Author Doug Lemov on the power of practice. Plus: top education blogs, dog-eared books.
Doug Lemov believes in hard work. He's the parent saying, "Practice that scale, again." He's the baseball coach drilling his players on the fine points of infielding. The acclaimed author of Teach Like a Champion sat down to talk with us about his new book, Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better.
Q There are so many sports analogies running through the book. How did you come to relate the culture of practice in sports to other areas, like teaching and business?
A I wasted so much time not knowing how or what to practice. I want my kids to know how to get good at something they're passionate about. Sports is a crucible in which you learn a lot of things about performance. That's one of the key points: Anything you do live responds to practice, whether it's playing in a soccer game, teaching a math lesson, or doing a performance review.
Q Since education has safeguards for teacher jobs, is there a unique opportunity to avoid tossing out the baby with the bathwater and instead work to improve the people you have?
A Yes! It's the obligation of an organization to make its people better, particularly in the education sector because it's human-capital intensive-you will only ever be as good as the quality of your teachers. If all you did was aggregate talent and you attracted the best teachers in the district, you would have great results at certain schools but in the end it doesn't solve the issues.
Q You use pop-culture touchstones (Javier Bardem, Lionel Messi) to illustrate many points. Do you recommend that leaders also use these very relatable examples to help their employees grasp the idea of practice?
A It's more of an interest in stories than in pop culture. Through stories, you communicate values and beliefs and direction. I've gone to trainings where people would deal in platitudes and abstractions. I'd be inspired, then I'd get to my class and I'd have no idea what to do to make changes come about.
Q What about the cynics, those who are resistant to a new program—when they buy in, do they sometimes become the biggest boosters of the culture of practice?
A Smart people are right to be skeptical. Fellow author Paul Bamberg wrote: "Buy-in is an outcome and not a precondition." If your training makes people feel they're getting better, they'll believe in it. If the skeptics start to believe in it—the passion of the convert—they'll bring people with them.
Q What makes Rule 21, Model the Path, one of the most important rules for any educator to internalize?
A That's so critical. People will look at a model and say, "I can't be that person." You want to show them a plurality of models and encourage them to find their own version. People need to get lots of rounds of practicing like themselves, in their own voice, so that by the time they go out into the classroom, it's natural. They need to own it.
Q Talk a bit about hiring for practice (Rule 36).
A If I have two prospective teachers come in to teach a sample lesson, and one of them is an 8 and one is a 6, but the 8 is not so interested in feedback, and the 6 is yearning to get better, I'm takin' the 6. Teachers like that are going to build a
culture that makes all the other teachers in the building want to get better.
From the surprising foreword by Dan Heath—whiskey tour guides?! Chris Rock?!—to the many spot-on examples, Practice Perfect makes the case that practice, done with intention, even obsession, is key to getting great at what you do.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is the patron saint of the narrative, a leader who had his players practice seemingly mundane things until they became automatic. As Lemov and company argue, zeroing in on discrete aspects of practice can create master practitioners. The authors reject the idea of "hot spots" of talent, suggesting that this phenomenon is "better practice habits in disguise."
One might quibble with the need for—phew—42 rules, and in truth, some could have been combined, but the lightbulb moments are many in this great new addition to the "how to excel at excelling" genre.
9 Rules to Practice By
Rule 2: Practice the 20. Translation: Isolate the most important 20 percent and practice that.
Rule 5: Replace Your Purpose (With an Objective). Translation: Purpose is squishy; objectives are
specific and measurable.
Rule 7: Differentiate Drill From Scrimmage. Translation: Intentionally
distort the game to focus on discrete skills.
Rule 10: Isolate the Skill. Translation: Hone technique in isolation until it becomes automatic.
Rule 21: Model the Path. Translation: Show the process, not just the end product.
Rule 23: Practice Using Feedback (Not Just Getting It). Translation: Implement feedback on the spot and use it in the next round of practice.
Rule 31: Normalize Error. Translation: Expose weaknesses to drive excellence.
Rule 32: Break Down the Barriers to Practice. Translation: Anticipate resistance and meet it head-on.
Rule 36: Hire for Practice. Translation: Bring in people who are open to feedback.