Doug Lemov Reveals His Secrets

Editor’s note: These remarks were delivered as an introduction to Doug Lemov’s February 10 panel discussion at the Fordham Institute.

It is a genuine honor and pleasure to be here with you today and to have the opportunity to introduce Doug Lemov. Doug is a man whose humility knows no bounds—indeed, he attributes his own success with Teach Like a Champion to his own limitations as a teacher. I’ve heard him more than once explain—earnestly and sincerely—that the reason he started filming and analyzing videos of great teachers in action was because he was such an “average” teacher, and he wanted to learn the magic of the champion teachers around him.

And that humility courses through all of his work, including his writing.

Yet his achievements are remarkable. He and his colleagues at Uncommon Schools consistently achieve at the highest levels on state tests. And Doug’s work identifying what “champion” teachers do that drives their results has been nothing short of transformational.

You might even say the work Doug and his team does is magic.

And so I thought it was fitting, before we launched into the weeds of how to improve teacher practice—a subject that is near and dear to my heart—to talk about the secrets of great magicians.

A few years ago, Teller—the silent partner of the famed Penn and Teller duo—wrote a piece for Smithsonian magazine in which he revealed his secrets. In it, Teller shares three lessons that I think are worth repeating.

The first lesson is that technology, no matter how sophisticated, is no replacement for hard work.

A little-known fact is that neuroscientists are obsessed with magic. Teller is a frequent keynote speaker at research conferences, and he’s often asked to share his magic secrets. What’s funny, though, is that even after he reveals his secrets—which I will share with you in a minute—the scientists can’t help but share information about new, flashy technology that, they’re sure, will make him a better magician.

Teller is less convinced. Magicians have been conducting their own experiments on human perception for hundreds of years, and there is no technological substitute for the learning gleaned from those lessons. As an example, Teller explains that he conducted one such experiment on a group of Cub Scouts when he was eleven. His hypothesis—that nobody would see him sneak a fishbowl under a shawl—proved false, and the scouts “pelted [him] with hard candy.”

He goes on to say, “If I could have avoided those welts by visiting an MRI lab, I surely would have.”

Instead, the lessons he learned were hard-won. They came both from hours of painstaking—sometimes humiliating—work and from the learning that work provided.

The second lesson is that, for a trick to be worth it, planning it needs to take more time than any non-magician would think sane.

Back in the early days of their career, Penn and Teller, appeared on David Letterman’s show and performed what seemed like a simple trick: They made five hundred live cockroaches appear from beneath a seemingly empty top hat that was sitting on top of Letterman’s desk.

But planning that seemingly simple, seconds-long trick took weeks. Penn and Teller hired an entomologist who bred slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches. (Because normal roaches run at the first sight of light.) The entomologist taught Penn and Teller to pick up the bugs without, as Teller describes it, “screaming like preadolescent girls.” Then they built a secret compartment made out of one of the few materials that roaches can’t cling to. And then they worked out a devious sleight-of-hand routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat so that nobody could see it.

Sounds like a lot of work—but not to magicians who realize that that’s the level of intentionality it takes to be great.

Teller’s third lesson is that great magic comes not from raw talent or some heroic craft, but rather from the careful mastery of a few simple but important tools.

Teller shares seven of those tools. They include exploiting pattern recognition, understanding some basic tenets of human psychology (i.e., if you’re involved in the trick, you’re more likely to believe it), and combining two tricks to hide critical sleights of hand.

Each of those secrets is simple, but mastering them takes time, patience, and more practice than most people are willing to put in.

While there’s a ton of rich and important material in Teach Like a Champion, the broad takeaways of the book are really that simple. In essence, Doug not only tells us, but actually shows us, that magical teaching comes down to three things:

1. Learning basic techniques and honing them through hard work, self-reflection, and ongoing practice.
2. Being intentional about everything you do during your lessons.
3. Spending more time planning than most people think makes any sense.

And as most champion teachers have learned far too many times, anything less may well leave welts.

– Kathleen Porter-Magee

This first appeared on the Common Core Watch blog.

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