Thursday, January 11, 2007

those who can...

y'know, some people just ARE NOT teachers. and some people are. and some people can manage it but they're not great at it. i think i had a fair number of the latter two as i was going through my primary and secondary education. it wasn't until i got into college that i met people who were totally brilliant within their fields but were utterly incapable of conveying their knowledge to (let alone sharing their brilliant insight with) anyone who didn't already have it.

i was listening to a talk radio program yesterday on my local NPR affiliate yesterday called Think and the host was interviewing the authors of Made to Stick. they were talking about some of the things that make ideas powerful, make them stick to the public consciousness, enable them to be turned into action, and generally inspire results. they used an example of an interesting study to make one of their points about how ideas should be expressed if you want them to stick. the study involved "listeners" and "performers" who were paired up. the performers were given some common tune that should be easily identifiable (like the star-spangled banner or happy birthday) and were instructed to simply tap it out on a desk. the listeners were to guess what tune was being performed. the performers were asked to predict the success of the listeners, which they estimated would be around 1/2. the actual success rate of the listeners was 1/40. the thing is, the performers, while they were tapping, were actually hearing in their heads the fully orchestrated version of the song. the listeners were basically getting morse code. and that's what happens when a manager comes into a meeting and says "i want to motivate you all to improve customer service. go get 'em!". in the manager's mind, they're hearing a fully orchestrated version that clearly conveys "reduce wait times for callers" and "decrease the rate of escalated service requests" and stuff like that. the employees in the meeting are just hearing morse code and they may go back to their desks thinking they're supposed to pass along every call that they're not totally sure of to an escalation tech and spend more time on every call making pleasantries. so, if you want your idea to be correctly interpreted, and also to "stick", one way of helping that happen is to convey it in the form of a story. use concrete examples that are easily related to the situation you're dealing with, even if you have to make them up, because that's how you put your orchestra in your audience's heads.

one of the things that makes a person a good teacher is their ability to narrate a lesson so that it is a story. it's not absolutely essential, i've seen teachers get by without this storytelling skill. however, the best history teachers i ever had turned our history lessons from dry recitations of strategy, tactic, name, date, location into stories with personalities and plot and motivation. it's something i've done instinctively in my teaching all along, but i wonder if it can be taught? can you teach someone how to think about what they know in such a way as to explain it to someone who doesn't know? and if you can, is there some way to make it mandatory training for professors?

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