Love of Learning is Contagious.

Maria Montessori

The 7th key to learning.

What is key in learning? This is the seventh of a number of keys that are meant to bring understanding about what learning is and how leaning can be improved by understanding the message of those keys. This key is about how learning can become contagious. This key sets out how instead of waiting for desire for information to form we can instead try to facilitate it or engineer it in others, and so induce a wide variety of lifelong passionate desires for learning specific types of information.

"Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow." Anthony J. D'Angelo

"A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on a cold iron." Horace Mann

The benign and essential plague of knowledge and ideas.

Contagion has two essential elements. There is the infecter and the infected. When there is contagion among humans, it's the same as for any organism, in that the infected person also becomes a person who will infect others (a carrier). Some kinds of contagion are very bad like plagues of bacteria and viruses, but some kinds of contagion are very good. When we consider the possibility of intellectual contagion it quickly becomes clear that contagion of ideas, information and knowledge, could be a tremendous asset to learning, and indeed, perhaps essential to learning.

The desire to acquire knowledge and the desire to pass that knowledge on. 

What we normally understand learning to mean, does not really concern itself with the passing on of information. Rather learning is understood as being only concerned with the acquiring of information. The desire to acquire information and to know is our primary motivation to learn. This is a flaw in our language as some of the things that make information desirable (interesting or meaningful) are often the same things that make us want to pass that information on to others. Indeed the desirability of knowledge and the desire to pass it on are tightly, and inextricably interwoven. This site, while attempting to explore how knowledge or information becomes contagiously desirable will therefore also try to examine contagion in the passing on of information/knowledge as well.

 Contagion in the motivation of teachers.

In modern society teaching is a job, a profession, but teachers vary alarmingly in their abilities in passing information on to learners. While there are many factors that are important in the emergence of a good teacher, there can be no doubt that the most important factor is the desire in that teacher to pass the information on. Consider for a moment what might happen if the only thing motivating teachers to pass on information was the pay packet that they get each month. This site holds that sometimes teachers are only motivated by their pay and when this is the case, they make an awful mess of passing on information. This is because we have been shaped by evolution into creatures that pass on information in response to triggers or cues. We have been modified over millions of years into creatures that want to pass on specific information because we have been cued to do so. When this happens rapidly information goes from one to many to many more in a cascade or piles up or explodes out like a chain reaction. This is contagion, or more correctly in this case, intellectual contagion. This intellectual contagion is essential in a teacher if real learning is to take place.   

Cuing intellectual contagion as the desire to pass information on.

It turns out that there has been considerable research into why people pass information on. In his book "Contagious" Jonah Berger asked this very question and then devoted his research to finding answers. Some of the answers he found are the same as what make information or messages desirable, but some of them are not. Ideas, messages or information come to us only because we are motivated to learn. If we desire to pass information on to others it stands to reason that that desire must also imply a desire to learn. Otherwise we would never have learned the information in the first place.

Berger informs us that there are

six categories of interconnected

reasons or principles why people

pass on information:

Triggers. All learning is triggered or cued by something. Here Berger is mostly concerned about the frequency of a trigger and if it occurs when and where there is someone to pass it on to.   

Social currency. We pass on information that makes us look good.

Emotion. Certain types of emotions make it more likely we will pass information on.

Public observability. Information must be public, visible or audible enough to reach us before we can become motivated to pass it on.

Practical value. If we think information will have practical value for someone we will normally pass the information on to them.

Stories. Humans are story tellers. We will pass on what we think is a good story.


Some triggers or cues, trigger more strongly or effectively than others to make us acquire some information. But with the triggering of passing on of information this is less important. 

Frequency. When we are directly triggered to pass on information, it is usually because our environment constantly produces cues to trigger thoughts about that information. Thus, the amount of times the same trigger occurs makes it more likely that we pass on the information. We are thinking about it, its on the tip of our tongue, its at the top of our mind. Teachers generally inhabit a particular type of environment. They live, work and interact with their peers and the parents of their students. Teachers are being cued many many times during these interactions, sometimes to be productive and pass on information, and sometimes they are prompted to not pass on information. A quick look at these trigger points will quickly covey which ones need to be eliminated and which ones should be increased.   

The right time and place. Another important consideration in triggering the passing on of information is that it happens at the right time or place to make us think of it when there is someone right there to pass the information on to. If you are triggered or cued to pass on information and there is no one around the cue is wasted. We have to somehow hold the cue in our mind. We may remember the cue if we arrange to cue ourselves to remember it. But other than that we are not likely to remember at the right time and place. The right time for teachers to pass on information, is of course, when they are teaching in class. Some classroom cues prompt teachers to want to pass on information in those classroom moments, but alas many discourage teachers from passing on information. The most devastating cues come from the students themselves, who are for the most part, not at all interested in anything the the teacher might be trying to pass on to them. This is a catch 22. If the teachers somehow manage to interest some of the students these negative cues can gradually be eliminated.

Social currency.

Our desire to be liked, thought well of, thought helpful and thought clever all motivate us to pass information on. 

Remarkability. We pass on information that will entertain, surprise, amaze, interest or be novel etc. because this will help us be liked. We pass information on if it is remarkable. This word explains its own effect. We remark to others about something because it is remarkable. When we do this we look good. This is fairly straight forward. If we wish for teachers to successfully pass on specific information it should be remarkable. Curriculums would obviously motivate teachers better if they were novel, entertaining, interesting, amazing, surprising or funny.

Restricted. We pass on information that is rare, scarce, not well known and well secret. The mere fact something is secret creates a desire to pass it on. When we pass on restricted information we make people feel they are insiders. They believe they are part of an elite group that is in the know. This works well even when there is no secret but simply scarce information or even gossip. We look good because we know and others don't. When teachers have been in a position to pass on information that is restricted this has proved highly motivating for both teachers and students. An obvious example of this at work is the lottery for students who wanted to be part of a special music program. The fact that the number of students that could be taught had to be limited made the program highly effective because it so motivated both the students and the teacher.

Useful. We pass on information that we believe will be useful to some others. Because we know about some people we can make judgments that some item of information will be useful or helpful to them. When we pass on this information we appear knowledgeable about information and knowledgeable about the person we pass it on to. We look good. We seem both clever and helpful. Unfortunately the knowledge, teachers are employed to pass on to students, is almost never useful, and this is because it is not passed on with the specific needs of individual students in mind. The current form of teaching is still one of taking specific information and trying to pass it on to all the students in a class. This obviously precludes that it be useful to most of those students.


Emotions are an obvious consideration as to why we might want to pass on information. Emotions mean we care and are likely to remember. But it turns out, when it comes to improving the likelihood of passing on information, only some emotions seem to work. Berger and his fellow researchers discovered that if an emotion did not generate alertness or arousal it did not increase the likelihood of information being passed on. Thus the emotions of happiness, contentment, sadness, melancholy etc. were ineffective. On the other hand high arousal emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety, awe, excitement and amusement were very effective. This is perhaps not too surprising as arousal is closely connected to attention. If a cue does not get our attention it may as well not occur for we will experience nothing.

Negative emotions. If some information makes us angry, anxious or afraid we will be highly motivated to pass that information on to others. Teachers, of course, have long used fear and anxiety to both motivate students and themselves. This fear and anxiety is normally not in the information or message but rather an extrinsic threat that is added on for those not learning. Still it is doubtful that fear and anxiety would be effective even if it was embedded in the information. These emotions (fear and anxiety) tend to persist into a chronic form that puts teacher and student's bodies in a continual state of stress which tends to preclude the possibility of learning. Anger has been known to work well for both students and teachers, however, as is exemplified by teacher and student activists.

Positive emotions. If some information is awesome, exciting or funny we will also be triggered to pass that information on to others. It has been long understood that information that is awesome, exciting or funny is easily passed on because it is motivating to both students and teachers. Unfortunately most curriculums are completely absent of anything remotely awesome, exciting or humerus. Still, teachers and schools that have made an effort to inject awe, excitement and humor into curriculums have indeed proved very effective.

Physical arousal. Berger also discovered that even without any emotion, any activity that increased physical arousal, such as exercise, would increase the desire in people to pass information on. While students are given a very necessary chance and encouraged to be active between lessons, teachers simply are not. Indeed, teachers tend to collapse in the staff room and snooze between lessons. In the classroom they are expected to be more active but few of them bother. This state of affairs could be changed.  

Public observability.

Although it is obvious that information has to reach us before we can or can want to pass it on to others, it is important to keep this in mind because it is so essential.

