March 2011

On Switch, Sandpaper Letters, and How We Learn

by Michele Reeves on March 20, 2011

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What do elephants, riders, and paths have to do with change?

Emotion = elephant, intellect = rider, and path = environment, route, or context. These are the metaphors Chip and Dan Heath use in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Their basic premise is this: you cannot get your elephant to go anywhere if rider and beast do not have aligned motivations.

The case studies on change cited in Switch were besprinkled with examples of written reports and spreadsheets that contained vital information, but were totally ignored by organizations and companies. The conclusion the Heath brothers draw in their book is that dry facts presented in writing do not engage people’s emotions, therefore, they usually fail to influence behavior all by themselves.

While the importance of engaging both heart and mind rings absolutely true, I think the authors missed an important point about how people absorb information effectively. Namely, if you use only a single channel, such as writing a report, to engage your audience about complicated issues, then the intended beneficiaries of your knowledge may be digesting very little of your message, regardless of emotional involvement. I see this in my consulting practice with cities of all sizes. Municipalities that want to revitalize a downtown or commercial corridor usually have an impressive array of reports on the subject already filed away somewhere gathering dust. And therein lies the problem, ALL of this information is contained in a report!

Over the years, I have learned that there are very few people who truly process written information efficiently. And this is particularly true of busy property owners and business owners, who don’t have time to read consultants’ tomes. Since a downtown tells its story through its infrastructure (how it looks), and its ground floor uses (they need to be active), cities must meaningfully captivate and motivate property owners and business owners to initiate renewal, or it will be stopped before it ever starts.

To effect change, cities must engage their constituents, face to face, with voices…with hands-on experiences…with images, in order for people to really learn and connect with information. As in the case of my work, I try to take the rather dry subject of land-use and bring it alive. And, if I do my job well, then a lot of excitement is generated just by bringing focus to people’s intuitions about their downtown environments and how they function optimally.

This idea of engaging all of the senses for learning reminds me of one of the methods that Montessori preschools use for teaching the alphabet: sandpaper letters. The name for the work really does represent exactly what you would think: each letter is cut from fine grain sandpaper and is individually mounted on a hard square backing. Children watch the teacher trace the letter using her index finger (mirroring the same motion you would use to write the letter), while they hear the teacher says the sound the letter makes (not its name). Then, the student copies the teacher’s actions.

This work stimulates a preschooler’s hearing (the sound of the letter), sense of touch (feeling the sandpaper under the finger), and vision (seeing the letter and watching the teacher model the movement of writing it). It is very effective. Montessori preschool students learn to read before kindergarten not because their emotions are engaged, but because all of their senses are engaged.

So, while I am in agreement with the Switch authors that motivating change is much easier when our feelings and thoughts are united behind a goal, I also believe that there are many ways to captivate our thinking selves. And sometimes, as in the case with the sandpaper letters, enthusiasm and animation–our emotions–can be triggered just by neurons connecting and blazing new trails. Thinking begets feeling.

Hear…see…touch…experience…not just read.