When I think of the most memorable lessons I’ve taught, mock trials, escape rooms, and other learning experiences come to mind. As I’ve mentioned in many other blog posts, an experience is the difference between a good lesson and a great one. My goal is always to create engaging experiences for my students, but let’s face it: Some lessons are more memorable than others. Not everything can be turned into a game, simulation, experience, or experiment (and not everything should). And even if we could, we simply wouldn’t have the time.
Creating memorable learning experiences takes time, and when I have that time, I’m often happy to invest a little extra in my students. But what about when I don’t have the time? What about the everyday lessons, the ones in between the room transformations and the mock trials? How can I make those lessons more memorable? How can I make the skills “stick” in students’ minds so they can transfer their learning to other settings?
In search of these answers, I picked up the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, written by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. This isn’t your typical teacher PD book, but that’s precisely why I read it. I enjoy learning from other lenses and then applying what I can to my teaching practices. And then, I treasure sharing what I learned with all of you.
5 Teacher Takeaways After Reading Made to Stick
Here are 5 teacher takeaways that you can apply to your lessons TOMORROW:
1. STICK WITH SIMPLICITY.
In Made to Stick, the authors remind us that sticky ideas are simple ideas. To make this simple advice stickier, Chip and Dan recommend “finding the core of the idea” and “forced prioritization,” or the process of choosing the most important thing to communicate (Heath 35, 40).
What do you want your audience to walk away remembering? Answer that question, and then make sure your message is simple, compact, and meaningful, according to the Heath brothers. In the chapter on simplicity, Chip and Dan highlight the power of proverbs and keeping ideas “simple yet profound” (Heath 56). They also discuss the importance of tapping into one’s schema and teaching the complex through the familiar.
This advice is nothing new for teachers, but it’s easier said than done. Why? Someone who knows a lot, like a teacher who has read and analyzed The Great Gatsby 13 times, appreciates all of the information. The more you know, the harder it becomes to keep things simple and cut away the fat. It’s all important, right? Well, sure it is, but some things are more important than others.
HOW TO STICK WITH SIMPLICITY:
Next time you sit down to plan, stick with simplicity. This advice applies to individual lessons, but it also translates to learning goals, classroom expectations, and more. Here are a few tips:
- Lesson Planning: Every lesson is different, and many lessons will require students to practice multiple skills, but try approaching each day with one simple question. If my students learn nothing else from class today, what is the one thing I want them to walk away knowing? This will challenge you to think simply, get to the heart of the lesson, and prioritize what matters.
- Learning Goals: Make sure your learning targets are simple, compact, and clear. In other words, they should be student-friendly. If a student can’t answer the question, “What skill are we working on in class today?” then your goals probably aren’t simple enough. When you’re lesson planning, try chiseling down your learning goals into simple, compact objectives.
- Classroom Expectations: Summarize your classroom expectations in a sticky, memorable motto. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan highlight the universal power of proverbs, such as the golden rule. They remind us that these sayings are “helpful in guiding individual decisions in environments with shared standards” (Heath 57). So it only makes sense that short-and-sweet classroom expectations would be more memorable and more likely to guide students’ actions in the moment.
2. UTILIZE SURPRISE.
If simplicity isn’t enough, surprise is sure to make your ideas (and lessons) more memorable. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan explain the effect of the unexpected: “Unexpected ideas are more likely to stick because surprise makes us pay attention and think. That extra attention and thinking sears unexpected events into our memories” (Heath 80). It’s why we love plot twists, true crime, and unexpected pockets in dresses. (Cue the “Thanks, it has pockets!” response to that outfit compliment).
In this section, the Heath brothers share the story of a professor who structured all of his lectures around various scientific mysteries, waiting until the end of class to reveal the answers (Heath 94). It’s probably no surprise that this simple technique transformed engagement for the better.
Even if you don’t teach science, you can use mystery, surprise, and suspense to your advantage. This can be as simple as sharing a surprising piece of information, posing a controversial question, or conducting a class poll. Or it can be as elaborate as a room transformation, an exciting escape room, or a mock trial.
One way I incorporate regular doses of the unexpected is through surprising students with different books every week through Book Trailer Tuesday and First Chapter Friday. These mini-bursts of surprise and suspense keep students engaged and help them remember good books that are just waiting to be read! Click HERE to learn more about Book Trailer Tuesday and head HERE for more info on First Chapter Friday.
3. MAKE IT A METAPHOR.
Surprise and simplicity are great, but another hack to stickier ideas and lessons is a good, old-fashioned metaphor. I’ve always considered this strategy a shortcut to creativity, so I was glad to learn that it makes ideas more memorable, too. In the book, Chip and Dan illustrate how sticky ideas are often as simple as powerful metaphors and analogies. Why? Because of their power to make abstract ideas more familiar.
In Chapter 1, Chip and Dan highlight “generative analogies,” or metaphors that create “new perceptions, explanations, and inventions,” according to psychologist Donald Schon (quoted in Heath 71). These analogies can further students’ thinking and help them commit content to memory.
Next time you’re stumped, stop staring at the standards and start thinking about symbols! How can you represent your content with something more familiar to your students? Make it a metaphor, and then return to the standards to tie it all together.
To learn more about how to plan unique lessons featuring metaphors and other creative hacks, check out this blog post. For a few examples of this exercise in creative, sticky ideas, head to this blog post and scroll to #14.
