The problems with Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion

I’m not down on it, mind you, and it goes into my “recommended” shelf along with Fred Jones’s books and Harry Wong’s videos. If you’re wanting a review, I recommend Mr. K’s two-parter here and here.

But as with anything, there are problems:

1. If part of the book’s purpose is to establish nomenclature for classroom techniques, the actual choice of names could use some work. Are “Do Now” and “Ratio” sufficiently descriptive to remember what they are and not mix them up with other things? Are we really supposed to designate “fun” activities as “The J-Factor”?

2. Related to that, some techniques have had long-established names that the book ignores. “Do Now” is bellwork. “Board = Paper” is a graphic organizer.

3. I can hope here “wrong” just meant “not following classroom procedure”, but that might be optimistic:

When a student in her fifth grade math class was unable to explain what was wrong with writing the number 15/6, Kelli Ragin cued: “Well, what do we always do when the numerator is larger than the denominator?” Instantly the student caught on. “Oh, we need to make a mixed number so I divide 6 into 15.”

4. Technique 13, Name the Steps, perfectly matches the Devlin quote: In Math You Have to Remember, In Other Subjects You Can Think About It.

Let me summarize Lemov’s approach: in mathematics the best format is to immediately give a multi-step recipe, followed by a mnemonic device, followed by more memorization, followed by making sure the students have it memorized.

Constructivist possibilities aside, even in a highly traditionalist classroom a strictly recipe-based approach can go awry. I watched an “exemplar” video once of effective tutoring where a student worked out a recipe for solving the Pythagorean theorem, that went something like this:

Square the two sides.
Add the squares you get.
Take the square root.

This is without reference to algebra, or the fact that the leg might the missing value.

Not only is there a high danger of error, there’s a severe lack of generality. I have doubts the students (who can apparently drill quite well in 6 times 9 and the perimeter of a regular octagon of sides 3x + 2) have as much luck approaching anything unfamiliar.

5. The pace in the ideal Lemov classroom tends to the hyperkinetic. The No Opt Out technique for when a student responds “I don’t know” to a question is to bounce it to another student and rebound it on the original student, rather than allowing more wait time or interjecting with Socratic questioning. Even the section on Wait Time mentions Narrated Wait Time as a way of filling dead air.

I have heard of Japanese classrooms with a single difficult problem that students will ponder over for 5 minutes before the silence is broken. With deeper problems, longer thinking time is required.


34 Responses

  1. Lemov’s techniques seem effective for getting students to perform well on standardized testing. I wonder how effective these techniques are for developing independent learners.

  2. I’m still part way through the book but I’d agree with your assessment – there’s a lot of good stuff in there that I think is very sound advice but a few parts where I found myself jumping out of the chair (including the idea that 15/6 is “wrong” – surely not?)

    I’m in the UK, so I assumed that the different names etc were just some of those little differences that I always encounter when I’m looking at things from the US.

    Maybe it’s just my interpretation, but I’d say the ‘I don’t know’ from the No Opt Out section (and how to deal with it) isn’t the same as an ‘I don’t know’ from a student who is genuinely struggling. At this end of the year, when I know my students pretty well, I hope I can spot the difference between those two situations. A bit more challenging to make that call with a new class though.

  3. I haven’t read the book yet, but my colleagues and I attended an in-person training of his in my second year; the consensus was that his approach was an incredibly helpful foundation on which to build and innovate, particularly in terms of classroom management and basic classroom execution. Really useful for a struggling novice teacher.

    That said, I’m disappointed to hear that he (appears to, from this summary) promote low-level math instruction, and hope that teachers are able to move beyond that using other resources and techniques.

  4. Lemov’s techniques seem to be aimed mainly at elementary school teachers, and middle-school teachers dealing with sudents who are 3–5 years behind grade level. That sort of remedial education for unwilling learners may well require the more disciplined teaching style Lemov promotes—it’s hard to do a real test, since teachers come to the profession with very strong prior beliefs that would strongly influence how well they applied different methods.

    I was irritated by the incorrect math and poor copy editing of the book, but I can see some value in many of the techniques he suggests (like “Right is Right”, demanding more detailed answers from students).

    more comments in

    • From my impression most of the best practices and strategies that we read about are directed at the middle school level. We practice many of these strategies in our charter highschool and 90% of them are effective but not when presented to students in a formulaic way. Each teacher has to add their own flare to the learning process to get buy in from the students. This also means that one needs to be an innovator within the innovation.

