Why Some Schools Soar and Others Don’t

What does Southwest Airlines have to do with your school? The authors of the bestselling book Made to Stick, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, would say quite a bit.

Southwest Airlines is highly successful. Its secret is that Southwest Airlines runs its business according to one goal. That one goal or mantra is “We are the low cost airlines.” When the airline makes a business decision, the leadership has to ensure that it meets this concrete and simple goal.

For instance, if the airline needs to decide to offer dinner on flights, it has to ask whether this will contribute to its main goal or work against it. Meals are not low cost, so the airline doesn’t offer them. If the airline had a focus like the department store Nordstrom, which emphasizes customer experience, then it might make a different decision.

Why is this relevant to your school? Ask your leadership team: “What is our central goal?” Is it to be the low-cost private school? If so, make decisions based on that goal. If your goal is to be the top STEM program, then make all decisions accordingly. The same would be true if your goal is sports, the arts, your faith, or student character.

In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers emphasize that the ideas that stick in our culture all have similar characteristics. Companies that are able to boil their ideas down to very simple presentations and stick to their model are the ones that typically find the most success. The focus of Made to Stick is why some ideas are effective while others are not. The book has much to offer educators. In fact, both Heath brothers have educational backgrounds.

Dan is an educational publisher. He has studied teachers and what makes them effective. Chip is a social science professor at Stanford.

Together, the brothers found that there are various things that make ideas memorable. Apart from simplicity, many ideas that stick are unexpected. You need to grab people’s attention. From there, add concrete details, dump statistics, show credibility, and connect with people’s emotions. Finally, tell stories — any story is better than boring statistics. In Made to Stick, we discover that “sticky” messages of all kinds draw their power from these same traits.

Boil it all down and there’s one thing you have to do to get your school goal to stick: Keep it simple! Whatever you do, don’t be complicated. Trying to 5 communicate too many ideas to your audience is going to overwhelm them and cause them to avoid taking action.

Since the Heath brothers have roots in education, they say, “Here’s the good news about stickiness: This isn’t just interesting trivia about how the world of ideas works. Rather, it’s a playbook. There are very practical ways that you can make your teaching stickier.”

In fact, they went a step further and wrote a follow-up article to their best-selling book. To find it, just search for “Teaching That Sticks” on the Internet. In this free article, the Heaths show many examples of how teachers can become more effective simply by applying stickiness principles.

While the ideas expressed by the Heath brothers are basic, they aren’t natural. “That’s an important distinction,” the Heaths say. “People tend to think that having a great idea is enough, and they think the communication part will come naturally. We are in deep denial about the difficulty of getting a thought out of our own heads and into the heads of others. It’s just not true that ‘If you think it, it will stick.’”

This is why some schools who are clearly head-and-shoulders above the competition never grow. They have what the Heath brothers refer to as the Curse of Knowledge. “Research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Experts just need to devote a little time to applying the basic principles of stickiness.”

Schools are the epicenter of knowledge in our culture. School leaders and teachers hold the keys to sharing knowledge with children. Don’t let the Curse of Knowledge keep you from reaching them. Take the time to read Made to Stick and “Teaching That Sticks.” Your school will never be the same.