What Will You Switch?
The conventional wisdom about change is bleak: it's hard, futile, and must negotiate resistance. And yet, as photos of weddings and newborn babies flashed on the big screens, Stanford psychology professor and author Chip Heath noted that we embrace some of the biggest changes in our lives with smiling faces and our whole selves. The constantly evolving world around us debunks the notion that change is impossible; still, change is not always easy.
How can we use principles from the changes we embrace to make the hard changes a bit easier? That's the topic of Heath's latest book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, and was the focus of his opening general session keynote at ASCD's 2011 Annual Conference.
Heath advised approaching difficult changes by understanding and aligning the three main factors influencing our responses to change:
- The emotional side of our brain, or the elephant
- The analytical side of our brain, or the rider
- The context in which change is happening, or the path
We're not really resistant to change, but we are kind of schizophrenic about change. We want the beach body, but we want the Oreo cookie, too, quipped Heath. These competing goals are illustrative of the analytical side of our brain (the rider), and the emotional side of our brain (the elephant). The small human rider is the planner who sets the alarm clock for 5:30 a.m.; the elephant is the hand that hits snooze.
Likewise, in our school environments, a part of us wants to make change, but another part of us is in love with the comfort and confidence of the status quo. Unless we can align the goals of the elephant and the rider, the journey will be a short one indeed, Heath concluded.
Heath clarified that the elephant is not always the bad guy to the rider's good guy. The elephant is a source of innovation, passion, and drive—the voice that says, "Wouldn't it be cool to . . . ?" The rider can be a wheel-spinner, the over-thinker paralyzed by analysis.
For change to happen, Heath said, we must align the work of the rider and the elephant and shape the path to make it easier to travel. Three questions guide this work.
#1: Are you ruled by your rider?
The rider loves problems, and in change situations, there are often plenty of problems to obsess over and stall your progress. How can we harness the analytical strengths of the rider, while avoiding getting bogged down with obstacles? Find the bright spots, advises Heath. Take the tremendous analytic capacity of the rider and apply it to what's succeeding now. In a sea of problems, focus on the bright spots and how you can bring them to scale. Ask your rider, What if we could get there?
#2: Have you motivated the elephant?
Wooing the elephant carries a six-ton emotional advantage, yet so often school seems solely geared to winning over the rider, or appealing to the analytical. Consider how goals are articulated to students—what's the emotional appeal of proficiency or mastery of a set of arcane standards ? What if schools instead provided both a destination for the rider and motivation for the elephant?
As an example, Heath submitted a teacher in Atlanta who told her 1st grade students, “Stick with me, and you're going to be 3rd graders by the end of the year.” She tapped into her students' need to be successful in school and instilled the growth-oriented mindset that would get them there. Motivating the elephant is all about finding the identities and goals students care about and using that to get kids to stick with hard work.
#3: Have you tweaked the environment?
Too often, when we think of what we want to change, we focus on people, not the situation, said Heath. Changing people is hard, often impossible, but changing the environment is an easy way to influence and change people's behavior.
Heath illustrated his point by mentioning Amazon.com's very successful one-click buying option. Streamlining online purchases is an obvious win-win, yet Internet shopping existed for years before Amazon pioneered this approach.
"Have you one-clicked the processes in your school or classroom?" Heath asked. What fundamental school routines could be streamlined? For example, math classes with established "Do Now" routines (students come to class and immediately work for 3–5 minutes on a problem on the board) save 4 minutes of class time a day, which adds up to about two-and-a-half extra weeks per year.
Additionally, shaping the environment can mean eliminating tracking, reorganizing school schedules, or configuring smaller learning communities within the school.
Direct the rider, motivate the elephant, tweak the path . . . these are the fundamental principles underlying change. "Now that those principles are yours," Heath addressed the thousands of educators in attendance, "the only remaining question is, what will you switch?"