The rider, elephant, and shaping the path

Listened to this interview of Chip Heath, a Stanford Professor in Organizational Behaviour about his co-authored book Switch: How to change things when change is hard. My particular interest in this arises from figuring out how to improve learning and teaching in universities. From the interview and the podcast this seems to be another one in a line of “popular science” books aimed at making clear what science/research knows about the topic.

The basic summary of the findings seems to be. If you wish to make change more likely, then your approach has to (metaphorically):

  • direct the rider;
    The rider represents the rational/analytical decision making capability of an individual. This capability needs to be appropriately directed.
  • engage the elephant; and
    The elephant represents the individual’s emotional/instinctive decision making approach. From the interview, the elephant/rider metaphor has the express purpose of showing that the elephant is far stronger than the rider. In typical situations, the elephant is going to win, unless there’s some engagement.
  • shape the path.
    This represents the physical and related environment in which the change is going to take place. My recollection is that the shaping has to support the first two components, but also be designed to make it easier to traverse the path and get to the goal.

There are two parts of the discussion that stuck with me as I think they connect with the task of improving learning and teaching within universities.

  1. The over-rationalisation of experts.
  2. Small scale wins.

Over-rationalisation of experts

The connection between organisational change and losing weight seems increasingly common, it’s one I used and it’s mentioned in the interview. One example used in the interview is to show how a major problem with change is that it is driven by experts. Experts who have significantly larger “riders” (i.e. rational/analytical knowledge) of the problem area/target of change than the people they are trying to change. This overly large rider leads to change mechanisms that over complicate things.

The example they use is the recently modified food pyramid from the United States that makes suggestions something like, “For a balanced diet you should consume X tablespoons of Y a day”. While this makes sense to the experts, a normal person has no idea of how many tablespoons of Y is in their daily diet. In order to achieve the desired change, the individual needs to develop all sorts of additional knowledge and expertise. Which is just not likely.

They compare this with some US-based populariser of weight loss who proposes much simpler suggestions e.g. “Don’t eat anything that comes through your car window”. It’s a simpler, more evocative suggestion that appears to be easier for the rider to understand and helps engage the elephant somewhat.

I can see the equivalent of this within learning and teaching in higher education. Change processes are typically conceived and managed by experts. Experts who over rationalise.

Small scale wins

Related to the above is the idea that change always consists of barriers or steps that have to be stepped over. Change is difficult. The suggestion is that when shaping the path you want to design it in such a way so that the elephant can almost just walk over the barrier. The interviewer gives the example of never being able to get her teenage sons to stop taking towels out of the bathroom and into their bedroom. Eventually what worked was “shaping the path” by storing the sons’ underwear in the bathroom, not their bedroom.

When it comes to improving learning and teaching in universities, I don’t think enough attention is paid to “shaping the path” like this. I think this is in part due to the process being driven by the experts, so they simply don’t see the need. But it is also, increasingly, due to the fact that the people involved can’t shape the path. Some of the reasons the path can’t be shaped include:

  • Changing the “research is what gets me promoted” culture in higher education is very, very difficult and not likely to happen effectively if just one institution does it.
  • When it comes to L&T path (e.g. the LMS product model or the physical infrastructure of a campus) it is not exactly set up to enable “shaping”.
  • The people involved at a university, especially in e-learning, don’t have the skills or the organisational structure to enable “shaping”.

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