There’s a debate that is raging amongst the twitter-teachers at the moment, so you’ll have to excuse me joining in with this post.  If you have an opinion, please feel free to add it to the comments at the end, I’d be interested to know what you think.


Uncommon Schools

So.  The debate is centered around a small, select group of schools in the US, called charter schools, Uncommon Schools being part of a group including KIPP and Achievement First schools.  As far as I understand it, these are run a bit like our sponsored academies, or free schools, independent of local authority control. They serve largely urban, low-income communities with all their connected race, class and cultural facets, with the express goal of ‘closing the gap’ in academic achievement between rich and poor, and sending as many children on to college as possible.  Achievement in exams and tests is high, and so is the rate of exclusion; whether or not this translates to success in further education, I don’t know.


So what’s all the fuss?

On the face of it, you would think that teachers would be jumping for joy at the thought of schools doing so well in the face of the challenges so many of us work with, but, strangely, it is not the case.  The schools are controversial, and the cause of considerable disagreement.  I am no expert here, I have read no books by authors on the board, visited no schools aping techniques here in the UK – but I have been troubled by what I have read and seen, troubled enough to do a little bit of reading when I was supposed to be doing the housework, and thinking when I was trying to get to sleep.

  • Teaching tricks

Now this is a really interesting one.  One of the most famous of the Names, Doug Lemov, involved with these schools has written a book, Teach Like a Champion.  I hold my hands up.  I don’t do a lot of reading around my professional practice, and I’m not sure that his appeals to me, but it is doing the rounds and this is what I know about it.  Doug has had a go at analysing what it is that successful teachers do in their classrooms.  He has used Data (not the Star Trek character, sorry) (and I don’t know which data he used) in order to pinpoint techniques and he wrote them in a book, and they are the methods that are insisted on in his schools.

Now, all this sounds terribly useful, and I am the first person to admit that when I go popping in to other people’s classrooms I am the first to shamelessly steal all their best ideas, but, to be honest, I like to make those decisions myself.  Children are precious, vulnerable growing beings, and I have a lot of experience in working with them.  I see it as part of my professional toolkit, if you like, to make my own decisions about what method is most appropriate for the children I teach.  Some kids respond well to one thing, some another.  This constant decision making, this fine tuning, is all part of what I do.

  • Discipline

Every teacher knows that classroom discipline is the key to getting children to learn.  We call it behaviour management.  If they are chattering, they are not getting on with writing.  If they are throwing paper aeroplanes then they certainly aren’t.  If they are squabbling then they are more interested in whatever drama is going on between them that they are in what you are trying to teach them.  We know this.  Teachers who lack the skills to create a purposeful, respectful classroom are not very successful.

One of the things that characterises the Uncommon School is the rigid, some would say militaristic discipline.  The children move around the school in silence.  Carpet time involves special striped carpets and designated spaces where the children must sit.  There is a prescribed way of putting up one’s hand.  If you aren’t called upon to raise your Vertical Hand you might be Cold Called (that’s being asked without putting your hand up).  You must answer immediately, or be given specific Think Time.  Your eyes must track the teacher.  There is clicking (but I can’t quite work out what that one’s all about).

Why must the children do all these things?  Because they are the outward behaviours that signal an inner engagement with the material a teacher is teaching.  It’s a pity we can’t open up their heads, really, just to make sure that they aren’t faking it.

  • Pedagogy, or the science and art of education

This is a term which I approach with great caution, and I would probably characterise it as the philosophy that underpins my professional life.  As far as I can see, the Uncommon Schools, and schools like them, take the view that children are the recipients of Facts and Knowledge.  It is our job as teachers to transfer these facts and knowledge, especially in these days of competition between schools and education systems, as quickly and efficiently as possible by Direct Instruction. Tell them what they need to know and get them to practice it so that they at the very least know it well enough to pass the test(s).  Simple, right?  Right?

So why my disquiet?

On the face of it, you would think that I would be all in favour of these schools.  Rigorous (I hope) research backing up the techniques, calm orderly schools and classrooms, a firm belief in what the teachers are doing and why.  But, leaving aside the privatisation and application of market forces to education (by which I mean the competition engendered by results tables), I am left with a feeling of disquiet.  I am troubled by what I have seen, and what I have read.

You see, I know that teaching is a complicated business.  I know that what works for one teacher does not necessarily work for another.  And I know that to insist we do it one way and one way only sucks the soul out of teachers, it turns them from living, breathing, thinking professionals into automatons following a script, into disheartened, disillusioned creative people with no room for that creativity to express itself.

I know that the fundamental thing for a teacher to develop is a respectful working relationship with his or her class.  And I know that unless the teacher has fully invested themselves in the methods they use in their classroom, unless they are fully convinced as if they had come up with the techniques themselves, then what you have is a parody of teaching, an empty shell.

