How to Change Your Mind and the Mind of Others

It is one thing to know the facts. It is another to believe them or to buy into them. While I don’t see this anymore, I remember years ago driving by hospitals and health clinics, and I would a group of people gathered outside for a smoke break. I often wondered about that. Out of all the people in the world who are most likely to know about the adverse impact of smoking on one’s health, I would think that health care workers would be at the top of the list. Yet, there they were gathering outside for a smoke break. How could this be?

One obvious answer seems to be that knowledge is not enough to change one’s behavior or even change one’s mind on a matter. There is more to changing thought and action than pure knowledge. In fact, this is a consistent flaw in many educational offerings and assumptions. People just assume that giving people the facts will change their thoughts or behavior, but we know that isn’t true. If it were, we could much more easily address any number of social challenges in the world by simply giving people all the most relevant facts on the matter. Learning doesn’t work that way.

While there are many excellent books, models, and theories about the art and science of changing minds, I continue to appreciate the coherent collection of seven levers for mind changing posed by Howard Gardner in his 2006 book, Changing Minds. Based upon his research, Gardner argues for the value of seven elements (or what he calls levers) for mind change. Used together, they allow one to build a robust and compelling case that is more likely to help us change a mind. They include reason, researcher, resonance, representational redescriptions, resources and rewards, real word events, and resistances. I’ll examine each of them below, but what fascinates me is the potential of helping students learn to use these in order to change their own minds. Of course, this can also be a tool for educators or others who aspire to create a compelling case or a craft a collection of experiences that are likely to influence in a positive way.


A rational argument is certainly not without value today. Reason has an important role. While it might not be enough to change our own minds or those of others, it still has power. We can use good old logic. We can use logical analogies to help clarify our point. We can also make our logic more understandable by designing taxonomies or classifications that help to build our case.

Of course, this and every other lever can be misused. We can just as well use taxonomies and analogies to hide faulty logic or leave out important facts. Yet, on the positive side, when it comes to helping to change my own mind on something, I still find it important to analyze it from a logical standpoint. Is it logical? Does it hold up to clear and simple reason? Once I an confident that the answer to such questions is “yes”, then I can start to find or craft analogies and ways of classifying knowledge that helps me and others to more clearly or easily see the evident logic.


Then there is drawing from relevant research to bolster one’s case. This might be drawing from quantitative studies that support the proposed change of mind. It might also mean drawing from qualitative cases, providing evidence from this research that a change of mind is indeed warranted.


You can have the most carefully researched argument in the world combined with a list of logical reasons and still find yourself or others unmoved. That is because we have a persistent need to resonate with the argument. If we see it as too much of an outsider or something with which we are unable to relate, then we are far less likely to be swayed. As such, building a case for ourselves or others calls for us to take care to discover how we can communicate the message in a way that truly resonates.

Representational Redescriptions

Yet, when we are engaged in the changing of our minds or those of others, we often make the mistake of ignoring what is already in a mind. We are not blank slates. We have existing beliefs, values, and mental models associated with just about anything. That is why redescription becomes so important. This is the process of helping us dismantle an existing mental model and replacing it with the new one. This might mean debunking existing models, but it might also just mean helping redefine what we are already thinking. We might even use the same or a similar vocabulary, but we can help to create a new set of definitions and ways of thinking about those words.

Resources and Rewards

Sometimes we can have a great and compelling idea, but there are not existing resources that allow one to act upon the new ideas. As such, even if our minds are changed temporarily, the change is less likely to stick. In the absence of the necessary resources to embrace and embody the new change, it will quickly fade. This is where resources and rewards become an important part of the process. It might not just be making a compelling case. It might also entail the conditions that we set up for ourselves or others.

Real World Events

Either we can connect the new idea with a real world event, or these events will just occur, resulting even in unexpected or unplanned changes of mind. Major world events like wars and natural disasters might fit in this category, not to mention personal tragedies and challenges. Of course, this is not an argument to manipulate using events, but there is the reality that world and life events play a significant role in our openness to a change of mind. I find this to be true in my own mind. There are certain events that have happened in my life, creating windows of opportunity for me to consider an important change. The same thing is true for others, and we can help people learn to take advantage of this to embrace desired personal changes.


