The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath-Review

Chip Heath and Dan Heath have returned with another  engaging book, The Power of Moments. The question, these bestselling authors strive to answer in The Power of Moments is “Why do certain experiences have extraordinary impact?” And I would add-“and why does that matter…”

Chip and Dan Heath, brothers, business professors, writers, have written a series of books that survey research from both business and psychology to create a very engaging, easily accessible guide to living, creating and succeeding.

In The Power of Moments they strive to understand one small question, “Why do we remember certain things more than others?” This is a springboard for understanding not only how memories are formed but why these memories have such strong sway over our lives and how to use that for own own growth and development.

They identify four main attributes for a memorable experience- elevation,insight, pride, and connection. That is, an experience that taps into one of these four domains will have more longevity and resonance than one that does not.

What makes their work engaging is the breezy, accessible writing style, filled with numerous examples and anecdotes that illustrate their research (a tactic they delve into in their popular book Made to Stick-Why Some Ideas Thrive and Others Die).

As an educator, I believe most teachers and schools already create moments like this-think of graduation, honors nights, plays, concerts, athletic events-etc. As they illustrate in The Power of Moments- what if we found ways to bring more of that into the classroom in an intentional way?

Many schools do this of course, through senior speeches, creative role plays, living museums, simulations, interesting labs, etc., but it does get more challenging in light of an increasingly disengaged student population and the demands of an increasingly narrow set of outcomes. While spending several weeks on a fascinating research project may be incredibly memorable and significant to a student- we also know that it likely will not raise the student’s score on the final exam, or on the standardized test in the spring.

In a grand irony, as the employment sector clamors for a highly educated workforce of excellent communicators, subtle thinkers, rigorous analysts, profound problem solvers, and capable critical thinkers, they have thrown their lot in the most narrow set of outcomes possible- a simple data point that is easily verifiable, measurable, comparable, yet of little value. For an educator, a data point that may determine whether or not  you are employed the following year.

So, will you choose your job, or creating a memorable moment? Where is the guide to finding that elusive middle ground where both are possible?

In an effort to be fast paced and accessible, the Power of Moments picks research to support their claims and does little to highlight when that research might be limited or whether other factors might contribute to the outcomes they claim.

An example that was especially glaring for me was the highlighting of Stanton Elementary School in Washington D.C. According to the narrative established in The Power of Moments, the school had an amazing success using one of the memory creating tactics of “deepening ties” in which staff made a one hour home visit to the students families during the school year. As they tell it, this simple fact alone was enough to significantly increase parent engagement and student behavior and achievement.

Of course, they don’t mention that the school developed a brand new staff, new administration, as well as likely implemented a new curriculum, new discipline policy, and probably lost a fair amount of students through the school closure process. One wonders, is it possible that any of these other factors could have had any impact whatsoever on more parents attending conferences or on an increase in test scores? Could it be multiple factors? Could it be the novelty effect itself?

It should be noted, that although the test scores rose, it was still significantly below average, and there were still a high level of student absenteeism in the school.  Given, that the school website does not contain any current achievement data that I could locate, one wonders if the home visits continue to succeed and the school now has the highest test scores in the district? It should be noted that the principal is now leaving after seven years at the helm. One wonders how much staff has turned over in that time period as well?

The editing and precision of language ,while permissible in self-published work and blogging  fall short from a work of a major publishing house- Simon and Schuster.

For example, one entrepreneur received “countless emotional thank you’s from people saying “Couch to 5k changed their lives” (p. 161.)  “Countless” really? Also, were these emotions favorable? Anger and sadness are also emotions. Were these lives changed for the better? But precise writing, modest claims from conflicting research and clear analysis do not sell books in the voluminous ways that the Heath and their cottage industry have achieved.  Interestingly, the founder of the program mentioned above did not even invent the program for which he is recognized-alternating walking and running. This is form of locomotion is as old as human mobility itself -and even as a training method was more formally developed by running coach, Jeff Galloway in 1974 as RUN WALK RUN. I do not see Mr. Galloway’s work cited in The Power of Moments. 

Indeed, that is really the heart of this book-marketing.  How can I package this to appeal to as many people as possible? To this end, the Heath’s are utterly brilliant and I give them tremendous regard. Now that they have achieved enviable success, I wish they would turn their formidable communication skills to honestly communicate that real research is slow, full of conflicting data, and occasionally wrong; but ultimately more satisfying and significant, like human social progress itself.

Until we as educators, which the Heath’s assuredly are, acknowledge that true research is fraught with complexity, nuance, and confusing results, we are doing a disservice to our students and the general public as well.

I would recommend checking this out from the library as I did and appreciating the breezy, optimistic view of human progress, as well as a cautionary tale for the perils of superimposing a signal where there is only noise.

3 Steps to Create Expertise based on K. Anders Ericsson’s Research

By  now, you have probably heard about the “10,000” rule, the notion, popularized by Malcom Gadwell, that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an “expert” in a skill.

How in the world as an educator, are you going to be able to accomplish this with your students?

  1. Read Florida State University professor Anders Ericsson’s new book, Peak- Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Ericsson, the researcher who helped lay the research foundation for the “10,000 hour” rule has co-written a lively, entertaining book with Robert Pool, that helps clarify the reality behind the “10,000 hour” rule, reminding us that it is not quite as simple as repeating the same C major scale for 10,0000 hours and becoming Yo-Yo Ma. In some cases, it doesn’t even take 10,000 hours to become extremely competent in something.
  2. Maybe your students can achieve something more like competency in 1,000 hours? But….It does take deliberate practice. That is it takes consistent, regular, specific feedback to ensure that the repetition leads to improvement.  The more you are able to carve time in your day to work with individuals, or  small groups, or to model the appropriate way to tackle a problem or write a paper, the more likely you are to increase proficiency.
  3. The student must have a clear vision or understanding of what “expertise” is. This is where modeling the behavior, the skill, the competency through your own demonstration is essential. Sharing the “ideal” essay. Demonstrating the steps of  solving inequalities, speaking in the World Language you are teaching, are all essential.
  4. Okay, so here is the bonus number 4. Making all of this explicit to your students. Let them know about this book and Ericsson’s brilliant research which lays out these ideas with great clarity and with excellent, memorable examples. Let them know that racing through their homework while listening to music and chatting online with friends is not the path to expertise! I especially loved the story about how Ben Franklin learned to write well!

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Just remember, all of our students are not going to be “experts” with the short time that we have with them. But, in general, many of our schools seem to do a good job with developing students with enough proficiency to be life-long learners and highly productive citizens. Many also become experts later in life. It is reassuring to know that we have an important  part in this process.

I think two other important topics that can be understood from Ericsson and Pool’s excellent book is that we as educators of course could use specific feedback about our teaching practice, so videotaping our lessons, pairing with a trusted colleague, and having a clear idea of what we are trying to accomplish can help us all.

Additionally, Ericsson echoes a theme established by Carol Dweck in Mindset- The New Psychology of Success,  that IQ is not the sole determinant of success!! This is such a radical paradigm shift for our society, that I think we are still just in the early stages of adopting to this notion. I hope Ericsson, Pool, Dweck and others leading in this way achieve greater recognition than simply a best-selling book- I hope their ideas actually become so widely accepted that the notion of aptitude testing or academic placements based on test scores fall by the wayside as the antiquated notions they are.

Moreover, I hope all life long learners are inspired to  continue their journey of “dreaming, learning, doing” and help inspire others on this challenging journey.