Stickiness Part I – The Lesson

“Do you remember me?”

“Yes, you taught me Math.” (Actually I was his Vice Principal that taught him ONE grade 8 Math integers lesson.)

“What grade are you in now?”

“I’m in my final semester of Grade 12”

“That’s great! What are your plans for next year?”

“UBC for Sciences, then Med school. You know what, I still remember: ‘Change the mi-nus to a-plus, and change the sign that-follows-it.’ You told us we would remember that for the rest of our lives… and I never forgot.”

That’s part of an exchange I had with a young man serving me at the grocery counter a couple weeks ago. I love the fact that although I live in a relatively larger school district, I tend to bump into former students quite frequently.

[Here is where I talk a bit about the Math… I’ll get to the ‘Stickiness’ in a moment.]

In reference to this former student’s lesson, I had to go through what would normally be five to six lessons in a double block (80 minutes) of Math. You see, to get to that lesson where I teach the concept that  +4 – 3  is equal to +4 + +3  I first teach the concept of zero, then addition of integers, then subtraction, before moving on to multiplication and division… in this case, multiplication of integers was where the class was, but I would have had a hard time teaching the conceptual understanding of the operations (with manipulatives) if I started the lesson with multiplication. So, my pop-in lesson ended up being a whirlwind of concepts that I’d be more comfortable sharing over a longer period of time so students could digest the concepts a bit before moving on to the next one. But despite the rush, it seems that my lesson ‘stuck’.

Considering that I’ve had exchanges, like the one above, 6 or 7 times around the same lesson, taught with minor tweaks and alterations along the way, I’d say the lesson was pretty sticky. (It actually happened again at the Inquiry Hub information session and the student waited to speak to me at the end of the presentation to tell me that he both remembered the lesson and that he has continued to find it useful!)

Malcolm Gladwell introduced me to the idea of the ‘Stickiness Factor’ in his book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference“.

“Gladwell defines the Stickiness Factor as the quality that compels people to pay close, sustained attention to a product, concept, or idea. Stickiness is hard to define, and its presence or absence often depends heavily on context. Often, the way that the Stickiness Factor is generated is unconventional, unexpected, and contrary to received wisdom.”1

So why does this lesson stick? Because I tell them it will. I believe it. I make them believe it!

“Today I’m going to teach you something, and you are going to remember it… for the rest of your life!

That’s how I start the lesson. Then I tell a story about ‘stupid warriors’ that fight for the emperors of Positive Land and Negative Land. The stupid warriors can only fight one other warrior essentially cancelling each other out, and so the emperor with the most warriors always wins. “Zero” is a land were these paired warriors are exiled to until they are separated by an equation that pulls them apart. With counters and dice I continue to demonstrate why integers behave the way they do in different operations. Then we get to subtraction and we do the chant. They chant until someone comes to see what we are up to.

‘Change the mi-nus to a-plus, and change the sign that-follows-it.’ 

What I find interesting about this is that the lesson is predominantly a lecture. Yes, I get students up and moving, yes they contribute examples and come up and share examples using counters at the front, and yes they also challenge each other to dice games based on what we’ve learned, but it’s still me at the front of the room for most of the lesson. Even a lecture can be good… it can still be sticky! I think the belief that it can be sticky is a good place to start!

Stickiness Part II – Real Life Problems

Last night I read most of Work that matters: The teacher’s guide to project-based learning. It’s a fantastic resource, I’m going to finish reading it. One of the tips offered in this resource is to: “Check your project against Adria Steinberg’s ‘six As’ of project-based learning.  Educationalist Adria Steinberg has developed a set of design principles for project-based learning that she calls the six as. It is useful to check your project against these at all stages of design”: (Pages 40-41)

  • Authenticity
  • Academic Rigour
  • Applied Learning
  • Active Exploration
  • Adult Relationships
  • Assessment

I think these can all help a project become ‘sticky’ but in making this point, two of the design principles for project-based learning focus on making the experience ‘real’… and that is sticky!

Projects should:

• use a real world context
• emanate from a problem that has meaning to students
• result in a product or performance that has personal and/or social value

Active Exploration
Projects should:

• extend beyond the classroom
• connect to field-based investigations, community explorations, and work internships
• require real investigations using a variety of methods, media, and sources

 Projects that address the real world, and extend beyond the classroom, have significance that an assignment done just for a teacher doesn’t. When these projects stem from student interests and passions, well that’s when the stickiness really sets in! There are some good examples shared in Work that matters.

Stickiness Part III – The Movement

KONY 2012 – I’s a film, it’s a campaign, it’s a movement! I think it is wonderful that we live in an era where one man can stir up so much support to bring some justice into this world. I think this will work. I think this is sticky enough that pressure will build, and Kony will likely be killed or brought to justice. I DON’T LIKE IT!

KONY 2012 is a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.

I don’t like the idea of vilifying someone to make a point. Kony doesn’t deserve this much attention, the ‘Invisible Children’ do. Jacob and other victims do.

"Jacob from KONY 2012"

Think about these Google search results as a case-in-point:

Holocaust:  65,600,000 results

Hitler:       149,000,000 results

We have incredible power to influence change today. Ideas can be very sticky. But I’d rather see things like We Day get more sticky, not the name of a tyrant. The idea behind Kony 2012 is wonderful. The choice of the message isn’t. I’m not sure what makes villainizing and iconicizing an evil man so appealing? I’m not sure why something like the We Day movement isn’t sticky enough to gain equal traction? But is should!

Let’s pay attention to what we make sticky. The stickiness factor can help change education… and the world. Let’s make sure it’s a world filled with worthy and meaningful messages.


7 comments on “The Stickiness Factor

  1. I just watched this video with my son who had heard about it at school today. Initially I thought the idea of using connectivism theory to bring about social justice was brilliant. After reading your post, and reflecting on the movement with a more critical eye, I find your points valuable and now question the message. Before going to bed my son asked me if we could order some signs on the weekend. I responded “yes” but now after some dileberation I think I will revisit this conversation with him once more. Thanks for the insightful post!

  2. Jennifer,
    Thanks for commenting. With all the plugging I’ve seen the Kony video getting, I was beginning to think it was just me questioning this approach.
    I didn’t realize that the 5 Days of Freedom banner didn’t have the link attached: I don’t know why something like this isn’t as sticky as Kony, but I wish it was!
    My 12 year old daughter brought up the Kony video today, we had a similar chat and it went well. Think I’ll share 5 Days with her tomorrow.
    Kind regards,

  3. David,
    In stickiness part 1 you describe your lesson as more of a lecture, but of course it can’t be lost on you the power of using story to engage your students. This is a key that opens up possibilities for the imagination to work. Kieran Egan (SFU) says that this (use of story) is one of the most powerful tools in helping students to connect with concepts and therefore remember them. I really enjoyed this post, and I believe that I too will never forget it because of how it was framed.
    I also enjoyed part 11 as well because of my growing interest in doing a whole school project. I like how you highlighted the authenticity and active part of the project, by taking it beyond the walls of our schools. You have spurred me on to more reading on this topic…which is a good thing.

  4. I agree with you. There is obviously something political on the Kony 2012 video, with it focusing on detracting a person. It would have been better if they focused on how to help the victims, right?

  5. Regarding Kony and Hitler, I guess people are more interested at them because they are in power and they used their power to engineer the misery of thousands to millions of nameless people.

    You have a point when you said that the victims should be the focus of the issue, however, it is hard to think of that especially if they are nameless.

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