  5. […] recently read a critique of  Lemov’s Teach like a Champion by The Number Warrior, that points out the similarity […]

  6. I notice that with my students, once I get past about 45 seconds in wait time, it becomes “daydream time” for them. Oh, they’re thinking. But there’s absolutely no guarantee that they’re thinking about the instructional matter at hand. 😉

    • I doubt the five-minute wait time would work well in a whole US classroom. I have done very long waits (with only light prodding) in individual student discussion and eventually received good results.

  7. No thing is perfect. Great thinkers use and build upon what is good; disregard the rest. This book is very helpful for beginning instructors.

  8. […] For some other views of the book, see this blog post. […]

  9. […] The problems with Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion […]

  10. Lemov only uses charter schools to demonstrate his techniques. Charter schools are places where only certain students attend. I teach all students. I’m not sold.

    • I happen to teach in a Low SES school where a high percentage are special ed. The techniques have worked in my classrooms while teachers in the rest of the school still struggle with these same students. Wish I had had these techniques 20 years ago.

  11. I think the big thing with this book is that it is research based, unlike many education books. Much of what is out there in the publishing realm is based on personal experience. Classroom instruction that works, is another one that is research based. I appreciate that much

    • I am on the fence about the lack of Constructivist theory applied to many of Lemov’s techniques as well. In regard to the book being research based, it was my understanding that the author collected data by visiting schools and cataloguing what effective schools already do well.

      This procedure doesn’t qualify for the typical defintion of effective schools research in that it is not longitudinal in nature and there was no attempt to replicate the techniques at various institutions, regardless of demographics or school type.

      • It also does not use random selection; another requirement for valid research.

  12. I disagree that the book promotes a formulaic, low level way of learning mathematical skills. There is a big difference between presenting students with a structured way to solve a problem and between teaching them a formulaic response.

    The book might not apply to every student population. For example, in a community where the majority of parents were English speaking and literate I do not believe one must spend as much time each day in assessing student performance. If the teacher knows that mom and dad can reinforce what was taught in school that day through the homework, then the teacher has an easier job than if they know whatever the student hasn’t understood in the classroom, they will not have explained to them again. Context is important in determining whether an approach is overly standardized or formulaic.

    • There is a big difference between presenting students with a structured way to solve a problem and between teaching them a formulaic response.

      I don’t necessarily disagree with this statement (although you need to be extremely careful defining terms here) but I was wondering if you could point out an excerpt where the book advocates higher-level ways of learning mathematical skills. (A colleague of mine is using the book to teach teachers, and they need to do a little, ah, interpolation to make sure they don’t walk away with the wrong message.)

  13. Personally as a pre-service teacher, I found the book to be helpful in the field. “Teach Like a Champion” gave me some good behavior techniques to use and it allowed me to see the power of what setting high goals for my students can do. One critique that I have is that the videos that accompany the book are kind of upsetting. Some of the teachers seemed almost militaristic in the way they talked to their students. While behavior management in the classroom is very important, it is also important to remember that we are talking to children and not cadets.

    • If one were to consistently implement every method in the book, the result would be a classroom like the charter schools on which the book is based. Considering the suspiciously high graduation rates, one might ponder that the students whose needs were NOT met by the school had been transferred before they could mess up the statistics. It is hardly a student-centered approach to teaching and learning, and doesn’t include much on teaching self-motivation. That said, the book contains a lot of solid foundations for classroom management and maintaining consistently high standards. No book should be looked to as a holy grail, and teachers will (and should) always modify these types of techniques to fit their own classroom.

      • It is illegal for a charter school to just transfer a student because they aren’t performing well. Charter schools are, by law, considered public schools. Any student can attend. If there are more students than seats available, the school must use a lottery.

      • This may explain why charter schools manage to graduate so many students who have low content knowledge.

        In charter schools students either:
        1) get themselves expelled due to discipline issues
        2) transfer for personal reasons
        3) fail and repeat a grade before they graduate.

  14. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the videos that accompanied them as well. After reading prior posts, many people didn’t feel that some of the practices used were right and came off very militaristic. However, I believe that the different techniques used were great ways of gaining classroom management. Those techniques can be used in a suburban school or inner city school. For best results those techniques should be used from the start of each year on the first day. Set the standard for what you expect out of your students off the get go. Modify according to the class and you are set. The book and videos do a great job at setting the groundwork for useful classroom management.