4. KEEP IT CONCRETE.
Throughout the book, Chip and Dan highlight what they call “the curse of knowledge,” a curse that probably afflicts most teachers. Like I mentioned earlier, this is the “curse” that makes it so challenging to teach beloved texts I’ve read multiple times. In addition to making it difficult to communicate simply, too much knowledge can keep us in the abstract. But what people need to understand and remember is the concrete. Keeping things concrete is essential, especially for the students in our classrooms: “Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts” (Heath 121).
But how do you stay away from the abstract and keep things concrete? According to Chip and Dan, concrete language is all about “specific people doing specific things” (Heath 120). Of course, that’s easier said than done. One rule of thumb is that if you can see it, sketch it, or successfully search for it on Google Images, then it’s probably concrete. What it’s not: a definition, a vague fact or phrase, or a standard. A lot of what you’re teaching is likely abstract, complicated stuff, so it’s important to make your content concrete.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR CONTENT CONCRETE:
- Use concrete language to explain concepts. When you’re teaching a new skill, think of a metaphor or example to represent it. Make processes concrete with simple steps, images, and examples.
- Use case studies and examples to illustrate problems. Not only will students be able to remember these better, but they’ll be more likely to care once they understand your class content matters to real people!
- Use simulations and experiments to make issues, theories, and events concrete. Becoming an active participant in a simulation or experiment will make any lesson “stickier.”
- Use images, manipulatives, and tangible artifacts to bring content to life. Students will remember what they can see and touch!
- Use examples that relate to your students’ lives, identities, and interests. A few examples will go a long way in making learning more memorable.
5. SHOW WITH STORIES.
How many times have my fellow English teachers told students to “Show, not tell” in their writing? This simple strategy can be challenging for students, and it may be overlooked by teachers, too. If you’ve ever led a read-aloud or shared a story with students, then you know just how powerful storytelling can be in a classroom. But when you’re planning lessons that don’t naturally include stories, it can be easy to stick to the standards and forget the stories. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan confirm what we already know and encourage the use of stories as “teaching tools” that can both stimulate knowledge and inspire action (Heath 237). And isn’t that everything we want as teachers?
The next time you teach new content, skills, or concepts, try recalling or searching for a story that illustrates the importance of your lesson. This could be an anecdote from your own life, an article from the news, or even a fictional the but plausible story.
Here are a few concrete examples to get you thinking:
- Teaching how the setting impacts the story? I might share my story of camping in a desert sandstorm in Death Valley. I could show students how the setting contributed to conflict (sand in every crack and crevice of my body) and how it taught me a theme (maybe be more prepared next time).
- Teaching students about fake news? Give them a fake story, teach it like it’s real, and watch their shock when you reveal the truth! I like to do this exact lesson in journalism, with the scandalously fabricated “Hack Heaven” article written by Stephen Glass.
- Teaching students how to avoid plagiarism? Luckily, there’s no shortage of celebrities and politicians committing plagiarism. Telling a story about how these plagiarizers were internet shamed and made into memes is sure to have more of an effect than any “You’ll fail the assignment” warning!
BONUS TIP: TEACH WITH TEMPLATES.
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan highlight an experiment that asked groups of people to create advertisements. One group was given instruction in creativity, one group was given a set of creative templates, and another group was given no instruction or templates. The experiment found that the groups who used the templates created better, more creative ads. As the authors point out, these findings are encouraging, because they show the potential for “systematic creativity” (Heath 21). To further demonstrate the power of templates and creative hacks, Chip and Dan outline “story templates,” or universally engaging plots (Heath 259).
While these examples are not about lesson planning, one thing sticks out: templates work! When it comes to teaching, templates can save time and free up creative energy. In other words, templates are creativity hacks. Once you find an engaging, creative lesson that you and your students love, try creating a template that mimics its structure.
For example, I’ve created templates for my following favorite lessons:
- Speed Dating Discussions: My original “speed debating” lesson was such a hit among my students, that I created a speed dating discussion template! I then went on to facilitate literary analysis speed dating for novels, a writing peer feedback speed dating activity, as well as back-to-school/get-to-know-you speed dating. For more information on speed dating, check out this blog post.
- Question Trails: A question trail is an engaging activity that gets students up and moving around the room on a “trail” of questions. And thankfully, a question trail is a lesson template that works for nearly any content. I’ve created question trails for everything from vocabulary in context to rhetorical devices in popular songs. And whenever I want to create a new one, I can copy and paste into this template to do it in a flash! To learn more about question trails and other engaging strategies, head to this blog post.
- Virtual Learning Stations: Learning stations are my go-to lesson template for making anything more engaging, and virtual stations are no exception! To make things easier, I have a stash of 8 different templates so I can just copy and paste my content and plan a creative, memorable lesson in minutes. For interactive virtual stations with clickable buttons, check out these templates, and for more information on digital stations, check out this blog post.
- Virtual Gallery Walks: Similar to learning stations, gallery walks are an engaging way to structure student-centered, “sticky” learning. For digital Google Slides resources, check out these visually appealing templates, and for ideas on how to facilitate virtual gallery walks in your classroom, head to this blog post.
I hope these ideas help you create stickier lessons! If you liked this post, be sure to check out the following: