The Practice: Savvy Learning and Teaching, Part 7 of SUCCESS in Teaching

2 Apr

In Made to Stick, as we’ve noted in our Spring 2012 series addressing SUCCESS in Teaching, Dan and Chip Heath set out six core principles – Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Story/Stories.   In pluralizing that final word, the acronym becomes SUCCESs. Those of us contributing to this series have been drawn to the principles for a number of reasons, noting points of connections and difference in each part of the series.

Before beginning the series, we were also – often – drawn into conversation about wanting to make a “real” acronym of the principles, not letting the plural stories stand doubly.  From those discussions, it became clear that in drawing on the “sticky” framework for a higher education setting, we were aiming to name and navigate teaching and learning practices in higher education.  These practices are many and we close this series by investigating Savvy Learning and Teaching in our own practices.  And, as you read, we invite you to consider the savvy practices you continue to develop.

Practical Knowledge, Common Sense and Shrewdness
by Jane O’Brien

Today’s blog assignment is to reflect on savvy teaching.  Savvy?  Interesting adjective.  To me savvy connotes having practical knowledge, common sense, and maybe even a touch of shrewdness. Is this what my teaching looks like?  Well, actually, in many ways, yes, it is.  I teach a course on health care ethics for surgical technologists and we always begin with the practical relevance of the topic to their work:

  • Think of a time when you weren’t sure what the right thing to do was.
  • What guidance do Kant and Aristotle bring to this dilemma?

I think of common sense as the prior knowledge and beliefs that we all bring to any subject at hand.  Some of this is correct and some is in error but awareness of it all is crucial to learning.   Ethical decision-making in particular often begins with a “gut” sense of something amiss.  Bringing clarity to that dis-ease is often a matter of balancing new theories and perspectives with students’ prior but perhaps unexamined frameworks.

Finally, shrewdness.  Shrewdness?  Yes, really. For me this has to do with staging, that sticky process embedded in the SUCCESS principles.  We start the class with a basic yet complex case study, and week by week review it though a new philosophical lens.  Students are generally amazed reveal – to see for the first time – something that was there all along.  It makes an impact.  I’m also not above bringing in a dramatic, real-life case study to end a class session with right at the edge of the cliff:  “We’ll talk next week about how this turned out.  Bring your ideas.”

SUCCESS as Checklist – New Rote or New Route?
by Paul Ching

The principles of SUCCESS serve as a kind of teaching checklist: a Simple, Unexpected, Credible, Concrete and Emotional Story can provide the foundation for a successful class.

Checklists, Atul Gawande observes in his book, The Checklist Manifesto, are even more important than ever because “The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely and reliably.  Knowledge has both saved and burdened us,” he notes in a New Yorker article excepting the best-selling book.

Hugely complex tasks like conducting surgery or piloting an aircraft rely on checklists, which make explicit and visible the minimum, essential steps in complex processes, thereby raising baseline performance.  Teaching is no less complex and could certainly be improved with checklists.

Skeptics might ridicule such a checklist:  how could successful teaching be reduced to a simple acronym?  Where is the room for magic, creativity, and innovation?  They wouldn’t be wrong since creativity and innovation often come from flying on the edge.

Yet, one might also be tempted to ask those skeptics: How did that pilot manage to get that plane off the ground to fly on the edge?  Didn’t that pilot use a checklist?

Savvy teachers know when and how to use a checklist.  They also know when and how to step away from the rote to take a new route.

SUCCESS in Answering “What does it mean to know?”
by David Langley

As a new assistant professor in kinesiology, I sought the consult of a CTL staff member when I received a disappointing result from my students in Introduction to Motor Learning. I had sprung a quiz on them in the final weeks of class with what seemed like low hanging fruit:

“Write a definition of these 10 concepts listed on the board. I’ll give you one extra credit point for each you get right.”  Out of 35 class members, no one attempted to provide more than six definitions, and no one defined a term that would be acceptable on a test. What was I to do?

The concepts were fundamental – feedback, transfer of training, skill progression, even the title of the class: motor learning. The CTL consultant meeting with me asked if students knew what these concepts looked like in practice: “Do they know how to give quality feedback to middle school students learning how to serve a volleyball?”

I was quite sure they did and said so. Onward we went with each of the ten terms, and again and again – having watched them teach – I could say students knew how the concept could be applied. We finished with a consoling – and clarifying – discussion about what it means to know something.

Pondering that (unexpected) question – “What does it mean to know?” – I walked out feeling far more energized about my future as a teacher.  I now see the confluence of a number of SUCCES principles she (unwittingly) engineered in this interaction:

  • She focused on the core idea about what real learning looks like (simple).
  • She helped me trust and believe that my work with the students had not been in vain (credibility).
  • She tapped into the complexity of an issue that I felt strongly about – learning – and wanted to change (emotion).
  • She put me in a story-telling mode so that the resolution to the issue would burn into my memory (story and concrete).

