Stick It To Them!

education Oct 23, 2021

Ever super-glued your fingers together? 

If only educators could affix information to students’ brains as easily as squeezing a few drops from a bottle can rejoin ceramic fragments. While that’s not possible – and ethically not preferable, Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath provides powerful and proven principles for all communicators. Instructors teaching grammar, board members launching a new initiative, and administrators detailing policies will all benefit from the Heaths’ information.

Thorough without being exhausting, Made to Stick is an enjoyable read. But don’t mistake its easy style for fluffy content. It teaches “why” concepts and “how” application without resorting to gimmicks, relying on specialized supplies, or requiring a ridiculous investment of time and expense. Educators will gain confidence as they employ reliable methods and not be susceptible to the latest fads’ siren calls. Board members and staff tasked with communicating vision, mission, policies, and procedures will benefit both individually and corporately.

Any time a group has a shared “language,” synergy results spurring creativity and clarity.

A great professional development resource, this New York Times bestseller serves all communicators committed to crafting ideas that stick.

Made to Stick’s six core principles – embodied in the SUCCESs acronym -- are understandable, doable, and reliable. Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories: These half-dozen items encapsulate communication’s critical components. For today, let’s examine “Simple” and “Unexpected” principles.

“Find the core of the idea.” Chip and Dan detail the Army’s concept of CI – Commander’s Intent. You can also think of this as a policy, operation, or mission’s north star. The specificity of Commander’s Intent is dependent on the level of operations. At the highest levels, the CI may be more abstract while it is increasingly detailed as it moves down the chain of command.

For a school, the highest CI might be the vision statement – provided it acts as a north star and not wall decor. A teacher identifying the CI for a lesson will improve their confidence, increase students’ clarity, and ensure course benchmarks are being met. Policies, programs, courses, units, and lessons with CI’s provide a powerful tool in deciding content, measuring effectiveness, and defining priorities. The CI approach establishes expectations while supporting a culture of creativity, flexibility, and adaptability.

Simplicity is built on conciseness. “Simple messages are core and compact.” Think Hemingway. God addressed human behavior in Ten Commandments, later summarizing them in just two! The Heath’s are careful to discuss the critical difference between sound bites and simple ideas. “…lots of sound bites are empty or misleading – they’re compact without being core. But the Simple we’re chasing isn’t a sound bite, it’s a proverb: compact and core.”

Conciseness isn’t synonymous with short. The goal isn’t eliminating words but confusion, ambiguity, and misunderstanding. Conciseness of this nature delivers clarity. This is kindness the brain appreciates. Made to Stick does not avoid the reality of complexity but argues “it is possible to create complexity through the artful use of simplicity.” The use of schemas (“prerecorded information stored in our memories”) “enable profound simplicity.”

For schemas to work, a teacher must know – not assume – what students already know.

Being in an auto parts store doesn’t make a person know anything more about how a catalytic converter operates (or in my case, even what it is) than when she was next door at the hardware store (which in my case, I’m quite at home in). Just because last year’s class covered the parts of speech doesn’t mean every student has those as part of their language schema (stored information). Identifying the knowledge students have at the beginning of a course or unit reduces frustration and wasted time.

Analogies are powerful weapons, medicines, or tools (pick your preference) in a teacher’s arsenal, cabinet, or chest. Whichever word pair you selected in the previous sentence, your brain immediately formed an image. Vivid or faded; detailed or sketchy; colored or grayed – an association appeared, quite possibly accompanied by an emotion. Analogies are chrysalis’s allowing incomplete complexities to emerge in understanding, wonder, and delight. (I assume “chrysalis” is part of your schema. If not, I risk you breaking focus to look it up or missing this point. See…schemas matter. And if you forgot, a chrysalis is the protective covering of a pupa – a still-developing insect in non-scientific terms – allowing safe growth until the creature bursts forth in maturity. Think cocoons and butterflies.)

Or campaign slogans. Whoever you voted for in the 2016 election, I’ll bet you recall Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. “Make ____ _____ _____.” Four words. Simple. Clear. Focused. What was Hillary Clinton’s message? (Waiting….) And from a few decades earlier, Bill Clinton won the presidency with the mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Four words. Simple. Clear. Focused. It takes work to reduce messages to simple statements – but done well, these stick, even if you'd rather they didn't!

Following Simple is the principle of Unexpected. “Humans adapt incredibly quickly to consistent patterns. Consistent sensory stimulation makes us tune out.” While it’s true routines can create security, especially for younger students, it’s also true that “Unexpected ideas are more likely to stick because surprise makes us pay attention and think.” Break up your patterns. You want to capture or recapture attention, not lower listeners into an abyss of uncertainty and confusion.

The key is planning disguised as spontaneity.

Ever picture yourself as a giant mosquito? You’ll want to after reading Made to Stick’s dive into The Gap Theory of Curiosity. “When we want to know something but don’t, it’s like having an itch that we need to scratch.” The Heath’s show why the gap theory is real and how to make effective use of it. “Our tendency is to tell people the facts. First, though, they must realize they need these facts.” Telling students, “You’re going to need this someday” feels like a bruise to avoid, not an itch to scratch. Teachers eager to facilitate learning and not just present material will be inspired by the itch-creating content.

Made to Stick posits "If curiosity arises from knowledge gaps, we might assume that when we know more, we'll become less curious because there are fewer gaps in our knowledge. But Lowenstein argues that the opposite is true. He says that as we gain information, we are more and more likely to focus on what we don't know. Someone who knows the state capitals of 17 of 50 states may be proud of her knowledge. But someone who knows 47 may be more likely to think of herself as not knowing 3 capitals."

"Knowledge gaps create interest. But to prove that the knowledge gaps exist, it may be necessary to highlight some knowledge first. 'Here's what you know. Now here's what you're missing.' Alternatively, you can set context, so people care what comes next. It's no accident that mystery novelists and crossword-puzzle writers give us clues.

When we feel that we're close to the solution of a puzzle, curiosity takes over and propels us to the finish."

What?! Students so engaged their motivation to learn material or complete a task becomes intrinsic? Staff so enthusiastic about an initiative they treat it like their own idea? While these objectives aren’t easy, they are attainable! The principles of Simple and Unexpected alone can energize, equip, and encourage everyone tasked with communicating. And now that you’ve been bitten by this post, treat that itch by reading the significant work, Made to Stick.



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