I also know a little bit about data.  Not much, mark you, a little.  I know that there is always someone at the bottom (or the top) of the heap.  I know that there is always some awkward little anomaly.  I live with one.  Every day he presents me with challenges I never thought that I would face.  Every moment I must come up with new ways, creative ways to help him to learn, to kit him out with every scrap of skill I can to help him on his way to an independent life.

I’ve written about how I feel about compliance before.  I’ve written about how I feel about children serving adult needs before.  I’ve written about the mistakes that well meaning people make, all in the name of education.  I’ve written about how being different chromosomally, but here, culturally, is part of who we are.  I could be more explicit about engagement or behaviour or how to actually do what it is I do, but it’s not my style.

To teach, you don’t just need enthusiasm.  You don’t just need techniques.  You don’t just need the change-the-world energy of the Bright Young Things.  You need the wisdom of colleagues who have seen the fashions come and go to keep you in check.  You need people about you who have experience and knowledge you can draw on when you stub your toe against the inevitable anomaly you have a duty to teach just as well as the bright eyed bushy tailed people pleaser.  You need the parent to tell you when the children cry, how they really feel about what goes on in class.  You need the head, and the heart, aligned.

And no. I wouldn’t send my child, not my Sam nor my other two, to an Uncommon School.



23 thoughts on “Troubled

  1. What befuddles me about education policy in the UK is that we take our cue from neoliberal America and in doing so may as well go back to the Victorian age, where schools were set up by charities and subject to the particular “philosophy” of their owners. Gradgrind is back with a vengeance!

    1. Yes. This strikes me too. I wonder how long it will be before someone suggests some sort of prefect system. After all, it’s so much cheaper to have one teacher, and loads of assistants….oh.

  2. Beautifully written, Nancy. I too share your discomfort at a top-down model of ‘what makes good teaching’. We must be challenged to think for ourselves and learn from the wisdom of our colleagues; there will always be those children who need something different, a personal approach.

    Like you, I have not visited an Uncommon School so cannot comment about how they work in practice. I do, however, think that Lemov’s book and the teaching strategies it promotes have been unfairly lampooned in some circles. Admittedly there are one or two unnecessarily draconian – or just slightly silly – ideas in the book, but the majority are very useful. Ideas such as ‘positive framing’ for instance can actively support a warm and positive relationship between teacher and student (although I balk at shaking their hands on entry – I don’t know where they have been!)

    Thanks for an interesting piece – I’ll be sharing it with our Teach Like a Champion book group at school.

    Have a lovely half-term.


    1. Thanks, Andy.
      I’m sure that in every teaching book there are things we agree with and things we think are bonkers, would never work with our kids etc etc.
      I’m going on impressions here – one day I might have a look at the book. It would be great to look around the a school and see for myself – feel the atmosphere, ask what they would do for a child like mine. I have another storytelling post that expresses some of those misgivinga but i am in the irritating position of being stuck half way through!

  3. It is a shame that you have not visited any of these schools. I have. I visited for four days with a group of London headteachers and I wanted to know how they did what they did so I returned to New Jersey for a week with some of my SLT. I got a chance to see what actually happens and to talk to children and some teachers. They are not the uniform and militaristic places implied. They are very clear about rules and behaviours. The do teach their children how to interact in lessons but no child i spoke to was overawed by the process. I saw some wonderful lessons. I did not see every teacher teaching in the same way. They used techniques that the children knew to really good effect. In comparison I have observed loads of lessons in English and Welsh schools where the words teachers use for ‘focus on the teacher’ are different in each lesson. I guess of you want children to learn the differing expectations in 10 different classrooms then that is fine.

    You would gain a lot from reading Teach Like a Champion, I think.

  4. I found the twitter discussion a little sad because it just became a digital kicking.

    Putting aside the larger scale issues, which I believe deserve a separate debate, the Teach Like A Champion book never has struck me as being an attempt to codify teaching. The way I view it is Lemov’s attempt to put in a teacher’s hands a compendium of strategies that have been proven to work. That’s how I took it and that is how I have shared it with colleagues. I am not a fan of SLANT but I do think Cold Call is a great tool to have in your pedagogical pocket; I’d say it goes well with Pose, Pause, Bounce, Bounce. Would I use it every single lesson, every single day? Probably not, but it’s nice to have as a routine.

    Here is a lovely video of students talking about Cold Call and No Opt Out – I suspect this teacher got it right:

    1. Thank you for your comment – it’s really useful to adress what we think in the wider, and more reflective environment of a blog, I think.

  5. ooo you’ve hit the nail on the head – it’s more an uncomfortable, slightly embarrassed feeling with undertones of Oliver isn’t it? Some have said that it’s the ‘Americaness’ of it which troubles us – maybe.

