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What this high school principal can teach us about patterns…

Last Updated:

May 1, 2024

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Welcome to Edition #48 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? You're missing a pattern.

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? High school principal Doug Lemov wanted to find a better way for teachers to teach. So, he looked for teachers who had the poorest students with the highest test scores. His research unlocked a recipe for teaching.

It’s 2005. Doug Lemov, a former teacher turned principal turned education consultant, just walked through the doors of a school in Syracuse, New York.

This particular school was at risk of closing because of low standardized test scores. Lemov’s task was to diagnose and fix the problem.

At first glance, the school seemed to be doing everything “right.” Teachers, Lemov noted, “sat down [with students] on the floor to read and picked activities that should have engaged them.” The school also kept classes small, maintained “rigorous academic standards,” and even used data analysis software to see where students could improve.

Yet, students still struggled to learn.

Struggling to pinpoint the problem, Lemov went back to first principles and asked himself:

1. “Which schools serving high-need students are getting the best results?”

2. “Which teachers in those schools are doing exceptional work?”

3. “What is it exactly [that] those teachers are doing?”

Armed with these three questions, Lemov spent five years visiting these teachers, filming their teaching, and comparing the recordings against those of other top-ranked teachers.

What happened?

Lemov discovered that “what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise”. In other words, top-performing teachers were all doing the same things in their classrooms.

Just a few of many examples from Teach Like a Champion 2.0

  • Technique 10 (“Own and Track”): “Have students correct or revise their own work, fostering an environment of accountability for the correct answer.”
  • Technique 18 (“Post It”): “Display your lesson objectives where everyone can see it and identify your purpose.”
  • Technique 26: (“Exit Ticket”): “End each class with an explicit assessment of your objective that you can use to evaluate your (and your students’) success.” 

At first, Lemov’s findings became a 20-page manuscript known as “The Taxonomy” that was “passed around from teacher to teacher.”

Fast forward 5 years, and the 20-page manuscript turned into a 332 book called “Teach Like a Champion.” The 49 techniques, updated as recently as 2021 (11 years after initial publication), are used in schools and programs from Teach for America to the New York’s Partnerships Schools organization.*

So, the next time you find yourself stuck on a problem and not sure what to do next, remember Lemov—who found someone who was doing exactly what he was trying to do—and deconstructed their ways.

Doug Lemov (left) takes notes while a teacher engages with students. The third edition of Lemov’s field guide, Teach Like a Champion 3.0 (right). Images via the New York Times and teachlikeachampion.org.

*Lemov’s work, though lauded by some, have also been critiqued. Numerous educators have noted that Lemov’s techniques parallel “pedagogy that has been used to maintain strict class and racial hierarchies.” You will need to decide for yourself which side of the argument to take!

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Patterns are always around us. If you can find them, you can replicate them.

No matter what field you’re in, there are patterns to those who’ve achieved success.

Working in sales? There are go-to lines that people use to overcome objections. Working in academic research? There are go-to ways to structure a successful grant proposal.

The problem is that the people who know these “unspoken rules” don’t even realize how much they know because it’s so commonsensical to them.

Going for a promotion? Applying for a dream job? Writing a paper for class and feeling stuck? Try filling in the following blanks:

(1)Find your expert: “I may be doing __________ for the first time, but __________ has done this a thousand times. In fact, they’re so good at this that they’ve __________.”

  • E.g., “I may be building my online presence for the first time, but my friend Claire has done this a thousand times. In fact, they’re so good at this that they are now a LinkedIn Top Voice.”

(2) Ask for help: “I’m inspired by your journey from  ___________ to ___________ and would love to follow in your footsteps. Might you have a few minutes in the coming days to share the story of how you ___________?”

  • E.g., “I’m inspired by how you’ve found your voice on LinkedIn and have gotten to a point where you’re posting such thought-provoking content on such a regular cadence. I’d love to follow in your footsteps. Might you have a few minutes in the coming days to share the story of how you got started with your content creation journey?”

I know it because I’ve experienced it: The concept of collecting, then sharing, the behaviors that the best performers do—but rarely discuss—might sound familiar to you if you’ve read my book.

Lemov’s method of decoding the tacit knowledge of experts was what inspired me to demystify the unspoken rules of the workplace.

My newest exploration into how we decode and demystify the unspoken rules? My flashcard deck, called How to Say It—live now on Kickstarter at a 31% discount with over 500 students and professionals like you who’ve already ordered. Learn more here (if you feel inclined).


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