First Person

Exclusive Excerpt: Doug Lemov’s “Practice Perfect”

People get feedback all the time. The kids on your Little League team get it. So do your direct reports, we hope. This means that they probably practice “taking” feedback quite a bit — they learn to get better at nodding with eye contact, making their tone free of defensiveness, and taking notes, even. Recipients may signal that they take feedback seriously, that they value it, but this does not necessarily mean that they use feedback. Nor does it make them better at employing feedback over time. In fact, the opposite may happen. People may practice ways of taking feedback that help them avoid doing anything about it.

The three of us have done this ourselves. We might make a show of busily writing down feedback a colleague gives us. The response shows that we appreciate it. There is earnest nodding, but in fact we may already know we will ignore the advice once we leave the room. Or we may intend to use it but end up losing sight of it amidst the wreckage of our tasks list. Or perhaps we try it briefly and tell ourselves we have made enough progress, or that the feedback wouldn’t really work.

These responses are common: people rarely practice using feedback. Really it’s just as likely that people get better over time at ignoring or deflecting it since that’s what they often practice doing: “Well, I can’t really do that.” “Oh, thanks, but I’ve tried that.” “Thanks, that’s really helpful.” (No action follows.)

Using feedback well is something that responds to practice. People get better at it by doing it. They learn how to adapt someone else’s advice so it fits their own style, for example; or how to focus on two or three key ideas at a time, or to take the risk of trying something that at first will be quite hard.

Getting good at using feedback — being coachable — is a skill with far-reaching implications. When people use feedback and improve, and see themselves improve at things, they come to believe in practice and in using feedback. And they’re more likely to remain on an upward developmental curve for another reason. As Joshua Foer describes in his study of memory, Moonwalking with Einstein, people often arrive at an “OK Plateau,” a point at which they stop improving at something despite the fact that they continue to do it regularly. “The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing,” he notes, “to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.” The process of intentionally implementing feedback is likely to keep people in a practice state of increased consciousness and thus steeper improvement.

Research continually finds that teachers don’t like their professional development very much and don’t think that it helps. The causation runs both ways: training doesn’t help because people don’t trust it, and people don’t trust it because it doesn’t help them very much. If you train people successfully and they feel themselves getting better, however, it’s much more likely they will trust and commit to it.

One of the keys to getting people to use feedback is building a culture of tacit accountability — one where participants are expected and incentivized to use the feedback they’re given. If you’ve just given a member of your staff feedback, don’t ask her what she thought of it and whether it was helpful; ask her how it worked when she tried it, or how many times she tried it, or to publicly commit to a time and place when she’ll try it. We took on this challenge in our own workshops recently. Typically, participants might do a role play where they are asked to “teach” a simulated lesson to a group of their peers sitting around a table and playing the role of “students.” The teachers would attempt to use a technique on which we had trained them, in just a two- or three-minute lesson. At the end of their two or three minutes they would get feedback from their peers on how they did.

As we did these activities, we realized we needed to do multiple rounds of practice, to let people practice, struggle, get feedback, and then try again. But even after we did that, people often seemed unaware of how useful feedback from group members could be. They would struggle. Their peers would offer insight — often small, actionable things they could do to make their implementation miles better. And the “teachers” would smile and nod, and that’s it. Just as often the valuable insight would drift off into the ether.

Over time we realized we needed to appoint participants to a second role, a “coach,” whose job was to watch for one “positive,” something the teacher had done well that she should try to do more of — and one “delta,” something that could have been better or something different the teacher could have tried. We stopped the activity two minutes into the role play, and the teacher received her feedback; she could ask clarifying questions only briefly to make sure she understood, and then she would start over going back to the beginning and attempting to use the feedback right away.

One benefit of this structure was its implicit accountability: it was hard for teachers to ignore the feedback. For one thing, it was public. Six or seven people had heard them get it; they were explicitly asked to try it just a minute later. It would be egregious not to try it at all. Another benefit was that after the feedback, the role play went back to the beginning — it was a replay of the same situation, not a continuation of the role play in which the requisite situation may not have occurred. This made the opportunity to use the feedback a reliable event. A third benefit was that the coach got to see right away if his or her feedback was effective — and this was important too since we were training instructional leaders whose job was to give effective feedback.

