When Students Lead Parent-Teacher Conferences

ASCD April 1996 | Volume 53 | Number 7
Working Constructively with Families Pages 64-68

Lyn Le Countryman and Merrie Schroeder

Because traditional parent-teacher conferences were more frustrating than helpful, these teachers looked to their middle school students for a more student-centered model.

Our middle school students, like most, struggle between wanting adults to make decisions for them and wanting to wrest control from those in charge so they can be responsible for themselves. We wanted our students to learn to exercise choice, take responsibility for their learning, and do their best work. We saw an opportunity to help them reach these goals by implementing student-led conferences, enabling students to be directly involved in their assessment process.

At our fall and spring parent conferences each year, 6th and 7th grade students traditionally reserved for their parents a 15- to 20-minute time slot with their advisors. Typically, parents attended the conference without their child and discussed their child’s performance with the advisor, who served as an advocate for the student.

At times, what the parents heard at home from their child was quite different from the picture the advisor painted from teachers’ reports. Parents were then in the difficult position of either believing their child or the teachers. This generally placed them and the teachers on the defensive, blocking open communication and better understanding. If a student joined the conference, he or she often played the silent partner or a martyr chastised for little effort. Some students were truly surprised by the description of their progress. Regardless of the situation, the advisor, who represented all the student’s teachers, was sometimes in the dark, interpreting assessments for classes he or she did not teach.

All of these factors increased our frustration with traditional parent-teacher conferences. After reading the current literature on student-led conferences (Guyton and Fielstein 1989, Hubert 1989, Little and Allan 1989), the 7th grade team decided to try a new format for our second conference in the spring.

We established three phases in implementing student-led conferences: (1) initial preparations, (2) conferences, and (3) evaluations. The team divided up responsibilities and implemented a time line from mid-December to mid-April to complete each task.

Preparing for the Conference

After visiting schools that were using student-led conferences, the team decided on (1) a guiding structure for the conference; (2) a way to prepare students to run their own conferences; (3) a method of communicating the new format to parents and colleagues; and (4) the procedural operations that we would need to develop.

The team agreed that the organizing structure of the conference should center around student portfolios. Recent research on portfolios stresses the necessity of student selection in assembling a portfolio (Collins 1992, Goldman 1989, Krest 1990, Mills 1989, Wolfe 1989, Reif 1990, Stevenson 1992). Although many portfolios are arranged around subject areas, we wanted our students to look at their work in relation to our school’s five major student outcomes. These outcomes require each student at Malcolm Price Laboratory School to become

  • a literate communicator,
  • a self-directed learner,
  • a complex thinker,
  • an involved citizen, and
  • a collaborative contributor.

Because these outcomes are couched in teacher jargon, we brainstormed with students to see what they thought each outcome meant, and what concrete evidence they could look for in their work to satisfy each outcome. For example, they described literate communicators as those who mean everything they say, and can read, write, and talk so others can understand them. Self-directed learners take charge of their assignments and ask questions. They described complex thinkers as having lots of creative ideas and being careful observers. Involved citizens participate in school activities, try to find solutions to help others, and take action to do something about what they believe. Finally, students said collaborative contributors pay attention in class, offer ideas, and help classmates work together in small groups.

In a series of class sessions, we discussed portfolios and provided students with ideas of what they could place in their portfolios. They would use criteria to judge their work throughout the semester, but would select only a few items for discussion during the conference. In these sessions we also discussed the roles they and their advisors would play at the conferences. The students learned that they would do all the talking and that the advisor was there basically for moral support. (The team instructed the advisors to intervene only when students became bogged down or if parents overshadowed them.)

Students decided that during the conference they would introduce their parents to the advisor, show parents their work, talk about the different units they studied, describe favorite units, explain missing or poorly done assignments, and highlight their strengths and weaknesses. From this conversation we wrote the student’s conference script (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Student-Led Conference Script

I. Introduction

  1. Thank your parents for taking time out of their day for coming.
  2. Introduce your parents and advisor to one another.
  3. Offer your parents some refreshments.

II. Conference

  1. “Please hold your questions or comments untiol the end.”
  2. Offer them an index card to jot down questions while you speak.
  3. Subject discussions
    1. “In Language Arts I have been…”
      1. “I chose this work because…”
      2. “My goal in Language Arts…”
    2. “In Mathematics I have been…”
      1. “I chose this work because…”
      2. “My goal in Mathematics…”
    3. “In Science I have been…”
      1. “I chose this work because…”
      2. “My goal in Science…”
    4. “In Social Studies I have been…”
      1. “I chose this work because…”
      2. “My goal in Social Studies…”
    5. “In ______ I have been…”
      1. “I chose this work because…”
      2. “My goal in ______…”
    6. “In ______ I have been…”
      1. “I chose this work because…”
      2. “My goal in ______…”
  4. “This quarter, I have especially enjoyed…”
  5. “It is easiest to be successful in ______.” speak.
  6. “It takes more work for me to be successful in ______.”

III. Conclusion

  1. “Do you have any questions or comments?”
  2. “Thank you for coming and listening.”

As students began selecting items to place in the portfolios, it became obvious that they needed a log to help them organize their papers. We set up a log sheet by subject, and asked students to select for their portfolios up to five pieces of work from each of their classes. One of the mistakes we made on this form was not to include classes such as art, family and consumer science, and modern languages. As a result, students seldom referenced work from these classes, relegating them to a position of little importance. Next year we will place all class names on these sheets, making an important statement to the students—that all classes are equally important.

Once their portfolios were complete, students rehearsed the script three times with classmates as stand-in parents. The team briefed advisors on all procedures, and advisors examined the portfolios of the advisees. Students also received last-minute reminders to organize their folders and double-check their contents.

To communicate information to the parents about the new conference format, the team composed a letter, which the students brought home. The school newsletter also featured an article describing the student-led format. Many parents were impressed with their conference invitation, handwritten and delivered by their child.

At first, teachers were unsure of how parents would feel about the conference format change. Some parents were apprehensive about having little verification from the advisor, so arrangements were made to allow parents to schedule a private conference with the advisor if they wished.

Implementing the Conference

On Conference Day, students expressed anxiety about discussing their work in front of their parents. After it was over, however, one student commented, “I was a little nervous starting out the conference, but it got easier as I got farther through.” Most found that once they began, the presentation was easy. Students followed the script in explaining the work they selected.

Included in their folders were their teachers’ end-of-quarter reports. Unfortunately, because of time constraints in preparing for the conferences, students had no opportunity to review these reports beforehand. This placed them at a severe disadvantage.

During the conference, the students asked their parents to write any questions they had on an index card and to hold their questions until the end. This gave the students uninterrupted time to make their presentations. The conferences were scheduled for 15-minute time slots, but subsequent evaluations from the students indicated that this was not long enough. They said that they needed 20-30 minutes to complete the sessions satisfactorily.

Even though Guyton and Feilstein (1989) approve of holding many student-led conferences simultaneously in the same room, we decided to schedule each one independently. Because advisors are assigned from 10 to 15 students, we felt all conferences could be adequately conducted in one day.