Salience. The more aware we are of some information the more likely we are to pass it on. The likelihood of information being passed on depends on how well it stands out from other information (how salient it is). There are obvious ways to do this and unique ways to do this. If the information is visual, make it bigger, brighter, more contrasting, more colorful. Information or messages may reach us through any sensory input and whatever the medium the information can be made to stand out by means of contrast such as loudness. Making the message or information stand out is a constant struggle for teachers. While teachers are well aware of the usefulness of making information salient they have no instruction manual for how to do it. The more messages or information teachers have to pass on the more it all devolves into background noise. Still when information does stand out this is clearly effective in motivating both students and teachers.  

Imitating others. There are many reasons why we might copy or imitate others. and all of them have a function in the passing on of information. 

  1. Social proof. We pass information on if we are aware that others are passing the information on. This kind of copying seems to be an evolutionary function to enable learning. This is called social proof, and it makes the assumption (sometimes wrongly) that if many people are doing something they are doing it for a good reason. There can be no doubt that teachers are motivated to pass on information when they placed in a group of other teachers who are all conscientiously passing on information.

  2. Social contagion. We are even more likely to pass information on if those we observe seem to enjoy passing the information on or are intrinsically motivated to pass the information on. This is called social contagion (which this site will explain in detail below). Teachers are also increasingly more highly motivated if the other teachers in their group seem to enjoy the passing on of that information or appear to be intrinsically motivated to pass the information on.

  3. Conformity. We also may pass on information because it is the thing to do. In this case it may be socially unacceptable not to pass the information on. This is conformity. Teachers could be motivated by conformity, to pass on information, but social proof and social contagion are clearly better ways of doing it. Usually however conformity has had the opposite effect on teachers in that it can become unacceptable to enjoy or or be intrinsically motivated to pass on information. When this happens it completely negates the possibility of social contagion being used to propel transmission of information.

In order to be motivated to imitate, however, we first have to not only see but also have our attention drawn to that person. If we are to imitate someone that person must stand out. Teachers would not be so influence by the actions of their peers if they were somehow deprived of opportunity to observe them.     

Practical value.

Practical value or usefulness, although mentioned as part of  social currency, perhaps deserves its own section. Practical value is all about practical value to each individual recipients of information and not about practical value to the transmitter or teacher. 

Altruism. People usually pass on information that is useful to others without any thought of their own concerns in a truly altruistic manner. This does not mean altruistic in the sense of us going out of our way or inconveniencing ourselves, but in the sense of us just being motivated to help others if we see an opportunity to do so. Those who become teachers mostly start out with a truly altruistic bent but because the system demands that they pass all information on to all students this initial altruism is gradually quashed.

Personal knowledge. With practical value we pick up and pass on the information to particular people rather than anyone we might come in contact with. The information does not have to have any practical value for those passing it on. Information, for the most part, is picked up and passed on simply because we know that particular people will find it interesting or useful even though we personally do not. Although this kind of information seems to get passed on less frequently by individuals, the chances are high it will reach most of the group that will find it useful, as many will be motivated to pass it on. In those schools where teachers have been able to give students individual attention this has proved beneficial to the students and highly motivating to the teachers.


Stories are a wonderful human invention. Not only are we much more likely to pass on information that reaches us in the form of a story, but we also find it much easier to do so. This is because stories are are easier to remember than than just plain information. It was used to pass information down through generations long before we learned to write and create permanent records in scrolls and eventually books.

Stories are a kind of Trojan horse. They suck us in by forcing us to identify with the characters, thus sort of sugar coating their messages. Stories also provide, as part of their structure, almost all of the other reasons we might pass on information. Teachers, who become adept at telling stories, are not only highly motivating students to learn, but have proved this process provides even greater motivation in themselves to pass on information or messages.

Triggers. Stories keep popping up in our environment to trigger us to pass them on. They also tend to include lots of triggers in their pages or scripts to also encourage that the information be passed on. 

Social currency. Stories tend to be entertaining and so give us social currency by making us look good when we pass them on.

Emotions. Stories always make us feel the emotions or their characters especially those of the more arousing kind. In this way they make us want to pass them on.

Public observability. Good stories are public entities eeasily come by and always creating the desire in most to pass them on. On should note, however, that the form in which stories pass on can change as what seems to be unimportant may be discarded. A story is just a vessel to contain ideas, messages, or information and if we are not careful to make those ideas, messages or information an integral part of the story they may be left out.

Practical value. Stories always have value to others (although not always of the practical kind). Thus we are more motivated to pass them on to specific people. We pass on some stories to some people and other stories to other people.

Contagion in the motivation of learners.

In modern society learning is modeled on the factory process of producing a product. Often learning is seen as stuffing information into resisting brains. Somehow we seem to have forgotten that learning for the most part only takes place when learners desire some particular information. While there are many factors that are important in the emergence of a life long learner, there is little doubt that the most important factor is the desire in that learner to to acquire some particular information. One has only to observe those instances when learning takes place and when it does not. This is because we have been shaped by evolution into creatures that acquire information in response to triggers or cues. We have been modified over millions of years into creatures that want to acquire specific information only when cued to do so. When this happens in groups of humans we tend to imitate and infect one another with our interest and enthusiasm. If this infection happens rapidly it can escalate into a cascade of infection that explodes out in a chain reaction and is again intellectual contagion. This intellectual contagion is essential for specific information to be learned, if learning that specific information is required of all those participating.

Cuing or triggering intellectual contagion as desirability.

Information becomes knowledge when we understand it and understanding it seems very important in how it becomes contagiously desirable, but not essential. Part of why information becomes contagiously desirable is because it is cued or triggered by contingencies in the environment. Some of these cues are generated by those trying to infect others (teachers). Some of these cues are generated by those trying to acquire information (learners/students). Some of these cues are generated by the message or the information itself. Some of these cues are generated by the place or context in which they occur. Ultimately a cue can be anything we associate with the information.

If intellectual contagion is desirable it must follow that being an intellectually infected person is also desirable and the people who have infected that person are also desirable. Unfortunately, when it comes to intellectual contagion, we tend to separate those who are infected from those who infect them, as if they are almost unrelated groups. In this scenario the teachers are thought to be those who should infect learners with contagious knowledge and ideas, while learners are thought to be those who should seek to acquire infection of knowledge and ideas.  

Cues: the infecters the infectable and social contagion.

The scientific concept of social contagion gives us one way to understand intellectual contagion and how it can be intentionally activated. In their paper "Social Contagion of Motivational Orientations" T. Cameron Wild and Michael E. Enzle posit a theory of social contagion. Social contagion explains how we come to try new activities and why we continue with them. Social Contagion can be either accidental or intentional depending on whether those who infect are trying to infect or not. 


Social contagion predicts that people attribute certain motives to other people through certain cues in the other people's behavior. These observations, they believe, reveal those other people's true motives.

Perception of intrinsic motivation in others.

Social contagion also predicts that if people perceive other's actions as being intrinsically motivated, then those original people will want to try those actions, because they understand that being intrinsically motivated is the ultimate pleasure.

Intrinsic pleasure and SDT.

Self-determination theory (SDT) posits that the innate intrinsic pleasure of any activity is able to take hold and keep a person performing an action once the action is initiated. Also self-determination theory predicts people will continue performing actions that are not pleasurable if they serve to satisfy the needs for competence, self-determination and relatedness.

(Intrinsic pleasure and cognitive dissonance.

Also cognitive dissonance will act to keep people performing those actions even if they are not intrinsically pleasurable.)

Pleasure by association.

Although some parts of an activity may have been initially perceived as being boring or unpleasant, those parts can become pleasant, if their is possible innate pleasure in performing them, or even if there is not, they can become pleasant through gradual association with those parts that are in fact pleasant.

Expectation of pleasure and its cues.

When a person acts as if they are getting intrinsic pleasure from performing an action they give off cues to this effect. This in turn induces an aspiration by those observing them to anticipate the same kind of intrinsic pleasure.

Desire to imitate.

This in turn motivates them to imitate the actions of that person.

Social contagion.

This is called social contagion because there are always more people picking up on cues than those being observed. For instance, suppose two or more people observe a person performing an action, and because the action seems to be intrinsically motivated, it induces those two or more people to be motivated to imitate the original action. If those two or more people are then observed giving off cues of being intrinsically motivated by four or more people, they in turn become intrinsically motivated. So it follows that intrinsically motivated people can grow in numbers just like an epidemic.

The social contagion, suggested by Wild and Enzle, theorizes that people are motivated to do things by imitating the activities of others (who are perceived to be enjoying those activities). In other words the theory of social contagion says that we not only imitate others who appear to be intrinsically motivated, but that we are infected by such actions in others in a way that is both enjoyable and difficult for us to have control over.

Empathy and mirror neurons.

