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

UPDATE – A nice NUDGE experiment here


Why Gove is wrong about O Levels: Lessons from the past

Anthony Steed

The news that Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, is considering scrapping the current GCSE qualifications and introducing more ‘academically rigorous’ qualifications has been met with no little derision by many in the teaching profession. Mr Gove’s justification for these changes seems based upon a notion that the current GCSE’s have been ‘dumbed down’ and that much of the improved performance identified in examination statistics originates from an inverse relationship between the difficulty of examinations and students attainment – pupils aren’t getting better, exams are getting easier.

The debate over whether this notion is borne out by fact is one that is on-going and extremely difficult to assess. The world is a very different place today compared to the 1970’s, with a labour market that requires a different set of skills. Advances in technology mean that both the skills and knowledge we would require young people to possess by the time they leave school and the way in which they access this information have changed.

Leaving this debate to one side, the author is in agreement with Mr Gove regarding the need to provide our students with more rigorous and challenging qualifications. This agreement does not amount to an acknowledgement of the ‘dumbing down’ assertion referred to earlier, but rather an agreement in principle that challenging qualification will drive improvements in the education of young people. If 22% of 16 year olds are achieving an A* in Mathematics it would seem to suggest that a good proportion of these students are not being sufficiently challenged by the current syllabus. As teachers and students become more savvy about how to achieve the top grades, inevitably a larger proportion of the results will bunch towards the top end – just under 70% of students achieved an A*-C grade in GCSE examination. This makes distinguishing between the achievements of these students evermore difficult and, inevitably, devalues the qualifications themselves.

If we take the chart below, which shows the distribution of GCSE results in 2011, this assertion becomes even more evident. Results are heavily skewed to the left. With seventy per cent gaining at least a C grade and nearly half get a B or above, and nearly a quarter get an A or above. The red line represents what the distribution should be and the yellow line is the reality.

This cannot be right. For GCSE results to have any meaning at all, then surely most entrants should be getting an average mark (C or D); in 2011 more entrants got A* – B than got C – D.

In this climate it seems only right that we consider how students can be stretched to their benefit. However, Gove’s latest conception is majestically flawed. Although details are sketchy at the time of writing, it does appear that, in a selective number of subjects, a new O Level style qualification will be introduced and that less rigorous ‘CSE’ style qualifications will be brought in for those students deemed ‘less academically able’. The inherent danger in this proposal is that a two-tiered system of education will develop. The author recognises that in the real world students have different abilities and talents. The author also recognises that an education system should stretch students of all abilities. However, I would also argue that a good education system should provide students with aspirations and that it should not put a ceiling on what can be achieved, regardless of perceived academic ability.

Arguably this is exactly what will happen with these new proposals. Fast forward to 2015 and Headteachers will have made the necessary ‘strategic adjustments’ which will likely amount to those students the school deems ‘most able’ being hived off to work towards a smaller number of O Level subjects. The abolishment of the National Curriculum will give Headteachers greater autonomy regarding which subject students study and, as they look to give these students the best possible opportunities to succeed in these new qualifications, it seems inevitable that many of the ‘optional’ GCSE subjects that enrich the curriculum for students disappear from their timetables. Meanwhile those students deemed ‘less able’ will be cattle-prodded into vocational qualifications and simpler CSE-style courses. These students, seeing that they have been overlooked for the more prestigious O Levels, will have little aspirations or expectation of further or higher education. “A Levels are for those O Level kids” they will say. Parents will treat these ‘lesser’ CSE courses as an anathema, interpreting any suggestion by the school that their child be placed onto these courses as a signal that their child is academically incapable. They will fight tooth-and-nail to ensure their child gets a place on an O level course because parents will understand better than most the implications that the alternative will have for their child’s future. Children on CSE-style courses will be branded as failures. A child’s course will be set at the age of 14 and it would be unlikely that many would find their way to an alternative.

If the vision alluded to here sounds like exaggerated hyper-bole  it may be worthwhile taking a brief look at the educational history of the UK. The two-tiered qualification system has been used before of course. The distinction between Grammar Schools and Secondary Modern, resulting from the Butler Act 1944, was implemented under exactly the same thinking – the most able should be stretched and the least able should be provided with an education that suited their ‘needs’. The reality, as highlighted by the Newsome Report 1963, was that the system had created a lost generation of young people who grew up educated in poorly funded and depressing environments with high staff turnover and poor discipline. Famously, in the year the report was published, only 318 former secondary school pupils went onto sit A Levels in the UK and none went to university.

