Preface: Why Practice? Why Now?

Introduction: The Power of Practice

Rethinking Practice

Rule 1 Encode Success

Rule 2 Practice the 20

Rule 3 Let the Mind Follow the Body

Rule 4 Unlock Creativity . . . with Repetition

Rule 5 Replace Your Purpose (with an Objective)

Rule 6 Practice “Bright Spots”

Rule 7 Differentiate Drill from Scrimmage

Rule 8 Correct Instead of Critique

How to Practice

Rule 9 Analyze the Game

Rule 10 Isolate the Skill

Rule 11 Name It

Rule 12 Integrate the Skills

Rule 13 Make a Plan

Rule 14 Make Each Minute Matter

Using Modeling

Rule 15 Model and Describe

Rule 16 Call Your Shots

Rule 17 Make Models Believable

Rule 18 Try Supermodeling

Rule 19 Insist They “Walk This Way”

Rule 20 Model Skinny Parts

Rule 21 Model the Path

Rule 22 Get Ready for Your Close-up


Rule 23 Practice Using Feedback (Not Just Getting It)

Rule 24 Apply First, Then Reflect

Rule 25 Shorten the Feedback Loop

Rule 26 Use the Power of Positive

Rule 27 Limit Yourself

Rule 28 Make It an Everyday Thing

Rule 29 Describe the Solution (Not the Problem)

Rule 30 Lock It In

Culture of Practice

Rule 31 Normalize Error

Rule 32 Break Down the Barriers to Practice

Rule 33 Make It Fun to Practice

Rule 34 Everybody Does It

Rule 35 Leverage Peer-to-Peer Accountability

Rule 36 Hire for Practice

Rule 37 Praise the Work


Rule 38 Look for the Right Things

Rule 39 Coach During the Game (Don’t Teach)

Rule 40 Keep Talking

Rule 41 Walk the Line (Between Support and Demand)

Rule 42 Measure Success



Appendix A: Teaching Techniques from Teach Like a Champion

Appendix B: Sample Practice Activities



About the Authors

Summary of Rules




“The critical difference between ‘good-enough’ and exemplary is not talent or desire. It’s practice. Deliberate practice. That’s why Practice Perfect is such an immensely important book. It’s the first to provide evidence-based rules, rich examples, and detailed techniques on how to design and conduct practice routines. If you want to improve your own—or someone else’s—performance, you’ve got to read this book. The authors have given everyone a great gift in Practice Perfect. They’ve handed over the key that unlocks excellence. Take that key and use it. Now.”

—Jim Kouzes, coauthor of the bestselling The Leadership Challenge; Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University


“Doug Lemov has done it again. In Practice Perfect, one of America’s best teachers widens his focus to help all of us move ever closer to mastery. If you are interested in getting better at anything (or helping someone else get better), then this book, with its excellent collection of techniques and tools, should be your field guide.”

—Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind


“A timely, winning, and approachable proposition! The pursuit of improvement through the development of a disciplined approach to practice is an essential element to success in all your pursuits.”

—Douglas R. Conant, former president, chief executive officer, and director of Campbell Soup Company; New York Times Best Selling Author of TouchPoints; ASTD 2012 Champion of Workplace Learning and Performance


“There are no shortcuts to success, whether it be in education, sports, or business. The authors of Practice Perfect provide a clear-cut, commonsense blueprint for what we all need to know to create practice habits that ensure permanent, sustainable results. I especially hope all aspiring teachers read this book. Transforming our public schools isn’t going to be easy, but it can be done through hard work and the right kind of practice—the kind taught explicitly in this book.”

—Michael D. Eisner, former chairman and chief executive officer, Walt Disney Company; founder, The Tornante Company; cofounder, The Eisner Foundation


Practice Perfect will provide a recipe for organizations that are committed to their people—to helping them grow and get better in simple but powerful—and perhaps overlooked—ways. Practice Perfect will create the conditions I believe necessary to equip schools, school leaders, and teachers with the tools essential for student success.”