There there are any number of other forms of resistance to change. These are often distinct or unique to an individual or group. Part of changing one’s mind is discovering these different forms of resistance and working through them. Again, I find this to be a valuable personal exercise. For example, I loved writing for decades but it is only in the last decade that I became serious about writing. What changed? I had to work through some of the personal challenges, things that held me back, many of which I didn’t even recognize. The reality is that I was afraid of failure. I had false notions of what it took or meant to be a writer. There was a lack of confidence and fear of rejection. Until I worked through some of these forms of resistence, writing didn’t take off for me. Yet, when I did tackle these issues (not entirely but aggressively), writing became a daily part of my life, something that I pursue with near abandon and an immense amount of joy and gratitude.

Again, one could read this list and the descriptions, and use this as a tool for manipulation. Yet, consider it differently. What if we were to take these ideas and learned to use them to take greater control of our own minds. What if we helped learners discover how to use these levers to change their mind and habits in ways that help them achieve personal goals? That is the promise and possibility that interests me.

What is a Chief Innovation Officer?

Recently, I got a new title. I still have the old ones. I remain a professor and AVP of Academics. Now I’m also the Chief Innovation Officer. Of course, that begs the question. What is a chief innovation officer? As best as I can tell, it goes back almost twenty years, drawn out of the broader world of research and development, which I find helpful in thinking about the different expressions of chief innovation officers across organizations.

When it comes to research and development, there tend to be three emphases, all of which align with a central purpose. R&D units in companies and organizations have the task of championing and forming innovations that further the core mission and business of a company. Yet, those three emphases are important to recognize.

Sustaining Innovations

There are the sustaining innovations that some R&D units pursue. These relate to enhancements and improvement of existing products and services. This might been revamping an existing product or service to better serve existing users of that product or service. It might also involve reworking a product or service in a way that it meets the need of a new audience.

Another way of looking at sustaining innovations is to think of the learner, customer or end user. Many great sustaining innovations come from observing, learning from and listening to these end users. It is about finding out what is working, what is not, what needs are unmet, what expectations might be unmet or only partially met. Or, it might be about how the current products or services are just not accomplishing the end goals for the user. From that research, we revise existing products or create new ones.

In the world of education, this is where the majority of innovation work focuses. We are learning about what is working and what is not. Then we use that data to improve the student outcomes, student experience, student satisfaction, or a combination of these three.

Disruptive Innovations

Focus upon truly disruptive innovations is almost non-existent in the education space. A truly disruptive innovation creates a new market or disrupts an existing one. It might be a small market, not tapping into the audience served by the dominant and related products and services. Of course, this is speculative. It is heard to determine if a technology or innovation will be disruptive. Yet, we do know a few things. First, disruptive innovations are often ignored or belittled by the largest players in a domain. From a financial perspective, the return on investment might not even look very favorable. So, the small startup or grassroots effort has an opportunity.

Because of the speculative nature, the attempt to find and grow a disruptive innovation is almost certain to include multiple failed attempts. Of course, learning organizations are risk averse and have negative views of failure, which is why most learning organizations don’t venture into this world. Yet, those who do, and do so successfully, tend to create a culture of experimentation and pilots. They take a concept and try it out for different contexts and populations, perhaps a dozen until the right one is discovered.

Curiosity-Driven R&D

There is another category of work that sometimes involved a Chief Innovation Officer. This is heavier one the pure, curiosity-driven research. There are questions posed and research is conducted to seek answers to those questions. There might be my initial application of the knowledge pursued or acquired. This is much more exploratory and not necessarily even focused on a potential product or service. Yet, many great and practical ideas do come from this sort of exploratory work research. The one who conducts the research and the one who applies it to solve real-world problems might even be a different person.

CIO Roles

So, what does this have to do with the role of a Chief Innovation Officer. As I learn more about this role myself, I’ve come to define it this way. The role of the CIO is to champion innovative policies, practices, procedures, and programs that further the mission of the organization. This might come in the form of sustaining innovations. It might involve efforts to identify that right fit for a disruptive technology. It might involve supporting more curiosity-driven research too. At the same time, the CIO might be involved with promoting innovations and collaborations across units, promoting and pursuing that which is unlikely to take root in a single unit. So, someone living and working within the seams of these units might have what it takes to move things forward. In addition, this CIO might be the one to draw people together for shared accountability, all for the sake of innovation in pursuit of the organization’s mission.

