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’m on a Community Education Council in Manhattan. Mayor de Blasio, we need to move faster on school integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Mayor de Blasio,

As the mother of a fifth-grade student in a New York City public school and a member of the Community Education Council in Manhattan’s District 2, I thank you for acknowledging that our public school system does not provide equity and excellence for all of our students.

I’m writing to you understanding that the diversity plan the city released this month is a beginning, and that it will take time to integrate our schools. However, the black and Hispanic children of this city do not have decades to wait for us to make change.

I know this firsthand. For the past six years, I have been traveling out of my neighborhood to take my child to one of the city’s few remaining diverse elementary schools, located in Hell’s Kitchen. In looking at middle schools, my criteria for a school were that it matched my child’s academic interests and that it was diverse. Unfortunately, the only middle school that truly encompasses both is a long commute from our home. After commuting by subway for six years, my child wanted a school that was closer to home. I obliged.  

At my child’s middle school orientation, I saw what a segregated school looks like. The incoming class of sixth-graders includes few students of color and does not represent the diversity of our district. This middle school also lacks a diverse teaching staff and administrators. (Had I not sent my child to this school, I would only be fueling the problem, since my child was one of the few children of color admitted to the school.)

These predominately affluent and white schools are creating a new generation of students who will not know how to interact with others that come from different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Integrated schools, on the other hand, will provide opportunities for them to learn and work with students, teachers and school leaders that reflect the diversity of our city and the world we live in.  

There are measures we can take that will have a stronger impact in integrating our schools than what is listed in the diversity plan. I am asking that you come to the table with students, school leadership and parents that are directly affected by school segregation and consider our ideas to create schools that are more equitable for all students.  

In the words of Valerie Castile, whose family received no justice in the death of their son Philando, “The system continues to fail black people.” While she was speaking of the criminal justice system, true reform of that system begins with educating our children — who will be our society’s future police officers, politicians, legislators and judges.

Mayor de Blasio, you have the power to spur change. The students and parents of our great city are asking for your leadership in integrating our schools.

Josephine Ishmon is a member of District 2’s Community Education Council. This is her personal opinion and does not reflect that of the CEC.

First Person

I dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.

Students at Rocky Mountain Prep in SE Denver.

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.

My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.

So here I am.

Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.

Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.

First I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.

I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.

I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.

It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.

I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.

Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.

When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. My dad wasn’t around.

She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to Mexico to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.

The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.

I had met a boy I liked in Mexico, and when I came back to Denver I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.

But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.

I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.

When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.

I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.

Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.

I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.

At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.

That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”

But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.

I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.

As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.

As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.

My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.

Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.