Evaluating the Conference

The final phase of our plan was devoted to evaluating the effectiveness of the conferences. The team collected information on the conferences from students, parents, teachers, and advisors. The students responded to the following four open-ended questions: (1) What did you like about student-led conferences? (2) How did you feel during the conference? (3) What didn’t you like about the conference? and (4) If you could change the conference to make it better, what would you do?

In response to the first question, over 50 percent of the students responded that they liked the freedom to select what to show their parents. Around 10 percent of the students were most pleased with witnessing their parents’ initial reaction to their work. One student summed it up when he wrote,

I liked the positive comments my parents gave me, and it was great to see the look on my parents’ faces when they saw my good work.

Another student commented,

That’s the longest time my parent has ever sat down and listened to me.

Another said,

Yeah, my mother doesn’t usually say much to me about school, but, since conferences, she is still saying nice things and how proud she is of me, and this is nice.

A usually silent girl wrote,

I liked being able to talk in my conference.

This potential for increased parent-student communication is an unexpected bonus of student-led conferences.When asked how they felt during the conferences, about one-third of the students said they were “nervous” or felt “weird.” One-third felt “very good” during the conference. Less than 15 percent didn’t like the conference format, and the rest expressed no preference. Many of the students who disliked the format also explained they didn’t “want to wake up early” or “have to come to school” on a day that previously was a day off for students.

When asked what they disliked about the conferences, their responses varied from “I didn’t like sitting in the middle” to “I didn’t like acting like a teacher.” One student’s response typified the most frequent objection:

I didn’t like using scripts. They would mess me up when I was showing my parent my work. I also didn’t like scripts because I would lose my place a lot. Another thing I didn’t like was practicing the scripts so much. It got repetitive.

Students, on the whole, said they would rather write their own script or abandon it all together.Next year there will be little need for a script if we implement Kingore’s (1993) recommendation to attach caption strips to portfolio items. These strips would include a short description of the activity for which the product was produced, an explanation of why the student selected this item for the portfolio, and a space for a parent’s response to the item.

Students suggested a number of other improvements to the conference format, such as fewer practice sessions and permission to take home copies of the materials after the conference. Our error with the end-of-quarter reports became clear when a student said, “Let us see what the teachers wrote about us before the conference.” If we are to give students the responsibility of explaining their progress, it is imperative—and only fair—that they know how we evaluated them before the conference.

We sent parents a questionnaire a few weeks after the conferences (see fig. 2), asking them to compare their traditional fall conference and the student-led spring conference. Although more than 90 questionnaires were distributed, only 20 parents responded. Despite this low return rate, the surveys provided an interesting perspective. Three of every four parents chose student-led conferences. One parent wrote,

I felt my son understood better what he was doing in the classroom, and I was impressed with his base knowledge.

Two others wrote,

Since the student was there in each of his classes, he knows better what he studied. By what he selected to talk about, I got a better idea of what he remembers and enjoys. I feel the student-led conferences empowered students and helped them claim ownership of their education. In our case, it was a responsibility that our student enjoyed.

Figure 2. Parent Questionnaire for Student-Led Conferences

1. Which conference (traditional or student-led) gave you a better appreciation of

  • What your child was learning
  • What your child studied in class
  • Your child’s behavior in school
  • Your child’s study habits, for example, finishing assignments, handing them in on time, studying for exams
  • Your child’s academic achievement in each class?

2. Which conference format did you prefer?

3. What are the benefits of student-led conferences?

4. What are the disadvantages of student-led conferences?

In response to the worry that students would paint only glowing pictures of themselves, one mother wrote,

I feel our child was more honest with us than most teachers would be.

Another echoed this by saying,

Students seem more open and honest about their performance. I didn’t get the sugar-coated reports from advisors, who tend to present negative aspects in a positive manner.

Some parents had reservations about the advisor’s lack of participation. Although parents had the opportunity to schedule a separate conference with the advisor (and a few took advantage of this), they still wanted some verification from the advisor. Parents also viewed this format as discouraging them from discussing problems their child had with a teacher because they didn’t want to discuss these kinds of problems in front of their child.

Advisors and teachers expressed full-fledged support for this format. One teacher enthusiastically said,

It builds great relationships between parents and kids and is a much more personal format.

He went on to say,

There was a lot more truth to the kids’ presentations. Some parents finally received a true picture of their child’s performance.

Another teacher, previously skeptical of the effectiveness of this format, expressed the desire to continue it even through the high school years.We’ve found that student-led conferences do a better job of meeting the needs of the young adolescent and increasing student-parent communication. They give students, parents, and teachers a better picture of who the student is, what he or she has achieved, and what the student’s future goals may be.

References

Collins, A. (March 1992). “Portfolios: Questions for Design.” Science Scope 15, 6: 25-27.

Goldman, J. (1989). “Student Portfolios Already Proven in Some Schools.” School Administrator 46, 11: 11.

Guyton, J. M., and L. L. Fielstein. (1989). “Student-Led Parent Conferences: A Model for Teaching Responsibility.” Elementary School and Guidance Counseling 23, 2: 169-172.

Hubert, B. D. (1989). “Students Belong in the Parent-Teacher’ Conference, Too.” Educational Leadership 47, 2: 30.

Kingore, B. (1993). Portfolios: Enriching and Assessing All Students, Identifying the Gifted Grades K–6. Des Moines, Iowa: Leadership Publishers Incorporated.

Krest, M. (1990). “Adapting the Portfolio to Meet Student Needs.” English Journal 79, 2: 29-34.

Little, A. W., and J. Allan. (1989). “Student-Led Parent Teacher Conferences.” Elementary School Guidance and Counseling 23, 3: 210-218.

Mills, R. (1989). “Portfolios Capture Rich Array of Student Performance.” School Administrator 46, 11: 8-11.

Reif, L. (March 1990). “Finding the Value in Evaluation: Assessment in a Middle School Classroom.”Educational Leadership 47, 6: 24-29.

Stevenson, C. (Spring 1992). “Understanding Learning: Portfolios in the Middle Grades.” The New England League of Middle Schools Journal: 8-13.

Wolfe, D. P. (April 1989). “Portfolio Assessment: Sampling Student Work.” Educational Leadership46, 7: 35-38.

Lyn Le Countryman is Middle School Coordinator and Merrie Schroeder is Middle School Math Instructor, Malcolm Price Laboratory School, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50613.

Why Some Children Can Thrive Despite Adversity

Harvard Graduate School of Education

The Science of Resilience

BY BARI WALSH, ON MARCH 23, 2015 2:57 PM
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When confronted with the fallout of childhood trauma, why do some children adapt and overcome, while others bear lifelong scars that flatten their potential? A growing body of evidence points to one common answer: Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed rela­tionship with a supportive adult.

The power of that one strong adult relationship is a key ingredient in resilience — a positive, adaptive response in the face of significant adversity — according to a new report from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, a multidisciplinary collaboration chaired by Harvard’s Jack Shonkoff. Understanding the centrality of that relationship, as well as other emerging findings about the science of resilience, gives policymakers a key lever to assess whether current programs designed to help disadvantaged kids are working.

