Michael Griffin

Connections and Influences – Michael

Switching things up – By Mike Griffin

Michael Griffin

As teachers we are in the change business.  Yet, as many of us know very well, change is not always easy. Inertia can be a powerful force and it can become all too easy to get stuck no matter how much we believe change is desirable.

One book that has greatly affected the way I think about change is Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by brothers Chip and Dan Heath.


I found this book as easy to read, powerful and memorable as it was insightful, and would strongly recommend it to pretty much anyone — especially teachers interested in creating change in themselves, their students, their institutions, and their world. There are several ideas from the book that greatly appeal to me.

One is that when trying to encourage change we need to find the bright spots. This means we need to find cases or situations where things are working and use these to guide our changes. Instead of focusing on a faraway, long-range, and abstract goal we can found out what is working right now in our classrooms and staffrooms and start from there. Having a local model in a similar situation is a great way to work towards improving what we do.  I should also mention that the bright spot need not be another person but could be one positive aspect of what the individual teacher or student is doing. I think in this field (and others as well) we often focus on what is wrong or what is lacking instead of thinking about what is going well. We can gain valuable information by analyzing what is working well and using this as a model and as a starting point. A great thing about focusing on the bright spots give some direction to the rider as well as a dose of motivation and hope to the elephant.

“Elephant? Rider? What?” I heard you asking.


A set of the Heath brothers’ concepts I found particularly helpful and useful are the Elephant and Rider. The idea here is that within each of us we have an elephant and a rider. The elephant is the emotional driving force ready to work hard and run powerfully all over the place. Unfortunately, the elephant easily loses motivation or directs its energy into something else. The rider is the analytical and rational part that is swayed by logic and reason but easily frozen by what we can consider “paralysis by analysis.” In order to exert change successfully we need to have both the elephant and the rider on board and engaged. So, if we are trying to help someone (or ourselves) make changes we need to appeal to both the elephant and the rider. It is not enough to get someone excited about ideas and convince them and their elephant that change is a good thing. We also need to appeal to the rider, the thinking and rational part. Likewise, the rider alone is not enough. We need both in tandem.

I personally find this metaphor very helpful. When I get all excited about an idea I say to myself that my elephant is interested but then when I start picking holes in it and allowing inertia to take hold, I say to myself that my rider needs some reassurance or has some questions or issues that need to be taken care of. Likewise if I see someone poking holes into what otherwise seems to me like a great idea I take this as a need to appeal to their rider. The authors of Switchsay that what seems like resistance on the part of the rider is often simply a lack of clarity, so I take this is a sign that I need to provide as clear as possible in order to assuage the doubts of the rider.

Shaping the path is another prominent idea in the book. This means that we want to create a situation in which change is as easy as possible in light of the challenges that riders and elephants face. Imagine creating a smooth path in the jungle so that both the elephant and the rider can see, choose and follow it. We want to remove obstacles to the behavior that we are aiming for. I see this as sort of eliminating things that might block us from making the changes we’d otherwise like to make.

How do these ideas relate to your own professional development or your involvement with ITDI? I think that is a question better left for you. I wish you the best of luck and would be happy to further discuss any of these ideas.

Read more work from Michael Griffin on his wonderful blog ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections


23 thoughts on “Connections and Influences – Michael”

  1. Hello Michael and thank you,

    The other day I got a chance to observe a lesson of a teacher who was working with a group of lower-intermediate students on identifying and using collocates. Students were working in pairs, but there were an odd number of students, so I was lucky enough to get to work with that lone student and actively participate in the class. I was struck by how much the student I was working with enjoyed the class. There were a series of well thought out activities, all with a pretty clear goal. The students finished up class with a bunch of collocations around communication (email, telephone calls, get, send, make, etc.). The reason I’m sharing this, is there were a ton a things that were going well in that class. It wasn’t exactly how I would have taught the class, but there were things I could pinch and learn from and use to improve my own lesson. I think your focus on “bright spots” at the micro- and macro-level as a way to make change is so simple and so amazing. I think this year is going to be filled with bright spots, and as many peer observations as I can squeeze onto my schedule.


    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Kevin. I am happy you were able to make some connections from your post to your real life teaching situation. One thing that kept creeping into my mind in relation to the post was that with models it is often very easy to say something like, “Well that would work for him because ____ and not for me because ____.” I think this is a bit too easy and not really helpful so I think it is great that you are thinking in terms of pinching from bright spots rather than thinking why they might not work for you. I am glad to see that you will be focusing on bright spots. Even though I wrote the post it is a nice reminder to me as well!

  2. Great post. I had never heard of this book but I’m going to check it out. Thanks for sharing Mike.

    1. Happy to share it Barry. I thought it was really interesting, insightful and informative. I also thought their other book about making things memorable is a good one (and probably more related to teaching!). I enjoyed your post a lot as well. 🙂

  3. Thanks for this great post, Mike. Really enjoyed it.
    I am in the middle of the process of refocusing my whole life. I have been an elephant for much of my life going for and at things full blast, ignoring the driver and blaming the wall I had driven the elephant into.
    I have learnt a bit now and I let the driver lead the elephant at the wall and spot the weakest point and then ram it.
    It still hurts but at least there is a hole in the wall. OK, I have tortured this metaphor a little too much.
    I love the first two ideas and I find them really useful. The radical in me still struggles with the third one. I understand why it is important and how it relates to the bright spots but I have yet to see change that is not painful and conflict-ridden. Change can be interpreted very negatively by those who created or benefited from the things that need changing, you tread on toes, and you can do this in the nicest most positive way imaginable, it will still hurt.