Select and Prioritize to “Create memorable messages that promote learning”  by Christina Petersen

Using the SUCCESS approach to designing memorable presentations has changed the way I prepare my own presentations and the way I view other presentations.  I appreciate more than ever well-crafted simple messages supporting complex concepts.  I know from my own experience these simple messages are not easy to create.

As the Heath Brothers say, simple “is not about dumbing down, it’s about prioritizing.”  Not every concept can be the most important.  As teachers, I believe, we need to choose and prioritize.

In fact, the act of choosing can be illuminating to us, it can reveal what really matters.

For example, the American Heart Association simplified their message describing hands-only CPR so that the most important information was communicated with two images 

and 12 words:

  1. Call 911.
  2. Push hard and fast in the center of the chest.

Does that cover everything?  No.
Does that cover enough that I would remember it in a time of crisis? Yes.

Recently I presented at a conference on college and university teaching on the topic of using the SUCCESS approach to aid student learning.  I asked my faculty audience to choose a topic they were teaching in their discipline and distill it 6 words or less.  I shared my plan with David Langley who challenged me to do the same for my own presentation.

It wasn’t easy, even though I was familiar with the SUCCESS approach!  I had to sift and winnow all of the important information to come up with the most important information.

Here’s what I came up with: Create memorable messages that promote learning.  Does that cover everything? No.  Does it cover enough for my audience to “get” what was most important?  I think so.

Learning and Teaching – The Need for Two Sticky Tracks
by Ilene D. Alexander

As a starting out teacher 30 years ago, the SUCCESS principles would have given me something to point to as I began articulating how I felt while learning and what I thought while planning and conducting teaching:  I knew from both perspectives that stories as verbal and visual artifacts and framing devices organized my learning and that I wanted this to inform my teaching.

The selection of a story hierarchy allowed me – as learner and teacher – to take hold of a thread for stitching together perspectives and information, theoretical writing and experiential responses, visual and verbal communication.  The threading required concrete examples, credible sources, unexpected scenarios and multiple moments to spark awareness of emotions at work.

These were moments for simulating thinking: rehearsal of what I or we might do in a future circumstance.  These were also moments for stimulating thinking: mental, verbal and visual processing of a new bit of information – perhaps one that conflicted with the story already internalized, perhaps one that brought explanatory power to something not yet fully understood, or perhaps one that synthesized with three other bits of information to make new meaning.

As a literature teacher between 1981 and 2001, I didn’t make use of presentation slides software; as much as I loved selecting technology tools to enhance learning, I didn’t like the norm that emerged from the start with PowerPoint: words jammed onto a page, with type size signaling importance of ideas.

I did ask students to apply other technologies in linking passages they selected for discussion to images that could further inform our discussion and analysis.  Students cut images from magazines or newspapers, selected photos from personal or antique store collections, or made images with their own cameras or art supplies.  Students would come to class with one piece of paper – an image pasted or xeroxed on to one side, the select quote typed or handwritten onto the other.  From this we would construct an integrative conversation: Where had we gotten to in our thinking – personally, collectively, politically, socially – because of our interactions with the book?

When my class moved in location and size from seminar classrooms to lecture halls in 2001, I adopted PowerPoint in order to create rather plain slides to illustrate components of complex analysis, to set out discussion or writing prompts, and to turn students’ two-sided image and quote papers into slides for class discussion.  Each slide looked a bit like the one posted to the left, drawn from a discussion of Tillie Olsen’s midwest-set novella Yonnondio.

I now use presentation software in these modes, with the SUCCESS principles giving me a vocabulary for explaining why I’ve resisted “the norm” of slides as a means of packaging and conveying information: Two birds with one stone, or what Garr Reynolds calls “slideumentation.”  And my colleagues’ words here in this blog post remind me to keep thinking about how I might invite students into thinking, learning – and creating their own slides – by drawing on these principles to use technology in ways that that organize, prioritize, concretize, conceptualize, and personalize learning.  Not throwing stones, but instead pointing to the two birds: learning and teaching, and my grandfather’s words:


  • SUCCESS in Teaching – An Introduction and a First Principle, Simple
  • Active Learning will not (in itself) lead to SUCCESS in Teaching – Part 2, Unexpected
  • Engineering Concrete Footings: Foundations for Sound Pedagogy – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 3,Concrete
  • Incredible! – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 4,Credible
  • Teaching with Emotion: Approaches Across the Disciplines – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 5
  • Telling Stories – in Teaching, throughout Learning, for Education – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 6

Photo / Image Credits

  • Philosofish –
  • Solutions –
  • Shoe tying motor skill –
  • Two step CPR –
  • All other images – @IleneDawn

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