The CIO is not necessarily the one doing all of the innovating. Sometimes he/she is, but the primary role is to promote and champion innovation wherever is arises or exists. This will result is a much broader range of innovations, far beyond what a single person or team could accomplish. At least that is how I plan to approach the role.

Why Change When Schools Seem to be Doing Pretty Well Now?

Why change? I write about education reform and educational innovation. I highlight emerging and promising practices. I champion new or often less familiar models for education, and I’ve been doing this for years. Some challenge my ideas, and I am so grateful for those challenges. They help me to refine my thinking, to let go of errors in my thinking, and to come up with more effective ways to communicate the ideas. Yet, it is interesting to me that there is one challenge that I rarely get from people when I talk or write about new models of education. This is fascinating to me because this one challenge is a pretty good critique. It is simply this.

You write and talk about new models of teaching and learning, but what is so bad about what we are already doing. People have been warning us about the impending obsolescence of the education system for well over a century, yet it still seems to be working. It is the system that produced today’s doctors, lawyers, artists, scientists, humanitarians, journalists, CEOs, entrepreneurs, ministers, and more. These people obviously learned something of value in school, something that helped set them up for success today.

It is a fair critique. Plenty of people seem to get a pretty good education in the existing system. If that were not the case, then our system would have already failed. Yet, if we look around, we can see people who are being successful. Students are learning. Students are developing a sense of agency. Students are growing and developing in important ways. So, given this fact, why all this talk about change?

My answer is threefold. First, while the current system is successful for some students, there are other students who are not successful. Second, the world is changing in significant enough ways that what we are doing now is not necessarily what we need for the future. Third, I like to note that I’m not arguing against existing schools. I’m simply arguing for a greater variety of options for people. Allow me to break each of these down in a little more detail.

“While the current system is successful for some students, there are others who are not.”

We can point to the great success of certain students, but if we look at the education system at large and we take the time to carefully review the statistics. We find that the system is far from successful for all students. There are students who drop out, but there are also students who make it through the system, but they just don’t get the nurturing and support that best sets them up to reach their fullest potential. They do fine in life, but we don’t see what could have been.

It is important to note that the impact of a school system often doesn’t show up overnight. We have to look at the subtle and gradual changes over decades or longer. When we do that, we start to see that there are indeed increases in student learning and performance in some areas, but there are decreases in other areas.

In addition to this, I run into countless people who speak of their schooling experiences as some of the worst memories in their lives. They survived, but they don’t look at it with fondness. Some describe themselves as having “scars for life” from the schools that they attended. This isn’t necessarily the majority, it is far more common in some school systems than others.

“The world is changing.”

The word is experiencing unprecedented changes, potentially greater than anything that we’ve seen since the existence of the modern education system. As such, if the size and rate of these changes is even close to what many suspect, we are looking at changes that will demand a different type of workforce and education system, just as we saw with other massive changes throughout history. We’ve seen large shifts in the education system in the past, and we are going to see them again. Societal changes seem to drive us to this changes at different times in history.

“Toward Greater Variety”

I’ve written about this quite a bit in the past, but I don’t think it would be good to throw out all the existing education models. Different models are serving different students well, and they are helping to nurture people with diverse interests, gifts, and abilities. Yet, we have a past that often shows insensitivity to diverse schooling options for the majority of people, and I contend that this needs to change. If we want to help shape a society and world that honors diversity of all types in people, we need to celebrate diversity in educational options. We must let go of simplistic arguments that see to drive everyone to and through a narrow set of schooling options controlled by a few.

Yes, the current system is serving some students well. As such, if someone asks me why I am lobbying for changes when the system ins’t broke, I reply with these responses. The fact is that the system is not working for everyone. We can do better.

User-Centered Design in Schools

User-centered design is a design concept that is simply focused on designing products and services with the user’s needs in mind throughout the process. At first, it sounds simple, but this approach requires a keen eye, an ability to listen, and being truly opening to learning from the patient, customer, or end user of whatever it is that you might be designing. It calls for the mindset of an ethnographic researcher, being deeply curious, and pushing through conventional wisdom and untested assumptions. Yet, the end result is something that really works, something that truly addresses a key need or problem for the user, something that resonates with people.