    Working with the most vulnerable and often most challenging students (due to SEND) Nancy, I think we both see how this model may not work for some. @ManYanaEd’s comments are interesting – that children have to translate each teacher’s idea of ‘focus on the teacher’ and for some SEN children (ASD particularly) this can be a problem. I wonder though if there is a difference between consistency and uniformity. Also conformity and compliance.

    As with everything – has a relatively complex idea become oversimplified and then misused by some? AFL, OFSTED expectations, E&D – the list goes on where seemingly good and effective ideas have been bastardised to the point of ridiculousness.

    1. Yes, this is something that occurs to me too. There are so many examples of good ideas in schools…that oher people take on and dilute etc etc, all with the best of intentions.
      Let’s face it, most of us don’t have the time or the inclination to do huge amounts of edu-reading, and this has consequences in how well the ideas are understood and put into practice. I’m a perfect example of that.

  6. Hi Nancy, thanks for writing your post. While I appreciate the honesty and detail with which you unpick your feelings about the clips that you have seen, I worry that you lack consistency in your reasoning. Logically I cannot disagree with what you feel (it is what you say you feel, and who is anyone to say otherwise!), but I have aimed to determine what you think and reason in what you have written here and it is to this, and this only, that I am addressing this comment.

    Peter’s comment above, my experience of training, Harry’s blogs on the issue should surely sow some doubt in your mind as to the caricatures that have been drawn about Uncommon Schools and TLAC. Have you read Mr Chadwick’s recent post on the subject?

    I’m going to try to unpick why I feel disquiet about your analysis of the teaching methods you have observed. I hope you appreciate this as a continuation of the (mostly!) good-natured debate this seems to be.

    Regarding the arguments that TLAC is somehow being ‘too American’ or ‘militaristic’ – I am afraid that that is a woefully vague and weak argument and says more about the fears of the person voicing the argument than TLAC or US. What does ‘too American’ even mean? I certainly don’t know. I think people should say what they mean explicitly and clearly when they use this criticism.

    I would argue that we are failed by the military metaphor. Are British Schools militaristic because they insist on uniform? Are schools militaristic because they divide schools into ‘platoon-sized’ groups of individuals called ‘classes’ and insist stick to some rules. I would argue no. At what point does ‘militaristic’ start/end? I think you say ‘militaristic’ here, because you are referring to discipline. But we all know that behaviour routines have to be consistent so that we can teach and learn. If you disagree with this point, then it needs to be said explicitly – but we know you don’t because you talk positively about “calm orderly schools and classrooms.”

    Your post begins by identifying what it is that you actually seem to agree with. “On the face of it”, it all seems fine – high attainment for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, moral purpose, consistency throughout the school. I am waiting for the ‘…but’ that never came. “Teaching top tips?” You admit yourself that they have a time and a place (and TLAC has a lot of research-informed and tried and tested strategies that teachers can adapt and adopt.) “Discipline” – you yourself phrase it better than I could: “Every teacher knows that classroom discipline is the key to getting children to learn.”

    When it comes to pedagogy, you seem to level a cricitism at US and TLAC for supporting “Direct Instruction” as a teaching method for “transfer[ring] facts and knowledge”. You seem to then criticise teachers that tell students what they need to know and help them practice. I honestly think that this is overly-simplistic. First and foremost it *has* to be said that DI is a proven, effective, teaching method, especially for novices, that does nothing to dis-empower learners, or turn them into automatons as your post implies (again, I have to use the word ‘implies’, because you don’t state explicitly what your concern or disagreement really is). Direct instruction helps minimise extraneous cognitive load on students, allowing them to focus on one or two things without distractions. This is also why it can be helpful to sit in rows facing the front. It is not disrespectful or militaristic. It is deliberate and designed to aid learning. And this is not the only way that people are taught, but when it comes to practising, or going through new materials – it can be very helpful. The drama lesson or the EY maths activity that we observed in Uncommon Schools video clips certainly weren’t taught in rows. A lot of maths and literacy lessons were. Is this something you disagree with? Secondly, and briefly, I worry that ‘facts and knowledge’ opens you up to a false dichotomy on ‘knowledge vs skills’.

    I also worry about the phrase “teaching is a complicated business”, not because I disagree with it, but because I think it could be seen as an excuse for not even trying to unpick teaching for what it is. If we throw up our hands and resign ourselves to the inherent emotional and intellectual complexity of it all, we’re doing ourselves no favours. TLAC 1.0 made a stab at codifying common good techniques. TLAC 2.0 will make improvements, but, as I have cited (and others too), we know that Lemov and his team don’t expect to hold all the answers. If you had to write a guide on how to teach, that encompassed granular, particular ‘top tips’ with key principles then it would be a fantastic way of moving the debate onwards. I suspect you would see what a good job Lemov has done in writing TLAC.

