Bart Millar… is frustrated by a few of his students, like Robby and Kent, who frequently arrive late and then sit at the back of the room, talking to each other and laughing and disrupting the class.”

What would you do?

If you’re anything like me, your immediate thought probably wasn’t what he actually did:

He bought a used couch and put it right at the front of the classroom. It was immediately obvious that this couch was the cool place to sit-students could slouch and relax instead of sitting at a dorky desk. Suddenly Robby and Kent started getting to class early every day so they could ‘get a good seat.’ They were volunteering to sit at the front of the classroom. Genius (pp.186-7).”

This is a prime example of why this book contributed to my thinking about change management in general and schools in particular. For many of the situations like this, my first thought was the one which schools tend to use: punishment and reward. The accounts administrator who couldn’t get her people to file receipts on time: I thought, don’t pay them if they miss your deadline. Much of this time, this doesn’t work: either because people don’t respond to the incentives (and punishments) or because the administration of these punishments is time-consuming and counter-productive.

Having completed a master’s module in ‘Leading and Managing Educational Change’ perhaps there should have been few surprises in this book; since my last American change management book, Good to Great, was replete with flywheels and hedgehogs, I must confess a degree of scepticism at the immediate introduction to the underlying metaphor of elephants, riders and paths. However, I was rapidly converted by two things: the abundant, intriguing psychological research the book draws upon and the extent to which the book seems to offer a complete ‘theory of change’ which is to say, appears to address all the different levers to ensure change happens.  During the summer term, I found myself questioning, when dealing with a student or a group, whether I’d considered all three angles.

As I read the book, I kept finding examples of this at work. To expand on the book and try to demonstrate how it fits schools, I’ve chosen quotations illustrating the three principles and offered ways that have occurred to me in which they are or could be used in schools.

Direct the Rider

What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction (p.17).”

1) Find the bright spots

Where’s it going well? How can we build on that? A colleague was discussing a class, many of whom seemed unwilling to perform in lessons, but mentioned one, sometimes rebellious student, who was delighted to do so. I suggested asking him what was motivating him, despite his peers’ disinterest. And considering how he could be used as a role model.

2) Script the critical moves

What’s the key change? In my unlikely position as dispenser of relationship wisdom to Year 7 girls, I had been talking with a student about her current conundrum. A few minutes later, we were sitting in a seminar and I glanced at her preoccupied face and realised that she was getting nothing from this (pretty exclusive) opportunity. Instead of telling her to ‘focus’, I whispered that I wanted her to ask a brilliant question before the end of the session. “What, now?” she asked. “Yes!” About half a second later, her face lit up as her hand flew into the air.

3) Provide goals

What’s the long term direction? A pretty obvious one for teachers, but in history, I’ve always found this an uphill battle. Posters of former historians in every conceivable career (along with Tony Blair stating: “I wish I’d studied history at university”) are one weapon I’ve deployed. I also used to have the Cambridge University pie chart showing all the different careers their history graduates entered up on the wall.  How we link the long term justifications for concentrating on a rainy Friday afternoon is a challenge I personally need to do more to address.

Motivate the elephant

What looks like laziness is often exhaustion… it’s critical you engage people’s emotional side (p.17).”

4) Find the feeling

What emotions can we tap into? History matters, because I’ll teach you the skills to persuade others. I’m in the middle of trying to show my new Year 7’s how we we will answer the life questions that they really need answered to be a great human.  A Teach for Sweden maths teacher suggested to me recently he would offer to ensure students could never be lied to or conned. I believe tapping into these deeper desires – for things such as autonomy, power and understanding – is one of the key steps to motivating students.

5) Shrink the change

How can we make the change seem, and be, small (and achievable)? The sole highlight of one of the most depressing school visits I’ve ever made was seeing a teacher use the line: “Come on, I’ll start you off, you just need to complete this,” and recognising this as a way of shrinking of the change… All I want is a tiny thing from you – which is a move in the right direction. (The line failed, but there were bigger forces at work at the school).  To put it another way, when Margaret Ross suggests the critical question is: “Do you mind if I help you [change your behaviour]?” and students say: “I guess” or “Yeah” you’ve won the first (and most important) battle, they are willing to act to amend their behaviour and you can build upon that.

6) Grow your people

How can use students’ notions of their identity to make them believe in the change? The Heath brothers reference Dweck on Growth Mindset here – the benefits of explicitly teaching students that intelligence is not fixed and they are capable of improving. Any way of tapping into students’ pride would work too – whether their affiliation with the school, their family, their neighbourhood or their own beliefs: “What would a really thoughtful person do in this situation?”

