of Learning is Contagious.
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
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.
"A teacher who is attempting to teach
without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on a
cold iron." Horace Mann
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
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
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
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.
in the motivation of teachers.
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
only thing motivating teachers to pass on information was the pay
packet that they get each month. This site holds that sometimes
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
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
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
informs us that there are
six categories of
reasons or principles why people
pass on information:
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.
currency. We pass on information that makes us look good.
Certain types of emotions make it more likely we will pass information
observability. Information must be public, visible or
audible enough to reach us before we can become motivated to pass it on.
value. If we think information will have practical value
for someone we will normally pass the information on to them.
Humans are story tellers. We will pass on what we think is a good story.
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.
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
A quick look at these trigger points will quickly covey which ones need
to be eliminated and which ones should be increased.
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.
desire to be liked, thought well of, thought helpful and thought clever
all motivate us to pass information on.
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
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
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
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
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
are employed to pass on to students, is almost never useful, and this
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
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,
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
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
of stress which tends to preclude the possibility of learning. Anger
been known to work well for both students and teachers, however, as is
exemplified by teacher and student activists.
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
that have made an effort to inject awe, excitement and humor into
curriculums have indeed proved very effective.
Berger also discovered that even without any emotion, any activity that
increased physical arousal, such as exercise, would increase the
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.
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.
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
motivating both students and teachers.
There are many reasons why we might copy or
imitate others. and all of them have a function in the passing on of
proof. We pass information on if we are aware that others
are passing the information on. This kind of copying seems to
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.
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.
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
information, but social proof and social contagion are clearly better
ways of doing it. Usually however conformity has had the opposite
on teachers in that it can become unacceptable to enjoy or or be
intrinsically motivated to pass on information. When this happens it
the possibility of social contagion being used to propel transmission
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.
value or usefulness, although mentioned as part of social
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
that the information be passed on.
currency. Stories tend to be entertaining and so give us
social currency by making us look good when we pass them on.
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
Good stories are public entities eeasily come by and always creating
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.
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
in the motivation of learners.
modern society learning is modeled on the factory process of producing
a product. Often learning is seen as stuffing information into
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
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
or triggering intellectual contagion as desirability.
knowledge when we understand
it and understanding it seems very important in how it becomes
contagiously desirable, but not essential. Part of why information
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
being an intellectually infected person is also desirable and the
people who have
infected that person are also desirable. Unfortunately, when it comes
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
infecters the infectable and social
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.
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.
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.
pleasure and cognitive dissonance.
Also cognitive dissonance
will act to keep people performing those actions even if they are not
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.
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.
in turn motivates them to imitate the actions of that person.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
"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
follows then that being able to perceive that a person is intrinsically
motivated need not be conscious, but rather perceived almost directly
contagious feeling of enjoyment that we feel impelled to imitate.
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
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
such as satisfaction, joy, pleasure, happiness etc. These emotions and
what we associate them with are what enables academic or prolonged
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
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
Obviously there are a number of factors at work
with this side of social contagion.
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
such things as viral videos, and increasing interest. People become
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
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
Secondly there is the possibility of conformity.
understood to be a social pressure to act
based on how we think people will act toward us if we do not imitate
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.
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
Tipping Point of contagion.
"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:
The cues are in people and a few of them
are exceptionally gifted at infecting.
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
The cues are in the information itself.
The message is sticky.
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
how to make it so.
The cues are in the environment. The
power of context.
This is about the environment or context in which
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
intrinsically interesting or pleasurable to learn.
us look at Gladwell's factors in more detail.
cues are in people. A few of them
are exceptionally gifted at infecting.
Gladwell calls the effect of those who
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.
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:
can make almost
anything seem intrinsically
interesting because those are the cues they give off.
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.
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.
us look at these more
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
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.
is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression
and knowledge." Albert Einstein
each of us.
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.
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?
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
maven in the
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
or you can invite them into the schools to share their knowledge with
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.
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
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.
knowing too much.
Dan and Chip warn us however that ordinary people
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
each of us.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
"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:
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:
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.
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
brain does not
attention to boring things.
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
used in schools in my day to keep students attending to lessons.
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
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."
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
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.
Simplicity is intrinsically interesting. Keep it simple
Unexpectedness is intrinsically interesting. Give it a twist!
is intrinsically interesting. Bring it down to
Credibility is intrinsically interesting. Make
them believe it!
Emotionality is intrinsically interesting. Give
them a stake in it!
Stories are intrinsically interesting. Take them on a journey
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
given a number of
alternatives the simplest alternative will be correct.
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
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":
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
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:
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
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.
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:
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.
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.'
stuck in his mind was
written by an an astronomer, who began with a puzzle:
can we account
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?
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
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.'"
how well this idea of
making learning stick
is followed in John Holt's story
in the section on answers.
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.
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?"
each case an abstract
mathematical concept is
made meaningful by emphasizing things that are concrete and familiar.
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'.
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
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."
was horrified at how
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:
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
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."
school of mankind, and
they will learn at no other." Edmund Burke
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
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:
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."
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.
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
a few days,
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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:
steps toward the camera
and says, 'You see that guy who through this out the window...you tell
him I got a message for him.'
forward with a beer can
and says, 'I got a message for him too...'
asks, 'What's that?'
can with his fist and
says threateningly, 'Well I kinda need to see him to deliver it.'
adds, 'Don't mess with
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
also provide inspiration to do better, be better and not give up. These
inspirational stories can be further broken up into three sub
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
"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.
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:
"...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).
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.
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