—Jean-Claude Brizard, chief executive officer, Chicago Public Schools


“Just like Teach Like a Champion, Practice Perfect is a treasure trove full of perfectly polished, just the right size ‘gems.’ I couldn’t read it fast enough. I wanted to quickly pick up each of the ideas the three authors crafted and figure out how to bring the practices into my own work. Building on the work of the Heath brothers, Atul Gawande, Daniel Coyle, Marcus Buckingham, Daniel Willingham, and others, the authors take a classic problem—the gap between knowing what to do and actually doing it—and provide forty-two wise and practical ‘rules’ to close that gap. Each rule is grounded in a story and related in a familiar tone, making it a fast and fun, and often even funny, read. Each of the rules is a concrete, actionable means to help ourselves and those we are coaching or managing to do the very thing it is we want to do but have not figured out how to do yet.”

—Heather Kirkpatrick, vice president of education, Aspire Public Schools


Practice Perfect sets a new bar for how to practice and will be a resource that I will return to time and again. The way that I will lead practice won’t only be better on Monday, but every day.”

—Brent Maddin, Ed.D., provost, Relay Graduate School of Education


“It’s become conventional wisdom that the path to excellence—no matter whether you’re a surgeon looking to hone your craft or a teacher looking for help with classroom management—is paved with hours and hours of practice. In this book the authors provide practical guidance, grounded in forty-two concrete and actionable ‘rules,’ for how anyone can use carefully selected, but relatively simple tasks to ensure these hours of practice lead to excellence.”

—Kathleen Porter-Magee, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow; senior director, High Quality Standards Initiative, Thomas B. Fordham Institute



In the summer of 2011, my wife, my parents, and I took a tour of a whisky distillery in Scotland. The tour guide seemed almost catatonically bored. At each stop, she’d recite a memorized script and then ask, “Are there any questions?” but of course there weren’t, because that would mean we’d been listening. And what I remember most about the tour—other than wishing we could skip ahead to the tasting—was that I spent most of my time thinking about Chris Rock.

I’d been reading a book (Little Bets by Peter Sims) that described Rock’s process in developing new material for his standup act. In preparing for one tour, Rock made between 40 and 50 appearances at a small club in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He’d show up, carrying a yellow legal pad with his ideas scribbled on it, and start experimenting with new bits. Sims writes, “He watches the audience intently, noticing heads nodding, shifting body language, or attentive pauses, all clues as to where good ideas might reside. In sets that run around forty-five minutes, most of the jokes fall flat.”

But with time, he digs out the material that works. The jokes get sharper and the transitions get tighter and the delivery gets smoother. (So if you’ve ever cracked up at one of Rock’s lines—“I live in a neighborhood so bad you can get shot while getting shot”—then you might have New Jersey to thank.)

By the time Rock performs the routine for an HBO special, or in an appearance on David Letterman, he has long since mastered the material. Perfected it. And, as a result, he’ll give the illusion of effortlessness: Chris Rock is such a funny guy.

A few months after the whisky tour, I was giving a speech, and I caught myself telling a story the same rote way I’d told it a dozen times before. And a nasty thought struck: I am the whisky tour guide. (Thankfully, I stopped short of verbalizing this thought, thus avoiding what could have been a deeply confusing moment.)

In life, we’ll face this choice again and again: to be the whisky tour guide or to be Chris Rock. Will we be content to cruise along on autopilot or will we scramble and suffer to get better? Will we plod or will we practice? This book is a guidebook for anyone willing to make the latter choice.

There are many full-stop moments in the pages that follow—ideas so interesting that you can’t help but pause for a second and consider them. One of those ideas is that practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. For example, you have been shampooing your hair for decades and yet you are not getting any better at it. (As a matter of fact, you will likely die never knowing whether there was a better shampooing technique.) The mere fact of doing something repeatedly does not help us improve.

What we need is practice—real practice, not mere repetition. As Michael Jordan said, “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way.” Practice makes permanent.

As kids, we were constantly practicing something: shooting a basketball, playing the piano, learning some Spanish. Those practices could be a drag—it’s the rare athlete who can’t wait for wind sprints—but because they were thoughtfully designed, they came with a wonderful payoff: the certainty of improvement. From week to week, we couldn’t help but get better.

How did practice get squeezed out of our lives? Certainly the need hasn’t disappeared—practice is as critical for our performance in the office as it was for the playing field and the concert hall. There’s a long list of skills we’d all be wise to hone: How to run a meeting that doesn’t drag on. How to listen (really listen) to your spouse. How to get through a stressful commute without barking out profanities.