As explained in the section on neuroscience, mirror neurons are neurons in our brains that become electrically active, both when a subject is performing an action, and when the subject is seeing the same action performed. While infants start off imitating every movement they perceive because of these mirror neurons, they soon learn to curb this impulse on most occasions, limiting these mirror neurons to mere simulation of an activity as opposed to activation in actual imitation. The prefrontal cortex of the brain begins to develop in response to the necessity of inhibiting this imitative activity. This same neuron activity enables us to feel what we understand others are feeling. As our facial muscles and our posture begin to automatically imitate that of the other person, this in turn activates the emotion in us that is linked with those facial expressions and body language. We begin to experience what others are feeling because we are experiencing the facial muscle movements, body language and all the other ways we perceive information about what others are feeling.

Emotional contagion.

This experience of another's of emotion, which is experienced through automatic mimicry, has not only been shown in numerous case studies to occur, but has been shown to occur through a mind boggling seemingly endless array of mimicry. Massive evidence to support this idea was presented in the book "Emotional Contagion" by Hatfield, Cacioppo and Rapson. Instead of our brains automatically suppressing the performance of this imitative movement, in the case of this emotional contagion, some degree of imitation is allowed to take place. This allows us to automatically experience what others are experiencing and pass it on to yet others. In this way a person experiencing a strong emotion can infect all those around them with that strong emotion.

It follows then that being able to perceive that a person is intrinsically motivated need not be conscious, but rather perceived almost directly as a contagious feeling of enjoyment that we feel impelled to imitate. Indeed a person merely telling us how wonderful doing something, learning some skill or understanding some field of knowledge may be, will not be as contagious as subtler signs that they are intrinsically motivated in those areas. When it is working best we will not be consciously aware of what is happening, we will just feel the desire to learn about the same field of knowledge, learn similar skills or perform the same actions. We will in fact become interested or desirous of some information.

From this it may be understood that intellectual contagion is deeply entangled in automatic imitation, emotions and needs. Needs may well be the underlying motivators but needs are themselves linked to various emotions, such as satisfaction, joy, pleasure, happiness etc. These emotions and what we associate them with are what enables academic or prolonged learning.

Cues: the infected and social contagion.

Learners, not only imitate the behavior of role models (teachers) who are trying to infect them with the desire to learn particular areas of knowledge, but also the behavior of other learners. Our desire to learn a particular subject not only depends on the cues given off by teachers but also the cues given off by fellow students. Social contagion works just the same in this situation. When we observe other learners being enthusiastic about learning a particular subject we are picking up cues that they are being intrinsically motivated to learn that subject. We see the joy they manifest when engaging in learning in that knowledge domain and we anticipate that we will in turn experience the same joy if we engage in learning in that domain. 

Obviously there are a number of factors at work with this side of social contagion. 

Social proof. Firstly there is the possibility of herd mentality or social proof. Social proof is understood to be a social pressure to act based solely on the numbers of people we observe. But social contagion is almost always involved because the greater the number of persons there are learning a particular subject the greater the likelihood that some of them will indeed be doing so because they are intrinsically motivated to do so. Not only that, but the number giving off cues that they are intrinsically motivated will increase in proportion to the number of people learning the subject. Likewise, the more giving off such cues will increase the likelihood of such cues being observed. The more people, the more cues, the more visible the cues, and the more likely observers will want to imitate. It is possible, however, to have this kind of imitation without social contagion. It has been well documented that we also imitate others because we simply observe large numbers of others performing a particular action. It is quite possible we will want to learn or acquire knowledge in a particular domain simply because it is popular and we observe many many others learning it. Intellectual contagion then is partly social contagion and partly a numbers game.

This principle gives us one activating force behind such things as viral videos, and increasing interest. People become interested in things because other people are interested in those things. If a lot of people are looking at something it must be worth a look. If a lot of people are doing something it must be worth doing. If a lot of people are learning something it must be worth learning. The more people learning something the more others also want to learn it, which leads to even more people learning the subject and even more people wanting to learn the subject. This can become an ever escalating phenomenon where lots of people want to learn one subject and hardly anybody wants to learn another subject. Interest can become popular or in vogue. In his book "The Tipping Point" Malcolm Gladwell suggests that this escalating phenomenon will reach a point where it has such momentum that it will not be able to be stopped. This is what he calls the tipping point.

Conformity. Secondly there is the possibility of conformity. Conformity, is understood to be a social pressure to act based on how we think people will act toward us if we do not imitate them. It invokes the threat of derision and even ostracism from an some important social group to which we belong. Conformity is about fitting in or belonging and the fear of group exclusion. This seems to be motivated by fear of being a social outcast. Conformity is also referred to as social pressure or excessive adherence to group norms. If social proof is about following the numbers into new activities, conformity is about being conservative and staying with old activities. It is about doing what is normal in the group. In this way conformity acts as a kind of inertia or a brake on change. Because of this conformity is often acting against learning and is often hampering or restricting the effects of social proof and social contagion in their efforts to make more and more types of information desirable.

Contagion the positive and the negative.

Ideally we want intellectual contagion to be positive and thus cause us to want to learn more things (more information, more subjects, more domains). Unfortunately it is just as easy for people to be cued to find particular information, subjects or knowledge domains undesirable as it is for them to be cued to find them desirable. While it is true, that the emotions of threat and fear may enable short bursts of learning, if fear or threat become chronic they produce stress which makes learning impossible. This is often the situation in schools. Threat and fear work to produce impressive learning initially but gradually stop promoting learning and begin to more and more hinder learning. Threat and fear are not the only negative associations students may form with learning particular types of knowledge. Schools are often riddled with negative cues just waiting to be associated some particular type of information.

The Tipping Point of contagion.

The book "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell is all about contagion, especially the contagion of ideas and knowledge. Gladwell gives us another way of understanding the contagion of knowledge and ideas and how it can be activated. 

It turns out that Gladwell's ideas extend what Wild and Enzle are talking about by covering cues in the information and cues in the surrounding environment as well as cues provided by people. Gladwell's examples of how to promote contagion are also almost always work better when enhanced by Wild and Enzle's social contagion. Gladwell proposes that there are three factors that cause ideas to infect other people causing the numbers of those people to swell till they reach a tipping point where the numbers start to expand so fast that they mirror an epidemic.

Gladwell's factors are as follows:

  1. The cues are in people and a few of them are exceptionally gifted at infecting.

  2. This is about the people who transmit the information or message. Gladwell suggests that there are special people who are especially adept at infecting others with intellectual contagion. This is about the kind of cues these people give off which ensure we will be willing to absorb information from them and imitate them.

  3. The cues are in the information itself. The message is sticky.

  4. This is about the content of the message or information. The cues are in the information itself. The information itself triggers our desire to learn it. This is about whether the message appears to be intrinsically interesting (enjoyable) and how to make it so.

  5. The cues are in the environment. The power of context.

  6. This is about the environment or context in which the message or information occurs. This environment or context also determines whether the message will appear to be intrinsically interesting. So we also need to know how to ensure messages will occur in a context or an environment that presents them as being intrinsically interesting or pleasurable to learn. 

Let us look at Gladwell's factors in more detail.

1  The cues are in people. A few of them are exceptionally gifted at infecting.

Gladwell calls the effect of those who are exceptionally gifted at infecting others the law of the few. The law of the few rests on the idea that there are three human personality types that can be highly effective in making ideas contagious. For contagion to work what is needed is people who will transmit the message. Ideally these personality types should be the teachers in schools but the in fact they hardly ever are as their gifts are badly rewarded by schools. 

It is hard to know how much personality types are created by genetics and how much they are shaped by their environment. It may, however, be worth our while to shape our environments, in so far as we can, to produce as many of these particular personality types as is possible.These are the personality types Gladwell identified:

  1. Salesmen.

  2. They can make almost anything seem intrinsically interesting because those are the cues they give off.

  3. Mavens.

  4. They have the knowledge that comes from being intrinsically interested in everything. They are always interested in learning anything and give off cues to this effect.

  5. Connectors.

  6. They are able to put people in touch with others who have the information that is intrinsically interesting to them. They are simply more sensitive to cues that instigate the passing on of information. They are programed to continually seek out new people to be receivers of information and connect them with others who have information they wish to pass on. They are facilitators.  

Let us look at these more closely.

  1. Salesmen.

  2. We all think we know what a salesman is, but do we? Salesmen are gifted at being able to present a very cogent, logical and compelling argument. They are able to counter and quell any objections to what they are selling, with convincing and well prepared answers. But they also have something else, something extra. They have a powerful, indefinable, inspirational energy. Its charm, likability and enthusiasm, its what Mesmer called animal magnetism. They make you want to believe. They make you want to act. They are charismatic. In terms of social contagion they give off cues to their intrinsic motivation like a blast furnace. In some ways it would highly effective if all teachers could be salesmen. If you were lucky when you were young you might have had one teacher who was something of a salesman. Unlike your other teachers who undoubtedly bored you, this one would have made learning interesting, exciting, enthralling. They all wish we had teachers like this, but such people are rare in schools, because people so gifted can sell anything, and thus are able to make large amounts of money selling. They could not make anything like this as teachers.

