I’ve just re-read John Holt’s How Children Fail and Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. It was instructive to read them in tandem.
Holt’s book is a reflection on his observations of children learning (Maths mainly) in the US between 1958 and 1961. I read it a couple of decades later during a PGCE course. My first take on How Children Fail was that it was a series of fascinating insights into children’s misunderstandings of abstract concepts. My own Maths education in contrast – in a primary school that would have delighted Lady Plowden – was all about grasping concepts.
I re-read Holt’s book when my children were young. What struck me second time around was his use of concrete objects, notably Cuisenaire rods, to get abstract concepts across. As an Infant, I’d been introduced to Cuisenaire rods, and found them utterly confusing – fingers were far more helpful. I was a somewhat synaesthetic Infant; each finger not only represented a number, but also had a distinctive colour. The Cuisenaire rods were different colours. Fingers were also faster. You could work out 5+3=8 in about a second on your digits, but it took significantly longer doing trial-and-error matching à la Cuisenaire.
One of my children had real trouble with mathematical concepts. And with Cuisenaire rods, fingers, number lines and number sentences. The breakthrough came with the excellent Murderous Maths series. He was very keen on narrative, and found he could understand mathematical concepts explained via a story. He also discovered that if he pictured numerals in his head, they didn’t ‘move around’ like they did on paper. (We later found out he had a visual problem – convergence insufficiency – that explained all the visuospatial issues).
What stood out from my third and recent reading was how Holt deconstructs a child’s problem with a concept into its cognitive components. His description of Dr Caleb Gattegno teaching teenagers with severe learning disabilities (pp.98-101) is profoundly moving. Few teachers would have begun with the absolute basics (how patterns repeat) and few would have persevered until the students understood the patterns.
Holt and Lemov
Holt was born in 1923 and had experienced what he called a ‘tell-’em-and-test-’em’ education (p.151). He, his peers, and his teachers, learned how to game the system. Here’s Holt on a teacher giving his class a list of topics to cram for prior to college Board exams. “We got credit for knowing a great deal about ancient history, which we did not, he got credit for being a good teacher, which he was not, and the school got credit for being, as it was, a good place to go if you wanted to be sure of getting into a prestige college. The fact was that I knew very little about ancient history; that much of what I thought I knew was misleading or false; that then, and for many years afterwards, I disliked history and thought it pointless and a waste of time.”
Doug Lemov was born in 1967, soon after Holt’s book was published. He struggled with school, due largely to social issues, but got to college and became a teacher. At which point he says “I was part of this educational system that was this great, giant ship that didn’t do the things it said it was set out to do.”
After an MBA at Harvard (where he picked up more ideas about teaching), Lemov became a director of Uncommon Schools, which manages 53 charter schools in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.
Teach Like a Champion was published in 2010. It’s jam-packed with practical tips for teachers – as is Holt’s. Lemov is deeply concerned about schools not doing their job and students failing to learn – as was Holt. He takes a step-by-step approach to teaching – as did Holt. But that’s where the similarity ends.
A significant difference between Holt and Lemov is how they frame those challenges. Lemov is about teaching, Holt is about learning. Lemov breaks down tasks into instructional steps, Holt is interested in the steps involved in students understanding concepts. Lemov is about controlling students’ learning, Holt is about them controlling their own learning. Lemov wants students from underprivileged backgrounds to have the knowledge that will enable them to ‘compete in college’ (p.39). Holt questions the quality of the knowledge of students from a tell-’em-and-test-’em system.
Both writers have concerns about schools that don’t succeed in educating children, especially those from deprived backgrounds. Holt wants the children to understand important concepts, because the concepts will be important in later life. If I’ve understood correctly, Lemov’s model involves providing children with the knowledge they need to get a college education, because that’s a gateway to better jobs, higher pay and could eventually bootstrap entire communities to a higher standard of living and better quality of life.
