cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Thoughts On Making Math Tasks "Stickier"

Last year, the book that changed my teaching practice the most was definitely Dan Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It helped me to think through how I wanted to structure classroom tasks in order to maximize intrinsic motivation and engagement.

This year, the book that is influencing my teaching practice the most would have to be Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. I bought it to read on my Kindle, and I kind of regret that now because it is one of those books (like Drive) that really needs to be waved around at meaningful PD events.

The Heath brothers' thesis is basically that any idea, task, or activity can be made "stickier" by applying six basic principles of stickiness. Their big six are:

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Story
The writer in me is bothered by the failure of parallel structure in the last item on this list (Seriously? SERIOUSLY? Would it have killed you to have used a sixth adjective rather than five adjectives and one noun? OTOH, that does make the list a little stickier for me, because my visceral quality of my reaction only adds to the concreteness of my experience, so there is that). But that is a small price to pay for a very useful and compact rubric. It also fits in with nicely with a lot of the brain-based learning ideas that @mgolding and @jreulbach first turned me on to.

This framework can also help us to understand — and hopefully to improve —a lot of so-so ideas that start with a seed of stickiness but haven't yet achieved their optimal sticky potential.

I wanted to write out some of what I mean here.

For example, I have often waxed poetic about Dan Meyer's Graphing Stories, which are a little jewel of stickiness when introducing the practice of graphing situations, yet I find a lot of the other Three-Act Tasks to be curiously flat for me and non-engaging. Some of this has to do with the fact that I am not a particularly visual learner, but I also think there is some value in analyzing my own experience as a formerly discouraged math learner. I have learned that if I can't get myself to be curious and engaged about something, I can't really manage to engage anybody else either.

Made To Stick has given me a vocabulary for analyzing some of what goes wrong for me and what goes right with certain math tasks. The six principles framework are very valuable for me in this regard, both descriptively and prescriptively. For example, Dan's original Graphing Stories lesson meets all of the Heath brothers' criteria. It is simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and narrative. The lesson anchors the learning in students' own experience, then opens an unexpected "curiosity gap" in students' knowledge by pointing out some specific bits of knowledge they do not have but could actually reach for if they were simply to reach for it a little bit.

But I would argue that the place where this lesson succeeds most strongly is in its concreteness, which is implemented through Dan's cleverly designed and integrated handout. At first glance, this looks like just another boring student worksheet. But actually, through its clever design and tie-in to the videos, it becomes a concrete, tangible tool that students use to expose and investigate their own curiosity gaps for themselves.

Students discover their own knowledge gap through two distinct, but related physical, sensory moments: the first, when they anchor their own experiences of walking in the forest, crossing over a bridge, and peering out over the railing as they pass over (sorry, bad Passover pun), and the second, when they glance down at the physical worksheet and pencil in their own hands and are asked to connect what they saw with what they must now do.

This connection in the present moment to the students' own physical, tangible experience must not be underestimated.

Watching the video — even watching a worldclass piece of cinematography — is a relatively passive sensory experience for most of us.

But opening a gap between what I see as a viewer and what I hold in my hands — or what I taste (Double-Stuf Oreos!), smell, feel, or hear — and I'm yours forever.

"My work here is done."
This way of thinking has given me a much deeper understanding of why my lessons that integrate two or three sensory modalities always seem to be stickier than my lessons that rely on just one modality. Even when the manipulatives I introduce might seem contrived or artificial, there is value in introducing a second or third sensory dimension to my tasks. In so doing, they both (a) add another access point for students I have not yet reached and (b) expose the gap in students' knowledge by bringing in their present-moment sensory experiences. And these two dimensions can make an enormous different in students' emotional engagement in a math task.


  1. You're bothered by the noun? I'm bothered by the fact that the mnemonic reads 'SUCCES'... okay, ONE S SHORT there! (Maybe a key for something being memorable is to have it scan not-quite-right for everybody.)

    Regarding the rest of it though, I do like the idea that things like manipulatives do have some value in this context. Sometimes I've wondered if it's worth it, because I rarely see returns, and it's often not easy for me to incorporate in the first place (I am more of a visual person). Thanks for the reminder, and the suggestion.

  2. Hey, what can I say? I was raised on Cicero. I'm a stickler for parallel structure.

    I've been amazed at the ROI on manipulatives in terms of student engagement. I am so *not* a visual person that it was a revelation to me to discover that my own way of understanding was not "wrong" just because it was not visual. I wonder how many of our students have that same experience as well.

    Thanks for responding.

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  3. Elizabeth, your post really hit the spot tonight - inspiring! I've studied brain research in education a little bit and so I've been exposed to these ideas. But I love the list of six ... love the idea of using the list as a rubric of sorts as I plan the next unit. Lesson planning has been flat lately, mechanical, routine.

    I've been slack in my reading. I read Pink's book on the significance of creativity (A Whole New Mind) and I've heard lectures on his work on motivation - but haven't read Drive. So I'm putting Drive and Made to Stick on my reading list ... will choose hard copies since I may need to mark them up!

    Thank you for your post!

    1. Beth - This is great to hear! Thanks for replying, and I'll look forward to hearing how this has affected (or IN-fected) your planning process. ;)

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)