“Resilience depends on supportive, responsive relationships and mastering a set of capabilities that can help us respond and adapt to adversity in healthy ways,” says Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. “It’s those capacities and relationships that can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress.”

As a growing body of research is showing, the developing brain relies upon the consistent “serve and return” interactions that happen between a young child and a primary caregiver, the report says. When these interactions occur regularly, they provide the scaffolding that helps build “key capacities — such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate be­havior, and adapt to changing circumstances — that enable children to respond to adversity and to thrive,” the report continues. The developing brain is buffered by this feedback loop between biology and environment.

But in the absence of these responsive relationships, the brain’s architecture doesn’t develop optimally. The body perceives the absence as a threat and activates a stress response that — when prolonged — leads to physiological changes that affect the brain and overall systems of physical and mental health. The stress becomes toxic, making it more difficult for children to adapt or rebound.

The experiences of the subset of children who overcome adversity and end up with unexpectedly positive life outcomes are helping to fuel a new understanding of the nature of resilience — and what can be done to build it.

Here’s what the science of resilience is telling us, according to the council’s report:

  • Resilience is born from the interplay between internal disposition and external experience. It derives from supportive relationships, adaptive capacities, and positive experiences.
  • We can see and measure resilience in terms of how kids’ brains, immune systems, and genes all respond to stressful experiences.
  • There is a common set of characteristics that predispose children to positive outcomes in the face of ad­versity:
    • The availability of at least one stable, caring, and supportive relationship between a child and an adult caregiver.
    • A sense of mastery over life circumstances.
    • Strong executive func­tion and self-regulation skills.
    • The supportive context of affirming faith or cultural traditions.
  • Learning to cope with manageable threats to our physical and social well-being is critical for the development of resilience.
  • Some children demonstrate greater sensitivity to both negative andpositive experiences.
  • Resilience can be situation-specific.
  • Positive and negative experiences over time continue to influence a child’s mental and physical development. Resilience can be built; it’s not an innate trait or a resource that can be used up.
  • People’s response to stressful experi­ences varies dramatically, but extreme adversity nearly always generates serious problems that require treatment.

Additional Resources:

  • Read Part II of our exploration of resilience, about the public policy implications of our new understanding of the science of resilience.
FACULTY IN THIS ARTICLE
Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.

As director of the Center on the Developing Child, Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., is using the science of early childhood development to drive innovation in policy and practice, with the goal of transforming life outcomes for disadvantaged children and reducing the consequences of early adversity.

What It Means To Be A Great Teacher

What does it mean to be a great teacher? Of course credentials, knowledge, critical thinking, and all other faculties of intelligence are important. However, a great teacher should be much more than credentials, experience and intelligence.

What lies in the heart of a great teacher?

You are kind: a great teacher shows kindness to students, colleagues, parents and those around her/him. My favourite saying is “kindness makes the world go around”. It truly changes the environment in the classroom and school. Being a kind teacher helps students feel welcomed, cared for and loved.

You are compassionate: Teaching is a very humanistic profession, and compassion is the utmost feeling of understanding, and showing others you are concerned about them. A compassionate teacher models that characteristic to the students with her/his actions, and as a result students will be more open to understanding the world around them.

You are empathetic: Empathy is such an important trait to have and to try to develop in ourselves and our students. Being able to put yourself in someone’s shoes and see things from their perspective can have such a powerful impact on our decisions and actions.

You are positive: Being a positive person, is not an easy task. Being a positive teacher is even harder when we’re always met with problems with very limited solutions. However, staying positive when it’s tough can have such a tremendous positive impact on the students and everyone around us. Looking on the bright side always seems to help make things better.

You are a builder: A great teacher bridges gaps and builds relationships, friendships, and a community. Teachers always look to make things better and improve things in and outside of the classroom. Building a community is something a great teacher seeks to do in the classroom and extends that to the entire school and its community.

You inspire: Everyone looks at a great teacher and they want to be a better teacher, they want to be a better student, even better, they want to be a better person. A great teacher uncovers hidden treasures, possibilities and magic right before everyone’s eyes.

Deconstructing Blackness

Edutopia

By Nicol Howard

MARCH 25, 2015

Recess was over, and my students rushed back to class in hopes of being the first to tell me what happened over their break. As we entered the room, I heard their rumblings and murmurs with the word “black” dispersed throughout. As an African American woman, I was more than curious to know what all the excitement was about. All I was ever taught growing up was that “black is beautiful.” And while that was my truth, I was about to be introduced to what being called “black” meant to my Latino/Latina students. They took me on a history lesson that I had not learned from my elementary textbook about the differences between white and black Latinos/Latinas.

Fifteen minutes passed and the board was covered with a circle map of every word that came to mind when my students heard the word “black.” Brainstorming about its meaning led us into an organic, deeper conversation in which my elementary students began to eloquently deconstruct that word. “Black is just a color,” said one student. “Black is more, I am black,” said my one African American student. The dialogue continued, and I simply facilitated it with questions like:

  • What if you were called a different color?
  • How does it make you feel when. . .?
  • How would you feel if. . .?

Thirty minutes later, I began to understand that the intangible ideas which historically plagued relationships between people within my own culture were prevalent in the lives of my students.

I truly felt heavy as we transitioned into the next lesson that I’d planned for the day. Coincidentally, this discussion occurred during the month of February — Black History Month. So I left our circle map on the board and carved out 15-20 minutes a day for reflections and the sharing of new thoughts. The natural segue into a meaningful, timely, and necessary discussion about blackness led me to consider a new approach to discussing race matters with my future students. Although I recognize that every classroom will contain a different racial and ethnic makeup, teachers must be unafraid to broach these uncomfortable conversations. Conversations about blackness and race do not have to be limited to the month of February, or to elementary classrooms. I’d like to offer four thoughts to ponder as you consider deconstructing blackness (or race) in your own K-16 classroom.

1. Accept What You Know

Be careful not to assume that you know what your students may be feeling or that your experiences are their experiences. Accept what you know about them based upon what they share with you, and be ready to learn more about them and yourself along the way. Remaining open to learning who your students are by the words that come from their mouths will establish an environment of trust in your classroom. Over time, they will become keenly aware that when they talk, you listen.

2. Allow Their Voices to Be Heard

Consider how your students may feel when they are not allowed to express their angst or disdain for something. Remember that allowing students to use their voices will establish trust and open the door for continual dialogue. Their voices belong to them (student voices aren’t ours to give back), so allow them to be heard, and offer multiple opportunities to pick up the conversation on a new day.

3. Let It Flow

Your classroom’s deconstruction of blackness (or race) may be written in your plans for the week, or you may encounter the unexpected as I did. Relax and embrace the organic occurrences of conversations related to race. Understand that your opening dialogue may lead to a meaningful project or lesson. Be flexible and let it flow. Remain thoughtful about next steps after your deconstruction process. Dr. Raina Leon, Assistant Professor at St. Mary’s Colleges of California, seeks to use poetry in teaching about race. It is important to consider your grade level and population of students when approaching the expected or unexpected conversations related to race.