Shape the path

What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem… When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant (p.18).”

7) Tweak the environment

How can we design the context of an individual’s choice to promote the desired change? Most lessons, I want my students to spend some time looking at the board, or listening to me, or sharing their ideas in response to the board. I also want them to work independently, often in response to instructions on the board. And I also want them to be able to discuss issues, questions or sources in a group. However my tables were laid out it obstructed one of these things.  Until – L-shaped tables! Instead of having to wait for students to turn around every time I wanted their attention. Or have them unable to see or hear each other when working as a group, I got both. (This is one of my proudest teaching innovations).

8) Build the habit

What actions could be used to trigger repetition of the change? Here’s one I’m still working on – but what if the deal with a distracted student were something like and building on the scripting of critical moves idea above: “When you find you’re losing focus, I want you to think of a brilliant question.” It may be too late by then. At least, one can talk through triggers with students: “So if he says that again, what are you going to say in response.”

9) Rally the herd

How can we make it seem like the change is already dominant? At the start of every lesson, while I stand at the door, I’m observing the class and praising the behaviour I want as soon as it starts: “Excellent start from Andy, some great thoughts already from Jen…” And so on. I want students to feel like positive behaviour is the norm… when they do – well, no one wants to be on the wrong side of history.  (I used this as an example in my recent post on using language in the classroom).


Personally, I’ve spent far too much time on the rider. I’ve spent hours and hours working with individuals, talking them through their actions and their behaviour – when a little more thought about the triggers and the elephant might have got me further. So this year, in dealing with students’ behaviour I intend to focus on scripting critical moves and building habits this year – perhaps my two weakest points.

I think most schools rely too much on the rational and consequences – detentions and so on. There’s a place for detentions, but they’re most useful, I believe, as way of marking poor behaviour, recording it (and having stages of action where it’s repeated) and a way to be seen to disapprove of it. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that detentions alone cause long-term behavioural change – not without some kind of developmental conversation going on.

Does this all sounds quite liberal and slightly wishy-washy in places: less punishment, more chat about feelings?  I’d simply submit that it makes sense to choose the actions which work, with the least cost of time or effort on the part of teachers, to gain the desired behaviour.  Too many of our students spend their careers going through the motions, staying just a step ahead of, or behind our behaviour systems.  The more telling problem is that it is hard to individualise the changes needed…  for example, the critical moves differ for different students: a big step forward for one student would be a big step back for another.  How we deal with this need for individualisation is one of the biggest challenges we face I think.

The sofa example is a prime case: it just sounds wrong! But if, by dumping an old sofa at the front of the room, a teacher can get his students to class more punctually and get them sitting in better spots, without any additional effort – I’d say he’d be a fool to pass this opportunity up. I’ve been wondering about a single example which incorporates all of this, then, ten days ago, my brilliant colleague Sapna, working to develop a group of teachers, sent me this:

My idea came from the book “Switch”. (Remember you had mentioned it to me in one of your previous emails.) I had downloaded an e-copy but never had a chance to read it. That evening, while waiting at the airport, on my way back from Mumbai I didn’t have anything to read and I started reading this book. As I read more, ideas started coming in my mind!

“I’m planning on launching a campaign within the group – I still need to come up with a ‘cool title’ for the campaign, which will impact their emotions/ elephant. They can choose to join the campaign. I know not all of them will join initially, and that’s ok. Once they join, they need to abide by the clear rules/ steps listed out (that’s how I’m going to tackle the rider) Once things start rolling, I shall create peer pressure by highlighting and talking about these classrooms in my weekly newsletters to them, etc and try to manipulate their emotions to join the campaign. To add some coolness quotient I thought we could design our own t-shirts, and other memorabilia which they get to flaunt if they join the campaign! I hope it is as successful as I envision it to be!!!!!”

She went on to come up with a group target: the number of students who will reach their grade level by the end of the year, and institute a habit-building weekly co-planning meeting.

I’d be interested to hear more examples of how you might use this.  Or, if you wouldn’t I’m curious to know why.

Acknowledgements & further reading:

I strongly recommend reading the book.

I read the book because of the fantastic Edubookchatuk run by the even more fantastic Kerry Pulleyn.  Kudos, also, to whoever suggested the choice of Switch.

It’s definitely worth reading Alex Quigley’s in-depth consideration of many of these issues in his own review of the book.