A teacher making a difference

What a great story in this Jay Mathews article: Lisa Suben, a fifth-grade math teacher in DC, wrote her own math curriculum for low-income children. One comment in particular stuck out to me: “Understanding is built by making connections between as many strands of knowledge as possible.”

Sticky ideas make use of what’s already in the heads of the audience. Sticky ideas make reference to ideas you already know, they tap into different kinds of memory, they use familiar story structures. There aren’t many details in the story about specific elements in the curriculum — maybe when we get a chance we’ll call up Lisa and ask her more. Sounds fascinating.

Diversity, felt

In Made To Stick, we talk about situations where communicators had to make people experience something, because talking about it was inadequate. We talk about an elementary school teacher who made her students experience prejudice. We talk about how HP got its engineers to experience the value its technology could bring to Disney. We talk about how the NBA made players experience the risk of AIDS.

The WSJ’s Phred Dvorak writes about the innovative training efforts of the French food-services company Sodexho Alliance. The training mission: To inspire respect and appreciation for diversity. Don’t roll your eyes yet. You haven’t heard this one before:

TWO YEARS AGO, Rod Bond, an executive at a U.S. unit of French food-services company Sodexho Alliance SA, accompanied female colleagues to a meeting of the Women’s Food Service Forum, where he was a rare man among roughly 1,500 women.

“That’s a profound experience,” says Mr. Bond, 57 years old. It prompted him to wonder how women managers of his generation had felt when they started their careers amid a sea of men. “I can begin to feel what it must have felt like to be different,” Mr. Bond says. …

Ms. Anand [Sodexho’s Chief Diversity Officer] asked Mr. Bond to sponsor the affinity group for women employees when it formed about four years ago. Mr. Bond, who runs the Sodexho division that serves public schools, says participating in the group helped him appreciate the concerns of women employees. One of the group’s first requests was for a lactation room at headquarters, where new mothers could pump breast milk. “It’s just one of those things I’d never thought about,” says Mr. Bond.

Working with the group also made Mr. Bond more sensitive to women’s feelings, he says. Recently, he found himself annoyed by a TV comedian making jokes about divorce, all at the wife’s expense. Mr. Bond says he has also changed the social activities he plans for his colleagues, arranging excursions such as dinner cruises instead of golf outings, which he thinks appeal primarily to men.

Being the only man in a conference of women. Contributing to the plans for a lactation room. That’s the way you make the value of diversity stick.

Non-sticky titles

Phil Dusenberry, an advertising luminary, wrote a book that, by all accounts, was well-written, insightful, and full of fascinating industry scuttlebutt. It should have been a big hit. But first the book had to be titled. And, after a long series of negotiations and compromises, the parties involved decided to name the book “Then We Set His Hair On Fire.” And they used an illustration on the cover that looked like a cartoonish version of the top half of George W. Bush’s head.

This is cleverness that isn’t core. “Finding the core” is something we obsess about in the Simple chapter of our book. The title of a book is a great example of a message that should be core (i.e., it should be symbolic of the most important message the author wanted to communicate). An opaque title can kill interest in a good book.

So what do you do when you get an idea wrong the first time? You fix it. The happy ending: In the paperback version, the publisher nixed the Bush-esque illustration and renamed the book, “One Great Insight Is Worth a Thousand Good Ideas.” Which book do you want to read?

Here’s John Moore’s take on the before & after. Don’t forget to read his Money Quotes.

P.S. It was called “Then We Set His Hair On Fire” because of the Michael Jackson – Pepsi incident. No doubt you already made that connection. Ahem. And the graying white man on the cover may or may not be Phil Dusenberry, but either way, it seems weird, because unless you’ve made the Michael Jackson link, you kind of expect Phil’s hair to be on fire.

Making calories stick

Do people know how many calories they should be consuming on a daily basis to maintain their weight? And do they have an intuition about how many calories are in the food items they’re consuming?

No and no, according to this interesting NYT article. Many restaurants in New York City will soon have to display calorie information on their menus. But, in the absence of the necessary context, the data may not have much impact. Nutrition professor Marion Nestle sums it up nicely: “The idea of a calorie is a very abstract concept,” she said. “People have some vague idea that it involves energy and is somehow related to weight gain, but they have no idea what it means in relation to food. You can’t tell how many calories you’re eating by looking.”

Case in point: The Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion has 1,800 calories. And that’s supposed to be an appetizer. (Which is disappointing, because I adore the Bloomin’ Onion. But if I’m going to blow 1,800 calories on junk food, I’d look no further than 9 warm Krispy Kreme doughnuts. To each his own.)

In the first chapter of our book, we discuss an analogous case. The CSPI had discovered that a medium-sized bag of movie popcorn had 37g of saturated fat. So what? Is that good or bad? If bad, how bad? The CSPI found an ingenious way to communicate the unhealthiness of the movie popcorn without resorting to a lesson on daily fat allowances and that sort of thing. (We won’t give away the ending in case you want to read the chapter.)

So far, the government’s efforts to communicate basic information about calories have been ineffectual. The reporter, Kim Severson, gets in a nice zinger: “Trying to find out how many calories one should eat at, the government’s latest effort to help the public interpret its Dietary Guidelines, is an exercise in frustration. Plug the word “calories” into the search engine and 254 entries pop up. After clicking through a few dozen, it seems easier to just give up and go out for a doughnut (180 calories).” My thoughts exactly.

The Food Pyramid is wondrously non-sticky. Preposterously non-sticky. After I plugged in my age, sex, and exercise habits, I was given the following helpful information:

  • Aim for at least 4.5 whole grains a day
  • Aim for 8 teaspoons of oil a day
  • Have 2 ½ cups of “orange vegetables” weekly

Well, great, that clears it all up.

Who, on earth, thinks about their daily food intake in terms of the number of “teaspoons of oil” it contains? Who can define half a grain? Are you kidding me? I’m surprised they’ve left out the helpful advice about ensuring a daily intake of at least 10,000 IU of Vitamin A…

Concreteness—one of the six principles of sticky ideas—is what’s needed here. Here’s what I’d suggest: Given my recommended caloric intake, show me 6 daily menus – including pictures! – that would fit my budget. Paint a picture for me, using real-world products: “Dan, if you eat Dannon yogurt and coffee for breakfast, a Taco Bell quesadilla for lunch, and a can of Wolf-brand chili for dinner, you’re good.” And then, by way of comparison, show me 6 daily menus that will make me 10 pounds fatter at the end of the year. If I could see these kinds of real-world menus, I could start building an intuition about what’s “appropriate” for me. 8 teaspoons of oil leaves me intuition-free.