4. Facilitate Thoughtfully

A circle map worked well for my third and fourth grade students, and this introductory approach may work well for your students, too. Regardless of the method you choose, keep in mind that there is not always a perfect answer to the many questions that may arise. Facilitating is an art that is not often mastered. However, refraining from one-liners, clichés, and repetitive statements often leads the discussion in a positive direction. Sometimes it is better to say, “I don’t have the answer,” than to quickly spew out a response for the sake of answering a student’s query. When saying, “I don’t know” does not seem appropriate, ask a question like “Why do you. . .?” or “How do you know. . .?” Or consider bringing in a guest speaker who may have a voice in dealing with issues of race.

Accepting what we know without making assumptions, listening to our students’ voices, remaining flexible when opportunities to discuss race arise, and facilitating thoughtful conversations are all steps in the right direction. After three years of deconstructing blackness with my students, the process is not always the same. Yet the beauty of it all is in the outcome — transparency, understanding, and a greater sense of unity among my students.

Homework is beneficial, but only for around one hour, say researchers

Homework is beneficial, but only for around one hour, say researchers

Homework is beneficial, but only for around one hour, say researchers Photo: ALAMY

It is what teenagers have suspected all along. Too much homework is just not beneficial.

Although teachers and parents might think that extra learning helps youngsters get to grips with a subject, new research suggests that 60 minutes of study will bring the best results.

In fact, forcing youngsters to continue working for more than 90 minutes could actually make their grades worse.

Under the previous Labour government, schools were encouraged to set up to two and half hours of homework each night for those aged 14 to 16.

But the guidance was axed by Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, after head teachers said they should have the final say in work outside of school hours.

Researchers from the University of Oviedo in Spain looked at the maths and science of performance of 7,725 teenage pupils from state and private schools in northern Spain.

The students were given questionnaires asking how often they did homework and how much time they spent on various subjects.

They were also asked whether they did their homework alone or whether they had help and, if so, how often.

“Our data indicate that it is not necessary to assign huge quantities of homework, but it is important that assignment is systematic and regular, with the aim of instilling work habits and promoting autonomous, self-regulated learning,” said co-author Dr Javier Suarez-Alvarez.

“Homework should not exclusively aim for repetition or revision of content, as this type of task is associated with less effort and lower results.”

“The data suggest that spending 60 minutes a day doing homework is a reasonable and effective time.”

Researchers found that the total amount of homework assigned by teachers was a little more than 70 minutes per day on average.

Homework ‘damages’ primary age pupils

Should a parent help with their children’s homework?

Parents ‘struggling with primary school maths homework’

Most homework is ‘pointless’, expert says

But the discovered that when teachers assigned 90 to 100 minutes of homework, maths and science results actually began to decline.

Even the small gains which were made by some pupils who worked longer were not worth the extra effort, the researchers warned.

“For that reason, assigning more than 70 minutes of homework per day does not seem very efficient,” said Dr Suarez-Alvarez.

Academic performance in math and science was measured using a standardised test with adjustments made to account for gender and socioeconomic background.

The team found that students who worked on their own, without help, performed better.

Pupils who did their homework on their own scored 54 points higher than those who asked for frequent or constant help.

Previous studies have found that self-regulated learning is lined to academic performance and success.

“The conclusion is that when it comes to homework, how is more important than how much,” said Dr Suarez-Alvarez.

Under old guidelines introduced in 1998, primary schools were told to set an hour of homework a week for children aged five to seven, rising to half an hour a night for seven-to-11-year-olds. Secondary schools were told to set 45 to 90 minutes a night for pupils aged 11 to 14, and up to two-and-a-half hours a night for those aged 14 to 16.

Research last year suggested that around one quarter of British parents do homework for their children because they believe they have too much, or deem it to be too difficult.

Last year headteacher Dawn Moore, head of King Alfred School, north London, warned that primary-age pupils should be effectively exempt from homework because it is damaging childhood and creating tensions between families.

Teachers should stop setting work until the final few years of primary education to prevent pupils being overloaded at a young age, she argued.

The new research was printed in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Doug Lemov believes great teachers are made, not born – and his ideas are transforming education

The Guardian
Wednesday 11 March 2015

The video does not seem remarkable on first viewing. A title informs us that we are watching Ashley Hinton, a teacher at Vailsburg Elementary, a school in Newark, New Jersey. Hinton, a blonde woman in a colourful silk scarf, stands before a class of eight- and nine-year-old boys and girls, almost all of whom are African-American. “What might a character be feeling in a story?” she asks. She repeats the question, before engaging her pupils in a high-tempo conversation about what it is like to read a book and why authors write them, as she moves smartly around her classroom.

On an October morning last year, I watched Doug Lemov play this video to a room full of teachers in the hall of an inner-London school. Many had brought their copy of Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion, which in the last five years has passed through the hands of thousands of teachers and infiltrated hundreds of staffrooms. To my eyes, the video of Hinton’s lesson was a glimpse into the classroom of an energetic and likable teacher, and pleasing enough. After leading a brief discussion, Lemov played it again, and then a third time.

Here is what Lemov sees in the video: he sees Hinton placing herself at the vantage points from which she can best scan the faces of her pupils (“hotspots”). He sees that after she first asks a question, hands that spring up immediately go back down again, in response to an almost imperceptible gesture from Hinton, to give the other children more time to think (“wait time”). He sees her repeat the question so that this pause in the conversation doesn’t slow its rhythm.

He sees Hinton constantly changing the angle of her gaze to check that every pupil is paying attention to whoever in the room is speaking, and silencing anyone who is not doing so with a subtle wave of her hand. He sees her use similar gestures to gently but effectively recall errant students into line without interrupting her own flow or that of the student speaking at the time (“non-verbal corrections”). He sees Hinton venture away from the hotspots to move down the sides of the class, letting her students know, with her movement, that there is always a chance she will be beside their desk in the next few seconds. He sees that in one particular instance she moves toward a particular student while making it look to the rest of the class as if she is simply changing her perspective, so that she can correct his behaviour without embarrassing him – and he sees that she does so with the grace of an elite tennis player delivering a disguised drop shot.

He sees that Hinton is smiling throughout, beaming warmth to her class, and varying the volume of her voice to convey enthusiasm for her topic. He sees that children from one of the poorest neighbourhoods in America – children who elsewhere might have been tacitly expected to misbehave, or to withhold their attention from a class on English literature – are utterly captivated, eager to pitch in with their own thoughts, avid for learning. He sees, finally, that behind this self-effacing display of apparently effortless mastery there are thousands of hours of deliberate, carefully considered practise.

***

Lemov never considered himself a brilliant teacher. When he taught at a school in a poor neighbourhood of Boston, he enjoyed training days, and left them eager to apply what he had learned in planning the next day’s lessons. Then the next day arrived, and his plan collapsed: instead of inspiring kids with his enthusiasm for English or history, he spent his time imploring them to be quiet when he was talking and to stop throwing pens.

In the staffroom one day, a more experienced colleague gave him a piece of advice. “When you want them to follow your directions, stand still. If you’re walking around passing out papers it looks like the directions are no more important than all of the other things you’re doing.” This was a revelation.

It was exactly the kind of guidance – clear, practical, precise – that Lemov had been missing. And it worked.

