure their work? What’s reasonable to expect of teachers in this complicated environment in terms of providing instruction?

 Your question is a great, great question. And even before we measure their work, I think the very first thing is let’s make sure that they’re doing work. It’s a totally new setting, and all of the expectations we built in the other setting are gone. And we have to rebuild the fabric of expectations all over again, and that means just every chance I get to reinforce, I am not just a talking head on the other end of the screen here.

When I talk about things, you’re taking notes. You’re writing this down. You’re doing the problems. You’re going to email it to me. You’re going to send it back to me. I think accountability groups and feedback groups are so important. Before we can even measure the quality of it, I just think we want to make sure we’re building learning environments where kids expect to be constantly learning and are constantly working and engaging with content and aren’t just sort of sitting passively and zoning out.

And so I think there are three different types of pause points. You’re talking into the screen at people. You have to pause every couple of minutes and insert an activity. And I think there are three key types of activities that have to happen. The first one is just an accountability loop where my goal is to ask you to do something, to engage in the content, and then show you that I’m going to know whether you did it. All right, so you and I are on Zoom right now, and I could very easily say, “Marc, why don’t you take a minute to summarize what we’ve talked about so far and just send it to me in the chat” which is a function on Zoom. And then you can send it back to me. And there I’m basically saying you have to do the work. I’ll see whether you do the work. I will know, I’ll respond, and I’d say, “Yeah, I love the ideas I’m seeing from the class in the chat there. Someone said this; someone said that.” I’m just trying to build these loops of like this is an engaged learning environment. Or maybe I have a shared Google document that everyone in my class can see, and I ask everyone to type in their thoughts on the Google sheet. It’s a shared sheet and everyone can see it, if I’m lucky enough to have the technology to do this. And that allows me to do one of the second things, which is students need formative thinking. When we are in a classroom– formative thinking is, I start with an idea. I hear other people’s thoughts on that idea and it helps me to improve and generate my idea. The first answer is almost never sufficient. And in the classroom, we accomplish the need for formative thinking with discussion, a turn and talk, and maybe a show call where I put students’ work up and say, “Look, how do you compare yours to this work?”, etc. Those things are really hard to do online. But I’ve got to find ways to have formative thinking for students so it’s not just, “Here’s my first answer. I’m done.”

And then the third type of activity that I need is the kind of activity that I’ll call it check for understanding. Which is I need to know, not just that you’re doing work but that you’re doing it successfully. I need to know what you’re learning so I can adapt my instruction. I always as a teacher have to presume that I will have to adapt my instruction to what my students are learning. But in an online setting that’s brand new to me, I have to assume like times ten I will be on the bleeding edge more than I ever am and I’ll be figuring out by making mistakes or being imperfect more than ever. And so I have to be super attentive to the data stream that student work provides. And so I have to constantly be gathering student work.

Well, thank you, Doug, for giving us this peek inside how you guys are thinking about this. I know you’re just at the beginning of adjusting with you and your team. What’s the right way for people to follow along as you take ground over the next few weeks and months?

Yeah, thanks. There’s a blog. It’s the Teach Like a Champion blog. And we’re trying to push out a couple of blogs a week. Video of teachers either synchronous or asynchronous teaching, some of the things that they’re doing. Or reflections and lists of different types of activities and how you might implement them. So that’s the best way. We’re also trying to do some webinars and things like that, but if you follow us on the blog you’ll probably hear about that. You can also follow me and my team on social media. Particularly on Twitter: @Doug_Lemov or @TeachLikeAChamp. You can find us there. And just a last thank you to all those teachers out there who are figuring out the job all over again on short notice.

Absolutely. This is unprecedented. And it’s amazing the way everyone’s stepping up. Teachers, principals, parents, and all the people who are helping us along the way. So thank you to you and your team.

Yeah, and thanks for doing your part as well.

Marc Porter Magee Ph.D is the CEO and founder of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.


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