Elephants, Riders, and Paths: Motivating Students

Switch cover [This is a guest post by Meagan Rodgers, an assistant professor of English at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, where she teaches various writing classes and directs the writing center. You can find her online at]

You’re in a field. You’re looking down a path. You’re riding an elephant.

This unlikely circumstance is the central metaphor that animates Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (2010) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, authors of the popular 2007 book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

In Switch, the Heaths draw on a breadth of social science research to construct a reader-friendly approach to individual, organizational, and societal change. “Ultimately,” they argue, “all change efforts boil down to the same mission: Can you get people to start behaving in a new way?”

You can, the Heaths argue, if you think about the Elephant, the Rider, and the Path they follow.


In the Heaths’ scheme (adapted from psychologist Jonathan Haidt), the Elephant represents emotion, the Rider is rationality, and the Path indicates the focus or direction. The Rider is analytical. She directs the Elephant, but the Elephant must be emotionally engaged in order to respond to the Rider (an Elephant is too big to move if it’s resisting). Once the Rider and Elephant are ready to go–once you’ve gotten your team, class, or self convinced and motivated– you need to give them directions down a Path.

In order to create successful change in any context, leaders and teachers need to engage their employees, peers, students, or selves both emotionally and rationally while also providing a clear direction.

I finished reading Switch just as I begin constructing my fall syllabi. Inspired by the positive changes illustrated in the book, I decided to set a harder goal for my first year students than I’ve done before: they’re going to write a longer, more ambitious research paper than I’ve ever asked for before. Any teacher with a few years of experience knows that the pull of low expectations can work like a constant undertow, pressuring us to craft activities that demand mediocrity instead of excellence. Switch reminded me not to succumb to that undertow.

I put this new, harder goal front and center on the syllabus. It’s the first thing we discussed on the first day of class. This is my first attempt to shape the Path for the term. As the course progresses, I will engage their Riders (with rational reasons why the ultimate task is useful) and motivate their Elephants (by creating a classroom community of shared ambition and excitement about the task).

While I know this won’t be a seamless endeavor for myself or for the students, I am excited. The students can meet this challenge and Switch’s central metaphor of Rider, Elephant, and Path reminds me that I will need to continue to attend to all three facets in order to adequately scaffold their learning.

Even without the evident implications for teaching, I’d enjoy this book as a window into psychological and sociological research. Chip and Dan Heath select compelling examples from academic research and distill them into lively, readable vignettes. As you read Switch, you’ll learn about how the size of your popcorn bucket influences the amount of popcorn you eat (even if the popcorn is really bad, the bigger your bucket, the more you’ll eat). You’ll also read about how a public health initiative in Tanzania reduced the spread of HIV by attaching a negative stigma to local sugar daddies, many of whom were contributing to the spread of the virus. (If you launch a radio campaign that mocks them, you undermine them and gradually reduce their appeal.)

Perhaps you don’t think you need to know about Tanzanian sugar daddies, and maybe you’re right. But Switch combines this and all its other examples into a framework for change that seems possible and fun.

Read the first chapter for free on The full book is available in print and electronic editions from Amazon, B&N, and Sony.

Have you read Switch? Has it given you any great teaching ideas? Have you read similar books that you’d like to recommend? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo by Flickr user gudi&cris / Creative Commons licensed.

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