April 6, 2018 8:08 am

Norman Eng

Mind you, these aren’t necessarily books on teaching. Or about teaching.

In fact, most are related to persuasion, productivity, behavioral economics, parenting, marketing, entrepreneurship, and other books associated with leadership or success.

So why these areas?

I grasp ideas better when they’re framed in different contexts. It forces me to get out of my own head.

Plus, teaching intersects with so many disciplines I can learn from.

What, for instance, can we borrow from motivation experts like Tony Robbins? Or Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg? Or movie director Spike Lee?

So, every so often, I’ll highlight ONE book that’s transformed my teaching. I’ll spell out the three most important points. Then I’ll apply the book’s ideas to the college classroom.

Today’s book is Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (2011), by Chip and Dan Heath. They’re out of Stanford and Duke, respectively.

Switch was named one of the best Nonfiction Books of the Year by Amazon.com editors and spent 47 weeks on top of the New York Times’ Bestseller list.

Here are the 3 takeaways from Switch:

“Direct the Rider” (Provide Crystal Clear Direction)

Our brain has two sides: the emotional side (the “Elephant”) and the rational side (the “Rider”): “Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched…The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long term, to plan, to think beyond the moment.” (1)

So any time we’re faced with change—or difficult decisions—the Rider and the Elephant is going to butt heads.

I’m tired. Should I sleep in late? (Elephant)

Or force myself to get up and go running? (Rider)

I should eat healthy. Skip that donut. (Rider)

But it’s so tempting…(Elephant)

Just like the Rider, your rational side will lose eventually, because willpower is deplete-able, like a battery.

On top of that, the Rider has one big weakness: analysis paralysis. Because it’s the rational side of the brain, the Rider focuses on what to do—the pros and cons of the situation. So, the more options the Rider is presented with, the more exhausted it gets.

It’s like when I go shopping for pants at J.Crew. Do I get slim fit? Straight fit? Athletic fit? Stretch? Broken-in? Lightweight?

It’s too stressful. So I get nothing. Deal with this another time. Having too many choices can debilitate, rather than liberate.

It’s no different with students. They face a barrage of content—not just from your class, but from other courses. Social media just adds to the insanity.

You can help by being clear. Tell students what your course goal is. Tell them the purpose of today’s lecture. The point of the assignment. Don’t assume they know or care—not with the 3,000 other messages they see every day.

Students fight all kinds of distractions, so change is hard. And when something’s unclear, they’ll take the most familiar path—the status quo. You want them to change? To write that essay? To turn in higher quality work? It’ll be hard. But not because they’re defying you.

It’s because they lack clarity.

In fact, “not being clear” is a major reason people don’t do stuff they know they should do. I don’t know which J.Crew pants to get, so I give up. What about that broken faucet my wife wants me to fix? That’s been sitting there for a week. What about that DSLR camera I just got? It’s just sitting on my shelf.

I’m not sure how to approach any of it. So I don’t do anything.

But what if someone came and showed me step by step how to fix the faucet? Use the camera? I’d be all over it.

So, if you want higher quality work, SHOW your students an exemplar—what a good essay looks like. If you want them engaged—TELL them why it’s important (Why are we learning about the circulatory system?). If you want students to improve their writing, SET behavioral goals (In your next paper, focus on removing all the hyperbole).

What looks like resistance is often lack of clarity. It’s why your students don’t take action.


“Motivate the Elephant” (Appeal to the Emotional Side)

Most people think change happens when you analyze the problem and think it through. According to the Heath brothers, that only works when the parameters are known, assumptions are minimal, and the future is clear (2). So, if we’re late to a meeting with publishers, we need to figure out the best way to get there. The parameter is known (we have 3 choices: subway, bus, or taxi), the assumptions are minimal (taxis are faster than bus or subway), and the future is clear (we will leave a bad impression if we’re late). I’ll convince my colleague to take a taxi. That’s easy.

But what if the situation isn’t so clear?

For big changes to happen, appeal to the Elephant. Not the Rider. Think of the texting-while-driving issue. The simple fact is that 330,000 accidents happen every year because of texting. Good luck changing minds with that statistic.

But what if you said, “Remember what happened to your aunt last year when she ended up in a hospital because a driver was texting?”

Change happens when people see and feel first. Not analyze and think.

You want to motivate students? One way is to give easier assignments at the beginning of the year. When students achieve early on, they see progress. They get it into their heads they can succeed. As opposed to failing the first big test early on. Students will be like, “F**k this.”

Hope is the Elephant fuel. If students have hope, they will persist.

“Shape the Path” (Change the Situation, Not the Person)

It’s hard to change people. It’s easier to change the situation. For the elephant, that means making the journey easier. Like taking the path going downhill.

You want people to eat less? Give them smaller plates.

You want more employees to contribute to their 401K? Make it an “opt-out” process, rather than “opt-in.”

For students, getting them interested in your lecture is hard. Removing the friction—the obstacles? Easier.

Maybe let go of some of the requirements. For instance, does it matter what font they use? Does margin size really matter? (at one point, it mattered to me…)

In the end, it’s about shaping the environment to disallow negative behavior. To make the right behavior a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder.

Here are some other examples:

To get students on time to my 12:30PM class, I tell them to bring lunch, so they can eat in the classroom. (Granted, not all classrooms allow food and not all classrooms are empty, but whatever you can leverage, use it.) Now they want to come early. Most of them.

The Heaths suggest employing the Haddon Matrix. It’s a framework that provides a way to think systematically by, in this case, highlighting the pre-event, the event, and the post-event. For example, take a look at ways we prevent vehicle accidents:

So how do we apply the same to our courses? If we want to engage students, what are some pre-event interventions, during-event interventions, and post-event interventions? Some ideas:

Thinking about the experience learners go through before class, during class, and after class is a great approach to teaching. In fact, it’s led me to develop a teaching system focused on the the “learner experience.”

Switch radically altered my teaching mindset. Now I can’t teach a lecture without first asking myself, “What is going to move their Elephant within?” It’s rarely about the content. Or information.

It’s about connecting.

Let me know your thoughts.


(1) Note that the Elephant/Rider analogy originally came from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis (2006)

(2) The Heath brothers quote the original work of John Cotter and Dan Cohen, who wrote The Heart of Change (2011)

  • I’ve heard about the Rider/Elephant analogy, but not in the context of teaching. Really liked how you applied “change” to moving students to action via this analogy. It’s made me really think about the importance of connecting with students at an emotional level, not on a purely academic one. Thanks for this, Dr Eng!

  • Thank you, Norman, for highlighting the Heath brothers. I read all of their books last year. Even though I am not a businessman, I respect their writings about communication. I even have their Made to Stick book by my bed to remind me to make Unexpected and Specific lesson plans.
    I teach in a community college part-time in Early Childhood Education. I’ve taught for over twenty years. I recommend your book to colleagues. Keep up the great work.
    Bob Genevro

    • Bob, like you, I love to read books about communication. And Made to Stick is another good one! Thanks for your encouragement!

  • Very interesting and useful tips from ‘Switch’. I will follow up the Haddon Matrix.

    As you say, so much good material in business education is directly applicable to the education space, but it’s not widely known… e.g. I have seen some schools use communication strategies to get students to express themselves and their opinions better like #oracy and the Harkness Method for learning by sharing opinions, with good results.

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