The enemies of practice are pride and fear and self-satisfaction. To practice requires humility. It forces us to admit that we don’t know everything. It forces us to submit to feedback from people who can teach us. But surely practice isn’t a sign of weakness—after all, some of the people most famously disciplined about practice are Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, Roger Federer, Mia Hamm, and Tiger Woods. To practice isn’t to declare, I’m bad. To practice is to declare, I can be better.

And of course we’re all practicing something every day. Twenty-four hours of daily practice. We’re practicing the way we interact with our kids and the way we collaborate with our colleagues. The question is: Are we getting better? Are we plodding or are we practicing?

The fact that you bought this book suggests you’re a Practicer. If so, you’ve chosen the right handbook.

Prepare to get better at getting better.

—Dan Heath, senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE center; coauthor of Made to Stick and Switch

For our children. We wish them a world of possibilities.


The three of us are first and foremost teachers. And though this book is for readers in a wide variety of fields, it began some time ago as a book for and about teachers. Still, if you are a parent or a manager or a coach or a mentor or a leader in your organization, you’d have a hard time convincing us you weren’t a teacher anyway, so perhaps the book was always destined to become something broader. But in the end, because we are teachers first and foremost, this book tends to see the world from an educator’s perspective.

So forgive us if we begin by saying something strange about teaching, which is that we are optimistic—humble, but optimistic. We are optimistic not only because we still believe that the greatest, most gratifying work in the world is teaching someone how to factor a quadratic equation, field a ground ball, run a meeting, read a nineteenth-century novel, or examine an elderly patient with insight and compassion. We are also optimistic because we think that the teaching profession is on the brink of greatness. Teachers around the country feel attacked and cornered in a climate marked, they say, by the overlap of political turmoil and austerity budgets. But when those temporary aberrations fade, we will be left with a series of creative tensions that just may reshape the profession, giving it for the first time a clear way to study and learn from itself, and providing it the tools to get better in ways we’d never before considered. This will happen not just through practice but also in the use of data and analytical tools to find out and capitalize on what teachers do best—“Bright Spots,” in the words of Chip and Dan Heath, who wrote the Foreword to this volume and whose work inspires us and so many others.

We are also humble, though, because we have made many mistakes—several of them public and some more embarrassing than others—in learning what we think can be a small part of the equation that reframes teaching. We are humbled because we believe humility—constantly facing the likelihood that our work could and should have been better—to be the way to do our work in this world. We are humbled so much that we almost didn’t dare write this book. And yet we did, because we think it can help, within the teaching profession and well beyond.

This book is about what the three of us—Doug, Erica, and Katie—learned in responding to the struggle for talent in one very important sector of the economy, public education, and in attacking one very critical social problem, the achievement gap between children of privilege and children of poverty. But it’s also about what this experience led us to observe about developing talent in other sectors of our lives and other sectors of society. So while we believe this book has important lessons for the field of education specifically, and while we often write about examples from our work in schools and in training teachers, we believe it is also relevant to a wide range of organizations and people who want to get better, who must get better. We also think this book is applicable beyond education because we have each gone through the process of applying what we’ve learned in the hothouse of our professional lives to the world of our personal lives. Having redesigned the trainings we provide for teachers over and over to wring incremental improvement, we constantly see the issues we faced in that struggle as we try to raise our own children to be caring and positive as people and skilled as mathematicians and musicians and soccer players. We see the issues as we try to develop our own skills at skiing and home repair, at knitting, managing people, and most recently, at writing books. The first step is getting better at getting better.

In these cases we see the role that a humble and overlooked servant could play in spinning straw into gold. That servant is the underestimated concept of practice. Generally seen as mundane and humdrum, poorly used and much maligned, or too familiar to be interesting, practice is often considered unworthy of deep, sustained reflection and precise engineering.

We had each separately been working for years on how to help people get better at teaching: Doug as a teacher and school leader, who later delved into his study of champion teachers that would become the highly successful and instructive text, Teach Like a Champion; Erica as a teacher, grade team chair, and then founding dean of students, who came to the techniques in Teach Like a Champion as a young school leader hungry for a common language to use with developing teachers; and Katie, who came to the team having spent 15 years as a teacher, principal, and consultant to charter schools. She found the collection of techniques in the “Taxonomy” (as it was known before the book’s publication) a revelation: it made outstanding teaching replicable. In the fall of 2008 Erica and Katie joined Doug’s team to develop ways to train other school leaders in these techniques. The techniques in Teach Like a Champion were aimed at transforming the lives of all teachers and students, whether they were in district schools, private schools, or charter schools. But what was surprising was how many people—coaches, parents, tutors, medical faculty, and professors of higher education—saw other applications. So when we looked closer at practice, we looked for broader applications and drew from fields that were much more developed on the topic of practice than teaching.

