Meet the rider and the elephant. You’ll never forget them!

Jonathan Haidt’s remarkable concept of the rider (mind) and the elephant (body) in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: The elephant in us enacts habitual practices we’ve learned that sustain our daily lives, what we do automatically. The rider, on the other hand, represents our minds looking ahead and around, wondering, speculating, and conjuring alternatives. The rider is the viewer of Wiseman’s documentary who commits to becoming a vegetarian. She is the teacher who attends a statewide workshop on brain research, brings back new ideas for revamping lessons, and shares her excitement with colleagues; yet, three weeks later, she is practicing as she always has, the ideas from the workshop having receded into the background.

Why does this happen? Haidt’s rider and elephant metaphor can help us. Sometimes, we make radical changes in our lives on our own—changes that retrain our elephant. Some quit smoking one day never to smoke again. Others quit sweets and desserts to maintain low blood sugar. And some commit to exercise for health and fitness and stick to it. Still, as this book makes clear, change in teaching has been slow, as the continued persistence of teaching from the front of the room testifies.

Perhaps it’s because we teach alone. To make changes, we need support and encouragement from people close to us, but teachers next door to us teach alone, too. Even when we try something different, we do not feel we have enough time, as we need to maintain the regular coverage curriculum to meet external demands. Sometimes, students have difficulty adapting to a new approach, so we back off and pledge, perhaps, to try it again next year. It’s easier and less stressful to let the elephant continue to do its thing. Besides, we have little incentive to change, and no one to hold us accountable.

Do you find incentives to change?

For more on this crucial issue see Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting students to Learn from Amazon: