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Book Review: Switch

In Switch:  How to change things when change is hard (Broadway Books, NY, 2010), brothers Chip and Dan Heath introduce a straightforward premise that people think about issues in two ways: analytically and emotionally, and to affect change you need to appeal to both sides of the brain. You need to provide clear direction, sufficient motivation and a supportive environment. In line with their own recommendation, they take these high level concepts and provide specific steps for implementation (“Direct the Rider!”…a phrase you will understand if you decide to read the book.)

I approached this book with great skepticism, not about its content but its applicability to public education. In 2002, I was working in a public school district when Jim Collins’s “Good to Great” was all the rage.  While it was a book embraced by the public education sector, I was not completely sold on its applicability.  Is Switch this decade’s “Good to Great?” 

I don’t believe so. The book presents a very useful framework for change that is applicable to business, the public sector and even one’s personal life. It doesn’t promise the moon since change is complicated, messy and the results aren’t always perfect.  Granted, the book's ability to facilitate change in the education sector will depend on how districts and schools interpret and apply the framework.

After a quick introduction, Chip and Dan Heath use the rest of the book to explore each aspect of their framework in depth, illustrating their point with entertaining antidotes. How is the book’s framework applicable to facilitating change in school districts and schools? Let’s concentrate on the need for sufficient motivation in the change process. The Heath’s were pretty explicit that numbers alone, such as SMART goals, are not sufficient motivators.

What then are the implications for education’s intense focus on setting goals and analyzing performance data as the drive to increasing student performance? The Heaths are not advocating that we should abandon this effort, but that data alone will not provide sufficient motivation for changing teaching practices, and perhaps the way we are using the data and performance goals is working at odds with the change we want to create. Their findings are very much in line with Daniel Pink’s in Drive (see book review from July 5): if goals create anxiety and fear, you create tunnel vision rather than change. Instead, the Heaths advocate that any change will require (1) making teachers feel something through tangible examples, (2) shrinking the size of the change so it is not so terrifying and (3) cultivating a sense of identity in teachers that they can in fact make this change.

One of the strategies in the book I really liked was the way the Heaths systematically applied their framework to each situation. It was a great way to solidify their ideas and increase the reader’s understanding. On the flip side this was also one of my least favorite things about the book…the cute analogy they use to reference their framework—the Rider (clear direction), the elephant (sufficient motivation) and the path (supportive environment). While the analogies didn’t always work well for me, I can see how other people may find them useful.

I look forward to seeing how school districts and schools apply these ideas.

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