How to make a lesson stick…

How do you get a lesson to stick?

Why do some lessons survive in some kids heads for a life time, and others don’t make it past the classroom door?

This post is based on my notes from the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.  I actually read the book four years ago and just recently looked at my notes again. What follows are my notes put into sentences—so it might be a bit choppy in places(time for my bi-monthly “sorry, but ya get whacha get, and ya can’t get upset” since this blogging gig is just a part-time job). I have changed many of the ideas and quotes to fit situations a teacher would encounter.  This post can in no way act as a substitute for the book.  Buy it.  It will make your lessons stick.

What is the one of the biggest problems teachers have to overcome when planning their lessons? The Curse of Knowledge.
Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what was like not to know it. Our knowledge has cursed us. And it becomes difficult for us to share knowledge with students because we can’t readily recreate their state of mind. Teachers can present creative lessons in a way that breaks the Curse of Knowledge. Highly creative lessons are more predictable than uncreative ones. No matter the subject, teacher, length, or setting, creative lessons share common attributes. So if creative lessons consistently make use of the same basic set of templates…

…perhaps creativity can be taught.

There are six basic principles that make good lessons stick:


SIMPLE = “Finding the core of the lesson”
Finding the core means stripping a lesson down to its most critical essence. To get to the core, we’ve got to weed out the superfluous and tangential elements. That’s easy…
The hard part is weeding ideas out of our lessons that may really be important but just aren’t the most important. Giving students more ideas and concepts in a lesson can make them less likely to remember any of them. Quantity can cause lesson paralysis.  Lessons that focus on lots of facts are hard to remember. It is easier to remember concepts over data. Compact lessons are stickier, but compact lessons alone aren’t valuable – only lessons with profound compactness are valuable. So, to make a lesson compact you’ve got to pack a lot of meaning into a little bit of messaging. And how do you do that? You use flags. You tap the existing memory terrain of your students. You use what is already there. It is possible to create complexity through the artful use of simplicity. If your lesson has simple ideas staged and layered correctly they can very quickly become complex. It is easier for kids to learn a new concept by tying it to one that they already know. Connect new concepts to schemata they already have. Schema is a collection of generic properties of a concept or category… lots of prerecorded information stored in our memories.  Schemata(pl schemata) help kids create complex messages from simple materials. Utilize the schemata the students bring with them because they influence their attention and kids are more likely to notice things that fit into their schemata.  The kids schemata influence what they look for in a lesson. They will use their schemata to organize what they know and what we present to process and understand the lesson.  Teachers are tempted to tell students everything, with perfect accuracy, right up front when they should be giving students just enough info to be useful, then a little more, then a little more. A great way to avoid useless accuracy, and to dodge the Curse of Knowledge, is to use analogies. Analogies derive their power from schemata.

UNEXPECTED = The most basic way to get student’s attention is this: Break a pattern.
Students adapt incredibly quick to consistent patterns. Constant sensory stimulation makes students tune out. Stop and listen…how many sounds can you hear in the room you are in that you weren’t paying attention to ten seconds ago? How do you get students attention and how do you keep it?

Surprise and interest.

Surprise gets our attention. Interest keeps our attention. You can plan unexpectedness! Unexpected components of lessons violate student’s schemas. Unexpected lessons have surprises that are not predictable…but to be satisfying they must be postdictable.  The twist makes sense, but it is not something you could have seen coming. No gimmicks! Your unexpected ideas will produce insight when they target an aspect of the students’ minds that relate to your lesson’s core message. Think of lessons as mysteries. Mysteries are powerful. They create a need for closure. The Aha! Experience is much more satisfying when preceded by the Huh? Teachers can use mysteries not to just heighten students’ interest and curiosity in the day’s material but to train them to think as scientists and historians. Teachers must present material that sparks curiosity. Curiosity is when students feel a gap in their knowledge. It is the intellectual need to answer questions and close gaps. Story plays to this universal need by doing the opposite, posing questions and opening situations. That gap causes them pain…they want to know something but don’t, it’s like having an itch that you need to scratch. To make it go away, they need to fill the gap. Teachers need to open gaps before they close them.  Don’t just tell students facts, first they have to realize they need them. Kids need to be convinced that they need the lesson’s message. Highlight the information they are missing. Lessons that lead to consensus do not open gaps. Students will be less interested in the topic. The more information students gain, the more likely they are to focus on what they do not know. Students need some content before they can care.  Knowledge gaps create interest. But to prove the gap exists it might be helpful to highlight some knowledge first. Here is what you know. Now here is what you are missing. When students are close to a solution of a puzzle curiosity takes over and propels them to finish.

