Monday, March 8, 2010

Elizabeth Green on Lemov's Taxonomy and M.K.T.

There's a good, very thorough article in yesterday's New York Times magazine called Building a Better Teacher, by Elizabeth Green (here).

Green writes about the difficulty of pinning down what makes some teachers "good" (or great). The first part of the article reminded me of the "teaching as science vs. teaching as art" debate that we explored at Teachers College.

In the second part of the article, Green highlights two practitioner-theorists who have promising ideas.

Doug Lemov, who used to be the dean of students at the Academy of the Pacific Rim in Boston (!), spent several years locating and then analyzing the methodology of teachers who "succeed" more than most. The result of his work is Lemov's Taxonomy, a set of techniques -- most of which are focused on classroom management rather than subject-matter content -- which lead to success in the classroom:
While some education schools offer courses in classroom management, they often address only abstract ideas, like the importance of writing up systems of rules, rather than the rules themselves. Other education schools do not teach the subject at all. 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.
Deborah Loewenberg Ball takes a different tack: Ball focuses more on content than management. Rather than the E.D. Hirsch "essential knowledge" approach, however, Ball explores the way that successful teachers think about content from the perspective of how their students will process it:
Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it. Then they need to take each mind from not getting it to mastery. And they need to do this in 45 minutes or less. This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge, a set of facts independent of subject matter, like Lemov’s techniques. It was a different animal altogether. Ball named it Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or M.K.T. She theorized that it included everything from the “common” math understood by most adults to math that only teachers need to know, like which visual tools to use to represent fractions (sticks? blocks? a picture of a pizza?) or a sense of the everyday errors students tend to make when they start learning about negative numbers. At the heart of M.K.T., she thought, was an ability to step outside of your own head. “Teaching depends on what other people think,” Ball told me, “not what you think.”
Both Lemov and Ball sound like great thinkers in teacher training / pedagogy. It was very fun to read this article about people who are coming up with concrete ideas about how to improve the teaching profession.


  1. I just finished reading the article and whole heartedly agree. Over my almost forty years in the business, I've known lots of great teachers, but until now, no one has provided concrete ways to become one! I happily patted myself on the back when I discovered I am already using a number of Lemov's techniques. Wish I had Lemov's taxonomy the first year I taught. For me, it's been trial and error, removing the techniques that don't work over the years.

  2. A step toward understanding a profession that has had "farblondjet" standards for so long. I retired almost ten years ago from the NYC school system and ache because no one addressed these problems then. As for the graduate courses in Education, they were known as "crap" courses. Furthermore, I would hope that articulate people not abuse the word "fun" the way they do. To have a pleasurable eperience or to enjoy something may be a quibble, but if you're talking about improving children's abilities and experiences, bring the best grammar to the table. Don't "FUN" it.