Lemov, who has an MBA from Harvard, likes precision, and he likes to break a problem down into its component parts before putting together an answer. That was how he set about solving the problem of becoming a better teacher, and it is also how he thinks about the problem that preoccupies him more than any other: closing the “achievement gap” between poor students and everyone else. In fact he has come to see the two problems as inextricably linked.

Doug Lemov passes on his classroom tips to a workshop of newly qualified teachers, at Walworth Academy, London. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Doug Lemov passes on his classroom tips to a workshop of newly qualified teachers, at Walworth Academy, London. Photograph: Graham Turne
After leaving the school in Boston, Lemov worked for a time as a consultant to failing schools. He came to realise that although he might be able to help them implement better assessment systems, or to use technology more effectively, nothing would work unless the teachers got better at helping the children learn. How could he help with that?

Characteristically, he started with a spreadsheet. Cross-referencing test scores and demographics, he identified which schools were achieving the most exceptional results with poor students. Then he visited the classrooms of the best teachers in those schools with a videographer. He watched and rewatched the lessons he recorded, like a football coach studying the tape of a game, analysing in minute detail what these outstanding teachers were doing. He gave names to the techniques he saw them use. Then he circulated his notes to the teachers he worked with.

Those teachers passed them on to teachers they knew, who passed them on in turn, until the document, known at that time only as “the taxonomy”, took on a samizdat life of its own. Lemov realised how far word of it had spread when a teacher from California got in touch to request a copy. In 2010, he was persuaded to turn his notes into a book, which became a surprise best-seller in education circles. In its latest edition, Teach Like a Champion lists “62 techniques that put students on the path to college”. Lemov says that some of the advice in the book is probably wrong, and he does not pretend it is comprehensive. But it has become the key text of an incipient transformation of teaching that has little to do with government edict or official policy.

***

Hardly anything matters more than education, yet when we talk about education we spend a lot of time arguing over things that do not matter very much. Class sizes, uniforms, curriculum design, which politician runs the Department for Education – none of our favourite flashpoints make a lot of difference to whether children do well at school. For all that parents worry over which school to send their children to, more important is who teaches them when they get there. Professor John Hattie, of the University of Melbourne, has undertaken a rigorous assessment of the thousands of empirical studies that have been carried out on educational achievement. He concluded that, other than the raw cognitive ability of the child herself, only one variable really counts: “What teachers do, know and care about.”

The evidence suggests that a child at a bad school taught by a good teacher is better off than one with a bad teacher at a good school. The benefits of having been in the class of a good teacher cascade down the years; the same is true of the penalty for having had a bad teacher. Such effects do not fall evenly upon the population: the children who gain most from good teachers are those from disadvantaged homes in which parental time, money and books are in short supply. Being in the classroom of a great teacher is the best hope these children have of catching up with their more fortunate peers.

In 1992, an economist called Eric Hanushek reached a remarkable conclusion by analysing decades of data on teacher effectiveness: a student in the class of a very ineffective teacher – one ranked in the bottom 5% – will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year, whereas if she was in the class of a very effective teacher – in the top 5% – she would learn a year and a half’s worth of material. In other words, the difference between a good and a bad teacher is worth a whole year.

A child at a bad school taught by a good teacher is better off than one with a bad teacher at a good school
Hanushek’s proposed solution to the question of how to raise educational standards was brutally simple: fire the worst 10% of teachers and replace them with better ones. Education reformers in America used his findings to argue that schools should have more power to sack under-performing teachers and attract better ones with higher salaries. This “accountability” movement, backed by politicians such as Barack Obama and philanthropists including Bill Gates, has been closely associated with the rise of charter schools in the US and academies in Britain. But it has turned out to be a lot harder than reformers initially envisaged to raise standards. Performance pay has had mixed results, and it has proven difficult to systematically separate good and bad teachers. The reformers can point to some striking successes, but overall, children at charter schools and academies are no more likely to do well than children at run-of-the-mill schools.

Meanwhile, teaching unions on both sides of the Atlantic have stubbornly resisted attempts to differentiate between effective and ineffective teachers – and they are quick to level accusations of “teacher-bashing” at those who attempt to do so. This is understandable. Politicians can take an unholy glee in berating “bad teachers”, and you do not have to be paranoid to see such rhetoric as a thinly disguised attack on the whole profession. On the other hand, given that teaching is such a demanding and complex job, it would be bizarre if there was not a wide gap between the best performers and the worst.

Globalisation has increased the pressure on education systems to improve, but the pressure is now coming from the bottom up too. The rise of charter schools and academies has precipitated a Cambrian explosion of new ideas and innovations, stimulating a debate about methodology led by teachers themselves. The internet has provided platforms for teachers to talk to other teachers, beyond their own schools and outside official oversight. On social media, teachers are sharing ideas, evidence and techniques, organising conferences on education research, and arguing about the most effective way to teach reading or maths.

After years of debate among academics and politicians over how to raise teacher standards, the problem is being solved by the practitioners. And it has become apparent that the noisy argument over “bad teachers” was drowning out a much better question: how do you turn a bad teacher into a good one?

And what makes a good teacher good?

***

In 2010, the Los Angeles Times triggered a minor earthquake in a city familiar with such events. The Los Angeles school district – the second largest in the United States – had collected detailed data on the performance of its roughly 6,000 teachers, that it had not released. The newspaper used a freedom of information request to get its hands on this database, and after conducting an analysis, published a list of all the teachers in Los Angeles, ranked by effectiveness. It turned out that the very best teachers were getting results that were not only much better than low-ranked teachers, but twice as good as good teachers. At the very top of the list was a woman called Zenaida Tan.

Tan taught at Morningside Elementary, a decent if unremarkable school with an intake of mainly poor students, many of whom struggled with English. Year after year, students were entering Tan’s class with below-average ability in maths and English, and leaving it with above-average scores. You might imagine that before the Los Angeles Times published its rankings, Tan would have already been celebrated for her ability by her peers – that her brilliance would be well-known to fellow teachers eager to learn her secrets. You would be wrong on all counts.

When the Los Angeles Times sent a correspondent to interview Tan, they found her quietly carrying out her work, unheralded except by those who had taken her class and knew what a difference it had made to their lives. “Nobody tells me that I’m a strong teacher,” Tan told the reporter. She guessed that her colleagues thought her “strict, even mean”. On a recent evaluation, her headmaster noted she had been late to pick up her students from recess three times. It was as if Lionel Messi’s teammates considered him a useful midfielder who needed to work on his tackling.

There is entrenched resistance, in the education establishment, to singling out individuals, even to praise or emulate them. The only options for Tan’s evaluation were “meets standard performance” and “below standard performance”. But if Tan and others like her go unnoticed it is also because they do not look the part. Ask someone to describe a great teacher, and they are likely to conjure up someone like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society: eccentric, flamboyant, prone to leaping on to desks. When we see a teacher effortlessly commanding her class’s attention, our instinct is to put it down to some quality of their personality – great teachers, it is said, just have something. They are possessed of an innate ability to inspire.