CONCRETE = Abstraction is the luxury of the expert
Abstraction makes it harder for students to understand an idea and to remember it. It also makes it harder to have students collaborate on an activity because they may each interpret the abstraction in very different ways. Concreteness helps us avoid these problems.  What makes something concrete?  If you can examine something with your senses it is concrete. An apple is concrete. “No Child Left Behind” is abstract. Concrete language helps students, especially when they explore concepts and topics that are totally foreign. If you have to teach something to students, and you aren’t certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language.  Concrete ideas are easier to remember. Concrete nouns are easier to memorize than abstract nouns — “book vs. justice.” The more “hooks” your concrete ideas have the easier it is to remember. A lesson might hook into a students emotional need, musical interest, school life, or personal background. If you create more hooks, you create more stickiness. Concreteness is a way to mobilize and focus your brain.
Which is easier…
1-Name five things that are cold
2-Name five things in your freezer
Concreteness creates a sense of shared “turf” on which students and teachers can collaborate so each student feels comfortable that they are tackling the same challenge.Being concrete isn’t hard and does not require a lot of effort. The barrier is forgetfulness. We forget that we are slipping into “abstractspeak.” Don’t forget that students don’t know what you know.

CREDIBLE = Why should students believe your message?
The use of vivid details is one way to create internal credibility – to weave sources of credibility into the idea itself. Another way is with statistics. Statistics are a good source of internal credibility when they are used to illustrate relationships.  When it comes to statistics, use them as input, not output. Use them to allow students to make up their mind on an issue. Don’t have students make up their minds and then go looking for the numbers to support their choice– that’s asking for temptation and trouble.  The most obvious sources of credibility – external validation and statistics – aren’t always the best. A few vivid details might be more persuasive than a barrage of statistics.

EMOTIONAL = Belief counts for a lot, but belief is not enough. For people to take action, they have to care.
Mother Teresa once said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” The goal of making lessons emotional is to make students care. Feelings inspire people to act. How do we make students care about our lesson’s message? To make them care you don’t have to produce emotion from an absence of emotion. Piggyback on emotions that the students already experience. Emphasize benefits, not features. Tell the kids what they will get from the lesson instead of all the features of the lesson. Each teacher should answer WIIFY before the start of each lesson or unit.
It is the tangibility rather than the magnitude of the benefits that make students care.
You don’t have to promise riches and beauty and magnetic personalities. Promise reasonable benefits that students can easily imagine themselves doing.
Self-interest is important and we can make people care by appealing to it but it makes for a limited palette. Always structuring our ideas around self-interest is like always painting with one color it’s stifling for us and uninspiring for others. Asking “Why?” helps to remind us of core values, the core principles that underline our ideas. Toyota uses a “Five Whys” process for getting to the bottom of problems and avoiding the Curse of Knowledge. Asking repeatedly why we are doing a lesson moves our focus from a set of associations that have no power to deeper, more concrete associations that connect emotionally with students. How do we get students to care about the ideas in our lessons? We get them to take off their analytical hats. We create empathy for specific individuals. We show how our ideas are associated with things that people already care about. We appeal to their self-interest, but also appeal to their identities not only to the people they are now but also to the people they would like to be.

STORIES = When we hear a story, our minds move from room to room. When we hear a story, we simulate it. But what is a good simulation?
Stories are told and retold because they contain wisdom. Stories are effective teaching tools. They show how context can mislead people to make the wrong decisions. Stories illustrate casual relationships that students hadn’t recognized before and highlight the unexpected, resourceful ways in which people have solved problems. Why does mental stimulation work? It works because students can’t imagine events or sequences without evoking the same modules of the brain that are evoked in real physical activity.

The right kind of story is, effectively, a simulation. Create lessons that fit into one of the three basic story plots:

The key element to a Challenge Plot is that obstacles seem daunting to the protagonist.
Challenge plots are inspiring in a defined way. They inspire students to work harder, take on new challenges, overcome obstacles. Connection Plots inspire students in social ways. They make them want to help others, be more tolerant of others, work with others, love others. Connection Plots are all about relationships with other people. The Creativity Plot involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way. Guy faces obstacle and overcomes it. Stories can almost single handedly defeat the Curse of Knowledge. Stories are almost always concrete. Most have emotional and unexpected elements. The hardest part of story is making sure that they are Simple – that they reflect the core message of the lesson. It is not enough to tell your kids a great story; the story has to reflect your agenda. Stories have the amazing dual power to simulate and to inspire and most of the time we don’t even have to use much creativity to harness these powers–we just need to be ready to spot the good ones that life generates everyday.

The components to a sticky lesson:
Give it something unexpected, and kids will pay attention.
Make it concrete, and kids will understand and remember.
Add credibility, and kids will believe and agree.
Include emotion, and kids will care.
Tell a story, and kids will act.
And when doing all the above…keep it simple.
Do all of the above and you have a lesson that will stick.

“ That’s the great thing about the world of ideas – any of us, with the right insight and message, can make an idea stick.”
Made to Stick Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
By Chip Heath and Dan Heath Random House Books 2007

Can’t wait to read their new book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

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