Skip to main content

The McDonaldization of Pedagogy

Teach Like a Champion is a teacher training book written by Doug Lemov. It contains 49 teaching techniques he claims will transform inexperienced educators into “master teachers.” Since its publication in 2010, teacher prep programs, charter school networks, and public school districts have implemented TLAC into their training protocol. The administrators of these programs tout Lemov’s book as the quintessential guide to improving teacher performance, but veteran teachers express concern about its methods.

Ray Salazar of Chicago Public Schools writes that TLAC focuses too much on controlling students instead of supplying them with knowledge. Salazar’s contention holds water: one of TLAC’s six sections, “Building and Maintaining High Behavioral Expectations,” is dedicated entirely to managing student behavior. Technique 36, “100 Percent,” mandates absolute compliance from every student at all times. In perspective, 23 of TLAC’s 49 techniques focus exclusively on governing classroom conduct, while only one addresses content. Even this singular exception is authoritarian in nature: Technique 5, “No Apologies,” tells educators to never apologize for the “boring” content they teach.

Elizabeth Green of The New York Times Magazine interviewed Doug Lemov about the process behind the creation of TLAC. She quotes him on the importance of discipline, “It doesn’t matter what questions you’re asking if the kids are running the classroom.” Lemov’s imperious worldview is further reflected in the recommended administration of the remaining tactics: in a section titled No Opt Out, Lemov advocates detaining students for recess if they fail to repeat answers as directed.

Green then describes sitting in on a teacher, Ms. Bellucci, who finds comfort in Lemov’s techniques. Green commends Bellucci for “perfectly satisfying Lemov’s ideal” after there was “not a giggle or head turned” when a student was sent to the disciplinary dean. Interestingly, Lemov once occupied the position of disciplinary dean at Pacific Rim Charter, an institution he founded after admittedly struggling to connect with students as an educator.

Another teacher, Rebecca Radding, left a New Orleans KIPP school after the administration mandated usage of TLAC in classrooms. Radding’s disliked the book’s overarching emphasis on testing.

To understand why testing is so heavily weighted, we can return to Green’s interview, where Lemov provides insight into his motives for writing TLAC. After launching the Uncommon Schools charter network, Lemov’s foremost constraint to expansion was finding high-quality teachers. In the style of Moneyball, he analyzed publicly available standardized testing data, searching for outliers — under-resourced schools whose students tested well.

These outliers were further scrutinized by subject and age. If eighth grade math students at a low-resource school performed at a disproportionately high level, Uncommon Schools offered the responsible teacher better pay. While this proved effective at identifying teachers who improved scores, there was a limited supply of undervalued educators to poach. As charters proliferated, demand for these scarce commodities increased and their costs grew.

Faced with this predicament, Lemov sought to create better teachers. He filmed a number of educators who managed the best scores with the fewest resources, reviewed the footage, and distilled their practices into the techniques found in TLAC. Lemov’s exclusive study of teachers who generated high test scores seems to validate assertions that the text is heavily slanted toward testing.

Peggy Robertson, a former teacher and current administrator of United Opt Out, calls TLAC, “shallow, uniform, and simplistic.” Regarding the text’s depth and simplicity, we’ve mentioned that none of the 49 techniques talk seriously about content. Further, many of the tactics are extraordinarily basic (e.g., Technique 8, “Post It”. Be sure your students know your objective for the day by posting it on the board). Lemov also describes Technique 17, “Ratio,” which has two parts, as “complex.” His utilization of “complex” to characterize the interplay between initiating a dialog (“increasing student participation”) and staying out of the way (“limiting teacher talk”) while students share ideas speaks volumes for the book’s substance.

Concerning TLAC’s emphasis on uniformity, two sections, “Planning that Ensures Academic Achievement” and “Structuring and Delivering Your Lessons” present lesson planning in a specific, rigid manner. Technique 28, “Entry Routine,” stresses the benefits of beginning every class identically to create time-saving patterns. Technique 9, “The Shortest Path,” declares that only direct instruction should be used to teach students, because it is the fastest method. Technique 14, “Board=Paper,” and Technique 26, “Everybody Writes,” place importance on every student writing down every word their teacher puts up for viewing.

One way we can summarize the collective complaints of Salazar, Radding, and Robertson is under the umbrella of “McDonaldization.” McDonaldization is a term coined by George Ritzer to describe the practice of taking a task (e.g., teaching), and breaking it down into smaller sub-tasks (i.e., techniques). These sub-tasks are subject to rationalization, where only the most efficient means of completing the task is utilized; others methods are abandoned for the optimized path. Efficiency is measured with quantitative metrics, production methods are organized to ensure predictability, and the environment is controlled to enhance the uniformity of products. One could readily make the case the core tenets of McDonaldization: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control, are present in TLAC’s 49 techniques.

Credit: PhotoPin, licensed under CC by 2.0

While McDonaldization can save resources, indiscriminate application often produces poor outcomes for consumers. Consider those who wait in long lines to pay high prices for “fast” food of dubious quality. The processing required to ensure fast food’s efficiency and predictability results in a product that is less healthy and lower quality than a freshly prepared version.

