Grandmothers Sucking Eggs or the Next Big Thing?

The Problems with TLAC

A while ago I wrote blog explaining some of my concerns about Rosenshine’s Principles. The limitations of the research base aside, my concerns were based very much on what I was seeing happening in schools, not the principles themselves. Questioning, recapping, modelling, checking understanding and the other elements are without a doubt incredibly helpful to explore and refine in our classrooms, but what was beginning to emerge in the early days was a tick-list, a list of non-negotiables that were being expected in every lesson. Well meaning people would then come and check for compliance and you were a good teacher if all of these things were visible and a bad teacher if they were not. There are reasons why some schools felt that they needed to do this, I understand that sometimes we need to get some basics in place. But without really understanding what underpinned these and how to do it well, within YOUR subject, the likelihood of it suddenly transforming education was always going to be limited. I am pleased to say most moved swiftly away from this idea and started to examine what underpinned the principles in much more detail, digging in to what effective scaffolding was, not just asking for it to be used.

It is therefore with some trepidation that I approach Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 3.0 as I know this could have the same potential to take us, particularly those of us who are focused on impact and accountability, down that same checklist road.

As with Rosenshine, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the principles with Teach Like a Champion themselves. There is a great deal of sound advice there, taken from a wealth of research into what effective teachers do. Knowing how to ensure that more pupils are participating in their learning and that we are using formative strategies to check understanding is never going to be a bad thing. Retrieval practice also features in the new edition and I am a huge fan of making use of this. I certainly don’t believe asking pupils to sit up and listen is akin to some kind of punishment (although I know that reasonable adjustments could be needed). Many of the concepts are the bread and butter of good teaching if we want to make learning meaningful and it is unlikely to surprise many teachers to discover what is inside.

Well embedded routines are also incredibly useful and shorthand to remind pupils of expectations in their learning is always going to get a thumbs up from me. Anything which means we can move on to questions more interesting than ‘can you sit up’ is going to be an excellent choice. Equally, having a shared language and understanding of what we mean across the profession when we come discuss different elements of our practice is invaluable. Mutations occur all too easily when we are talking about retrieval practice or summary as cross purposes and we want to be able to easily share things that work, and things we need to develop, if we want to improve. Developing our ‘best bets’ is all the more easy if we know we all understand what these are and how they might look in our classrooms. How can we have fidelity to an idea or element of practice if we are all talking about different things?

Teach Like a Champion aims to provide a solid basis for such discussions. A laudable aim. But not only do I worry that it has real potential to become distorted and worse than that, remove us from the core purpose of what we are doing in the classroom and from our subjects. I could use a range of techniques to ask questions to my pupils but if the questions I was asking were not well phrased, or the most important ones in my subject, or if I hadn’t thought hard about what I was trying to achieve by eliciting a response, then I may as well not bother. The same is true of using SLANT. Of course I want attention in my classroom, and it is useful to be able to see at a glance that pupils are listening to my explanation. Yet if my explanation isn’t very effective, if I haven’t had time to be able to think about the language I will use to get the ideas across, what the core information I need to convey is, and what analogies I am going to use to illustrate it, is unlikely to really make much of a difference where they were looking and what they were thinking about at the time. A nodding head might not tell me much if I was standing at the front delivering something sub-par. I might tick a box on that checklist when someone comes round, but did it achieve something great or was it just a superficial performance? Did it actually change understanding and develop knowledge or did it just look like it might? I know many believe they have achieved great things with it all, but I am yet to be convinced that with such limited time to learn, plan and discuss, that schools always gets that balance right.

Advocates of the TLAC approach tell us that once embedded it frees up time to do all of this harder thinking about the subject; to do the planning of questions, to consider what core learning is needed to move on to the next step. I do not doubt that for a moment and having clear routines and expectations in my own classroom was key to enabling me and my pupils to really get to grips with the intricacies of the subject. However, this embedding takes time, especially when working with a wide range of professionals, many of whom may have their own habits honed to fluency already. Deciding on a wholesale Teach Like a Champion approach, following a quick INSET on the principles, is both unlikely to have the desired effect of changing these habits and transforming learning, and quite possibly may serve as a distraction from the other important elements which teachers need to explore. For some exhausted teachers, spinning yet another set of plates not only makes them feel like they are less effective but also that they are becoming disempowered and unable to draw on the expertise they have developed over a number of years. We know the more experienced a teacher is the more information they have to select from. They take longer to make decisions as they select from this, but their choices are much more likely to be the best one for the context. Is adding something else on top of this, which might initially be less effect than their already tried and tested approach, really the best for all staff?

I am therefore an advocate of a more measured approach. We can’t just grab a copy of the book, throw in a few sessions and we are good to go. Just as with any change, we need to consider what the problem you are trying to fix is before you sweep everyone into the hall and launch into 3.0. If you think pupils aren’t engaging with the explanations given or are required to think deeply in response to the questions they ask, then work on those areas. Spend time discussing why it matters, unpick how it relates to the contexts teachers are working in and the subject they teach. Check that the understanding is then shared and look at the way in which individuals can be supported to try this out. Expect there to be times when it might not work and be open to exploring why that may be. Expect there to be some who don’t need something new as there isn’t a problem to fix. That doesn’t mean they can’t develop and consistency across a school or subject can benefit all. But maybe sometimes we need to consider where something just might not be needed.

Dylan Wiliam talks about a ‘tight but loose’ approach, having fidelity to the core principle you are trying to develop, for example asking probing questioning to elicit deeper thinking, and then allowing people to explore how this might work in their context. They adapt it to meet their context, whilst not moving too far away from that central idea, remaining faithful to the idea but not necessarily being uniform in approach. I would suggest thinking about TLAC in the same way. There are some great things there, and much to explore, but tt shouldn’t be a straight-jacket. It is a set of tools which we can draw on and professional judgement should allow us to know when and where we will use them to their best effect.

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