Sam Freedman, the head of research at Teach First, which places high-achieving graduates into schools with disadvantaged intakes, said that even among teachers, there is hostility to the notion that what they do can be analysed and replicated: “The idea of learning heuristics seems bad because you’re not discovering your inner teacher.” But the myth of the magical teacher subtly undermines the status of teaching, by obscuring the extraordinary skill required to perform the job to a high level. It also implies that great teaching cannot be taught.

At training college, budding teachers learn theories of child development and are told about the importance of concepts such as “feedback” and “high expectations”. But they get surprisingly little help with actual teaching. Imagine being told you need to show high expectations of your students. “It’s like telling a kid to get better GCSEs,” Jenny Thompson, a teacher at Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, told me. The reason teachers respond so enthusiastically to Doug Lemov’s ideas is that he is right there with them at the front of the class.
Tall and wide-chested, Lemov is built like an American football player. In fact, his favourite sport is soccer, which he played at college in upstate New York. His coaches there did not spend much time discussing the game in the abstract. Instead, they told him to “narrow the angle” or “close the space”. In his books and workshops, Lemov talks about what pace to move around the classroom, what language to use when praising a student, how to adjust the angle of your head to let students know you’re looking at them. Teaching, he says, is “a performance profession”.

Sports coaches know that what looks effortlessly achieved, like the way Roger Federer hits a backhand, is in fact the product of countless hours of practice and analysis. Faced with a problem – a weakness in their game – they break it down into parts and work on the execution of each one before putting it all back together. Successful sportspeople have what the psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” – the belief that talent is intelligently applied effort in disguise. The ones who understand this principle best are those born without the supreme talent of a Federer – the ones who have had to strive for every millimetre of improvement.

The best teachers do not necessarily understand how teaching works, because their own technique is invisible to them; sports psychologists call this “expert-induced amnesia”. When the Los Angeles Times asked some of the teachers who topped their list what made them so effective, one replied that great teachers simply love their students and love their job: “You can’t bottle that, and you can’t teach it.”

Doug Lemov is on a mission to prove that talented teacher wrong.

***

At Lemov’s workshop, the teachers rehearsed asking questions and taking answers – not something I had imagined would require practice. A few minutes earlier, Lemov had cited research that found the average time a teacher leaves between question and answer is 1.5 seconds. That is not enough, he said. The teachers, all of whom had several years of experience, agreed. As they discussed why, I began to understand something about how absurdly difficult the job is, and the fundamental reason for its difficulty: thinking is invisible.

Imagine you’re a teacher, standing in front of your class. You ask a question: “What was the immediate cause of the first world war?” Three hands go up immediately. You decide which one to pick. “OK, Leon.” Leon gives the answer you taught last week: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Things are going well, aren’t they? But what if there is a child in the third row who was on her way to getting the answer right but gives up the moment she sees Leon raise his hand? What if there is another student, in the back row, who does not even bother thinking any more because he knows Leon always gets there first?

Lemov played a clip of a teacher called Maggie Johnson. Johnson asks her class: “What does Atticus say about mockingbirds?” After leaving a gap of several seconds, she takes an answer. Lemov played the clip again and this time, with the help of the teachers in the room, he dissected Johnson’s technique – showing how she used “wait time” to enact high expectations and make everyone in her class feel they might have an answer worth sharing. Before she has even finished asking the question, one boy has his hand up. Johnson waits. Two more hands go up. Johnson walks slowly across the front of the classroom, smiling, her gaze criss-crossing the class, as more and more hands spring up. Her movement, and her smile, dissipates any tension before it arises, either in herself or her students.

Another lesson that Lemov learned from his football days was that if he really wanted to improve, playing in matches was not enough. He needed to practice techniques and routines, preferably with teammates. Teachers like Maggie Johnson have honed their skills outside the classroom, in countless coffee-fuelled staffroom sessions with colleagues. This means they are able to execute classroom routines with the minimum of conscious effort, leaving them free to concentrate on the headspinning complexities of tracking which child has understood what, and who needs what kind of help.

The rhetoric of “bad teachers” and “good teachers” not only reinforces the perception that teaching ability is a gift someone either has or does not have, it also undermines the kind of informal collaboration Lemov advocates (a problem with linking pay to performance is that it incentivises teachers not to help each other improve). Indeed, the set-up of most schools is inimical to collaboration. In a hangover from the days when monks taught in cells, the most important work in a traditional school is done behind closed doors, by individuals separated from their peers (educationalists call it the “egg crate model”). As a consequence, teachers have never developed a shared vocabulary for discussing their work in detail. One reason they enthuse over Teach Like a Champion is that it offers one. A teacher at the workshop told me: “I can say to my colleagues, ‘Have you tried cold calling? And they immediately understand what I mean. That makes a huge difference.”

Lemov played the video of Maggie Johnson a third time, and paused it about two-thirds of the way through. He pointed to a girl in the front row, slight and bespectacled, with her hair in neat plaits. At a point when most of the class have their hands in the air, hers is still down. Her teacher waits. The girl stares intently at her notes. Her hand creeps up to her neck, and goes down again. Her teacher is still waiting. The girl puts her hand up, this time with conviction, and this time she holds it there.

Lemov is wary of big ideas and educational philosophies. Most of the tools in Teach Like a Champion, he says, remain beneath the notice of theorists of education. But he does have a philosophy, even if he wouldn’t call it that. One of its tenets is that teachers need to maximise the amount of thinking and learning going on in their classroom at any one time, and to ensure that this effort is widely distributed.

Take “cold calling”. Instead of asking a question of the class and then picking a hand, you call on a student regardless of whether they have raised their hand. It sounds too simple to be significant. But, to use one of Lemov’s favourite phrases, cold calling is “a small change that cascades”. Cold calling enables the teacher to check on the level of learning of any student in the class; it keeps the pace of the lesson high, because the teacher no longer has to wait for volunteers; it makes the teacher look more authoritative. Crucially, it increases the amount of thinking going on in the classroom at any one time because everyone knows the next question might be for them.

Another of Lemov’s tenets is that mundane routines can have magical effects. He often opens his sessions by showing a clip of a teacher called Doug McCurry at Amistad Academy in New Haven, Connecticut – another school that achieves exceptional results with underprivileged students. McCurry is instructing his pupils, on their first day at school, on how to pass out papers. Though it happens several times every hour of teaching, it is not the kind of thing you get taught at training college.

McCurry takes a minute to explain how he wants it done (pass across rows, start on his command, only the person passing gets out of his or her seat). Then he has his students practice it while he times them with a stopwatch. “Ten seconds. Pretty good. Let’s see if we can get them back out in eight.” When Lemov plays this clip, many teachers are sceptical. Why is McCurry focusing on this menial task? Is he trying to turn his students into automatons? Quite the opposite, says Lemov. Assume that the average class passes papers out or back 20 times a day, and that they take 80 seconds to do it. If McCurry’s students accomplish this task in 20 seconds, they will save 20 minutes a day. The school has increased its most precious asset – teaching time – by 4%, without any spending any more money.

