The 13th Friday: Making It Stick

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!

Book Bits…

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. 

The 12th Friday: Roots and Wings

There are two things we must give children:  the first one is roots; the other, wings.”

Author Unknown

The tangible gifts we give our children are nice, but the intangible gifts of “roots” and “wings” are among the most important of all, gifts that loving parents give their children and loving teachers give their students. At first glance, this metaphor seems to connote opposite ends of the spectrum: keep someone grounded while setting them free?  Yet, we cannot accomplish the latter without first ensuring the former. In the classroom setting, the above quote can be applied on several levels to what we, as educators, endeavor to do in working with our students. One way that the roots-wings symbolism works is to picture the gift of roots as teaching our students behaviors that will increase their chances of success as we also give them wings—the freedom to make choices about their learning and their future. The more we can teach and promote positive behaviors now, the more likely we are grounding them in core values that will allow them to take flight later as they grow into productive and independent citizens.

Teaching classroom procedures takes a great deal of time. Whether we are talking about a first grade class or an AP English class, our students need explicit instruction in terms of classroom procedural expectations. The good news? I have found that teachers who devote a great deal of time to approaching this somewhat mind-numbing task proactively, recoup this time as the year progresses, when they are no longer forced to behave reactively to students who are still not following classroom procedures and routines. In my younger years, I recall seeing an oil filter commercial on television hundreds of times. In this commercial the “mechanic” recommends changing one’s oil filter regularly as a way to prevent more costly engine repairs down the line. The commercial always closed with this “mechanic” glaring at me and stating somewhat ominously, “You can pay me now—or pay me later.”  Teaching procedures has something in common with this philosophy on automobile maintenance: we can pay attention to teaching our students these procedures at the outset or we can pay even more attention to it later.

In every school at which I have worked, I noticed that students actually enjoy an orderly classroom. Students perform better—both academically and behaviorally—when they know what is expected of them, not only in terms of the content they must master, but also the way in which they will behave, interact, and perform routine actions while in the class. Teachers who effectively teach and consistently enforce clear classroom procedures also prevent problems on those days when they are absent, as students are already well versed in what they are to do and how they do it. Wong and Wong (1998) suggest a three-step process for teaching classroom procedures to students:

1. Explain classroom procedures clearly.
2. Rehearse classroom procedures until they become routines.
3. Reinforce a correct procedure and re-teach an incorrect one.

Another expert in this area is Rick Smith, whose book, ConsciousClassroom Management:  Unlocking theSecrets of Great Teaching (2004), is one I refer to often. Rick describes procedures as our “railroad tracks” with the curriculum/content being the “train.”  Once we clearly lay down the railroad tracks (procedures), the train (content) will run much more smoothly and in the right direction. In any classroom, there are a staggering number of procedures that must be taught. To list but a few, we must establish and teach procedures for the…

  • Beginning of class
Students entering the classroom
Make up work
Beginning the lesson
Turning in/reviewing homework

  • During class
Gaining student attention
Passing out papers
Headings on papers
Turning in work
How students ask for help
Class discussions-raising hands
Group work
Student movement in the room
Taking tests and quizzes
Using the bathroom/water fountain/pencil sharpener

  • Ending class
Assigning homework
Dismissing class
Putting materials away
Cleaning the room

Although we should and do spend more time at the outset of the year teaching procedures, Smith points out that we must reinforce procedural lessons throughout the school year and recommends teaching at least two procedures every class period, regardless of what the lesson is. Smith tells a story about his pre-teaching experience when he observed several teachers in action. He soon realized that when some teachers asked students to “turn to page 27” all students immediately and quietly did so. When other teachers asked the very same thing, some students turned to page 27, some asked what page they were to turn to, some asked if they could go get their book, some opened the wrong book, and some complained or talked loudly while rummaging through a book bag. At first, Smith could not discern what made the difference and came to realize that effective classroom management is essentially invisible. He later classified his theory of invisible classroom management(2004) into three categories: (a) foundation;(b) prevention; and (c) intervention. Teaching procedures fall into the “prevention” category and still makes a great deal of sense to me as time well spent.

Taking time to lay these procedural railroad tracks is how we give “roots” to our students. Having grounded them in this way, they can more readily grasp the academic content, growing the “wings” that will take them to new heights each day. Giving the gifts of roots and wings to our kids each day is yet another example of how we Teach with Passion each day!

Book Bits…

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 twelfth problem, along with his fix:

Grades are broken when zeroes are entered into a student’s academic record for missing evidence or as a punishment for transgressions. When combined with other evidence, the resulting grade does not accurately reflect student achievement. 

There are several fixes to this, including the use of “I” as a final grade for “Incomplete.” We should communicate with students and their parents if student work habits are not acceptable, but this should be communicated on “Habits of Success” standards, not academic standards. For the latter, we must find alternatives to averaging grades of zero in with other grades to determine an overall grade.

Cultures of Excellence

“ Culture is what enables teams of people to defy the odds and achieve the remarkable. ”  from the NfX Company Culture Manual “Culture”...