    Perhaps I should read the book….
    Thanks for the great post.

    1. Tamas, I have a copy I could send to you. 🙂 Mike kindly lent it to me, and I think it is a gift that keep on giving, especially among the iTDi crew. 🙂 Let me know what you think! Mike, how does this sound?

      And Mike thank you so much for making this blog series possible. Such an inspiring idea!

      Thank you for reminding me of those elephants!

      1. Josette! Let’s do it. If you want to send it and Tamas wants it then I have no problem with it. Would be great to know that the book is the UAE and that it found a good home.

        BTW I was wondering where my copy was for a moment as I was writing the post!

        I am so happy with the variety of posts and glad it worked out so well.

    2. Hey Tamas,
      Thanks for the kind words.
      I really enjoyed your post by the way (as usual). I though it was magical. 🙂
      Here is the link just in case non-Tamas people didn’t see it yet: https://itdi.pro/blog/2013/04/29/connections-and-influences-tamas/

      I enjoyed your comments, Tamas and they really hit home for me.
      I think I am easily led by my elephant in a variety of directions and it is exhausting at times. You wrote, “. I have been an elephant for much of my life going for and at things full blast, ignoring the driver and blaming the wall I had driven the elephant into.” What an interesting way to think of it!

      One thing that your comments struck home for me is that change is not always easy (and is indeed often/usually/always? difficult). From my view at the moment awareness of the kinds of things that can block us is a good start and from there we can take action.

      Hahah, when I talked about the book in a presentation I said it’s not a self-help book but perhaps I protested a bit too much.

      Once again I appreciate the comments.

      I hope you are having a wonderful month of May.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book!

    1. Thanks so much for the comments Naomi. I know you are quite the bookworm so I am especially happy to share a book with you! I mentioned it above to Barry but the Heath Brothers have another book out about how to make things “sticky”/memorable that I also highly recommend. It is written in the same informational and fun style. Here is a link:

      I think I read this one first and I really enjoyed it.
      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  4. Hi Michael,
    I want to thank you for your article because I am reminded of the elephant. Things are and will be changing in the next few months. Anxiously waiting to hear you on the ItDi lesson, More Than Activities A Flashmob ELT tonight at 8:00pm (Vietnam Time). Thanks, and keep up the good work.

  5. Thanks for sharing the information. To be honest, I’ve never heard about the book before, but from what you’re sharing, it must be a very good book. Such an unusual yet inspiring insights about ideas. I should read the book.

  6. Thanks Mick for sharing this.
    Reading the blog I can relate the idea presented here to my recent experience with iTDi summer course.
    The time that the course was introduced to me I was thrilled, I think the elephant was inspired enough as I always look forward to professional development ideas and programs. But when the rider inside me started thinking about obstacles it seemed nearly impossible to fit in this course. Looking at bright spots and my local model (a friend who has been actively participating in professional development courses despite his tight schedule) I begin shaping the path by eliminating some of the problems. Now I am really pleased with the improvement I have made since the course started. The presentation and tasks shed light on some aspects of teaching.

  7. Great ideas mentioned in the article! I find the one about striking the balance of motivation between the “elephant” and the “rider” quite inspiring. But, don’t you think that there are other factors that may have a great bearing on any aspired change? Thanks Michael!

  8. Thanks for the post, Mike!
    The metaphor about the ‘elephant’ and the ‘rider’ applies so well to my case! It happens that I’m going right now through a process of implementing change in my professional life and have felt frozen by what you call ‘ paralysis by analysis’, which keeps picking holes in my elephant, making it weaker and hesitant. In my specific case, my rational side keeps reminding me about my weak computer skills, which makes a huge fear take over me when I am doing any kind of work that involves technological resources. Never heard of the book you mention in your post but will try to buy it or borrow it. Wish me good luck, Mike! I’m doing my first ‘homework’ in this online course, which I’m beginning only today. I hope my elephant will take me far ahead in spite of my rider’s frequently discouraging analytical reminders. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Mike shines some light onto the process of changing, described in the book Switch by Chip an Dan Heath.
    Mike mentions the relationship between his emotional driving force (elephant), and his analytical and rational part (rider).
    “How do these ideas relate to your own professional development or your involvement with ITDI?”, asks Mike. In my professional development I set myself goals and then set deadlines to achieve those goals. My elephant sets the goals and my rider sets the deadlines. If I reach the goal in time, I keep on learning. When I don’t reach it, I stop learning and move to another thing.
    Thanks for your lesson.

  10. Thanks for sharing this book, Mike. Your words are truly inspirational. I’ll try not to lose motivation when I’m trying to reach my goals as I am easily distracted.

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