At first glance, Uncommon Schools appear to be pretty good at this. 99% of their students who graduated high school were accepted for college places, and 76% of those either graduated college or were on track to graduate. There’s no doubt that charter schools have improved high school graduation rates, but the picture is a mixed one, and I couldn’t find data on what proportion of Uncommon Schools students graduated high school.
A college education can open up many opportunities, so there’s some justification for the view that a school’s job is to do to get as many students into college focusing on students who engage and work hard. But that’s a very narrow view of education. Two rather telling phrases about college caught my eye in Lemov’s book.
no opt out
In the first, Lemov describes an Uncommon Schools Key Idea No Opt Out – ‘A sequence that begins with a student unable to answer ends with the student giving the right answer’ (p.31). The ‘sequence’ involves other students or the teacher providing the right answer, and the original student being asked the question again. In one example a student fails to read the word performance. Another student reads the word and the first student is asked to read it again. Lemov comments ‘it’s probably not worth the time to break down the error as the decoding skill the student struggles with is less closely related to the day’s objective. That said, [the teacher] has still firmly established a strong accountability loop. Lemov concludes ‘This ensures that everyone comes along on the march to college’. I’m sure Uncommon Schools would address the student’s issues with decoding, but the focus appears to be on the student’s accountability for their own learning, not on Holt’s focus – what might be posing an obstacle to it.
right is right
Another Key Idea is Right is Right, which involves using technical vocabulary. In the example given by Lemov, volume is not ‘the amount space [sic] something takes up’, but ‘the cubic units of space an object occupies’. This had me scratching my head. Cubic units are a quantification of volume, not volume per se. Also, gases have volume, but whether a gas could be described as an ‘object’ is debateable. Lemov comments ‘This response expands student vocabularies and builds comfort with the terms students will need when they compete in college.’
‘When they compete in college’ rather than ‘when they are in college’ seemed a rather odd way to frame college requirements. Over the past few decades of course, competition has been an underlying principle of economic policy in the developed world due to an assumption that it drives up quality. Competition can drive up quality if the competitors compete on quality. But it’s pretty clear they often don’t. The alternatives include underbidding, cheating, lying, bribing, gaming… whatever it takes to ‘win’. The sort of thing Holt describes about his college entry process. Competition also wastes an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources that could be more effectively deployed via collaboration and co-operation. If competition produces winners, it also produces losers, and being a loser can in itself create problems.
Lemov’s world is one where there are right and wrong answers. And the right answers (even if they’re questionable, as in the definition of volume) are what allows you to ‘march to college’ and ‘compete’ in it. Lemov clearly wants as many students as possible to get to college. What isn’t clear is what happens to students who can’t or won’t comply with the Uncommon Schools approach to teaching and learning, or those who find that knowing the right answers isn’t enough at college or in later life.
Those are the students Holt is interested in. The ones who, try as they might, just don’t ‘get’ key concepts, but have figured out how to give the ‘right answers’ (popular strategies included letting a teacher or another student answer first and copy them, or to read the teacher’s body language for cues). Holt is also interested in the students who get to college by giving the right answers but have no proper understanding of the subject or interest in it.
Tell-’em-and-test-’em was widely used in early mass education systems. But many students, like those Holt observed, didn’t grasp what they were being told and tested on. In response during the post-war period, child-centred approaches became increasingly popular, and then began to lose touch with a fundamental feature of education – knowledge. The completely reasonable antipathy to learning entire lessons by rote morphed into avoiding learning anything by heart. Objections to being fed lists of facts turned into objections to learning factual information. The necessity of acquiring higher-level skills transformed into acquiring higher-level skills only. It’s not surprising that teachers who didn’t experience tell-’em-and-test-’em MkI are advocating tell-’em-and-test-’em MkII, but those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, and Holt provides a vivid reminder that tell-’em-and-test-’em isn’t enough.
Holt, J (1965). How Children Fail. Penguin.
Lemov, D (2010). Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that put Students on the Path to College. Jossey-Bass.