Experimenting on Your Loved Ones

Here's a fascinating excerpt from Originals by Adam Grant:

Take a look at this list of familiar songs. Pick one of them and tap a rhythm to it on a table:
  • "Happy Birthday"
  • "Mary Had a Little Lamb"
  • "Jingle Bells"
  • "Rock Around the Clock"
  • "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"
  • "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"
  • "The Star-Spangled Banner"
Now, what do you think the odds are that one of your friends would recognize the song you're tapping?

I've been running this exercise for years with leaders and students, and it's as fun at parties as it is educational. What was your estimate? If you said zero, you're either questioning your own tapping skills or seriously doubting the ear of your friend. In the original study at Stanford, after tapping a song, people thought it'd be easy for a listener to guess it: they predicted peers had a 50% chance of naming accurately. But when they tapped it, only 2.5% actually guessed correctly....Why?

It's humanly impossible to tap out the rhythm of a song without hearing the tune in your head. That makes it impossible to imagine what your disjointed knocks sound like to an audience that is not hearing the accompanying tune. As Chip and Dan Heath write in Made to Stick, "The listeners can't hear that tune - all they can hear is a bunch of diconnected taps, like a a kind of bizarre Morse Code."

This is the core challenge of speaking up with an original idea. When you present a new suggestion, you're not only hearing the tune in your head.


You've spent hours, days, weeks, months, or maybe even years thinking about the idea. You've contemplated the problem, formulated the solution, and rehearsed the vision. You know the lyrics and melody by heart. By that point, it's no longer possible to imagine what it sounds like to an audience listening for the first time.

This explains why we often undercommunicate our ideas. They're already so familiar to us that we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them...

Deb and I had a back and forth about the passage.

Implications for Writing

My first thought was, "A-ha! This is why writing is so hard... and why teaching writing can be even harder!". I told Deb that I may use this tapping exercise in future workshops when we discuss engaging through writing. I could point out that in the CRISS workshop we will look at a lot of strategies to support writing so that students can express ideas in a way that let us see the the deeper thinking--the melody. Some of the strategies may seem familiar or simple or might lead to formulaic writing but it's important to remember the tapping exercise: Many of our students have beautiful symphonies in their heads and, if they are struggling or emerging writers (and aren't we all in some way?), we may only be hearing the kazoo. I want to tell the people in my workshops to try different strategies and trust you'll find the appropriate tools for different students. Do the tapping exercise with your students. Let students know that these strategies are starting points for getting their ideas onto paper so we can not only identify "Mary had a Little Lamb", but then we can go and do some funky jazz riffs with it.

Implications for Modeling

Deb responded, "Been thinking about this all day. I think this lends itself to the need to model and explain anything as a teacher – we already know the melody."

And of course she's right. We incorporate strategies into our lessons to help students - to provide structure to thinking. We know how that Venn Diagram should look with the content and we anticipate the a-ha! moments that might be uncovered. If we want students to uncover that information themselves, students need time to practice the strategies with unintimidating content (modeling) and we need to be explicit with our purposes for learning. We need to explain why and how our lessons are flowing together and make clear rubrics for lesson objectives. Students need to understand the connections between the Framework for Learning and the lesson. We may think we're being clear about all of this but students are hearing OUR great ideas as, well, just the kazoo.

Fine, we can both be right

The gist is simply that we're all struggling to communicate. We may need strategies or scaffolds to help get our ideas out and we may need explicit procedures and routines to ensure our intentions are communicated. No one is immune. Especially blog writers.

For more information on Made to Stick and a different take on the original tapping experiment, consider reviewing the following (all links working as of Nov 2, 2016):
  • A blog entry that is mostly an excerpt from Ch1 of Made to Stick.
  • Register at the authors' official site to read all of Ch 1 of Made to Stick.
  • Elizabeth Newton's original dissertation with the tapping experiment.