While I appreciate the caution of trying to treat a school like a business / customer transaction, there is still something useful about a user-centered design when it comes to our schools. Consider, for example, how curricula are often designed today. Interview dominant textbook publishers. Ask the designers and developers of leading educational software and educational product companies. Ask teachers and curriculum committees to describe the processes that they use to design curriculum. How many of them actually use a user-centered design approach? I can tell you from my study over the years, the answer is very few.

There are some who turn to research about education. Textbook and curriculum developers, for example, do tap into content experts, educational psychologists, instructional designers, and many other people with valuable expertise. It is quite rare, however, for the development process to involve careful observations of learners, interviews with learners, observations of future life and work contexts, and the like. We have resources informed by research sometimes, but it is not necessarily designed in a way that takes into account important factors and nuances with various learners.

For those who think that I’m arguing that we should just cater to the random whims of any student, I’m not. This is about getting serious when it comes to results and impact. User-centered design is producing wonderful outcomes in healthcare and other areas, so why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of it to improve our education system?

While this is great for new and existing schools and programs, I think a great place to start is more user-centered design with our policies. Instead of lobbying for one policy or another and turning the whole thing into troubling political positioning, what would happen if we worked toward a system where policies were shaped, informed by and evaluated by some sort of user-centered design approach? Shouldn’t policies be created and supported that keep the learner in mind? What good and ethical reason can we have for promoting policies that do not truly have the user/learner in mind throughout the process? Isn’t school first and foremost about equipping students for life and work?

Of course, I’m keen to engage the students directly in the project too. There is little keeping us from teaching user-centered design to students and having them help to improve the school system. After all, they are already the stakeholders for whom this is most important. Why not give them a chance to help make it better and, as a result, improve their own learning? I talk to many groups interested in creating new schools or programs, and I love providing initial consulting for such groups. Yet, it is fascinating to me how often people don’t take time to learn directly from students or to engage them directly in the design and development process? Why not? What is there to lose? I sure see much to gain.

Yet, maybe all of this is a bit too abstract. If you haven’t seen user-centered design in action or even read about it, you might still be wondering what all of this is about. What exactly is user-centered design? As I noted before, it is a broad term to describe any design that is keeping the user’s needs in mind throughout the process. It works from a number of simple guiding principles. I’ve tweaked them a bit to apply this to an educational context.

  1. Base the school, class, lesson, learning experience design upon a deep understanding of the learners, their goals and needs, and the unique context or environment.
  2. Involve learners in helping to shape, reshape, and revise the school, lessons, learning experience design in an ongoing way; and at all stages of design and development.
  3. Elicit learner feedback and input (through observation, surveys or other creative ways) throughout the process, not simply starting with the leadership’s potentially narrow set of goals and priorities. Respect the goals and needs of the learners.
  4. The design never ends. It is constantly tweaked and adjusted based upon feedback loops from the learners and other key stakeholders (parents, community, etc.).
  5. Design in a way that considers the full breadth of the leaner’s experience, not just narrow academic metrics. Design in a way that fits with the goals, values and priorities that are near and dear to the learners and other key stakeholders.

Imagine how our schools might change if we were to consistently and persistently apply these principles to our design of the learning experiences. Notice that this doesn’t diminish the role of the teacher in the least, but it also doesn’t build a system around the preferences of the teachers, the administrators, or any other whose primary responsibility is to serve the students in their learning. If schools exist for learners (and for the communities in which those learners will live and work), it only makes sense that a deep understanding of the learners would play a central role in the design and redesign of the experience.

There are a variety of processes that people use for user-centered design, but almost all of them are based on five key elements. The first involves identifying the problem, but it isn’t done in isolation. Already at the problem phase, we are listening to, observing and learning from the user. The second step, given that this is typically a product development process, is to determine the context in which a user will make use of the product. Or in a learning context, we can think about the context in which we hope for learners to learn and to apply what they learn…not only that, but the context in which the learners themselves hope to learn and apply what they learn. Then, based on this early research, we need to create a list of critical characteristics. What elements need to be present in this product if it is going to meet the needs of the learners? These elements will serve as guides throughout the rest of the design process. Next we need to start designing some prototypes and creating plans to get learner feedback and input on these prototypes. How well do they embody the key traits and meet the identified needs? We then identify a prototype to further develop, build it out, and start to gather ongoing user data that we then use to persistently adapt and improve what we are doing.

Imagine the possibilites if we were to embarce such an approach to the design of our schools and learning expeirences.