    "It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge." Albert Einstein

    The salesman within each of us.

    However, we all all have something of the salesmen within us. Almost all people have some favorite collections of knowledge which they find greatly enjoyable to learn about. They have areas of individual interest that they love to work in. By talking about these collections of knowledge, that we ourselves love to learn, we can infuse students with our own excitement and love for the subject. When we do this, we become salesmen for a moment. Here we return to the idea of social contagion. When parents, teachers, facilitators are filled with enthusiasm and express it they give off signals or cues that indicate that they are intrinsically motivated.


    If teachers could just be allowed to teach those things that they are truly interested in, and only those things they are interested in, they could inspire students and in the process cause the ideas to be contagious. Mostly, however, students are not likely to find much of this salesmen like activity, much less salesmen, in the home or school situation. Intellectual contagion as Montessori calls it or social contagion as as Wild and Enzle call it is found rarely in the life experience and only in those moments when we are lucky. Yet need this be so?

    It is possible that anyone who has a genuine love of learning can learn to sell within the the limited subject area of their own interests and expertise. It is after all a very simple skill. What salesmen can do that the rest of us cannot is convince themselves that what they are saying is true. If they are enthusiastic about something they really are enthusiastic about it. If they seem to be convinced or believe in something they really are convinced or believe. For ordinary people it works the other way around. Our enthusiasm can only come from what really interests us.


    Be that as it may, there are many people (true salesmen) who are inspirational to listen to in all walks of life. So only a few small changes are necessary to take advantage of these people and make sure their talents are accessible to students, and thus to make this infusion of the desire for knowledge possible in the schools and society in general. Television for instance could be made better use of, to make sales pitches for various careers. Science programs and other programs about school subjects, as depicted through people's work, could be made more exciting by having people present it both realistically and in a favorable light, because they love it. Such programs could be more about the doing of the work, and how those doing the work feel about that work, thus emphasizing the enthusiasm of the presenters.

    In house salesmen. 

    In every line of work there are probably in house salesmen. These are the people who keep up the moral, who keep groups working together by keeping them enthusiastic about the project. These people preserve the culture of the workplace. To whatever extent we can, we need to bring these workers (salesmen) into the schools so the students can be exposed to them. Likewise we need to take the students into the work place to find them. The more we can do this the more likely learners are to find someone who is truly inspirational, by sheer force of numbers, of meeting and listening to new people.

    Caned enthusiasm.

    Another way we could make use of salesmen in the schools is by encouraging them to make video recordings not about salesmanship although that is also useful. But rather to have them make videos to sell us ideas and knowledge. In this way, such material could be made widely available to the general public, both through entertainment on television and also more importantly to be found easily on the Internet by anyone making a search about that knowledge, and of course through the schools. Much of this could also be made about vocational topics about any type of work study or career.

    When I went to school there were some attempts to move in this direction. We had field trips to look at factories, which alas were not inspiring and people coming into the school to solicit graduates to enter some field of employment. I always remember one officer who came to the school to lure us into the navy. He did not do a very good job about the navy but he waxed lyrical about the fleet air arm which he belonged to. He impressed the students greatly and even I had moments of looking into the fleet air arm.

    Hard to fake.

    Why does all this seem so difficult for teachers? The thing is that enthusiasm is difficult to fake and that children are very good at at detecting people who are faking it. After all the true test of intrinsic motivation is that the person would do it any way even if he wasn't being paid to do it as teachers are. Obviously we cannot just get rid of teachers if they are not enthusiastic about what they are teaching. Nor can we just encourage them to become more enthusiastic about what they are teaching. The only answer is to encourage them to teach what they are interested in and to encourage them to become interested in other things.

  3. Mavens.

  4. Mavens are people who have never lost the desire to learn. They are interested not just in a few subjects but in everything. The only reason they do not know everything is because there is only so much time in the day. They are living walking authorities on everything from the obscure to the mundane. Everything that touches their lives becomes an interest. If they want to know the best university to go to they will learn about universities. If they want to know what car to buy they will learn about cars.

    Maven expertise.

    Unlike Salesmen, who have to convince themselves that the product they are selling is the best, mavens do not need to convince themselves or others of anything. Mavens do not have to convince themselves because they know, and while they do not have any need to convince others they often do. In terms of social contagion they are ideal teachers because they are intrinsically motivated about everything they come in contact with in their daily interactions. Mavens are a fountain of advice and wisdom, but they do not use charisma to convince you of anything. If a maven convinces you of something it is because of your experience of their being right. The better you know a maven the more confident you become in taking his/her advise. This is because mavens are almost always right.

    Mavens are in all walks of life. They do not have a particular type of job though they are probably fairly successful at whatever they do. Whatever they do they are going to really know about it. This of course really gives them an advantage in life. Still the kind of knowledge they tend to accumulate, other than their work, seems to be of the very practical kind that is useful for enhancing the way they live, and the way those in contact with them live. They know the best buys the best car the best movies the best products the best whatever touches their lives. They may not delve deeply into particular subjects like physics but they are up to date on all that is best, superior or beautifully functional. They read consumer reports, book reviews all the information to decide why to prefer one thing over another. If they do not know the answer they can tell you where to find it.

    The maven in the average person.

    All of us have something of the maven within us. Many of us are experts in some field of knowledge. If we have expert knowledge we can if we wish, like the mavens, share it. If we have no expert knowledge we can still use this ability to facilitate learning in ourselves and others by bringing ourselves and others into contact with people who are experts and are willing to share their knowledge in this way. For teachers there are two ways to do this. You can take the learners out of the schools and into the workplace to meet experts, or you can invite them into the schools to share their knowledge with the learners.

    Paying it forward.

    Perhaps the simple device in the movie "Pay it Forward " could be adapted to intellectual contagion. If we could somehow convince those who love their work, who are usually those who are highly knowledgeable in their work, that they have the responsibility and duty to inspire three or more others to follow their path. This could mean inspiring adults working in other fields or it could mean inspiring children. These ideas are not impossible, and ideally what we want is not just intellectual contagion, but an intellectual epidemic where one person catches it and passes it on to others so fast that there is a danger of everybody being infected.


    Wild and Enzle tell us that this is indeed the way social contagion works. they have shown in studies that if people are taught by a teacher and led to believe that the teacher is not being paid for teaching the material, regardless of the form of the teaching or the amount of enthusiasm displayed, the students will become intrinsically motivated and will, if they teach others, do it in such a way as to, in turn, infect their own students with intrinsic motivation.


    Another way we could make use of mavens or ordinary experts in the schools is by encouraging them to make video recordings about what they know. In this way such material could be made widely available to the general public both through entertainment on television and also more importantly to be found easily on the Internet by anyone making a search about that knowledge and of course through the schools. To some extent this already happens, but it could happen in a much wider and more organized way. Similarly much more could be done to package information about vocational topics, about any type of work study or career. Perhaps the best way to capture the knowledge of a maven is in an interactive computer program. Knowledge is essentially how ideas connect to other ideas and making such connections is best handled through some interactive process.

    The curse of knowing too much.

    Dan and Chip warn us however that ordinary people and especially experts often suffer from what they call the curse of knowledge. Which means that because we already know something it seems to us easy for other people to understand. Because we know, we are unable to imagine or remember what it was like not to know it. Thus when we explain it, we expect people to grasp it just from our words. We are unable to put ourselves in the learner's shoes and thus unable to find places where information will make a connection with others and thus be interesting and meaningful. Such people need help in presenting their material in the ways outlined above.

    Real mavens. 

    Real mavens are probably not many in the world so if you know one you are lucky. It is unlikely that many mavens are teachers, but if they were they would be good ones because they would really know about what they were teaching. Being really knowledgeable can itself be inspiring and interesting. It shows depth of interest without over emphasis. Also just imagine what it might be like to have a teacher who could really answer questions.

    There is a way for teachers to become more like mavens and thus become better teachers. In some respects becoming more like a maven is simply a matter of continuing to develop new interests all through ones life. This is part of being a life long learner. The best teachers will always be those who are still learning and still developing interests.

  5. Connectors.

  6. Gladwell's last group of people involved in creating contagion and epidemics are the people who pass on the information. In times gone by only a handful of people would bother to pass on information to a lot of other people. They did this because they knew and talked to a lot of other people. Gladwell calls them connectors. Connectors collect people the way other people collect stamps. This is not done to manipulate, but rather because they are just plain interested in understanding different sorts of people. In businesses they keep everybody on the same page. Connectors keep people at the top in touch with those at the bottom. They keep different departments aware of what the others are doing. They are able to put people in touch with others when they need to be in contact with them.