Along the way, at the recommendation of our colleague Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, we read Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code about various hotbeds of talent throughout the world that have shown us the key elements that lead to talent development. We took away many useful lessons from this book, not the least of which was the central role of practice in the development of talent. We read Gladwell, Gawande, Dweck, and Willingham, trying to better understand how we could take the techniques of champion teachers and develop them in others. We were completely convinced by, and perhaps obsessed with, practice, but we lacked a practice manual. So we revised our practice activities, going on instinct and searching for what worked. Our conversations always came back to practice: What does effective practice look like? What separates true practice from repetition or performance? And what were the key design principles to ensure that practice truly made performance better? And so we arrived at the work before you: a collection of 42 rules to shape and improve how you use practice to get better.

We begin these rules by asking you to rethink your preconceived notions about practice. We address this first because these notions lay the foundation for practice. In the next three chapters we present practical rules for how to set up practice and use the power of modeling and feedback. In the fifth and sixth chapters we look at how to build and maintain a team that embraces practice and leverages its power. Success—for individuals, for organizations, for communities, even for nations—is the struggle for talent. More specifically, it is the struggle to attract talent and the struggle to develop talent, to make people better. Though this has perhaps always been true, the lines of this struggle have never been as starkly drawn as they are today, when local competition is global, when talent is more urgently required throughout every seat in an organization, and where specialization yields higher standards for individual effectiveness. The rules in this book will assist you in developing talent in a highly competitive world, and help you get better at getting better—one practice at a time.



Everybody has the will to win; few people have the will to prepare to win.


It’s a funny thing. The more I practice the luckier I get.


John Wooden is a legend. The coach of UCLA’s basketball team for 27 years, he was anointed “Greatest Coach of the 20th Century” by ESPN and the greatest coach ever—in any sport—by the Sporting News. Wooden led his teams to ten national championships in 12 years, won 88 consecutive games, and achieved the highest winning percentage (.813) of any coach in NCAA basketball history—all while building an enduring reputation for developing the character of his players at least as much as their skill. It’s not surprising that in the decades since Wooden retired, his influence has spread far beyond the basketball court. Books by and about Wooden apply his insights to life, learning, and business as much as to basketball.

Regardless of any interest in sports, people study Wooden’s methods for the alchemy that turns struggle into triumph. And yet the great majority of students of his work fail to replicate Wooden-like results. Why? Our answer, based on what we—Doug, Erica, and Katie—discovered in our efforts to help promising teachers become great teachers, is that most people fail to realize the power of the one thing that is arguably the secret of Wooden’s success: old-fashioned practice, efficiently run, well-planned, and intentionally executed.

If you were to ask Wooden what made his teams so successful, he would likely describe a series of unacknowledged moments in otherwise empty gymnasiums: his players practicing shooting without a basketball, say. Or perhaps he’d describe his evenings in his office scripting the next day’s practice, noting where the racks of basketballs should be placed so time was never wasted looking for a ball. John Wooden doted on practice to a degree that was legendary. He began—surely to much eye rolling—by practicing things that every other coach would have considered unworthy, if they’d have considered them at all: how to put on socks and sneakers, for example.1 He timed his practices to the minute, husbanding every second to ensure its precise and careful allocation. He kept a record of every practice on note cards, which he filed away for future reference: what worked; what didn’t; how to do it better next time. Unlike many coaches, he focused not on scrimmaging—playing in a way that replicated the game—but on drilling, that is playing in ways that intentionally distorted the game to emphasize and isolate specific concepts and skills. He followed a logical progression, often starting his instruction on topics like shooting by having players work without the ball and building to increasingly challenging applications. He repeated drills until his players achieved mastery and then automaticity, even if it meant not drilling on more sophisticated topics. At the point where other coaches might decide their teams had learned a skill, Wooden’s teams were just beginning their work. And he always insisted that his players practiced doing it—whatever “it” was—right.

