“And that’s the great thing about the world of ideas-any of us, with the right insight and the right message, can make an idea stick…For an idea to stick, it’s got to make the audience: (1) pay attention; (2) understand and remember it; (3) agree/believe; (4) care; (5) be able to act on it.”
Chip and Dan Heath
The book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007) by brothers and co-authors Chip and Dan Heath remains one of my all-time favorite examples of a book not originally intended for teachers, yet so meaningful to teachers—in particular those who want to increase the likelihood that their students will retain the information they are imparting. Like Good to Great, this book became so popular with educators that the Heaths subsequently published an article based on the book, but specifically geared to teachers, called Teaching That Sticks (2007).
The book outlines six characteristics that increase the likelihood that messages will be more readily retained by an audience. In schools, of course, our primary audience includes every student in every classroom. If we can learn how to deliver our messages in ways that are more likely to be well received by our students, we are improving student learning and, therefore, our teaching. I have found that the six qualities that help ideas stick in the “real world” (how I deplore that term) are also qualities that help ideas stick in our “real world” classrooms. The authors offer six principals for successfully communicating ideas; these strategies for making ideas stick can be compacted into the acronym SUCCESs to represent:
- Simple: The authors suggest that if you say three things, you don’t say anything. They advocate stripping an idea down to its very core, relentlessly prioritizing what it is we want to communicate. Yet, brevity alone will not work; the idea of communicating in proverbs is ideal: creating ideas that are both simple and profound. Think of how this applies to teaching our students. So often, less is more, in that our students will latch on to simple, but powerful, messages.
- Unexpected: Our kids tend to pay attention more when we present material in unexpected ways. The authors recommend “breaking a pattern” when desiring to make ideas stick. We must generate interest and curiosity by systematically “opening gaps” in our students’ knowledge and then setting about “filling those gaps.”
- Concrete: We make our ideas more clear to others, causing them to understand and remember, when we consider the principle of concreteness. We must explain our ideas in terms of human action and sensory information. Abstract truths can be made concrete, for example, in widely known sayings such as “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our ideas will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.
- Credible: Our students will believe what we say and/or agree with us when we implement the principal of credibility. When we try to build a case for something, most of us instinctively reach for hard data. But in most cases, this is exactly the wrong approach. The authors use the example of Ronald Regan’s message in defeating Jimmy Carter several elections ago. He could have cited innumerable statistics regarding the economy, but instead asked a simple question: “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.”
- Emotions: We can encourage students to care about what we are saying and trying to teach through emotions. That is, we must make them feel something. The authors invoke what they call the “Mother Teresa principal,” which is: “If I look at the one, I will act,” meaning that it may be easy to overlook problems on a large scale until we put an individual human face on the problem-when we know one person suffering from the problem, we are more likely motivated to act. The authors suggest cultivating a sense of caring within others through the power of association and appealing to others’ self-interest and identity.
- Stories: We get others to act on our ideas through the use of effective storytelling. Hearing stories prepares us to respond more quickly and effectively. Certainly, in the classroom, many of you are masters at disguising lectures as page-turning stories that our kids recall with clarity. Stories can be used as stimulation (telling people how to act) and inspiration (giving people energy to act). The authors believe in using three different types of stories for three different purposes: (1) Challenge Stories (to overcome obstacles); (2) Connection Stories (to get along or reconnect); and (3) Creativity Stories (to inspire a new way of thinking).
Obviously, it is of paramount importance that we, as teachers, get our curriculum standards “to stick” with our students. I found the authors’ SUCCESs framework for making ideas in the “real world” stick to be equally applicable to the classroom setting. To help our students retain the messages we are communicating, we need to keep it simple and include the unexpected. We need to make our presentations concrete and credible. We need to use the power of emotions and storytelling. What wonderful ways to present information to students so that they will feel compelled to pay attention, understand, believe, care, and act. In most schools I visit, it is obvious that the eductaors there have worked hard to identify with precision and clarity just what it is they want their kids to know. Making this information stick with kids can be challenging at times, but by considering the SUCCESs principals, we increase the likelihood that students will remember core curriculum material. Doing this is another way that we Teach with Passion each day!
As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the thirteenth problem, along with his fix:
Grades are broken when scores for everything students do find their way into report card grades. The fix is to include—except in specific, limited cases—only evidence from summative assessments intended to document learning. In other words, things intentionally designed as assessment OF learning as opposed to assessment FOR learning.