Parts of Made to Stick just might stick

by Mr. Sheehy

For another professional development class I have finished recently I read Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick. This book has a lot going for it, including a cool cover with a pretend piece of duct tape that feels like duct tape when you touch it. These guys are seizing the judge-a-book-by-its-cover audience. Sort of. The tape makes purchase almost a sure thing while in the store, but it’s tough to feel it over Amazon.

These brothers have spent a lot of time analyzing ideas and seeing why some stick and others don’t, and they narrow it all to six basic traits that the stickiest ideas have in common. These ideas are

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

I finished the book two weeks ago and credible was the only one I couldn’t remember anymore. That bodes well for the stickiness of the book’s ideas; in 20 years I bet I could still name two.

That said, most of it did not shock me. As an English teacher who attempts to speak to students through stories as much as possible, I didn’t need anyone to tell me that concrete stories that speak to one’s emotions are more affective than abstract explanations of facts. Of course, I still enjoyed reading those sections of the book–they were filled with fun anecdotes and real case studies–I just didn’t find that I needed to adjust much about my teaching to introduce those characteristics.

What I did find greatly interesting were the first two characteristics: simple and unexpected. The simple idea hearkened me back to my radio days when I wrote advertising. The ads I wrote were 30 seconds and whenever I’d pitch something, I had to be clear and keep the message simple. Yet the Heaths resold me on this concept in the arena of teaching (and about everything else) and convinced me that I need to do a better job of tearing the core idea out of each unit and lesson so that students can recall that idea when all else fades.

One helpful example they offered was of military leaders who have to write at the top of all plans something called the “commander’s intent.” The commander’s intent is one line defining the ultimate goal of everything that follows on the page. If all fails and no plans can be followed, the audience knows the commander’s intent and can pursue that goal.

If my memory works at all, I recall Stephen Ambrose positing this idea as a key to the Allies’ success on DDay. Everything fell apart; no plans made it to the beach. Despite the disaster, the exceedingly talented and well-trained Allied soldiers pieced together new plans from the simple goals they each knew well. And the result is part of what we celebrated this past Monday.

For my teaching this might mean taking my works cited lessons and shouting just one thing over and over and over again: MAKE IT PERFECT! Students won’t remember what order to put the works cited entry when they do it next year, but if they can remember it needs to be perfect, perhaps they’ll consult a resource to remind them how to do it. Perhaps.

The second characteristic I liked a lot was the unexpected idea. The unexpected concept grabbed me when the Heaths shared George Loewenstein’s theory that “curiosity . . . happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge” (84). If as a teacher I can point out to students that they don’t know something, they just might care enough to be interested.

Of course, there’s more to it than that, since students know they don’t know grammar and insist that they aren’t interested in learning it because they don’t know it. In that case I may need to give them a little knowledge to get them to a starting point where curiosity can begin. It’s where we teacher-dweebs would throw in a jargon term like scaffolding, but I’m going to avoid expanding the jargon in favor of a passage from Made to Stick. The passage follows a story about a TV producer who got national audiences interested in college football by highlighting during the broadcast the universities and towns where the games were played:

How do you get people interested in a topic? You point out a gap in their knowledge. But what if they lack so much knowledge about, say, the Georgia Bulldogs, that they’ve got more of an abyss than a gap? In that case, you have to fill in enough knowledge to make the abyss into a gap. (91)

That’s a nice little strategy there, and when I read about it I realized that when I have used it, I have found success. For example, when reading Romeo and Juliet, I explain enough of the plot to students that when reading the text they actually give it a shot. The same 15-year olds who won’t attempt grammar without a seismic Armageddon-like event will read the Bard? Why? According to the Heaths’ way of telling it, my students may feel like their knowledge shortage is a gap, not an abyss, so they’re willing to attempt to bridge it.

If that is true, then what I need to do now is realize what was happening there is part of this unexpected concept, this little surprise that students have that they don’t know something. Then I can tease them along and hopefully use their curiosity to their benefit.

I’m not sure how I’d continue to do this, but one idea might be to  use questions to guide units more frequently, kind of like when I ask, What is great poetry? Other ideas might be look like what I did recently before reading Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Students and I talked about what they’d do if I showed up at school wearing a black veil and never took it off. Then instead of telling why I might do such a thing, I asked them why I would, or why anyone would, and we moved to the story. In a sense, that curiosity put them in the position Hawthorne meant for them to be in, that of the questioner, the person wondering what was up with this black veil . . . And they began the story aware of a knowledge gap.

When I think back to the Heaths’ book I want most to recall these two of the six ideas:  simple and unexpected. I want to convey core ideas in ways that create unexpected knowledge gaps, igniting curiosity. If I can manage that just once a month I think my content will be stickier than ever. If I can’t manage it, I may just attempt something with duct tape.

Thanks for reading.

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