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Teach Like a Champion may just be the one book you need – a ‘what works’ for authoritarians – when it comes to teaching like you’re batshit afraid of youth. Pair Doug Lemov’s book with the inept ramblings by David Didau or Toby Young on genes and IQ, and you can go a step farther: writing off youth as disposable and masking it with ‘science’.

For Didau and Young, it’s all ‘free speech’, right? Just another side of a debate. Can’t handle some critical thinking, well, then, maybe this isn’t a safe space for you. But when Didau and Young are criticized and called to account, it’s all “witch hunts and censorship”, according to Andrew Old, who takes a page out of Spiked. But make no mistake, their voices are not marginalized and they are not caped crusaders speaking truth to power. As Debra Kidd points out, those like Tom Bennett and Andrew Old had the ear of Michael Gove and did very well indeed (well, at least Bennett did).

I think several of us had a collective ‘you’ve gotta be shitting me’ moment when Young first posted his take on genes and IQ on Teach First, just two months after David Didau permanently damaged his reputation by speculating about the link between genes, race, and IQ. Teach First is the UK relative of Teach for America, and both organizations are huge fans of Lemov’s manual to help people who have no rapport with children or knowledge of pedagogy. When Teach First then took the post down, Young then republished it here.

In Young’s mind, it’s really the progressive educators who are making a muck of things and increasing inequality:

“A fairly common misunderstanding among educationalists is thinking that if you make schools more equal, you will equalise attainment. In fact, if every school is equally good, you may succeed in reducing some of the differences in GCSE results due to environmental differences, but by doing that you will automatically accentuate the variation due to differences in natural ability, including genetic differences when it comes to conscientiousness and other personality traits linked with attainment. Looked at this way, school improvement may actually increase inequality of school outcomes rather than reduce it.”

So, fighting against structural racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty is bound to backfire because the “variation due to differences in natural ability” must be so much larger than the large scale social injustices? Only someone ignorant of developmental biology – or someone besotted with contempt for all those ‘lesser’ people – could cling to the idea of “natural ability” at this point in the game.

If students read the blogs of Didau, Young, and Old, they will find that they are problems, interruptions, naturally unable, and dangerous. When Andrew Old writes about shouting at children and corporal punishment, he calls those who take a firm stand on the side of the dignity of youth “hysterical appeasers of the badly behaved” and says that those who dare ask questions face a “complete and unquestioning disapproval from a position of moral superiority, unsupported by a rational argument“. You see, Didau, Young, and Old are really quite brave champions of rationality.

Now, I have no issue with taking critical shots at lots of people who write and think about education, and even ideas that my administration might believe in. But I always punch up, not down. Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion is a masterclass in punching down, demanding compliance for the sake of the teacher’s authority. In the first of his 49 techniques, he explains how no one is allowed to opt out of answering questions:

You ask Charlie what 3 times 8 is. Glancing briefly and impassively at you, Charlie mutters, “I dunno,” under his breath, then sucks his teeth, and turns his head slowly to look out the window. … If you used No Opt Out in this situation, you would turn to another student, Devon, and ask him that same question. Assuming he correctly answered 24, you’d now turn back to Charlie: “Now you tell me, Charlie, what’s 3 times 8?”

Now you tell me, Doug, where’s the dignity in that?

During our learning conferences, a student told me that they are reluctant to speak in class in case they are wrong. I said, when I ask a question, I’m interested in what you think because they are your thoughts. I also told them that it’s ok to opt out and reassured them that they participated in so many other ways by actively listening and helping other students. Both they and their parents smiled.

Every time I write a blog, I imagine my students finding it and reading it. Would they find someone who cares about them as people? Would they see a connection between how I work to foster their dignity and autonomy in the classroom and how I talk about them among other teachers?

I hope so. You see, this really isn’t about being in dialog with those champion teachers who read a manual so they can face down who they see as naturally unable and unruly children. Aside from the social media stir and celebrity, that’s a small life to live. And there’s too much joy and reward in teaching children to waste much time on it.

Further reading:

Header image by Nathan Roser

I footnotes