Doug Lemov

New York

A leading teacher of teachers says feedback should be used fast

Good teachers are not born; they're made slowly, over time, through sustained and deliberate practice. That's the theory behind "Practice Perfect," the new e-book by Doug Lemov, managing director of the Uncommon Schools network of charter schools and author of "Teach Like a Champion," a 2010 book with 49 concrete strategies for improving student engagement and classroom management. (GothamSchools' Elizabeth Green wrote about Lemov and his approach in a 2010 New York Times Magazine story.) "Practice Perfect" aims to provide similarly user-friendly ideas — 42 of them — for attaining  incremental improvement. Lemov and his co-authors, two of Uncommon Schools' top educators, say the strategies would be useful in any field — but they are particularly apropos for teachers, whose performance carries high stakes for their students and, increasingly, for themselves. The city's current teacher evaluation system lets educators know whether they are considered satisfactory, but it doesn't tell them about their strengths and weaknesses in the classroom, or how to build on them. The city is piloting an observation model now that would give teachers more feedback about their performance. But feedback is meaningless if it does not change practice. In an exclusive excerpt from "Practice Perfect" in the Community section today, Lemov outlines ways to make feedback more useful. He describes testing out a teacher observation protocol in which teachers received one item of praise and one suggestion for improvement immediately after delivering a three-minute lesson — and then were required to repeat the lesson incorporating the feedback right away. Lemov writes: 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.
New York

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.
New York

A place for educators to steal their colleagues' best ideas

The BetterLesson profile for sixth-grade Roxbury Prep Charter School teacher and BetterLesson celebrity Jason Armstrong The most popular member of a new social network is neither Lady Gaga nor Ashton Kutcher, though Kutcher is a fan of the website. The distinction goes to Jason Armstrong, a sixth-grade teacher in Roxbury, Mass., who has more than 6,500 total views and more than 1,100 downloads on a new website for teachers called BetterLesson. BetterLesson's circle of about 7,000 teachers are downloading Armstrong's math lessons, grouped into six units: whole numbers, decimals, fractions, percents, geometry, and a year-ender called extensions and review. They can also download his quizzes and tests and become his "colleague" (the equivalent of a Facebook friend). Armstrong's former colleague and roommate, Alex Grodd, created the site — which Kutcher recently promoted in a Tweet, a stroke of generosity devised by a BetterLesson staffer. Grodd first came up with the idea for the site when he joined Teach for America in 2004. Assigned to teach third grade science during his summer institute training at a Houston elementary school, Grodd went online to hunt for ideas. Surely one of the other hundreds of third grade science teachers in the world had come up with a smart way to explain his assigned topic, the solar system. Why should he have to reinvent the pedagogical wheel? The last remotely relevant class he'd taken was Harvard's notoriously science-light "Natural Disasters." Hours of Googling later, Grodd came up with nothing. "This was 2004, it wasn't, like, 1994," Grodd told me today. "The Internet had been around for a while." BetterLesson is not the first attempt to solve the problem of teacher isolation, but it's already catching on more quickly than many efforts. Those 7,000 users are up from just 200 in June 2009, when the site launched to a small group, and Grodd won backing from NewSchools Venture Fund, the philanthropically financed new-idea incubator.