Though we remember him for the championships, what ultimately made Wooden great was practice. Every iteration of teaching and explaining and executing again and again was a tiny bit better than anyone else’s. The culture in which those drills took place—what players were thinking as they stood in lines—was a little bit more humble, selfless, relentless. The compounded effect of these tiny differences was a dynasty.

Author and sportswriter Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code is just one of several recent efforts to understand the tradition of intentional practice that Wooden helped establish. In the book, Coyle describes how the compounded effect of better practice accounts for the rise of seemingly inexplicable “hot spots” of talent around the globe. What seems like talent, it turns out, is often better practice habits in disguise. How could it be, for example, that a single tennis club in a freezing climate—a club Coyle describes as “rundown” and with just one indoor court—has, since its founding, produced more top-20 women players than all of the tennis clubs in the United States put together?

The answer is Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, the gray-haired, track-suit-wearing majordomo whose players follow the adage that practice makes permanent—that if practice drives actions into muscle memory, it’s better to do it slow and right than fast and not quite right. Like John Wooden, she practices fewer things better, and with diligence. She is unapologetic about asking her athletes to imitate others, an approach that many coaches too often dismiss as demeaning. Via these simple obsessions, Coyle tells us, Preobrazhenskaya has almost single-handedly changed Russia’s perception of itself. The initial success of her players caused an explosion of interest in tennis in Russia that fed the practice mill with aspiring players and produced success on such a massive scale that it appeared to be a statistical impossibility. Today Russia sees itself as a tennis nation made of players who believe they can do just about anything.

Again and again Coyle shows that the aggregation of seemingly trivial improvements in practice can create otherwise inexplicable densities of talent sufficient to change a society and its conception of what is possible. Brazil’s passion for soccer makes it an international power, but its passion for futsal, a soccer derivative featuring small-sided games in an enclosed space using a less elastic ball, yields as many as six times the touches per hour for a developing Brazilian player, Coyle points out, than for a similar player in some other nation. The game’s space limitations reward skills learned to speedy automaticity. “Commentators love to talk about how ‘creative’ Brazilian players are—but that’s not quite right. The truth is, they’ve been practicing that creativity for their entire lives,” writes Coyle. The humble details of their practice separate Brazil from every other soccer-obsessed nation on Earth.

For its part, the United States remains a competition-loving culture. We love the heroic upset, the last hurrah of the aging veteran, the final ticking seconds as the game comes down to the wire. We watch games and follow teams and players, sometimes to the point of obsession (especially if our kids are playing), but if we really wanted to see greatness—to cheer for it and understand what made it happen—we’d spend our time watching practices instead. We would pay a lot more attention to how drills were designed, to a culture of humility and perseverance among the players, to whether there was enough practice, or indeed—as we will soon discover—whether there was any practicing at all.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like if we could manufacture “hot spots” like the one Coyle describes among Russian tennis players. Imagine if we could cause a spike in performance sufficient to change a society’s perception of what it is possible to achieve by and for its people. Imagine if we could apply it not just to our own soccer and tennis programs but also to things far more important than sports: to running better hospitals and schools, to a thousand endeavors across the economy where entrepreneurs and managers create value for the people who rely on and benefit from their products and services.

This book is not really about sports, then, though we are confident that you will be able to apply its conclusions in that setting if you are all about basketball or soccer or skiing. Our purpose in writing this book is to engage the dream of “better,” both in fields where participants know they should practice, but could do it more effectively, and also in endeavors where most people do not yet recognize the transformative power of practice. Deliberately engineered and designed, practice can revolutionize our most important endeavors; in that, we speak from at least a bit of experience.


Our own journey to understanding the power of practice began with an ad hoc study of great teachers in our nation’s high-poverty public schools: work outlined in Doug’s book Teach Like a Champion. This study revealed that positive outliers—teachers who were anomalously and sometimes breathtakingly successful in the face of adversity—were a lot like John Wooden. They were the most likely to focus on small and seemingly mundane aspects of their daily work.