In Unhappy Meals, author Michael Pollan investigates why we eat so many processed foods. In the 1980s, America allocated tremendous resources toward researching food and its essential components. The ultimate goal was to understand what parts of a food make it nutritious, so that we might more efficiently consume them. The findings of this research resulted in food producers replacing real, natural foods with less costly alternatives, fortified with “healthy” vitamins and minerals. Pollan notes that as consumption of processed and fortified products increased, America’s health worsened. Those who ate high quantities of processed foods were more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

Pollan writes that processed foods are less healthy because food is most nutritious when the whole food is consumed. For example, eating an orange is healthier than gulping down a blend of Tang, Metamucil, and Emergen-C, even if the two have perfectly identical quantities of sugar, dietary fiber, and vitamins. The orange is healthier than the drink not because it has more nutrients, but because its pith contains amino acids that facilitate absorption of Vitamin C in the stomach. Pollan says that no matter how nutritious they claim to be, processed “food-like substances” stripped from their natural context will never be as healthy as whole foods.

Pollan offers two bits of actionable advice to those seeking to improve their eating. One is to avoid foods with packaging containing health claims. “Fat Free” items are often packed with sugar, while “Sugar Free” items are often stuffed with fat; neither is good for us. The other recommendation is to eat whole foods in their natural state. Again, this is because of the importance of how the context that food is consumed in influences the way its nutrients are absorbed.

If we consider the implications of Pollan’s recommendations, we can derive some potentially useful anecdotes to evaluate Teach Like A Champion and teacher training at large. In his recommendation that people eat whole foods, rather than their processed and fortified counterparts, we find a framework to address Teach Like A Champion’s efforts to break down education into bite-sized bits of technique. As processing healthy foods efficiently transforms them into unhealthy “food-like substances,” TLAC’s processing of teaching results in the construction of an oversimplified, “teaching-like practice.”

The text does not mention compassion, wit, intuition, determination, or improvisation in the classroom. Instead, it reduces a dynamic practice into an insultingly reductive list. This list takes teaching out of context. It fails to account for variance in teacher strengths, student learning styles, group dynamics, and classroom moods.

Credit: PhotoPin, licensed under CC by 2.0

TLAC also avoids discussing the structural contexts that cause schools to receive different resources. Much the opposite of acknowledging the difficulties posed by such differences, Lemov tells teachers, “No matter what the circumstances you face on the job, and no matter what strategic decisions are mandated to you, you can succeed.” While the notion that every teacher can make a difference sounds beautiful, there are teachers across the country without enough textbooks for every student who would contest the conclusion that access to resources does not impact learning outcomes.

From Pollan’s recommendation to avoid foods that make health claims, we can generalize that there are limits to data. Last year, we learned that sweeteners in “diet” sodas cause glucose intolerance, a precursor to diabetes, and alter gut microbes to cause weight gain. Despite the negative health impacts of “diet” sodas, such products are marketed as “Calorie Free.”

In the instance of “diet” sodas, an arbitrary metric (i.e., calories) is used to define a product as “healthier” than its alternative, even though it still produces poor health outcomes. We should ask if the calculable measures of teaching (i.e., standardized testing) might be prone to the same problems. Testing’s potential for misrepresentation seems even greater when we consider how nebulous the process of learning is, and how many forms intelligence can take on. Making standardized test scores the singular focus of any training protocol seems questionable when considered from this view.

There are other problems with Lemov’s claims: when he touts Uncommon Schools as effectively implementing TLAC’s techniques to raise test scores, he doesn’t mention that teachers in his schools are taught TLAC tactics in conjunction with content-oriented programming. His teachers also function as student-teachers for several years before taking control of their own classrooms. Much differently, some training programs making use of TLAC are accepting students with bachelor’s degrees in fields other than education, hustling them through a five-week certificate program, and shoving them in front of classes. They’re presented with a copy of Teach Like A Champion and a reaffirmation that hard work and 49 techniques are all they need to become master teachers.

For the same reason we don’t consider everyone who learns to follow recipes a master chef, or those who learn “game” from pick-up books to be expert lovers, we shouldn’t consider any new teacher a “master,” no matter how many efficient strategies he or she implements. We should instead view the process of becoming a good teacher as one that requires practice, commitment, and dedication. To create “master teachers,” we need to evaluate the whole process of how we train and support our teachers throughout their careers.

By: T. Madison Glimp
Content Contributor @ Kiddom

Kiddom seamlessly connects the most critical aspects of teaching and learning on one platform.

For the first time, educators can share and manage digital curriculum, differentiate instruction, and assess student work in one place. Learners can take assessments online, see student performance data with the click of a button, and teachers have the insight and tools they need to create individual learning paths.

Ready to bring digital curriculum to your school or district?

Connect with us in a 15-minute meeting to learn more about available pre-packaged curriculum, and how the Kiddom education platform can support your learning community.

Request a Demo