We found that people were stunned by how well tiny adjustments worked and how significant the effect could be. The coach would tell them to flash a smile when they asked the question; to put their arms behind their back. Whether they at first agreed with the feedback or not, they tried it, and often, against their initial instincts, the feedback proved effective. The results were immediately apparent. By being nudged to use the feedback, they came to believe in it and that small changes could indeed make a very big difference.

We added this wrinkle to almost every role play we do. It became a purpose in itself: to socialize people to use feedback, to practice using feedback and let people see themselves succeeding at change. Practicing using feedback before they’ve had a chance to rationalize it away can produce a demonstrably different result — and make people believe in their own power to shape their world.

Since reengineering our training sessions so that teachers would practice using feedback, we’ve found ourselves applying the insight we’ve gained in other settings. One in particular is applicable to almost any organization: preparing a manager for an especially critical or difficult conversation. This is one of the most potentially effective — but generally untapped — applications of practice in the business world. It is a classic example of a case where organizations don’t think that practice applies to them, as Chip and Dan Heath observe in their outstanding book Switch: “Business people think . . . [y]ou plan and then you execute. There’s no ‘learning stage’ or ‘practice stage’ in the middle. From the business perspective, practice looks like poor execution.”

Consider a manager, David, who has to have a critical conversation with an employee, Susan, who is talented and smart but sloppy on details and who tends to hear feedback as advice (Here’s something you might consider trying) rather than guidance (As your manager I am asking [or telling] you to do it this way). Not only has this led to mistakes and poor performance, but it has increased the level of tension between Susan and David. He’s frustrated with her and inclined not to renew her contract. He’s planned a meeting to communicate the extent of his concerns to her and to explain — again, in his mind, but for the last time — exactly what the problem is. To prepare, David schedules a meeting with his boss, Laura, in which they’ll practice the meeting and role-play. During these role plays, feedback is a constant. Let’s say David begins by summarizing the points he wants to make. “Great,” Laura might say, “I like points two and three especially, but point one is a bit indirect. Why don’t you roll through your intro points and imagine I’m Susan. Try to lay it on the line from the outset. We owe her that.” Let’s assume here that David does a quick rehearsal and that he sounds too blunt.

Susan might stop him. “What if you tried something like: ‘I have to tell you that I need for you to make decisive progress at changing some things or this will be our last meeting before we start talking about a transition out of the organization. I’m sorry to tell you that, because I believe so much in what you could bring to the team, but we are at that point.” David would not say, “Thanks, good suggestion,” and keep going with the review of his plan for the meeting. He would go back to the top and try again using Laura’s suggestions. He would force himself to practice using the feedback.

As David rolls through his intro a second time, he doesn’t like what he hears. He sounds too sticky sweet, not like himself, and therefore not really honest. He stops himself, pauses, and looks at Laura. He says, “Let me try that again. I just have to say it like me.” And back to the top he goes. Interestingly, David has here internalized the process of using feedback. The interruption and the feedback are his own — a self-correction. He has learned, through practice, to make a habit out of stopping and applying feedback right away.

The value here is not just for David but for Laura as well. Managers and coaches often “fly blind”; that is, they give the best advice they have, but they really have no idea whether it has helped. One of the key benefits of quick, public use of feedback is that it lets managers and coaches reliably see their own feedback at work. Coaches then learn which feedback — and method of delivering feedback — works best.

One last benefit of causing people to practice using feedback: it is a team-building exercise. After all, David’s meeting with Susan became a shared project for him and Laura. As his boss, she became deeply vested in its success and became a stakeholder in the ideas he used to shape it. This, over time, has a positive cultural effect on an organization. Giving feedback to one another and getting better together makes improvement a team sport, builds trust, and unlocks the knowledge often buried in an organization’s people.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.  Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, Katie Yezzi.  Copyright © 2012 by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.