In case that sounds like arid managerialism, consider what it means in practice: 20 minutes not spent passing papers back and forth is 20 minutes that a child who grew up in a home with no books can spend learning about how Charles Dickens uses imagery; 20 minutes not shuffling paper is 20 minutes that a girl who believes she is hopelessly bad at maths can be taught how to calculate the area of a circle. Over a school year, those minutes add up to eight school days: time for a whole unit on 20th-century poetry or coordinate geometry; time enough to get hooked on the life-expanding pleasures of learning difficult things.

***

Gareth Cook, a slender young man with feline eyes, is watching himself, on a laptop screen, address a group of 12-year-old boys sitting on artificial grass, clutching footballs. In a crisply delivered speech, Cook, a former school teacher, explains to the children how to react when your team loses possession. When the video is paused, Cook sits back and says, “Too much talking.” Next to him, Martin Diggle nods, pointing to a time code under the picture: “29 minutes of talking in a 90 minute session.”

Cook is a junior coach at the academy of Liverpool Football Club. Diggle is employed by the Football Association to mentor club coaches, part of the FA’s effort to raise the technical standards of the national game. Staff at top clubs do not generally relish being told how to do their job by the sport’s governing body, but Diggle, an experienced coach possessed of a reassuring manner, is listened to. “My job isn’t to tell them how to coach,” he told me. “My job is to help them think about what they’re doing.”

Earlier in the day I watched Nick Marshall, the academy’s head of operations, deliver an appraisal to another young coach. Topics included the importance of attending to the individual as well as the group, and how to make children want to follow rules rather than feel they have to. “As coaches, we tend to get obsessed by tactics,” Marshall told me afterwards. “But instead of studying tactical diagrams until 3am, why aren’t we reading Carol Dweck, or the neuroscience of the teenage brain?”

Just as sports coaches are becoming polymaths, teachers are adopting coaching’s focus on constant, self-reflective improvement. Traditionally, teachers haven’t necessarily been expected to get better at teaching once they have mastered the basics of the job. According to Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the University of London’s Institute of Education, and a former teacher, the evidence suggests that most new teachers improve for the first two to three years of their career, as they learn how to manage classroom behaviour, and then stop improving. “People make claims about having 20 years’ experience,” Wiliam told me, “but they really just have one year’s experience repeated 20 times.”
For years, British football coaching was stymied by a macho disdain for new ideas imported from the European clubs that regularly beat them in competition. In education, when Asian countries top international tables of achievement, we make derisory noises about hothousing. But the reason Shanghai’s schools are recognised as among the best in the world is because their teachers never stop thinking about how to get better at teaching. When Marc Tucker, the president of NCEE, an American education thinktank, went to Shanghai, he discovered a system designed to elicit continual improvement. Staff meet once a week by grade and subject, and break into teams to work on problems of their choice – at one school, the teachers had rearranged their floor plan so that teachers from the same grade level shared an office. Every young teacher has an older mentor, of proven achievement, assigned to them. The Shanghai system, Tucker said, revolves around the premise that “not only is it possible for you to get better, it is your job to get better and it never ends”.

Nick Marshall reminded me that there have always been forward-thinking football coaches in this country. But they are now more likely to find a home that makes the most of their talents, and to choose an employer on that basis. Similarly, ambitious teachers now want to work for a school that helps them improve, rather than one where they are so busy struggling to impose their will on the classroom that they cannot develop their skills. “You’d be amazed,” Sam Freedman told me, “at how many schools there are where a teacher can discipline a child by sending him out of the room, only for the deputy head to pass by a few minutes later and send him back in.” At successful schools, everyone abides by the same rules, while at the same time understanding that the rules are a means to an end. The best instil a hunger to learn, and not just in their pupils.

Introducing his workshop for educators, Doug Lemov showed a scatter graph, plotting achievement in maths, on the horizontal axis, against socioeconomic status on the vertical axis. Each dot represented a school in America. The dots clustered together into fuzzy but unmistakable line running from top-left to bottom-right: the poorer you are, the less likely you are to achieve the kind of education that might enable you to stop being poor. The same applies here: in England, if you are a high-achieving 11-year-old from a poor family, you are only 30% as likely to attend university as your richer peers.

After inviting us to consider anew the enormity of this grim truth, Lemov pointed to some stray dots that had escaped from the main cluster to find their own space. In these schools, children from poor neighbourhoods were doing as well or better than middle-class peers. If they can do it, he said, why can’t any school? And why isn’t every other school in the land scrabbling to find out what these schools are doing right, so that they can copy it?

***

Almost the first thing Jenny Thompson does when I arrive at her school on a freezing Monday morning is to take me outside. “Come and stand on the step with me,” she says, “This is what I do every morning.” Thompson, 34, is senior vice principal at Dixons Trinity Academy, which Sam Freedman told me was the best school he had visited in England. It’s early – before 8am – and night still lingers; I wonder if I should go back and get my coat. But now here come the children, some arriving alone, some in twos or threes, some grinning, some with heads down. Thompson has a word for everyone. “How are you this morning, Ahmed? Did you sleep OK, Shazia? Ben, have you recovered?”

Academies may not, on average, be better than regular schools, but the best ones are doing astonishing things. Shortly after he started videoing great teachers, Lemov co-founded a chain of charter schools. Uncommon Schools aims to help children born into poverty get to university. Its 40 or so schools, scattered across north-eastern cities such as Boston and New York, serve the urban poor, which means, for the most part, African-Americans. In a reversal of national norms, its black students outperform local white students in tests of maths and reading, and consistently beat state averages, often dramatically so. Lemov’s workshop in London was hosted by All Saints Academy, part of the Ark chain, whose schools are achieving similarly impressive results in underprivileged areas.

Dixons Trinity, which opened in 2012, draws its pupils from one of the most deprived parts of Bradford, a town yet to regain the prosperity it enjoyed in its industrial heyday. Around half of the pupils live in the city’s five poorest wards. Many are the children of immigrants from Pakistan or India, and many do not speak English at home. But its students out-perform the UK average in English and maths, and the ones who enter Dixons Trinity with the lowest achievement levels do better than anyone else. This is a source of particular satisfaction to the school’s principal, Luke Sparkes, who tells me that the school is designed around its most vulnerable pupils. “If you get it right with them, you get it right with everyone.”
It is 8am now, five minutes before the start of the school day. Children tumble out of parental cars and run. Thompson reassures them: “It’s OK. You’re not late!” By 8.05 all the children are inside. It is an earlier start than at most schools, but the children’s punctuality record – at Dixons Trinity, they keep data on everything – is almost 100%. “The thing is,” Thompson says, “they want to be here on time.”

Doug Lemov says his techniques work best when the pupils understand when and why they are being used; they are not intended to be secret weapons. The spirit of transparency permeates Dixons Trinity. When new pupils join they are asked to sign up – literally – to the school’s values of “hard work, trust and fairness”. After that, “we over-explain everything,” Thompson says. There is no rule or routine, from being silent in the corridor to lining up in the playground after lunch, that isn’t painstakingly explained and re-explained to the pupils. “We have high standards, and that means rules,” Sparkes says. “But we don’t want the kids to feel they have to kick against them, so they need to feel part of it.”