Great teachers obsessed on things like how efficiently they used time in the classroom. They fought a running battle for seconds and minutes by paying careful attention to how (and how quickly) their students lined up or passed out papers. They perseverated on the words they used to explain a concept. This struck us as ironic. The teachers whose students had best mastered the higher order, the abstract, and the rigorous—a deep reading of symbolism in Lord of the Flies, or reliably solving equations with two unknowns—were those teachers most likely to obsess on things that others thought unworthy of attention. There was more to it than that, obviously. Great teachers did more than obsess on the efficiency of their classroom—their questions were artful; their assignments, demanding—but there was a clear tendency among positive outliers to see the power of the humdrum, the everyday. Think here of John Wooden on the first day of practice, teaching his players to put their socks on correctly. So many of the great teachers, we realized, also had a socks-first mentality. We glimpsed their excellence and wanted to help everyone get a piece of it. So we set out to show teachers in our schools how to get better by studying the ways great teachers taught. In the process, we learned a lot about practice, what makes it work and what makes it not work very well. One of the first things we noticed was something we now call the “get it/do it gap.”

During our first workshops we would show teachers one short video clip after another of superstar colleagues demonstrating a particular technique. We would analyze and discuss, and then, once our audience understood the technique in all of its nuance and variation, we went on to the next technique. Evaluations were outstanding. Participants told us they had learned useful and valuable methods to apply. But then we noticed something alarming. If we surveyed the same participants three months later, they were not quite as upbeat. They still knew what they wanted their classes to be like, but they were unable to reliably do what it took to get there. When they tried to fix one thing, something else went wrong. It was difficult to concentrate on a technique with so much else going on. Just knowing what they should be doing was not enough to make them successful.

We realized that our workshop participants, on returning to their classrooms, were trying to do the equivalent of walking onto center court at Wimbledon and learning a new style of backhand in the midst of a match. Of course they weren’t winning. Tennis players know that refining your backhand means hitting hundreds or thousands of strokes before a match begins. They know that there is no way to make the thing you need in order to get better—hundreds of balls hit to your backhand at just the right height with an increasing level of difficulty—happen predictably in a match. In the match there is no way to ensure that when opportunities to apply the skill come you will have enough brain power available to think about it. Instead, you might find yourself scrambling left to right across the baseline and trying to read your opponent’s reaction—the backhand itself practically an afterthought.

We realized we would have to do two things. First we would have to approach teaching like tennis. We would have to practice, right then and there in the workshops, even if it meant cutting the number of techniques we taught. Like Wooden, we’d have to do fewer things better. And we would have to shift from training teachers directly to training their coaches: principals and mentor teachers who had the power to build and orchestrate practice on a regular basis. We had to make the design of our practice an explicit part of our training. So our workshops went from being about what the techniques were to how to practice them. A single workshop, we realized, wouldn’t really make people better unless it caused them to practice key skills multiple times—or to learn to practice and be able to begin a yearlong cycle of practice.

It’s worth pausing for a moment here to reflect on just how strange it was to build workshops for teachers around the idea of practicing. Even though teachers, like other professionals such as doctors or lawyers, are required to continually engage in professional development, they do not engage in what people in other performance professions might call “active practice.” By “performance profession” we mean any work, like sports or music or surgery, that happens in real time. If a teacher’s performance during a given class is less than what she wanted, she cannot get it back. She cannot, as say a lawyer working on a contract might do, stop in the middle of her work and call someone to ask for advice. She can’t give it her best shot and then, as we are doing as we write, go back and tinker and revise and have the luxury of being held accountable for a final product that reflects actions taken and reconsidered over an extended period. Teachers “go live” four or five times a day. And yet unlike other performance professionals, they don’t call what they do to prepare “practice”; they call it “professional development.” If we asked a roomful of teachers how often they practiced for what they did in their “game”—how often they rehearsed the questions they ask students, or the way they start class—most would look at us funny. Teachers listen, reflect, discuss, and debate, but they do not practice.

What is the effect of all this listening, reflecting, and debating? Our education system makes huge investments in helping teachers improve their knowledge and skills. A recent policy brief by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education estimated that between 3 and 6 percent of total school spending was allocated to professional development, for example.2 Assuming the annual budget figure for public elementary and secondary schools alone is $500 billion per year, this comes out to $20–$30 billion every year. It is an investment that yields questionable results. “Teachers typically spend a few hours listening and, at best, leave with some practical tips or some useful materials. There is seldom any follow-up to the experience and subsequent in-services may address entirely different sets of topics,” notes the policy brief. “On the whole, most researchers agree that local professional development programs typically have weak effects on practice because they lack focus, intensity, follow-up, and continuity.” In other words, what we do to train teachers fails to make them better teachers.