    In some ways connectors are not really important in academic learning, as this learning is all about seeking information, and they are about passing information on. Connectors are in a sense, however, facilitators, and as such can in deed be seen as ideal teachers. Also connectors by shifting information quickly to others do much in creating an interest in that information. In this way they they create a desire in all those who are in contact with them to be more like them.

    The connector in each of us.

    As with salesmen and mavens we all have a little of the connector in us. With the advent of the Internet each of us can now be in touch with far more people. Unbound by space we can now pass on information to numerous people scattered about the world with little effort. As the learning taking place on the Internet becomes more important, the connectors (bloggers) on the Internet may become more and more important for facilitating learning. However, as these networks of people on the web grow, the necessity for connectors in shifting information may become less important.

    It would be ideal if teachers were connectors and thus connected students with those in the world who have the knowledge that they want and need. But most teachers are the very opposite of connectors having very little connection with those in other areas of knowledge or situation. This however, may in the end, not be very important. In schools and other places of learning this kind of activity is not so much in demand, and the networks connecting people on the net are opening up the bottle necks of information on an unprecedented scale.

2The cues are in the information itself. The message is sticky.

Stickiness has two sides. One side is the surface on which something is stuck and the other is the stickiness of the the thing that is stuck on it. Some surfaces like oily ones are not sticky or not very sticky and some surfaces are very sticky. The stickiness of learners is in what is interesting to them. It is what makes us want to know more about something. In a story it makes us want to get to the end. It is that, which makes us remember it, take it in, and make it part of us. This turns out to be mostly its meaningfulness. If we want people to be interested in some ideas or remember our ideas, those ideas must make sense to them. If we want people to take in our ideas and make them part of themselves, we must make those ideas connect with the ideas or the model of reality already within each person. In other words, those ideas must be consistent with what people already know, and consistent within themselves. The stickiness of the learner or what he is interested in is mostly what he all ready knows about. This is discussed further in key eight and under answers and meaningfulness and thus will not be further discussed here.

Contagion, however, is not about what is interesting or meaningful to the learner, but rather how to make him interested in or able to find meaningfulness in something new. The stickiness of new ideas or knowledge is not in the learner but in the message. If we want to discover what makes a message sticky, other than its meaningfulness and how to make messages meaningful to students, we would do well to follow the example of the TV shows "Sesame Street" and "Blue's Clues" and actually check to see which messages are actually being remembered and understood. It is a simple process to check. Billions of dollars are spent every year by the marketing departments of business, to check which of the messages they are sending to the customers, are causing those customers to buy, but very few people seem to be checking which of the messages teachers are sending to students are being effective. Considering the importance of effective teaching in making people more competent, and the lack of real importance as to which products people buy, this seems a very lopsided situation.

What if anything could be done about this? Well, if we are serious about finding out, here is an idea. A series of scientific studies could be undertaken to find out what kind of messages are sticky in the classroom, and what adjustments can be made to messages to make them more sticky, especially in how they are presented to the students. Perhaps we could start by making recordings of teaches, who are known to be effective in causing their students to remember what they taught. A similar recording of teachers known to be ineffective could also be made as a kind of control. This information could then be studied by experts, to discover patterns of teacher behavior and message content, that clearly aided meaningfulness and interest, and patterns that clearly hindered them. This of course would require huge numbers of people, but if businesses could be convinced that this would produce better, more knowledgeable, and more effective workers, it might be possible.

In his book "Brain Rules" John Medina points out that we already have a very effective type of educational environment that is continually examining what works and what does not in enabling people to learn in every teaching hospital.


Quite a lot of work has been done in social psychology and neuroscience on the subject of attention. These sciences have established that very little in the way of information gets through to our brains if we do not pay attention to it. Any message then that is going to stick, has to first get our attention, to make us pay attention and to keep our attention. In his book "Brain Rules" John Medina presents attention as a very important brain function that operates as follows:

Firstly nothing happens consciously in the brain at all unless we attend to it. We do not see, hear, feel, taste or smell anything unless we are paying attention to it. Masses of information come to the brain from the eye, but most of it we do not see because we are not paying attention to it. It is simply ignored by the brain and not processed. The air conditioner in your room constantly roars in your ear but most of the time you do not hear it. You are only likely to hear it if the sound changes or you make an effort to hear it. There are signals coming to your brain from every square inch of your skin all the time but mostly you are unaware of it. If you sit down to an expensive meal and concentrate you can be aware of a myriad of subtle changes in flavor, but if you send most of the time talking and listening during the meal you will find you will loose track of what you are tasting. Likewise unless the smells impinging on our noses are intrusive we will not smell them unless we concentrate on doing so. Also the smell of places, while distinctive when we first encounter them, will fade if we continue to take it in through our noses. This is all to the good. Our senses are there mostly to make us alert to changes in our environment.

There is in fact a mechanism in the brain that ensures we will pay attention to some sensory input and not pay attention to other sensory input. Michael Posner who first identified this mechanism called it the alerting or arousal network. This mechanism monitors the the sensory environment for unusual activities. In his book "Brain Rules" John Medina explains it like this:

"This is the general level of attention our brains are paying to the world, a condition termed intrinsic alertness... If the system detects something unusual... it can sound an alarm heard brain wide. That's when intrinsic alertness transforms into specific attention, called phasic alertness. After the alarm, we orient ourselves to the attending stimulus activating the second network. We may turn our heads toward the the stimulus, perk up our ears, perhaps move forward (or away) from something... The purpose is to gain more information about the stimulus, allowing the brain to decide what to do. Posner termed this the orienting network.

The third system, the executive network, controls the 'Oh my gosh. What should I do now?' behaviors. These may include setting priorities, planning on the fly, controlling impulses, weighing the consequences of our actions, or shifting attention."

The brain does not pay attention to boring things.

Ways of arousing and maintaining attention.

Clearly the transition through these three networks can be activated in a number of different ways.


Probably the least helpful way, that causes this activation, is when we are presented with a real genuine threat. While this works fine once and again in long periods of calm, it can cause the person immense stress if it happens repeatedly. And stress as Medina points out makes learning impossible. Despite this threat and re-threat, was often used in schools in my day to keep students attending to lessons.

Force of will.

Another way of activating these networks is by force of will. Even if we are a little interested on some level, this effort of mind only works or short periods of time, about ten minutes according to most neurological investigation. Again despite this known information existing in neuroscience and social psychology, students are often expected to endure long periods of time trying to attend to presentations that are, well boring.


We have known for a long time that attention is inextricably linked to interest or importance. The brain is constantly scanning the sensory environment for indications of change, importance and interest. If we are highly interested already maintaining attention will be easy and not at all stressful. If we are not interested, then it is up to the teacher, parent etc. to engage and hold our attention.


What people understand and remember is what is meaningful to them and is in turn what they automatically pay attention to. In his book "Brain Rules" John Medina has this to say about meaningfulness:

"Studies show that emotional arousal focuses attention on the "gist" of an experience at the expense of the details. Many researchers think that's how memory normally works - by recording the gist of what we encounter, not by recording the literal record of the experience. With the passage of time, our retrieval of gist always trumps our recall of details. This means our heads tend to be filled with generalized pictures of concepts or events not with slowly fading minutiae."

It is likely that Medina is right. But this needs to be examined further. Medina goes on to point out, that if we wish to remember details we can do so by associating them with some central core or gist. We remember and understand details in relation to any links or associations with them existing in our brains, but the most essential link is the connection these details have with this gist, their association with the core concept. However, if this is true, it seems that it may not be possible to understand a gist or core concept until we have been exposed to a number of details in the form of, say, concrete examples. We may have to develop a gist by being exposed to details. When we finally do understand this gist the details could lose importance, but may still be necessary in making the gist meaningful. In other words meaningfulness may be found in the details and imposed on the gist by those details. The gist then in turn may imposed on the details as a way of organizing them, and thus making them meaningful. If this is the case, there would be no advantage in presenting the gist first, other than having it prepared ready to slip into place as understanding gradually dawns. Exposing people to the gist alone may seem to be meaningful, and it is if you are already an expert, but it may be meaningless to a starting student. Even if it is succinct and memorable it may not be understandable by itself.

Made to Stick.

So what can be done to arouse interest and create meaningfulness? Well, there has actually been some research done on what make messages memorable, interesting, meaningful or in other words sticky. Two authors named Chip and Dan Heath have collected this information in their book called "Made to Stick". In this book they have sorted this information into a cohesive account of the ways images, words, messages, ideas, can and have been made sticky. The information below comes mostly from their book. Chip and Dan tell us there are six principles to keep in mind in making ideas sticky.

