Nudge Theory and Education

Anthony Steed

I have recently finished reading an interesting book entitled Nudge: Improving decision about Health, Wealth and Happiness. Authors David Thaler and Cass Sunstein draw upon research in behavioural economics to make some interesting assertions about human psychology and behaviour. The central notion of the book is that human beings make poor choices and are often irrational in their behaviour; that is to say they do not always make the best judgements given the information available and that these judgements are often influenced detrimentally by their peers. Anybody who has spent about 10 minutes in a classroom or has children of their own will immediately be able to identify with this notion.

The authors argue that the correction of these behaviours require a series of subtle ‘nudges’ as a way of encouraging people to make certain choices. They argue that simply telling people what to do often fails to work because more often than not the person doing the telling is wrong. So what, if anything, can the book teach us about correcting this irrationality and how could this translate into practical education policy? Below are some ideas I had as to its applications in the classroom and across the school;

1. Replace detention with ‘freetentions’ – OK the name doesn’t really work but the principle is sound. People are loss averse. The idea here is that human beings respond better to incentives than punishments. Imagine a school where the standard day finishes at 3.30pm. All students currently finish at this time, with the exception of the naughty ones who are often kept behind. Those children who struggle with their behaviour are regularly kept behind, as a result they begin to assimilate this into their expectations – in their mind the day finishes at 4.30pm as they are used to being put into detention and this is a price they are willing to pay for their behaviour. The result is that the disincentive loses its impact. Now imagine the same school where the typical day finishes at 3.30pm, but any child whose behaviour is good will be allowed to leave at 3pm. Moreover, they could choose to save these ‘time bonuses’ up and cash them in for a full or half-day off. What impact do we think this might have on some students? Remember…people (and kids) are loss averse.

2. Parents Day – not a totally new idea as I’m aware some schools already do this effectively already. This strategy could be directed at groups of parents to enhance their role in their child’s education and improve relationships between teachers and parents. The idea here is that many parents still maintain a negative perception of their child’s school and teachers. This is often based on memories of their own educational experience which create negative bias. Nudge theory would contend that these opinions are incorrect for two reasons;  firstly, in most cases the child will be taught by a different teacher and at a different school than the parent was, and so any such comparisons are spurious; secondly, the parents memories are often inaccurate, with particular incidents remembered and other positive experiences forgotten. In other words the parents’ negative perceptions are based on incomplete information. A Parents Day, where parents go into school and have a day of lessons without their children may give the parents a more accurate picture of what a school experience is all about and close the information gap.

3. Allow kids to choose which lessons they attend – Controversial I know but please bear with me. Imagine a school gives students a free choice that goes something like this, “Today you can attend any lessons you want, but you must attend for the entire day and you can only attend each lesson once”. What do we think would happen? If we take boys for example, I would hazard a guess that PE, Computing and perhaps Music would be packed. I would also hazard a guess that English and Languages classes would be devoid of males. OK, so obviously we want a balanced curriculum but how can we ‘nudge’ them into doing a variety of subjects whilst maintaining the illusion of choice? What if we made it easier or more appealing for boys to attend English but did this in a subtle way? For instance, we could make English lessons 45 minutes as opposed to an hour and offer English at the end of the day (so they could get away earlier). Or we could put English lessons on in the most comfortable rooms? Or we could give boys a ‘bonus’ (to be determined) if they attend an English lesson? By giving kids a choice but offering different levels of incentives to ‘guide’ their behaviour we are engaging in what the authors called ‘choice architecture’ – maintaining the notion of free choice whilst subverting this free choice with incentives to achieve the best outcome.

4. Change an ‘opt in’ to an ‘opt out’ – rather than letting kids off the hook by asking them to ‘opt in’ to something change the default position to an ‘opt out’. This idea gets to the heart of human psychology and plays on our inbuilt desire to avoid confrontation and our ability to feel guilt. This could be applied effectively to a number of areas around the school – for example, as a means of encouraging students to partake in extra-curricular activities a letter could be sent to parents stating that an after school club is compulsory unless the parents choose for their child to opt out.

5. Improve information for school leavers (when they’re 11) – this is one idea that is currently being pursued on a national level. Research has shown that children from poor disadvantaged backgrounds often have poor knowledge of their further or higher education options and the careers they could lead them into. As a result such children often view professional qualifications and careers as unobtainable. By filling this information gap it may be possible to raise aspirations among the most disaffected. This idea could be taken even further by providing parents with this information as well.

6. Pay kids to go to school – some schools have already employed similar policy, somewhat controversially, as a way of improving student attendance. However, the policy could applied much more broadly and linked directly to students performance. The argument is simple – kids react to incentives (like all of us). The problem is that some children don’t feel or understand their incentives to go to school and work hard. A monetary incentive (or something similar) is an incentive they can easily understand. Although the policy may seem morally wrong actually, based purely on a cost benefit analysis  it may actually make financial sense. If we consider the enormous amount of resources devoted to improving student attainment, paying students to do well in school may actually save the treasury money in the long run

7. Use peer pressure – put up posters in your classroom showing statistics about homework completion or behaviour  i.e. “75% of the class completed their homework last week”. This policy again draws upon and exploits human guilt in a similar way to the ‘opt out’ idea. A similar policy was trialled with great success in Bedfordshire hospitals in 2011. Doctors began placing notices in their waiting rooms along the lines of “95% of patients kept their appointments this month”. The result was a marked improvement in the number kept appointments or prompt cancellations (although it should be acknowledged that this policy was one of a number)

8. Send personalised text message as reminders about deadlines – Again drawing upon a policy implemented by Bedfordshire hospitals as a way of reducing missed appointments. This time we are closing the information gap. I have trialled something similar myself, having set up an email group and emailing students prior to a submission date.

9. Share progress information – this is already being used to great success in some areas within my own school and doubtless in schools up and down the country. Set up a spreadsheet for all of the students in your class. Use a traffic light system – green for a good piece, yellow for an acceptable piece and red for uncompleted or inadequate – and watch the impact on the kids. Like us adults, children often judge their own progress against their peers. Closing the information gap so that the children can easily make that judgement should help to increase competitiveness and motivation

10. Students make their own assessments – set up two trays at the front of the class. When pupils have finished a piece of work ask them to come up and place it in one of the trays. Explain to them that one of the trays is for work they deem to be a good piece of work and the other tray is for a piece of work they deem to be poor. Most of us would tend to be modest the first time around and place our work in the ‘poor’ tray (even if we didn’t necessarily believe  it belonged there!). However, next lesson the pupils will know what to expect and will be keen to produce a better piece of work to be able to justify placing the work in the ‘good’ tray

Please feel free to leave comment below with any ideas you may have with regards to the application of nudge theory


3 thoughts on “Nudge Theory and Education

  1. Pingback: Nudge Theory and Education | Kristaps Writes & Shares

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