30 Day Question Challenge – Day 20 – Make it Stick

I am reading a book entitled Made to Stick by Stanford professor Chip Heath and Aspen Institute consultant and co-founder of Thinkwell Dan Heath. Much like Freakonomics and/or Tipping Point, they attempt to pose an interesting question that can be generalized and lead to rules or approaches. The way they formulate the problems, anecdotes, and issues appeals to me because such authors are able to present what we take for granted in a new or different way. Let’s just say, I’m enjoying the text thus far.

To make this little story of mine a little more interesting, I stumbled on this book by chance. It was in our office bookcase. I hadn’t heard of it before yesterday, and now I’m in it. Seridipody? Fortuitous? Something along those lines, but my way of thinking is: How do I help maximize the opportunities for such serendipitous opportunities for students? So, my question for the day is:

Day 20 Question: How do we make something stick but promote creative exploration at the same time?

Chip and Dan Heath distill their stickiness formula down to six principles:

  • Simplicity

  • Unexpectedness

  • Concreteness

  • Credibility

  • Emotions

  • Stories

There is a lot of traction that can be made building off of these concepts. I want to take it back to my question though. As the Heath brothers point out, there is natural stickiness (innately interesting stories like kidney thieves), and there is crafted stickiness like branding, slogans or advertising (like “Subway….Eat Fresh” or Nike’s “Just do it” campaign). As a side note, I suggest to the reader that Naomi Klein has an interesting perspective on the power of branding in her book No Logo. I digress. In any case, my experience as a classroom instructor and as a faculty developer highlights a third lens: that all too often a false dichotomy is created where we have to choose between finding content that is one believes that innately interesting to students OR we have to construct experiences that allow students to explore and interest naturally emerges. Why can’t we do both?

I imagine that a reader might think: “No! The dichotomy is finding material that is interesting to today’s student or we don’t.” “We don’t” means that students have to make the connections.

Another response might be: “Students must understand before they can explore!” In other words, the insight or lesson must “stick” before students can do anything with it. This frame of thought is similar to the pervasive faculty comment “Students have to have the knowledge before they can do anything with it!”

My mood at this moment propels me to reply with a big “boring!” These questions and comments are old; not irrelevant, but old. There is something deeper I’m trying to unpack. I empathize, but my purpose here is to move beyond these rhetorical and, frankly, largely unexamined comments.

I want to suggest that we learn by doing; we discover by exploring; we love by loving. Prior knowledge is important for many tasks, but how did we gain substantive knowledge? I have prior knowledge that is largely tacit or irrelevant to many issues, and I have prior knowledge that was formulated due to substantive problem engagement. How can we design class where students are building sticky knowledge?

I have a lot of off the cuff answers to this question, but that is my point. It is a multi-faceted approach. If we assume that one approach or one answer or one explanation will suffice, then we are gravely mistaken. Teaching and learning is about dealing with humans, and humans are dynamic…for better or worse. If I accept this as true, then pedagogy must be dynamic. There are rules and guidelines and best practices, but the plural is what is important here.

What’s my short answer to how to make things stick? Well, I’d have to recommend that a seventh principle might be: approach it from all six.

2 thoughts on “30 Day Question Challenge – Day 20 – Make it Stick

    1. Excellent point. I made a previous post emphasizing the importance of being mindful. That is a concept that resonates with me for many reasons; one of which is the along the lines of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and self-actualization. That stage (as you know) is defined by a certain discomfort with ambiguity. I watch my children and most of the time just want to soak it up and avoid explanation. Thanks for the comment.

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