  1. Simplicity.

  2. Simplicity is intrinsically interesting. Keep it simple stupid!

  3. Unexpectedness.

  4. Unexpectedness is intrinsically interesting. Give it a twist!

  5. Concreteness.

    Concreteness is intrinsically interesting. Bring it down to earth!

  6. Credibility.

  7. Credibility is intrinsically interesting. Make them believe it!

  8. Emotionality.

  9. Emotionality is intrinsically interesting. Give them a stake in it!

  10. Stories.

  11. Stories are intrinsically interesting. Take them on a journey of discovery!

  1. Simplicity.

  2. Simplicity is interesting and understandable. It is much more likely to touch on some meaningful area within each person than something complex. The moment ideas get too complicated people begin to find difficulty in remembering them and connecting with them. This in turn is because it becomes less interesting. Complicated is for later when we already know a lot about a subject or idea. If we want people to become interested, if we want ideas to catch fire in the minds of others we should first of all strip away all that is unnecessary till we find the core.

    In the U.S. military a new way of issuing orders has come into being. Orders are now issued prefaced with a short statement called commander's intent. This has come about because the military has realized that no set of orders will survive contact with the enemy. Thus it is stressed that each commander must strip his set of orders down to a core idea of what he is trying to accomplish so that those who are carrying out the orders will know how to deviate from the plan when something goes wrong.

    In newspaper articles reporters are trained to give information in the reverse order that you would in a story. The lead in a newspaper article is the most important bit of the article, its core. It must go at the front of the article in case a person is unwilling or unable or has insufficient time to read all the way to the end. Indeed the heading must also be a stripped down core version of the lead.

    So with military orders and the news the core comes first. With most ideas and things we wish to interest people in, the core may be enough and that added information will simply make the idea less clear, less interesting, less memorable and less meaningful.

    How to share the core. Similes and metaphors are good ways of taking things people are familiar with and using them to illustrate a simple idea, making it meaningful in an analogy. A simile says that A is like B but a metaphor is stronger it says that A is B. John is a rock tells us a lot about John with some force. John is like a rock conveys the same information but in a weaker manner.

    Proverbs exist in every culture. They are the ultimate in a simple idea that connects (is meaningful) for everybody. If you can come up with the equivalent of a proverb you can make a simple idea stick. Proverbs are about simple everyday things that everybody understands, but they contain profound wisdom from man's collective experience. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

    Schemas are yet another way we can take something that everybody knows well and use it to make meaningful what we want people to be interested in. Here you say it is like this but a bit different. A Hollywood pitch man can say that "Speed" is "Die Hard" on a bus or "Alien" is "Jaws" in outer space.

    Remember Occam's razor; given a number of alternatives the simplest alternative will be correct.

  3. Unexpectedness.

  4. If something happens that is not expected it is novel and therefore interesting. It is also meaningful because it refutes something that we thought we new. One of the things that makes things stand out against a background is the fact that they violate our expectations or anticipations. When this happens we are surprised, our brow goes up so we can take more information in through our eyes. All our senses are temporarily heightened.

    Unexpectedness gets people's attention by causing the seemingly infallible guessing machine we call a brain to fail. A teacher of journalism got Nora Ephron's attention in this way when she was at school. Here is the story as it appeared in "Made to Stick":

    "As students sat in front of their manual typewriters, Ephron's teacher announced the first assignment. They would write the lead of a newspaper story. The teacher reeled off the facts. 'Kenneth L. Peters, the principle of Beverly Hills High School announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchens, and California governor Edmond 'Pat" Brown.'"

    Each of the students wrote a lead which was a reordering and condensation of the above facts. The teacher scanned them rapidly and paused for a moment and finally said:

    "The lead to the story is 'There will be no school next Thursday.' 'It was a breathtaking moment,' Ephron recalls. 'In that instant I realized that Journalism was not was not just about regurgitating the facts but about figuring out the point. It wasn't enough to know the who, what, when, and where; you had to understand what it meant. And why it mattered.'"

    The teacher had caused all the students to commit their false idea of what a lead was to paper and then completely surprised them and violated their maps of reality by showing them what a real lead was.

    This shock value of surprise does not last long and if we wish to maintain attention over a large amount of time we need a mystery. In "Made to Stick" a social psychologist called Robert Cialdini is credited with making the discovery of how to keep students attention over a long period. He set out to improve the way he talked about science in his writing and in his classes as follows:

    "For inspiration he went to the library. He pulled down every book he could find in which scientists were writing for an audience of non scientists. He photocopied sections of prose that he liked. Later, flipping through his stack of copied passages he hunted for consistencies.

    In passages that weren't interesting, he found mostly what he expected. The purpose wasn't clear, and the prose was too formal and riddled with jargon. He also found a lot of predictable virtues in the good passages. The structure was clear, the examples were vivid, and the language was fluid. 'But,' says Caildini, 'I also found something I had not expected - the most successful of these pieces all began with a mystery story. The authors described a state of affairs that seemed to make no sense and then invited the reader into the material as a way of solving the mystery.'

    One example that stuck in his mind was written by an an astronomer, who began with a puzzle:

    How can we account for what is perhaps the most spectacular planetary feature in our solar system, the rings of Saturn? There is nothing else like them. What are the rings of Saturn made of anyway? And then he deepened the mystery further by asking, 'How could three internationally acclaimed groups of scientists come to wholly different conclusions on the answer?' One at Cambridge University, proclaimed they were gas; another group at MIT, was convinced they were made up of dust particles; while a third, at Cal Tech, insisted they were comprised of ice crystals. How could this be, after all each group was looking at the same thing, right? So what was the answer?

    The answer unfolded like the plot of a mystery. The teams of of scientists pursued promising leads, they hit dead ends, they chased clues. Eventually, after many months of effort, there was a breakthrough. Caildini says, 'Do you know what the answer was at the end of twenty pages? Dust. Dust. Actually, Ice covered dust, which accounted for some of the confusion. Now I don't care about dust, and the makeup of the rings of Saturn is entirely irrelevant to my life. But the writer had me turning pages like a speed reader.'

    'Mysteries are powerful,' Cialdini says, 'because they create a need for closure.' 'You've heard of the famous Aha! experience right?' he says. 'Well the Aha! experience is much more satisfying when it is preceded by the Huh? experience.'"

    Notice how well this idea of making learning stick is followed in John Holt's story in the section on answers.

  5. Concreteness

  6. Concreteness is all about meaningfulness. It is all about reaching into the minds of others and finding loops within their minds that we can hook knowledge into. Concreteness is about giving examples, but not just any old examples. It is about giving examples that the learner is already very familiar with, placing it in the world of the learner's experience. The problem in learning is a matter of, always finding areas the abstract concept can be applied to something real and familiar to all those trying to learn it. Even though we are very aware of the need for this concreteness in western schools we tend to just trot out the abstract concept without making any effort to connect it to the real world. Everything can with a little thought be converted into an example that anyone could understand. In their book "Made to Stick" Chip and Dan Heath provide the following examples of using concreteness in mathematics.

    "How had 100 yen but then you bought a notebook for 70 yen. How much do you still have? ...Originally there are three kids playing ball. Two more came later, and then one more joined them. How many are playing now?"

    In each case an abstract mathematical concept is made meaningful by emphasizing things that are concrete and familiar.

    Parables and fables are perhaps one of the best ways of making ideas concrete and familiar. Aesop in ancient Greece was probably born a slave but he wrote some of the most profound stories about human psychology ever written. They are profound because everybody who reads them understands them. Here are a few of the stories. "The Tortoise and the Hare", "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing", "The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs" and "The Fox and the Grapes". These stories have crept into many many cultures and are timeless in their message. Though the title of "The Fox and the Grapes" may be the least familiar, the story is immediately recognized and is encapsulated in the phrase 'sour grapes'.

    All this said concreteness is perhaps best served by actual experience. In their book "Made to Stick" Chip and Dan Heath tell the remarkable story of elementary teacher Jane Elliott in Iowa. In the wake of the shooting of Martin Luther King, Elliott wanted to make racial prejudice tangible to her students. The story continues as follows:

    "At the start of class, she divided the students into two groups : Brown-eyed kids and blue-eyed kids. She then made a shocking announcement: brown-eyed kids were superior to blue-eyed kids - 'They're the the better people in this room. The groups were separated: Blue-eyed kids were forced to sit at the back of the classroom. Brown-eyed kids were told they were smarter. They were given extra time at recess. The blue-eyed kids had to wear special collars, so that everyone would know their eye color from a distance. The two groups were not allowed to mix at recess."

    Elliott was horrified at how quickly the brown-eyed students became nasty bigots. Friendships seemed to dissolved instantly as brown-eyed kids taunted their former blue-eyed friends. Next day she changed things:

    "At the start of class the following day, Elliott walked in and announced that she had been wrong. It was actually the brown-eyed children who were inferior. This reversal of fortune was embraced instantly. A shout of glee went up from the blue-eyed kids as they ran to place their collars on their lesser brown-eyed counterparts."

