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 mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.