Then as now, this fact was a cause for intense reflection for us. The organization where we work, a nonprofit called Uncommon Schools, runs inner-city public schools that have closed the achievement gap for poor and minority students, preparing them for college at a rate far in excess of what’s previously been accomplished. While we set out to help run a system of schools that would set the standard for high performance, particularly with kids who were otherwise cut off from opportunity, we were keenly aware of the words of former British prime minister Tony Blair’s chief education adviser, Sir Michael Barber, and his colleagues in their report for McKinsey on the world’s best school systems: “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” While the endeavor to make schools better remains something of a national drama, it has resulted in invective, blame, and tension but little evidence of large-scale improvement. If we can’t make our schools better, it must be somebody’s fault: teachers, parents, some group of politicians or intriguers, perhaps even the students themselves.

Our nation’s schools, having more than doubled their annual per pupil expenditures since 1970, have achieved precious little improvement against previous performances—a reduction in outcomes, in fact, if you ask the makers of the SAT. We Americans confront results that place us far below nations with the best school systems, and we wring our hands; but we can’t seem to do much about it. Teachers, in your three authors’ experience, are for the most part eager to learn and develop throughout their careers, but the plain fact is that we don’t help them to do so. The cost, in lost opportunity, is immense.

In this sense, our work as educators is perhaps not that different from yours: you seek to execute a plan that can transform some aspect of daily life and bring immense value to you, your family, your community, and society. You seek to make a positive outlier out of your local youth soccer program, or the quality of care in your city hospital, or the way your managers develop people. If you seek to do something great, you most likely live a battle for talent—for smart and capable people who can do great things at scale.

In education, as in so many fields, the long-run battle for talent is more about growing it than attracting it. The broader struggle to change educational outcomes isn’t, for the three of us, about whether we can get a limited number of game-changing teachers to teach 30 kids in our organization rather than some other organization, but about whether we can help more and more teachers perform like their game-changing peers—and reach thousands more kids. Winning is less about attracting the best parts of the talent pie than about growing the pie. The degree to which we can improve people at every skill level quickly and reliably is the measure of our success at closing the achievement gap or any of a thousand other worthy objectives.

Over time, we have been able to engineer and reengineer our training activities to improve the quality of practice within them. We are lucky in this regard in that we run workshops where we invite the best school leaders and teachers from top-performing schools to join us. These workshops are a hot house for improving the quality of our own coaching and training. The game plan is to stand up in front of a room full of a hundred or so top teachers and try to teach them about teaching. Imagine being hired to play pickup basketball in front of the LA Lakers to show them a few things that might take their game up a few notches. It had the tendency to focus our minds on every action and decision and whether it really worked. Between the mission and the setting we felt the pressure to make every minute outstanding.

Our workshops and our schools were full of people who wanted to be better teachers and were willing to work for that. We had things to teach them that could make them better. But too often we failed to do so. Here’s an example: one technique that differentiated great teachers from the merely good was the way they used nonverbal interventions to correct behavior during their teaching. The idea was that using words to correct students who were in danger of becoming off task required teachers to interrupt the thread of instruction in their classroom. A teacher stopped to correct one student, and two others became distracted—a death spiral. Champion teachers solved this dilemma by using nonverbal correction. Colleen Driggs, a legendary teacher at our school in Rochester, New York, taught her students nonverbal signals to correct the three or four behaviors most likely to occur when their attention was slipping. When Colleen pointed to her eyes, it meant that students should “track the speaker”—look at the student who was talking so they would stay engaged in the conversation. When Colleen clasped her hands in front of her, it was a reminder to sit up straight. If Colleen made a brief hands-down gesture, it was a reminder for students to put their hands down while another student was talking, the idea being that if your hand remains up you are thinking about what you want to say and not really listening to your peer.