    Elliott's simulation of racial prejudice had made prejudice brutally concrete. Studies conducted ten and twenty years later showed that Elliott's students were still considerably less prejudiced than their peers. A reunion of Elliott's students was broadcast on the program 'Frontline' fifteen years later and revealed how deeply they had been moved. Ray Hansen (one of the students) said, "It was one of the most profound learnings I've ever had."

    "Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other." Edmund Burke

  7. Credibility

  8. Credibility is meaningful because people will believe it. Credibility is all about credentials, who has them, and how to get them if you do not have them. Certain people in society have credentials because of their expert knowledge. They are or become authorities. We tend to believe doctors about our health, dentists about our teeth, plumbers about our pipes, Stephen Hawking about physics, Alan Greenspan about economics etc.. We also, perhaps unwisely, tend to believe celebrities like movie stars, sporting personalities, or someone like Oprah. In their book "Made to Stick" Chip and Dan Heath point out that other people also have credentials. They relate how an anti smoking campaign in America was extremely effective not by using doctors but by using a smoker Pam Laffin who was dieing of cancer. She certainly had credentials.

    But what do you do when you have to convince people if you don't have credentials? Some researchers in Australia had just such a problem. Robin Warren was a pathologist at a hospital in Perth and his partner Barry Marshall was an intern not even a doctor yet. The problem was that the medical profession expects important discoveries to come from research at major universities, from highly qualified professors and not from people working at a backwater hospital and certainly not from interns. In their book "Made to Stick" Chip and Dan Heath tell their story:

    "In the early 1980s, two medical researchers from Perth, Australia, made an astonishing discovery: Ulcers are caused by bacteria. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, identified a tiny spiral shaped type of bacteria as the culprit. (It would later be named Helicobacter pylori or H. pylori. The significance of this discovery was enormous: If ulcers were caused by bacteria, they could be cured. In fact, they could be cured within a matter of days by a simple treatment with antibiotics."

    Marshall and Warren were just not believed. They could not get a medical journal to accept their research paper and when Marshal presented their findings at a professional conference, the scientist snickered. What could they do? The story continued.

    "By 1984, Marshall's patience had run out. One morning he skipped breakfast and asked his colleagues to meet him in the lab. While they watched in horror, he chugged a glass filled with with about a billion H. pylori. 'It tasted like swamp water,' he said.

    Within a few days, Marshall was experiencing, pain nausea, and vomiting - the classic symptoms of gastritis the early stage of an ulcer. Using an endoscope, his colleagues found that his stomach lining, previously pink and healthy was now red and inflamed. Like a magician, Marshall then cured himself with a course of antibiotics and bismuth (the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol)."

    The tide had turned but Marshall and Warren still had to wait till 1994 before the national institutes of health finally finally endorsed the idea that antibiotics were the preferred treatment for ulcers. In 2005 they received the Nobel Prize in medicine. Trying to compensate for credentials has to be drastic and will still only be partially effective.

    Another kind of credential is to ask people to check. If you believe you have an advantage or you are right you can ask people to check for themselves. In his presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan asked this question: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Wendy's hamburgers noticed they had a bigger beef patty and exploited it in a campaign. They showed a competitor with a nice big bun and lettuce but with a tiny patty in the middle. Their catch cry was "Where's the beef?" They then showed their own hamburger and explained how much more beef there was. The people at Pepsi noticed that in a blind taste test people seemed to always choose Pepsi over Coke. So they created the Pepsi challenge. This seemed an unbeatable credential. So much so that the people at Coca Cola panicked and created New Coke. But the taste test did not show what people like to drink, it showed what people like to taste. A small quantity tasted good but a lot did not taste so good. Coca Cola had to bring back Original Coke.

    Chip and Dan give us one other type of credential which they call passing the Sinatra test. In the musical " New York New York" Sinatra sings about life in New York and the chorus is "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." Basically the idea is that a single example can be so powerful it establishes credentials. For 'Safexpress' it was 'If we can keep the "Harry Potter" movie safe, we can keep anything safe'. In the movie "Amistad" the Africans looked to one man as their leader. He had not been important in his work or in politics but he had killed a lion with a stone, and they believed that a man who could do that, could do anything. If you can do the hard task, the easy tasks are nothing at all. This is a powerful credential.

  9. Emotionality.

  10. Emotionality is meaningful because it makes people care what happens to themselves and others. But how do we make people care? Mother Terasa once said, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." Researchers have now shown that, this is pretty much true of us all. We can care only when it is up close, personal and singular. So how can we bring things and people up close and personal? We have to make them more real. One way is to make a pitch about one central character that people can identify with. Another way is to associate what we want people to care about with something they already care about.

    We can also bring people close up and make them personal through identification. Also it's easier to identify with a single person. Thus you will see that the marketing for charities is usually confined to telling you about the plight of one or maybe two people at most, rather than telling you statistics about the plight of thousands of people. They do this because people can identify, can empathize and sympathize with the plight of a few though their stories.

    In 1980s Dan Syrek was the U.S. leading researcher on litter. Syrek and his team have worked in at least 16 states including New York and Alaska, on anti litter initiatives. Each state was very different in how they could be approached or connected with emotionally. The people who were constructing the programs had the job of making people care about littering and how their state looked when covered with ugly garbage. For some states it was just a matter of appealing to people's aesthetic sense or their sense of pride in how their state looked. The standard message is emotional, but tends to focus on the limited emotions of shame and guilt. There was one spot where a native American sheds a tear over litter. There were appeals to feelings for cuddly wildlife such as a cartoon owl who says "Give a hoot - Don't pollute."

    In the state of Texas however, Syrek knew that such an appeal, would make no impression on the people who were doing the littering. The firm preparing the campaign constructed a profile of who the sort of person that was doing the littering in Texas was, and they named him Bubba. The typical litterer in Texas was an 18 to 35 year old, pickup driving, male who liked sports and country. He didn't like authority and didn't have cuddly emotions. Syrek realized the only way to cause a person like Bubba to care was to convince him that people like him did not litter and it was all the other people who were littering. One of the earliest adds depicted two Texan football stars. The description of the add in "Made to Stick" was as follows:

    "Two-Tall Jones steps toward the camera and says, 'You see that guy who through this out the tell him I got a message for him.'

    Randy White steps forward with a beer can and says, 'I got a message for him too...'

    An off-camera voice asks, 'What's that?'

    White crushes the can with his fist and says threateningly, 'Well I kinda need to see him to deliver it.'

    Too-Tall Jones adds, 'Don't mess with Texas.'"

    Within one year this campaign with similar adds depicting aggressive Texan celebrities had reduced the litter in Texas by 29%. So immediate and effective was the campaign that a planned follow up crack down by law enforcement was abandoned as unnecessary. This is a very high level emotional appeal to pride in one's state.

    Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs provides us with a structure on which to hang people's emotional caring. The closer peoples needs are to the bottom of the hierarchy the more selfish peoples needs are. One may expect that people with a profile like Bubba are going to be very self interested and not do anything without getting something in return. But in all humans there are unselfish values that can be tapped into. In this case the only selfish motives appealed to are those of belonging and self esteem while also appealing to many unselfish values. The Bubbas of the world can be made to see that the defacing of Texas is like defacing the Texas flag, it's like spiting on Texas. This is an appeal to the values of beauty, goodness and pride in his state. It is an appeal to prevent his beloved Texas from being harmed or defiled.

    When tapping into people's emotional caring it is usually better and more effective to tap into the highest needs that it is possible to tap into.

  11. Stories.

  12. Stories are meaningful because they are the original method we used for storing and passing on information to others, building on what people already knew. They provide a ready made structure of inter connectedness that is easy to remember and interesting. Of all forms of communication only music has a structure that is more memorable and thus why a lot of early stories were in musical form and sung by minstrels. We are basically story telling animals.

    Stories are entertainment and while some stories are only entertainment most stories also have some message or idea or lesson they are trying to teach us. Stories are usually broken into categories of the type of plot device used, a tragedy/romance, a romantic comedy or farce, a mystery, an adventure etc. Stories are often broken into categories or genres of the type of content they contain, fictional or non fictional, historical or present day, fantasy or science fiction, humorous or dramatic etc. In "Mad to Stick" Chip and Dan Heath point out that stories can also be classified by the type of message or lesson they are trying to covey or teach.

    (A) Simulation. Stories can try to teach us some specific skill by providing a simulation of how to do it. In good companies there are often stories about how things should be done by company employees. These stories provide a template that teach how the company expects them to do their work. Stories about how people solved specific problems can provide useful template for how to solve similar problems. Stories about how specific types of people were dealt with, provide templates for how to deal with people. Stories about specific situations can provide general templates for dealing with new situations.