Fast forward to 2025 and we may have our own ‘lost generation’ on our hands as Headteachers, having long ago begun to forcefully exercise their new admission powers, begin to ‘select’ the ‘right students’ for their O Level-centric school. Schools in poorer areas, with a less academically gifted demographic and perhaps a larger proportion of EAL students will have to make do with the rest. The O-Level schools will probably want to distinguish themselves from their ‘less able’ neighbours. They will probably want to re-brand themselves in a way befitting their academically elite position so that parents and children know exactly how superior they are to the rest. “We need a good name that conveys how we are different from the rest” the conversation will go….

“What about ‘Oration Schools’?” a junior minister will chip in

“Good heavens no! Those uneducated CSE-sitting parents won’t understand that word” replies the senior minister

“Er… ‘Enunciation Schools’ sir?” chips in another junior minister hopefully

“Dear God!” explodes the senior minister

“Were you two both educated in a flaming Secondary Modern!… I’ve got it we’ll call them ‘Better Schools’ – there’s no way the unwashed masses will mistake its meaning!” exclaims the satisfied senior minister.

“Sir, are you sure about this?” reply the junior ministers tentatively

“It’s just… isn’t the educational system supposed to support all children in the same way? Don’t they all deserve an equal chance?”.

“Yes indeed” replies the senior minster and then adds knowingly “But some children are more equal than others”.

Applying learning theory in the classroom

Applying learning theories in the classroom

How many of us are aware of the multitude of learning theories that have been written and published over the last fifty years? Furthermore, how many of us actively attempt to apply these theories on a day-today basis in our teaching? With the possible exception of the enduringly popular Bloom’s Taxonomy, we can hazard a guess at very few. However, theories of learning should not be treated as some vague piece of academic reading that you undertook whilst completing your teaching qualification. Moreover, they should certainly not be treated as the sole domain of university academics sat in comfy offices and not having to contend with 9C on a wet Wednesday afternoon. Learning theories can be an excellent resource for developing ideas, resources and strategies that can improve the outcomes of our students and make our own experiences as teacher more interesting and rewarding.

The first thing to note is that the most popular learning theories are not some flash-in-the-pan hypothesis from an academic that has never been anywhere near a modern secondary school. The most well-known theories will have undergone the scrutiny of rigorous tests in schools up and down their country of origin. They will have been picked apart by other academics, eager to point out the flaws in a competitor’s idea. Put simply, we can make the assumption that the ideas put forward are pretty reliable. The second thing to note is there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all-circumstances learning theory. The authors themselves are often very clear about this. Think of learning theories as a Schmorgas board of ideas which can be selected or rejected at will and you will be on the right lines. Thirdly, once you get past the highbrow language, the theories themselves are often remarkably simplistic and easy to apply to your day-to-day teaching – indeed it’s highly likely that you are already using many of them!

I will focus on two of the most well known theories – Bloom’s Taxonomy and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory

Blooms Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning is on theory that many of us will be familiar with – not least because our subjects models of assessment closely follows the ideas set out by it author Benjamin Bloom in 1956. Bloom’s idea – which was remarkably novel at the time – was to classify different types of thinking and then to place them into some kind of hierarchy, with the most simple at the bottom and the most difficult at the top. Rote learning of knowledge (are you listening Mr Gove) was viewed as being the most simplistic, so was placed at the bottom with more challenging skills, such as evaluation, placed at the top. Bloom’s model has a number of useful applications in the classroom. It provides a set of ready-made objectives that can be easily adapted to just about any topic that you might find yourself teaching (see Fig.1).


Bloom’s is also particularly powerful when thinking about how we can ask better questions and how those questions can be differentiated for different ability ranges (See Fig.2)

Fig.2 – Examples of low and high order questions using Bloom’s Taxonomy

Following on from the last point, it provides a very effective model for differentiating worksheets, exam questions or group work. By asking weaker students to focus on learning the names of different methods of pay motivation, asking more able students to explain (analyse) how and why each method will improve motivation and asking the most able to focus on evaluating the relative merits of each method and making judgements about which are the most suitable it is possible students to make excellent (I hate the word ‘outstanding’ so we’ll use excellent instead) progress against their own prior attainment.

Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Gardner’s was interested in how people learn. He argued that all hold seven different types of intelligence; Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Visual-Spatial, Body-Kinaesthetic, Musical-Rhythmic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal. They key to Gardner’s idea was his argument that each of us holds these seven intelligences in varying amounts – some of use will be good with numbers but have poor spatial awareness, some of use will be musical but have poor verbal skills. Many of us will instantly recognise these different groups of students within our classrooms. The child that cannot sit still (Body-Kinaesthetic) who is sat next to the child that will sit diligently and take notes. Whilst one of these students will excel in our classroom (no prizes for guessing which) the other will struggle to fulfil their potential. However, get the same two students out on the football pitch and the roles are reversed.

Where Gardner’s is often used best by teachers is as a way of enfranchising those students who do not possess the linguistic or logical-mathematical intelligences in a great abundance. These two types of intelligences are well catered for in classrooms up and down the country. However, other types of intelligences are often overlooked by teachers when planning lessons. Of course, this is partly due to the methods of assessments in our subject’s areas – the AQA Economics exam makes no provision for students being able to sing about cross-elasticity of demand! However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be able to make our classroom more interesting places for all groups of students. Gardner’s ideas can be easily adapted to provide a variety of classroom activities that will address the different needs of students. Role plays, news reports, making up a song or rap, the use of mind maps and group debates are all excellent ways that teachers can provide students with a varied and enriched curriculum in Business and Economics.

Try This!

When planning a new scheme of work, try using the grid below to ensure that Bloom’s and Gardner’s idea are being addressed in your classroom. The results should be lessons with more depth, challenge and variety

Knowledge Comprehension Application Analysis Evaluation

Further Reading

Some other theories have been included below

Learning Theory Explanation Classroom application
Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (Mayer) A cognitive theory of multimedia learning based on the assumption   that there are two separate channels (auditory and visual) for processing   information and that learning is an active process of filtering, selecting,   organizing, and integrating information. Get students to match images to terms or key theory“What does this image represent?”
Problem Based Learning Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional method of hands-on,   active learning centred on the investigation and resolution of messy,   real-world problems. Set students an open-ended question such as ‘How do we get the UK   economy moving again?’ Students and teacher investigate how this could be   solved – teaching of concepts such as demand side policies takes place   through the investigation
Experiential Learning (Kolb) A four-stage cyclical theory of learning, Kolb’s experiential   learning theory is a holistic perspective that combines experience,   perception, cognition, and behaviour. Using an on-line simulation of an economy, ask students to simulate a   cut in income tax. Students then record the impact of this on key economic   variables. Next ask students to predict what will happen if interest rates   are cut. Get them to run the experiment again to see if their prediction was   correct
Discovery Learning (Bruner) Discovery Learning is a method of inquiry-based instruction;   discovery learning believes that it is best for learners to discover facts   and relationships for themselves. Before teaching a students a topic ask them to research. For   instance, before teaching them motivational theory, set them the task of   research key motivational theories (don’t tell them which ones!). Students   feedback their findings at the end of the lesson
Multiple Intelligences Theory (Gardner) Multiple Intelligence Theory posits that there are seven ways people   understand in the world, described by Gardner as seven intelligences. Linguistic,   Logical-Mathematical, Visual-Spatial, Body-Kinaesthetic, Musical-Rhythmic,   Interpersonal, Intrapersonal Students learn about production methods by forming a real production   line, perhaps making paper aeroplanes (Kinaesthetic)Students write a song/rap outlining the external influences that a   business will encounter


How to ‘Flip’ your classroom

Flipped Classroom – Anthony Steed

Are educational paradigms beginning to shift? The digital age has meant the way in which we access information has changed immeasurably. The answer to pretty much any question is now at our fingertips or at the end of a mouse or the tap of a tablet screen. This seemingly limitless access of information has irrevocably changed the way in which students approach their learning and will continue to so in the future – we teachers must simply endeavour to keep up!