  15. From my experience, the only reason the teacher might wait 5 minutes for a student to respond in Japanese classroom is if the student is in the process of waking up from a desk nap. That kind of time for consideration is an urban legend, I’m afraid.

    I have worked as an assistant teacher in Japanese public schools for a few years and have recently put some of Lemov’s techniques into effect in my EFL classes. They tend to work, but obviously you have to take them with a grain of salt and adapt them to your classroom.

    Anyhow, thanks for the review.

    • I got the wait time quote from a piece of math ed literature. That ties into another worry of mine–

      If you’re still around, could I prod you some more detail? I often wonder if what gets written about Japan/Singapore/South Korean classrooms is from “pandering to the camera” so to speak and the reality is much different. Is Japanese lesson study really a regular thing? In your experience do they work on problems that require deep thinking or are they mostly rote? How much of their success would you attribute to school culture and how much to culture?

      (In the early 90s our school had a visiting teacher from Japan for a year. His comment as he was leaving? “Don’t change anything.” He went on to talk about how the US students were always questioning why things worked and the Japanese weren’t questioning anything. Mind you the early 90s may have been different.)

  16. Hi, Your Mr. K links have broken. The correct ones are now here: and

  17. Dear Mr. Dyer,
    I do not know if you do, or have ever taught in an inner city environment, but many of these students can’t add 5+2 without using their fingers or need to have weekly visits from their parole officers. I am being neither sarcastic nor facetious. I approached Mr Lemov’s book with a great deal of criticism (as i am near completion of my own book on teaching) and while you seem to easily find fault, you – like many teachers – are failing to see the big picture. Mr. Lemov is trying to help teachers hone the necessary techniques that work. I know – I use them. These are the same techniques not covered in any education classes that I have ever taken. Try reading it again. This time, keep an open mind or look at the DVD. While some scenarios may seem a bit contrived, it is the nature of the beast when filming students. It all looks contrived until you do it and see it works. Have you ever been a movie critic? Because it sounds like you know an awful lot about something you could never do.

    • 1. I teach in an “inner city” school and have done so for 6 years. 80% of my incoming 9th graders scored “Falls Far Below” on their achievement test last year.

      2. Your criticism seems aimed at the wrong person. I do like the book and link to a positive review I agree with.

  18. […] Emily. “Re: The Problems with Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion.” Web log comment. The Number Warrior. 9 Jan. 2010. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. <; […]

  19. It does seem in the videos that the teaching pace is ‘hyperkinetic’ and this is a reaction I would expect from teachers who are not used to working with a class that is 50% or more ‘hyperkinetic’ students. The reason the pace needs to be relentless and highly teacher directed is because when a teacher has a classroom full of students who do not read or write at grade level or have diagnosed behavior issues which hinder self control, zen moments of personal reflection or ‘partner’ work quickly become hectic and out of control.

    These techniques are highly effective for the student populations I work with because many are two to three grade levels behind in reading and writing skills.

  20. If you have been in education for as long as I have (or for few years), by now you know the common theme in education—most of us complain about most of everything, yet few of us actually have a solution to offer. Yet, as soon as someone else proposes a solution, most of us are quick to look for flaws—I guess this is human nature. So, my thing is, if I don’t have a better solution and someone else proposes a solution, I try it and I either propose a better solution or I look elsewhere if it did not work for me. I don’t bash others because their solutions did not work for me. This is what helps me grow and be strategic with my short time on this planet. So, go ahead and bash my comment. When you’re done, stop and reflect, “What did I gain?” Or before you write your response ask yourself, “Will this person even read my comments? So there, did you use your time effectively?
    Thank you

    • Given Lemov is on my recommended list, I’m not sure what you mean here. Were you wanting my recommendations of “replacement texts” for the problematic parts of Lemov?

      #1-#2 are small, minor points. Just rename appropriately. Most teachers I know ignore the phrase “Do Now” and just call it bellwork.

      #3-#4 are a holistic issue, and I might recommend Jo Boaler’s stuff if you’re looking for an alternative to Lemov.

      #5 I don’t really know a good replacement. It’s one of the issues I probably should blog more in depth of. I’ve heard the “restrict to 5 minutes” rule enough it seems almost like dogma, but then I get my students in Intro to Calculus who can’t handle a trig identity to save their life (because they routinely take struggle/thinking way past the 5 minute mark even for experts).

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