    As for the fear of data – I fear that you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Are you saying that there is no value in testing or the data that we can gather whatsoever? I think you risk buying into another failed metaphor about ‘data’ somehow being mechanistic, cold, and dehumanising. Why?

    Finally, in your conclusions it seems that you insist on the need for experience to guide the way. As a young teacher I have worked with vastly more experienced teachers who have shared different, at times conflicting, advice with me. How do I decide? I consult evidence, I read around the subject and, yes, I also go with my gut. I then reflect on my chosen course of action and tweak accordingly. Is it my youth or the youth of *some* of the teachers in *some* of the clips that needs to somehow be kept in check? In describing the teachers at US as “bushy tailed people pleasers” you do them a gross disservice, I think. Where is your evidence that they don’t work with parents? Why do you think that they would be doing what they are doing unquestioningly or unwillingly?

    Competition between schools and the marketisation of education is a massive debate that you agree to leave to one side – what wonderful paralipsis! You risk tainting our impression of US and TLAC by associating it in our minds with profiteering schools. For the sake of the rest of the blog, this should either be deleted (certainly what I would agree with), or stated explicitly (if you think US and TLAC is an evil marketing phenomenon that aims to profit from the most disadvantaged), but not hinted at ambiguously.

    Sorry for waffling and if any of this doesn’t make sense. I worry that too much is being misinterpreted from a small range of clips. As a result what people feel (and fear!) is being distorted.

    1. Cor, that’s aong response, Michael, thank you.
      I think I should clear up a few of your points, however.
      1. I have not said in my piece that the schools are too ‘American’. I referred to ‘militaristic’ as a style as what “some would say” because this is a commonly repeated criticism.
      2. Pedagogy. I think I need to write more about that. I certainly believe that there is a place for DI, however I think there is a place for other ways too, and I do not subscribe to the notion I have seen described as ‘filling empty vessels’.
      3. I am not trying to unpick teaching here because that would make the post too long.
      4. Data. Hmm. I am sceptical I admit, but again, I need to find a way to articulate that outside of this post.
      5. You have nisubderstood who the bushy tailed people pleaser is in this post. It’s not the teacher, it’s the pupil. That sentence is perhaps a little long. I shall see if I can edit it to make my meaning clearer. My point is, albeit made in a roundabout way, that the data can tell you loads abouy the middle ground, but not *necessarily* about the anomaly. As you know, my son has DS, so he represents an anomaly, by which I mean the outliers who are extremely difficult to teach (and I include the very bright in this idea, especially those who also present with *interesting* behaviour). As teachers we have just as much a duty to teach the *difficult* as the *easy* children, and for these, the resource of a living, breathing teaching community made up of professionals from across the generations is invaluable. I hope that’s clearer. It’s not a description of any teacher.
      6. The market. By this I do *not* mean money. I will make this clearer. It is perfectly clear that US are non profit making entities.
      What I *do* mean is the application of market forces through competition on schools and education generally. I need to do more thinking about that, and especially, how to articulate it.

      There is a lot in this post, which you quite rightly point out is glossing over sone major issues. However, in my defence I will say this. I must bear in mind the needs of my regular readers – especially as this is a departure from the usual subject matter I write about here (and I’m quite strict about that). It’s my opinion, the *feeling* I have garnered over the space of a few months.
      Suffice to say I *will* buy the book (and I’ll let you know what I think!), and read it when I can.

      Interestingly, I was pointed towards a very onteresting research paper on the success of former pupils of ‘charter’ schools (inverted commas because I *think* I have the right term), which raised a really interesting question. There is no question that the schools are successful – what I want to know is *why*? There were some interesting pointers but no conclusions, as I understand it. Here it is

  7. I recognise the disquiet some people feel about TLAC but also recognise the usefulness the book is as a CPD resource. In my previous school we used various chapters to read, study, practice implementing and review. We continued to use techniques that worked and didn’t use ones we didn’t like, or didn’t work with our classes. Most of the techniques Lemov describes are not new, but it is useful for staff and children to have a common language.

    1. i would most be interested in how successful these schools are – in general, before we even look at the ‘uncommon’ children. How many children who start at these schools have jobs at 2years over the average education-leaving age? After 5 years? Who start, not finish, because you can easily fiddle these figures by exclusion.

      I have this same worry about many schools in the UK that seem to train their children to pass exams, even go off to ‘good’ universities, but do not equip them for the outside world.

      And I am only talking about ‘ordinary’ children.

      Data from those who know these schools better?

      1. I have been teaching in the UK for 8 years but moved to a new school this September where mayhem and chaos are the order of the day. I have adopted some of the techniques from Teach Like A Champion and had an amazing response from my students. For me, that’s the ultimate test. I see these techniques as more tricks for my toolbox that ensure unrelentingly high standards in my classroom – I fail to see the harm in that.

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