    (B) Inspiration. Stories can also provide inspiration to do better, be better and not give up. These inspirational stories can be further broken up into three sub categories.

    (1) Challenging. The challenge or underdog story, the overcoming great odds in order to succeed. It is often a coming of age story or a loser transforms into a winner story. In their book "Made to Stick" Chip and Dan Heath tell an advertising story of a sub sandwich diet and a guy named Jared.

    Jared was a huge guy. He weighed 425 pounds. He was at the point of being ridiculously fat. He had to plan his life around what he could and couldn't do because he was fat. He realized he had to do something but he was addicted to fast food. Then the Subway company came out with a turkey sub that they claimed had very little fat. Jared tried it and liked it and decided to eat it instead of his other fast food to see if it would make a difference. It did, he lost 245 pounds with a diet he invented. Some people at Subway noticed this remarkable event and used it in their advertising to great effect. These stories inspire us to do better, to overcome some handicap or to try to reach our full potential.

    (2) Connecting. The connection or human gap bridging story. This type of story is sending the message that there are good people out there but you cant be sure who they are. They teach that help, encouragement, belief and enthusiasm are all around us if we are just willing to see and accept it. Connection stories are about people and relationships that bridge culture, race, prejudices, and concepts of superiority and inferiority. The most famous and influential of this type of story is the story of the good Samaritan as told by Jesus. This is the most common story type in the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books. These stories make us want to be better people, to be more tolerant of others, to want to help others, to want to work with others instead of against them. The movie "Pay it Forward" is also a good example of this type of connecting story.

    (3) Creative. The creativity or break through story. Newton's apple inspires the theory of gravity. How great scientists made discoveries. How great artists did their great works. The creativity story is about making the scientific or inventive mental break through. It is the MacGyver story. These stories inspire us to do something more with our lives, to make a difference. They inspire us to make some contribution to the welfare of humanity to make the world better or easier or just to contribute to man's knowledge or aesthetic enjoyment.

    All the other above ways of making ideas sticky are about how to tell good stories. Stories are often an illustration of some simple idea or principal. Good stories often have twists or other unexpected elements. They have a thread that creates interest as it moves forward as in a mystery. Stories are usually concrete in that they deal with or are translated into terms that ordinary people can easily understand and find meaningful. Though they are not always credible they can, and perhaps should, be as credible as possible. They are always emotional in that they make us care. They are ideal in allowing identification with a central or peripheral character we empathize with. Notice how Jared's story is simple, unexpected, concrete, credible and emotional. While it may well be that statistics give us better information more quickly than stories, statistics will never set our minds on fire the way stories will.

3  The cues are in the environment. Care and the Power of Context.

Social contagion as presented by Wild and Enzle suggests that the reason we imitate the actions of others is simply because we we are led to believe by certain cues in that behavior that they are enjoying the activity they are performing. As most activities are either learning or include learning this means that learning is best performed in contexts where teachers or facilitators are best able to feel and express the enthusiasm they have about the subject content of what they are teaching.

We are all well aware that some things occur, and some people act very differently, if the context in which those things were happening changes. Gladwell, in his book "The Tipping Point", suggests that this is counter intuitive, but maybe it is more strait forward than we think. Firstly when a message, an idea, is transmitted, it is fairly easy to understand, but if it is competing with other messages, it will not be as effective. In the advertising business all these messages clamoring for attention are called "clutter". This is part of the stickiness problem. The message has to be of a different sort so that context in which it occurs is not full of competing clutter. It must stand out or stand alone.

The point is, the context in which a message occurs also sends a message, and this message may conflict with or interfere with the message we are trying to send. Change the environment, just a little, and the context may change a lot. In his book "The Tipping Point" Gladwell shows how criminal behavior can be linked to environmental cues. He showed how cleaning up graffiti, and clamping down on fare avoidance, cut way down on crime in the New York underground. He showed how the New York crime rate was reduced, not by concentrating on big crimes, but rather concentrating on small ones. This was because the graffiti, the fare avoidance, and the getting away with small crimes, was sending a clear message to the criminally inclined telling them that the system does not care, and it is OK to act in a criminal manner.

The messages sent in schools also have to deal with other conflicting and interfering messages sent by their environmental context. The attitude of teachers the neglect in the schools all lead to a message being sent to the students along the lines, that no body cares, or that nobody believes that education is going to make any difference. One of the problems with any experiment is that it is subject to the hawthorn effect, where any intervention will actually cause an improvement. This is because any intervention is seen by people as a sign that someone cares.

Indeed this argument is often turned against the student directed learning in schools. People say, the only reason schools that implement student directed learning are able to work, is because the teachers and administrators constantly show to the students by their commitment, that they care about the students, and about the the material they are making available to be learned. This kind of argument makes it very difficult to prove that student directed learning works, but the argument does not prove that it does not work. Rather it proves that there is contextual factor to consider. The fact is, that the schools that promote student directed learning indeed eliminate many of the other conflicting and interfering messages being sent to the students.


The teachers, in schools committed to student directed learning, usually do care about their students, they care about what is made available for learning, and they generally believe that what they are doing will make a difference, and thus help students out of their bleak situations. This is probably so important that any school can probably improve student learning by doing up the buildings and by an effort by the teachers to show that they care about the students and what they are teaching. Gladwell is of the opinion that these environmental cues may be critically important, and far easier to fix than people think. You just have to find the small change that will make it tip.

John Medina in his book "Brain Rules" show us a different side of context. Context can also mean peripheral information or background information. While most information unconnected to what we are paying attention to is filtered out by the brain some of it is taken in and connected to the memory probably at an unconscious level. This association to the memory can be quite strong and provides a situational context for the memory. It has been discovered that people put back in the environment in which they learned something, will recall it much better than people in a different environment. However as this does not involve increasing attention, interest or meaningfulness, it is not likely to promote contagion.

Contagion of ideas.

A good idea can be made sticky or seem to provide intrinsic interest. The context in which ideas are transmitted can be optimized so that the ideas seem to be intrinsically interesting. Special people like salesmen, mavens, connectors and those who have and enjoy knowledge are better equipped to produce cues that they are intrinsically motivated. All this builds fast because there are always more people picking up on cues than being observed. But once ideas reach a critical mass or a tipping point they can spread like a plague or an epidemic. With this kind of pressure ideas spread to other ideas, and those to other ideas and so on, until learning or knowledge itself becomes infectious.

Ignition in motivation.

In his book "The Talent Code" Daniel Coyle talks about what he calls the Holy Shit Effect or HSE. This is the sudden realization that somebody you knew and believed to be just an ordinary person like yourself has done something remarkable. Coyle puts it like this: "Its the tingle of surprise you get when the goofy neighbor kid down the street is suddenly lead guitarist for a successful rock band, or when your own child shows an inexplicable knack for differential calculus. It's the feeling of where did that come from?" You tend to be dumbstruck and amazed but the person with the talent is unsurprised and even blaze. But this is because, we as a rule, despite our familiarity with the person, have not observed the person's hard work dedication and their hours and hours of practice.

What Coyle discovered was that sometimes an unexpected success can cause a different effect in those that knew the person, saw the person's hours of practice, and saw their improvement. It's as if people are suddenly shocked into the fantastic realization, "If (s)he can do it, why can't I?" Some incident some primal cue has enabled them to understand that something they always thought was impossible, or only possible for people from some better place, is, and has always been, within their grasp. These incidents can ignite people's determination or resolve to try harder, work longer and become passionate about something so they can become the very best at it. This in turn causes what Coyle calls hotbeds of talent. Coyle gives many examples from sport. Baseball players from an unremarkable little island called Curacao, tennis players from Russia, golfers from South Korea all with one early success followed by a growing group of talent that comes from the same place. Coyle explains it as follows:

[All] "...hotbeds follow the same pattern: a breakthrough success is followed by a massive bloom of talent. Note that in each case the bloom grew relatively slowly at first, requiring five or six years to reach a dozen players. This is not because the inspiration was weaker at the start and got progressively stronger, but for a more fundamental reason: deep practice takes time (ten thousand hours as the refrain goes).

The snowball effect.

As more people from the same place appear to also have become eminent in the sport, the art, the area of knowledge, other people from that place are also inspired to try harder. Also as they see those around them constantly improving, that also inspires them to work longer and try harder. Once ignited this commitment to being the best can grow exponentially like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Life long learning.

The infection of ideas and knowledge, unlike the illnesses that infect our bodies, can be an incredible force for good in the world. It can provide the youth of the world with a thirst for knowledge that is unquenchable. If this thirst for knowledge is not derailed it will grow with people all through their lives and will make them life long learners.

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