Teachers loved the video of Colleen teaching and correcting nonverbally. It seemed brilliant and obvious at the same time, and teachers were excited to try it themselves. Back at our offices we set up a sort of teaching lab to try out different practice activities. Several of us played students. We misbehaved. And while we did so, we sent a brave teacher I’ll call “Jen” to the front of the room to try to teach a lesson. She did some good work, but we learned that practicing successfully was much harder than it looked. It was hard to remember to make nonverbal interventions in the moment. Jen went back to old habits under duress. Plus, we hadn’t let her think through in advance how she’d handle the behaviors. Trying to decide what to do in the moment distracted her and caused her to make other mistakes. Our misbehaviors were either too frequent or too soon so that Jen never really got to the heart of her lesson. We were having such a great time channeling misbehaving students that when corrected we’d keep ratcheting things up so that there was always another thing for Jen to try to fix. She’d struggle through an interaction, think of a better response, and repeat the role play, but this time we’d model different behaviors. She never got to practice her fix. Control was always just beyond her grasp.

In the debrief Katie nailed the issue. “What Jen just did was practice failing,” she said. “She practiced but she didn’t really glimpse what success feels like. She’s just ingrained failure even more deeply.” We quickly realized one of our first rules of practice—one of the most violated yet important—which we’ll discuss in the first chapter: practice should involve people practicing success, even if it means, as it did in this case, simplifying the activity. We began simplifying by making the off-task behavior predictable. Only two people were allowed to be off task. And we told Jen who they were. Now she could allocate her energy to making effective corrections. Then we realized that we needed to let Jen plan not just any response but the right response. After all, Colleen had done that in her video: she had identified the three most common behaviors beforehand and planned a gesture to correct each. So we added a preliminary activity in which the teacher got a list of typical off-task behaviors (for example, a student staring out the window; a student with her head down on the desk). Jen first had to plan what gesture she’d use to correct the student. Then she practiced making the gesture a few times. Next, she faced the class, but with the students doing the exact behaviors she’d just prepared for in a predictable order. She practiced using what she’d learned, and we made the practice more “realistic” (complex and difficult) only when she was ready for more. Eventually we added other pieces: a coach to give feedback; the requirement that Jen practice using the feedback right away by redoing the activity. We also added variables we could adapt if teachers found this activity too hard or if they were successful right away.

As we began to use this activity in workshops, we could instantly see the difference: not only in people’s reactions to the workshops but in their classrooms. Teachers not only successfully implemented the techniques (we could see it clearly when we videotaped them), but they began to adapt the techniques in new and even more effective ways, which we in turn learned from and added to the trainings we offered.

Over the course of that first afternoon, the next months, and finally over several years, we honed our practice activities into tools that could help make teachers better, at scale. Somewhat unexpectedly, this made teachers happy. At first they were a bit skeptical about practicing—some of them were a lot skeptical. After all, it’s awkward and makes you a bit self-conscious at first. But after a few rounds teachers could see themselves improving, both in the practice and in their classroom afterwards, and this had a powerful psychological effect. They realized that the things that happened in their classroom were within their control, that they owned what happened. Success had taught them that they could fix things, step by step. And they wanted more. Further, they enjoyed getting to work with peers in a collegial setting. Practicing together made teaching a team sport.

In the end, success and camaraderie overwhelmed any initial reluctance and embarrassment. Most teachers came to like practice and in many cases started to invent their own ways to practice. Two of our best reading teachers, Maggie Johnson and Nikki Frame, decided to get together for ten minutes a day to practice how to handle one of teaching’s great problems: what to say when a student gives you an unexpected wrong answer to your question during class discussion. The solution was simple: Maggie would read questions from her lesson plan to Nikki. Nikki would give her best estimation of a wrong student answer, and Maggie would have to respond on the spot. Then they’d switch roles. At first it was hard, but they laughed and brainstormed better responses and then took it again from the top. Ten minutes a day for three, four, five weeks: at this point the difference was overwhelmingly obvious. They not only had become good at handling unexpected responses in their classes; they were confident and poised both before and after. They could relax and concentrate on the nuances of student answers and the subtleties of the text. Practice at one skill—handling the unexpected answer—had helped them to make room for improvements on a more advanced skill.

Over the years we have distilled what we’ve learned from dozens of situations like these—often by error, occasionally by success, almost always with the wisdom and acuity of the wise and insightful teachers in our schools and our workshops—into a set of rules, which we share in this book.


While Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code shows how practice has the power to transform individual performance and that individual performance in turn has the power to transform institutions, another recent book reveals how the power to transform can be applied to seemingly intractable or hopelessly complex social problems. In Switch