I watch as Dani Quinn, head of maths, teaches her class how to calculate the area under a curve. She begins with an explanation of why they are doing the lesson at all, given that they covered the same material last week: “We know from research in psychology that when your brain is forced to retrieve something from memory, it sinks in deeper.” When two girls start to whisper to each other as Quinn is talking, she silences them with a swift but detailed explanation of why she is doing so: “It means the others can’t hear me properly, which prevents them learning, which isn’t fair on them and damages the trust we have in each other. OK, so how do we calculate this value?”

Sparkes, a self-possessed 35-year-old from Liverpool, was at pains to stress that most of the school’s practices are adopted from other good schools. “Very little of it is new,” he told me, as we stood in the playground and watched two teachers line up the entire school as a post-lunch reset. “The only difference is, we do what we say.” At Dixons Trinity, there is no single innovation or magical personality around which everything revolves, just a shared and relentless attention to better execution. That can make it a hard place to work. “You need a self-critical disposition to work here,” said Thompson. On the other hand, there is pleasure to be found in obsessing over the details of an inexhaustibly interesting job. Dani Quinn describes herself as a “pedagogy geek”.

On a table in Sparkes’s office are copies of Teach Like a Champion. “We buy it for every teacher,” he told me. At least two mornings a week, the teachers get together in a group or in paired sessions between younger and more experienced teachers. When I visited, they were focused on honing two of Lemov’s techniques: “no opt out” – insisting, when a child gives an answer, that she repeat it until it is 100% correct, and “positive framing” – making critical feedback encouraging. Small things, said Sparkes, but teaching is complex, and in the classroom, “you need to have this stuff down so that you can think”. Not to mention that for pedagogy geeks, this is fun.

What the teachers at Dixons Trinity tell the children, they apply to themselves: that it is vital to push yourself, that the road to mastery leads through hard work, that you should never stop trying to get better. Somehow, though, these imperatives do not sound like strictures. The school runs on rules, but it is animated by something else. In the videos that Doug Lemov shows, what impresses you is the teaching, but what moves you is the palpable joy that the students are taking in being taught. In the days after my trip to Dixons Trinity, what stayed with me was the image of Jenny Thompson, radiating bonhomie into the chill Yorkshire air, children rushing up the steps to school.

Before I leave, I ask Thompson where she finds the will to get out of bed at 5am every day; to work weekends and evenings; to endure the punishing constraint of thinking self-critically about everything she does. At least in sport or business, I suggest, there are prizes. “Oh, but I think it’s easier for us to get motivated,” Thompson says, noting that she was still paid less than the salary she was offered to join Goldman Sachs as a graduate trainee. She laughs. “I wouldn’t work this hard if I was at a private school.”

Ian Leslie is the author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on it. Follow him on Twitter @mrianleslie

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Nurturing Resilience: Reminding Ourselves What Kids Need

The Independent School Magazine Blog

We all agree resilience is a good thing. Essentially a synonym for pluck, grit, stick-to-itiveness, the ability to dust off one’s knees and get back on the horse or the bike or whatever threw you, resilience suggests positive adaptation, coming through a tough time, coping.

There are communities we point to as being particularly resilient — Sandy Hook, Connecticut, for example — and that’s the rub. To be resilient means a child has endured something horrific or, to a lesser degree, difficult. But there are opportunities that do not require suffering or loss or exquisite pain, and practicing the habit of resilience helps children learn to weather the storms that are an inevitable part of growing up.
The path can’t always be smooth; bumps and boulders help us remember that we are stronger than we know, more capable than we imagined. It’s hard to watch children struggle without jumping in to solve the problem.  But when we can avoid making that jump, we help them thrive. Here’s my own list of reminders to encourage resilience in our kids and in myself!
  1. Believe kids are capable and can manage without swooping in to “save” them. Communicate that you believe in her ability to solve a problem.  Answer when asked for help; don’t offer advice for what hasn’t been asked.
  2. Shut up and listen. Then ask: Do you want me to do something? If the answer is no, don’t do anything. Invoke the 24-hour rule before reacting. (As my mother used to say, things often really do look better in the morning.)
  3. In books and movies that you and your children or students share, talk about resilience — how did that character cope?  What would you do?  Invite problem solving about practical dilemmas into daily conversations.
  4. Let consequences run their course. As a parent, don’t try to soften the penalty for a daughter’s late assignment. As a teacher, be firm, fair, friendly and consistent applying consequences. Never shame a child for work left incomplete or some other task left undone.
  5. Take lots of opportunities to talk about empathy, saying, “How would you feel if?”
  6. Make the adage that there are at least two sides to every story a mantra in your home and classroom.
  7. Consistently remind children in your care that even grown-ups make mistakes: we can learn from things that didn’t go so well — learn what to do the next time, learn about ourselves, learn that the sun doesn’t fall out of the sky when we mess up. Model making mistakes so that your students or progeny can see your swift, un-martyr-like recovery.
  8. Kids need to dump: A college child calls, miserable; the parents are frantic — the next night Mom calls, worried, fretful — the child is fine. The storm has passed everywhere but at home as the parents nursed their distress. It is hard to remember that late at night.
  9. Things do blow over if we let them — it’s an art to know when to intervene and when not to.
  10. It’s painful for us to bear witness — we don’t like the feeling of “not doing anything,” but by allowing a child to take the time to work things out on her own, we are doing plenty.
  11. Champion risk taking as long as failure/consequences are neither life-threatening nor permanent.
  12. Kids feel good about what they can DO — chores, taking responsibility at home. They feel competent and needed doing laundry, walking the dog, cooking. Don’t let them off the hook.
  13. As much as I want to swoop in and make my son practice his math facts, I must remind myself that HE is the one who must do the work.  It doesn’t help him develop resilience if I am more concerned about his homework than he is.  When I step back, I help him take charge.  If I do things for him, I cut him off at the knees.
  14. We can’t stand by our children’s side and give them everything — it encourages helplessness, at best, and entitlement, at worst. Our superb schools abound in opportunity. Encourage, suggest, wonder, but allow the student to select what activities to pursue. Resist prescribing. Some things will not go well or be enjoyable — make a contract ahead of time about how long a commitment must be sustained.
  15. From time to time, when the stakes are not enormously high, we must allow students to falter while we stay quiet, watching and listening and breathing — we can’t save them from themselves or their actions; they need to find out how consequences work for themselves — we can’t give them a heads-up about every possibility.
  16. Limitations (like those found in music, poetry) can offer opportunities for stretching boundaries and overcoming obstacles. In structure, there is often freedom — limitations encourage problem-solving and creativity. Remind students that the struggle itself has value
  17. You can’t be a hero unless you go beyond yourself.
  18. Creativity, growth mindset, self-care, purpose, relationship are all components that help children cultivate resilience.  For more about this, check out Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.
Resilience isn’t a race; we all make progress over the course of our lives.  When we cultivate resilience in ourselves, we help our students and children do the same.  Celebrate success but do not fear failure. It’s not the mistake that matters; it’s what we learn from it as we move forward that counts.

Ann V. Klotz is head of Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and the founder of Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls.  You can read her blog on the Huffington Post or follow her on Twitter, @AnnKlotz.