More on Teach Like a Pirate: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

I feel I need to write a little more about Teach Like a Pirate. After posting my review of it yesterday, I’ve received numerous comments from people on Twitter which led me to wonder if people were reading greater negativity in my review than I’d intended. I don’t believe there is anything particularly wrong with the book, and certainly many teachers have found it inspiring. I just simply didn’t get a great deal out of reading it myself. My ratings on Goodreads are personal – I rate books based on how they impact me, not on how they might impact others.

But, to be fair to Dave Burgess, who, comes across as a very lovely guy and an excellent teacher, I’d now like to write a little more about his book to correct some of the misconceptions floating around out there.

Teach Like a Pirate is not about dressing up as a pirate and engaging students through performing as a character.

The book is about engagement, and PIRATE is an acronym that Burgess has developed to help his readers remember his key ideas:

P – Passion

I – Immersion

R – Rapport

A – Ask and Analyse

T – Transformation

E – Enthusiasm

The Good:

I  really did like his chapter on passion. When people reflect on which teachers made the greatest impact on them, often they will tell you they were the teachers who taught with great passion and enthusiasm. In Teach Like a Pirate, Burgess writes about the importance of having passion for whatever you are teaching, and if you are not feeling it, how to find it. There were some good tips here for people who aren’t feeling passion.

Burgess talked about three sources of passion: content passion, professional passion and personal passion. Basically if you’re not feeling passionate about the content of the curriculum, you can draw on your professional passion for teaching and learning, or draw on personal passions and weave them into your subject. He had some great suggestions, which, as I wrote yesterday would be helpful for teachers who are feeling a bit jaded and need to find their spark. For me, passion isn’t an issue, perhaps I’m lucky, but there are very few areas of the curriculum I don’t love teaching, and I guess I frequently draw on what Burgess would call my professional passion – I love helping kids learn. So yes, great tips, just not something I needed particular help with.

I won’t go into detail about the remaining parts of the acronym, you can read the book if you want that. I did like the part about rapport – Burgess wrote a lot about the importance of building strong, positive relationships with students. I agree with him on the importance of this, and he had some great tips for how to get to know students at the start of the year.

As well as explaining his acronym and providing examples of how to achieve each part, Burgess had a an entire section focused on what he called ‘hooks’. These are the elements in each lesson that capture and hold students’ interest.  He provided an extensive list of some very good ideas, ranging from coming to class in character, to teaching outdoors, to engaging in projects to solve real world problems.  So yes, heaps of great ideas that teachers can pick and choose from to increase the engagement in their classrooms.

The Bad:

I guess I prefer a book with a more theoretical framework. Rather than fitting good teaching into a PIRATE acronym, I’d rather fit it into a pedagogical model like the NSW Quality Teaching Framework (QTF) Maybe that seems a little dry compared to being a pirate (no pun intended) but I think teachers are more than capable of dealing with some basic theory. Theory is also important because it helps us understand WHY things work.

Much of what Burgess writes about fits well into the QTF. Linking curriculum to real world events and solving real world problems provides what the framework calls “significance”. Rapport is part of what the framework calls “social support” and is part of the “quality learning environment”, as is “engagement” which is the main focus of Burgess’ book.

I would have found it a more powerful read if Burgess had chosen a model like the QTF, and showed how he demonstrates the elements through his practice. I felt the  PIRATE acronym dumbed things down – and ignored a fairly significant and valuable body of research that would explain why his ideas are pretty good.

The section on hooks was practical but also problematic. By listing each strategy as a hook, it seemed to suggest that each were of equal value. I’d argue that some hooks are more valuable than others. Providing students with authentic tasks, where they are motivated to engage with and synthesise the curriculum in order to create a real product or solve a real problem will provide much deeper engagement and deeper learning than interviewing their teacher who is in costume, role playing a character from a period they are studying in history. I’m not suggesting the latter doesn’t have value, just that the learning is not likely to be as deep.

And perhaps that was part of what weakened the book for me. Burgess wrote very little about learning. He wrote a lot about engagement, and what teachers  do, but very little about what was happening within the students. The type of learning that could occur using authentic projects is very different from the type of learning that would occur interviewing a teacher who is role playing a character. There was a missed opportunity to examine this more deeply.

As I commented yesterday, I found the solo nature of Burgess’ teaching model a little problematic, as was his desire to have the student experience in his classroom better than what they would experience in their other classrooms. I can’t help wondering what his colleagues would have thought as they read that.

The Ugly

On a personal note, I find the PIRATE acronym unfortunate, and quite frankly, offensive. I have a very strong reaction to it which borders on distress. When I think of pirates, I don’t think of Disney and Jack Sparrow. For me the word triggers thoughts of the very real, very dangerous pirates who take rob, murder, rape and take hostages in seas today.  I ‘get’ that most people don’t feel that way and love to buy into the Disney version, so I tried hard to squash my objections, but anything that trivialises rape and murder while celebrating those who commit such crimes is going to get my hackles up.

Years ago, I was victim of a violent attack, and I guess since then, I’ve felt a kinship towards other people who’ve suffered from violence. Now  I realise that’s not Burgess’ intention, he’s not out there deliberately glorifying or endorsing piracy. However, I do think he could have chosen a better acronym rather than one that is a potential trigger for victims of violent crime.  I also realise that this is my problem, not Burgess’ problem – but if I have an issue with it, I would say its likely there are several other people who have difficulty with it as well. I almost didn’t write about this, but if I don’t say something, who will?

I really didn’t want to end on such a sombre note. It’s my fault for trying to fit this post into “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly” – naturally it has to end with the negative. So to conclude, I’ll remind you of some of the positives:

There is value in this book:

  • There are great practical tips for teaching with passion and building positive relationships with students.
  • There are great practical  suggestions for how to inspire, motivate and engage students.
  • It provides a wonderful window into the work of a teacher.
  • It will certainly inspire and be a great resource for many teachers.

It just wasn’t the book for me.

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3 thoughts on “More on Teach Like a Pirate: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

  1. I often worry about the hooks. I believe a student needs to be engaged to learn but not all engagement leads to deep understanding or the learning intention. Learning is hard and takes effort. I found that TLAP undermined this idea and trivialised the effort required to learn. I have just starting reading Teach Like a Champion 2.0 by Doug Lemov which seems to be a much more practical approach with all the elements of Quality Teaching, not just the hook.

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