Small Changes Make A Big Difference


Dec 07

I remember the first time I saw my father change a tire. I wondered how on earth he was going to lift our massive Buick in order to get the flat tire off the car. Would he lift it himself? Would he find three other strong men to help him, one at each corner? Imagine my surprise when he pulled out a tiny little jack and slid it under the side of the car. I watched in utter amazement as he cranked the jack and the car rose. How could something so little move something so big?

It is the same with the changes we want to make in our classrooms and schools. We tend to focus on making big changes when it is ultimately the little changes that will make the biggest difference.

One of my favorite books is The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, he makes the case that if you want to start any kind of social epidemic you need to understand at least three principles.

The first is the law of the few which states that by simply finding and reaching a few very special people who hold the majority of the social power in our organizations, we can shape the course of any big change we want to make.

The second principle, "stickiness," argues that if we tinker with the way that we present information, we can substantially increase it's "stickiness" in the minds of those we are trying to reach.

The third principle, the law of context, points out that our immediate context including the personalities of those around us, exert a powerful influence on our behavior and our thinking. Change the context, he argues, and you can increase your influence.

Taken together, these three simple ideas mean that it's the little things, the minor tweaks in what we are currently doing, that will make the biggest difference.

Applying These Laws to the Classroom

Let me show you what that looks like in a classroom. Suppose you are grappling with a motivation issue in your classroom. Rather than institute a massive new reward system, or trot out an elaborate "dog and pony show" every morning in order to get your students more engaged, you will probably have more success if you made a few small tweaks instead.

If we were to apply Gladwell's three laws to the situation, we may discover what those tweaks should be.

Law of the Few:

Is the entire class unmotivated and disengaged or are there just a few students whose heads are on their desks and who never seem to turn in homework? Are there a few students who seem to be exerting a huge influence over the entire class? If so, rather than craft a whole-class strategy, start first by working with those students. Even if it is the entire class, if you can identify the students who seem to have the most influence and pitch your strategy towards those students, you may be able to move the entire class.

Law of Stickiness:

Are your lessons "sticky" enough? Are there ways to make the learning experience in your classroom more "sticky?" (Chip and Dan Heath have a great resource for teachers on how to make lessons more "sticky." You can access it here.)

Law of Context:

Is there something in your classroom context that may be unintentionally DE-motivating students? We spend a lot of time examining this in our Motivation Training and time and again, we discover sneaky little elements in the classroom context (little things such as late work policies, homework collection procedures, and even seating arrangements) that are actually undermining teachers' efforts to motivate students.

Based on this examination, you can come up with small changes you can make immediately in your classroom that will have a HUGE impact on your students' motivation. Plus, these changes will take less time and require less effort on your part.

My point is, rather most of the time when we are working towards a goal, we think that big results will only come from big changes so we rewrite our curricula and we launch major initiatives, and we radically overhaul our professional development plans, only to find that at best many of these changes make only a small difference in our student achievement.

The idea of small change however is that we don't try to indiscriminately apply our efforts to a wide range of contexts, situations, schools, people. The idea of small change is that we concentrate our efforts, that we make a lot out of a little, that we expend the minimum amount of effort for the maximum amount of results.

This year, I suggest that we take a different tack, Rather than trying to find the next big thing in educational reform, let's focus our efforts on discovering the small changes we can make in our schools. Ultimately, it is these small changes that will act as the lever to larger change for our schools.

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