With this in mind perhaps it is time for us to re-evaluate the role of the classroom in the learning dynamic? Schools continue to employ an instruction based model of education which involves the teacher delivering information to their students. “Today we are going to learn about oligopolistic market structures” routinely translates as… “Today I am going to spend the limited time we have together as teacher and student telling you about the features of an oligopoly market – I expect you to process and make sense of this information in your own time, although I will make some time towards the end of the lesson to support you with this”. Sound familiar?

Teachers will endeavour to support students in their learning and, for the most part, do a pretty fine job working within the limitations of time and students numbers. It seems unlikely that class numbers or the amount of time we get with our students will change in the near future so the question is …. Is there a better way?

Fig. 1 – the ‘Traditional’ model  vs. the ‘Flipped’ classroom model

American college’s have begun to adopt the flipped classroom approach and a way of circumventing these restrictions. The flipped classroom model involves the teacher delivering the ‘taught’ element outside of the classroom. Students complete this element of their learning prior to attending the lesson. This allows the teacher to spend more 1:1 time with students in lessons consolidating their learning and allowing them to progress to more challenging tasks quicker. Doubtless many of you who are reading this will ask what is so new about this idea? Indeed many of us have been employing a ‘flipped classroom’ model for years, setting reading or research homework’s prior to the delivery of a topic (although without the snazzy Americanised name).

It is the variety and accessibility of modern technology that has made ‘flipping’ the classroom a more exciting experience for both teachers and students alike. Video clips, podcasts and blogging are just three tools that can be effectively used to deliver a flipped classroom. Students will often be more enthusiastic about learning through these technologies than through reading a traditional textbook and taking notes (although I believe these methods still maintain significant value). Moreover, these technologies can often be effectively delivered via those annoying little gadgets that seem permanently attached to the students palms and have little white wires that snake up from the uniform towards the ear, meaning that these learning resource can be stored more conveniently and accessed at will.

Where to begin?

My advice is to start small. Select one lesson from your scheme of work to try out before even thinking about delivering an entire topic. Next select a method of delivery. There is no ‘best method’ of delivery – only what’s best for you. Some will be familiar with recording their own voice or themselves teaching on video. Many of us will have written blogs for students. However, the good news is that there is a wealth of resource material available through sites such as YouTube (the excellent pajholden is highly recommended for economics). Textbook pages can be easily scanned and made available to students as PDF’s, as can lesson notes. Powerpoint still works perfectly well despite the programme being increasingly viewed as the perfect cure for insomnia. If you really want to push the boundaries programmes such as Go Animate!, Storify, Camstudio and Jing allow you to create video that can be used to the lesson content. The point is to use whatever works best for you and your students. The most important thing is that whatever resource you provide allows them to learn independently.

Now for the delivery…..

Now that you’ve created your resource it’s time to give it to your students. This should be done before you attempt to cover the topic in a lesson – in other words the information should be new. Make it clear that they are expected to watch/listen/read the resource and make sense of the information themselves. Now to plan the lesson itself. Ideally all students will have engaged with the materials, processed what they can and arrive at your lesson with questions. You may want to ease them into this at first by providing a 5-10 minute recap at the beginning of the lesson. The important thing is not to teach them the topic over again. This defeats the purpose of flipping the classroom in the first place. I would recommend some scaffold questions that will support their progress and act as an effective AFL tool for you to see how much they have understood. You should find yourself presented with a highly differentiated classroom (fingers crossed). Those that either didn’t access the materials or didn’t fully understand the content can get additional support from the teacher, whilst those that fully understood the content can quickly make progress in term of accessing higher level questions from pretty much the beginning of the lesson and don’t have to spend the first 15 or 20 minutes of precious lesson time listening to the teacher explain a topic which they already fully understand. I could dredge up that ominous phrase ‘outstanding progress’ at this point but I’ll leave that to the reader!

The beauty of the flipped classroom is that it allows the teacher to move away from the traditional role of instructor and become more of a ‘coach’ moving from student to student providing support or guidance where it is needed. This can happen for pretty much the entire lesson – not just the last 20-30 minutes, maximising the time we get to spend working with our students directly. The other great thing about flipping your classroom is that students have permanent access to these resources and so can go back to review them after the lesson or as part of their revision.