How to Build a Better Teacher
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on March 6th, 2010

As I noted in yesterday’s post, I’m training a new group of TI Teaching Professionals this week. Total Immersion is evolving from a 20-year mission to teach swimming to put far more emphasis on teaching people who love to swim how to share their love with others. And not just share the love but teach effectively.  This of course is a question that confronts all of America right now as – similar to health care – many people feel we could get far better outcomes from the resources invested in education. Obviously effective teaching must be at the core of that effort.

Our quest, like that of schools of education, must be to convey not only knowledge of content – what are the essential details of a Skating position that leaves a student feeling comfortable, buoyant, stable — in command of their own body. We must also teach them how to help others learn that with a minimum of fuss.  Though swimming has been taught formally for 200 or more years, there has never been widespread agreement on either content or teaching practice.  So it’s exciting to be working on both.

Thus I was keenly interested this morning to see the lead article in tomorrow’s (Mar 7) NY Times Magazine is Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green. (Last month there was another great article on the same topic in the Atlantic Monthly, What Makes a Great Teacher by Amanda Ripley.

Many TI swimmers entertain thoughts of teaching Total Immersion to others – not just formally as a trained TI Teaching Professional, but simply by helping a friend feel more ease and comfort in the water. I encourage anyone who has considered doing either – and obviously those already doing so — to read both articles. Here are some excerpts from “Building a Better Teacher.”

When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. “Stand still when you’re giving directions,” a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once.

It was the tiniest decision, but what was teaching if not a series of bite-size moves just like that?

Those bite size moves are collected in Lemov’s book being released in April: “Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.”

Central to Lemov’s argument is a belief that students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions.  Lemov’s view is that getting students to pay attention is not only crucial but also a skill as specialized, intricate and learnable as playing guitar.

Lemov played a video of a class taught by one of his teaching virtuosos, Bob Zimmerli. to introduce one of the 49 techniques What to Do. The clip opens at the start of class, which Zimmerli was teaching for the first time, with children — fifth graders, all of them black, mostly boys — looking everywhere but at the board. One is playing with a pair of headphones; another is slowly paging through a giant three-ring binder. Zimmerli stands at the front of the class. “O.K., guys, before I get started today, here’s what I need from you,” he says. “I need that piece of paper turned over and a pencil out.” Almost no one is following his directions, but he is undeterred. “So if there’s anything else on your desk right now, please put that inside your desk.” He mimics what he wants the students to do. A few students in the front put papers away. “Just like you’re doing, thank you very much,” Zimmerli says, pointing to one of them. Another desk emerges neat; Zimmerli targets it. “Thank you, sir.” “I appreciate it,” he says, pointing to another. By the time he points to one last student — “Nice . . . nice” — the headphones are gone, the binder has clicked shut and everyone is paying attention.

Zimmerli got the students to pay attention not because of some inborn charisma but simply by being direct and specific.

Lemov pointed to other tricks Zimmerli used — No. 43: Positive Framing, by which teachers correct misbehavior not by chiding students for what they’re doing wrong but by offering “a vision of a positive outcome.”

“It’s this positive wave; you can almost see it going across the classroom from right to left,” Lemov said. He restarted the clip and asked us to watch the boy with the binder. At the start his head is down and he is paging slowly through his binder. Ten seconds in, he looks to his left, where another boy has his paper and pencil out and is staring at Zimmerli. For the first time, he looks up at the teacher. He stops paging. “He’s like, ‘O.K., what’s this?’ ” Lemov narrated. “ ‘I guess I’m going to go with it.’ ” After 30 seconds, his binder is closed, and he’s stowing it under his desk.

All Lemov’s techniques depend on his close reading of the students’ point of view, which he is constantly imagining. . . citing what he called “the fundamental ambiguity of ‘shh.’ Are you asking the kids not to talk, or are you asking kids to talk more quietly?” A teacher’s control, he said repeatedly, should be “an exercise in purpose, not in power.”

Lemov is interested in offering teachers what he describes as an incentive just as powerful as cash: the chance to get better. Lemov told me. “The really good question is, can you get people to improve really fast and at scale?”

* * *

I met one such teacher, Katie Bellucci, at Troy Prep in Troy, N.Y. She had been teaching for only two months, yet her fifth-grade math class was both completely focused on her and completely quiet. Pacing happily in front of a projector screen, she . . . moved confidently from introducing the day’s material — how to calculate the mean for a set of numbers — to a quick cold-call session to review what they had already learned and finally to helping students as they tackled sample problems on their own. Her cold calls perfectly satisfied Lemov’s ideal. First, she asked the question. Then she paused a slightly uncomfortable second. And only then did she name the student destined to answer.

Bellucci’s control of the classroom, she says, is thanks to . . . practicing different techniques in classroom simulations with her fellow teachers. The simulations were specific and practical; Bellucci told me she spent several hours practicing how to tell a student he was off task. “Without it, I’d be completely on my own,” she said. “I’d be in the dark.”

Lately Bellucci and her mentor teacher, Eli Kramer, a dean of curriculum and instruction at Troy . . . advanced to a technique called No Opt Out: A teacher should never allow her students to avoid answering a question, however tough. “If I’m asking my students a question, and I call on somebody, and they get it wrong, it’s easy to be like, ‘No,’ and move on to the next person. [Instead] ‘O.K., well, that’s your thought. Does anybody disagree? . . . I have to work on going from the student who gets it wrong to students who get it right, then back to the student who gets it wrong and ask a follow-up question to make sure they understand why they got it wrong and understood why the right answer is right.”

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4 Responses to “How to Build a Better Teacher”

  1. robpolley says:

    Terry,
    I teach elementary school, and my principal sent the NY Times article to us. As I read it, and other teacher improvement material, the correlation between teaching elementary school and teaching swimming is obvious. I think the most important idea is that everything is teachable/learnable. As you may be aware, the most recent issue of the ASCA Magazine had a review of a book called “Talent Is Overrated.” At first glance, this book seems to reach a conclusion that’s at odds with your philosophy. It seems to state that the volume of practice is what’s important. And to an extent, it does state this. But it also states that at the highest level, the volume is not what counts – the quality of practice, deliberate practice, is what counts. As I read your materials, practice my own swimming, and teach others to swim, I try to reconcile the concepts of volume and quality of practice. I hope I’m never finished pondering these ideas. For now, I believe that your work has shifted the balance, which, for most of us, has simply been, “more, harder, faster, and stroke will take care of itself.” No coach has ever lost his or her job with this philosophy. Instead, we MUST constantly focus on quality, on technique, and on a never-ending search for improvement. These concepts can never be sacrificed for volume or intensity. That said, I believe that both volume and intensity have roles to play, as long as quality is not sacrificed. I welcome your thoughts. Thank you.

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  2. Rob. For me the key is to always focus on improving my swimming and to never cease pursuing it. How does volume factor in? As Gennadi Touretski said when asked why Alexandre Popov sometimes training for 4+ hours per day for races that lasted 48 second “More opportunities to practice correct technique.” So long as I feel I’m improving or imprinting a skill circuit, I’ll keep practicing. When I feel the circuit is at risk of being compromised by physical or mental fatigue I stop.

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  3. robpolley says:

    Terry. Nicely said, if I may say so. I know some people look at your teaching & learning philosophy as dogmatic, but I think they miss the point. I believe the point is that we’ve all been way out of balance in our practice, emphasizing effort & volume as the variables and thinking of technique as a constant. I think they miss the point. Thanks for all you do for humanity!

    –Rob

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  4. Rob
    What a generous comment. Thank you.

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