20 Tips for Great Teaching

The birth of Education’s new Scientology Cult.

If you fell for the clickbait headline then the chances are that you’ll be a fan of Doug Lemov. Hailing from New York, a product of Teach for America, with a Harvard MBA and some teaching experience at a Princeton private day school, Lemov has risen to almost cult-like status with his Teach Like a Champion series of books, training sessions, personal appearances and other products for the new to teaching or those in need of a motivator.

There was a flurry of debate on social media following the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 featuring Lemov and studio guests, Dr Ruth Payne, researcher from the University of Leeds, and the govt appointed school behaviour Tsar, Tom Bennett.

Quite astonishing was the admiration that Bennett, a gentleman with terrier-like determination for evidence to support teaching practice, gushed in support of Lemov. Bennett who uses his column in the, centre-right education weekly, TES, to pour scorn and derision on the likes of Sir Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra. The same Bennett who, to the delight of teachers with a penchant for tweed underwear, would ban 21st century assistive technologies from the classroom just to ensure that schools remain teacher-centred.

This seemed implausible at first. Surely, we thought, there must be a significant body of evidence and measurements that support Lemov’s theory that by deploying 49 different body language techniques a teacher will be able to “Teach Like a Champion”.

If this was indeed true it would mean that anyone who could master these techniques could become a Jedi master of teaching within months. That’s a powerful notion, who needs to spend 4 years learning their craft when you can buy the book and take a Teach First gig?

Transformative indeed. ED Hirsch, Teach First, Doug Lemov, job done. Just measure the mother out of everything and it’s all sorted. Cultural transmission you can trust without Mr Blobby.

Yet, as it turns out there is no compelling evidence that Lemov’s 49 dance moves have any positive impact, in fact quite the contrary. Alan Singer, Hofstra University, describes Lemov’s bible as outrageous in “the idea that somehow without years of training and support, successful teachers can be constructed.”

Any critique of this on social media were met with the arrival of the twitter attack dogs, the playground bullies who disinterred the ghost of Frederick Taylor in their Masonic Lodge to worship him like Neo-Scientologists while guided by the Church of Ayn Rand and funded by shadowy forces as if it were Policy Exchange. It feels cult-like. The arrival of the First Order to crush the likes of those who would set education free.

But then it all becomes clear. This is no “Village of the Damned” takeover of our nations schools. It’s a grotesquely narrow belief system about what the purpose of schooling is for. It’s part of a programme that seeks to industrialise our schooling systems to install a cultural imprint on each child with a set of quantifiable measurements that demonstrate inculcation and compliance. At a stroke, this approach could transform our education system. No more variance in the output, whole batches of children could be prepared for whatever purposes industry dictates and those who don’t meet the grade can be sent to war or prison.

It starts with the knowledge-centred theories of American management consultant ED Hirsch around what he euphemistically calls “Cultural Literacy”, turns that into a curriculum that can be delivered by a flashmob of content delivery drones after they’ve attended a 6 week course at Teach First supported with Doug Lemov’s bible, “Teach Like a Champion”. No need to worry about teacher shortages and churn when you can turn it around that quickly with measurements to prove it. In fact, one day you won’t even need a teacher.

Interestingly, one of the architects of, and commentators about, Finlands education system Pasi Sahlberg wrote in the Washington Post why there would never be a Teach for Finland.

Innovation, creativity and the arts, free thinking and following your passion, all that should be the preserve of the elite. The elite who are groomed by their private schools to be leaders. It must be true, it says so in the prospectus.

Rather than confront this conundrum, Bennett went on the offensive. Ignoring requests to support his love of Lemov with evidence he instead chose to petulantly attack fellow studio guest Dr Ruth Payne on Twitter saying that her “survey didn’t count as research”. To my knowledge Bennett doesn’t have any experience in the field of academic research so I was curious about how he had come to this belief. I asked Bennett several times on Twitter as did many others to which he has never replied.

My curiosity piqued I spoke to Dr Payne, who doesn’t Twitter, and asked her what she thought of Bennett’s accusation about the validity of her work. Payne explained to me that her work on disciplinary behaviour in schools and the efficacy of punishments was the result of one of the most comprehensive literature reviews that had been conducted in the UK in recent years. The fruits of this review informed an initial pilot survey with 1500 children designed as a proof of concept for a national review. Payne’s work was then peer-reviewed before being published.

In light of this it seems odd that as the government appointed Tsar for school behaviour and self-styled behaviour guru, not to mention a leading TES columnist, Tom Bennett had never heard of Dr Payne or her work and that he would publicly trash her online. What is also odd is that the people who Bennett has surrounded himself with in his role in advising government policy for our children amounts to nothing more than an echo chamber.

But I should point out that I don’t have it in for poor old Tom, I’ve never met him but I sense that he’s a decent chap trying to make a living like us all and he no doubt has a passion for education. I imagine that he carries a ruler with him everywhere.

What concerns me more is the takeover of our education system in England by a government and media influenced by a group of unelected advisors, profiteers and showmen supporting a narrative that allows the homogenisation of our schools and as a result our culture. Cultural transmission, cheaply distributed into the minds of children by service providers who have cost efficiently mastered their processing to provide tailored output to meet the demands of the economic development plan.

It seems like Aldous Huxley was on to something.

Nick Gibb MP publishes essay on ED Hirsh


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Graham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.