“The Nudge” and the power of whispers.

I am a fan of the CBC radio program called “Under the Influence.” Terry O’Reilly hosts this show, and it provides a fascinating perspective on the world of advertising and the psychology of persuasion. In an episode called “Nudge: The Persuasive Power of Whispers”, O’Reilly discussed the research of University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass Sunstein. In essence, the pair argue that people’s choices can be influenced through gentle “nudges” in their environments. A more humorous example in their research was the response to “overspray” in the men’s urinals at the Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam. The maintenance department was spending an inordinate amount of time cleaning up the overspray, at the cost of other cleaning time in the airport. An idea emerged to etch an image of a black house fly onto the bowls of the airport’s urinals, just to the left of the drain. Apparently, placing this small target on the urinal’s resulted in an 80% decrease in spillage, freeing the custodian’s time up to care for other parts of the building. This strategy has become commonplace on urinals around the world.

In thinking about nudge theory, it appears to me that good educators having been using “nudges” to influence students in positive ways for years. Modelling appropriate social behaviour, giving students encouraging notes when teachers “catch them doing something good,” even giving timely, reflective feedback around student work are all intended to have positive influences on student learning, behaviour and choice. As a parent, I’ve learned that giving subtle hints often work better than strict rules when trying to influence my kids choices. For example, keeping a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter as a “first choice” when looking for a snack, and keeping the chips tucked away on the top shelf is a simple way many of us try to influence positive eating habits in our homes. (Unfortunately this nudge has not been as successful for me as it has been for my kids, but I digress).

As we move further toward a world of “personalized learning and choice” for students, our role as educators will undoubtedly shift. It is an exciting time to be involved in education, but it is also daunting as we are less sure of what the future holds than ever before. What is clear in a world of constant change is that the more we look to create an education system that increases student choice and flexibility, the more important the role of teachers will be in the lives of students. Ultimately, we need to be increasingly conscious of ways we can provide positive support and influence to students who face a world that appears to be constantly shifting beneath our feet. Thinking of positive “nudges” might be one framework to help in this journey.


Connecting Students to their Community

Three years ago, we started a course that focused on project based learning with an emphasis on community projects. The course is run out of our shop class and is led by an outstanding teacher, Kevin McGifford. Kev is determined to find ways to have students “own” their learning, and all of the projects that the class takes on are started through class meetings where project ideas are vetted through the group, and those that gain consensus from students are pursued. Some of the projects that the group has taken on include refinishing memorial benches at a local park, creating a playhouse for a Habitat for Humanity project, earning resume building certificates (First Aid-WHMIS-Fire Extinguisher), exploring small business ventures with proceeds going to charity (building storage sheds-planters-gazebos to order) and community beautification projects. The graffiti clean up was another student lead project that included the support of the city. Students continue to look for opportunities to lead and connect to their community in positive ways – Kevin’s course is providing a wonderful venue for this to occur.

Outreach Teaching

During my last year of university, I had a roommate who had a job as an outreach social worker. John worked in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, and his clients were homeless, poverty stricken individuals who were also often dealing with serious mental health concerns. Many of these individuals wanted nothing to do with John, but he got on his mountain bike every day, and looked to make contact with his clients on the streets. His job was to ensure that they were doing ok, to keep tabs on their whereabouts (as very few, if any, other individuals were checking in on them) and to offer them support in any way that he could. For the most part, John told me that his clients really didn’t want his help, nor did they want to see him. And yet, John was consistent and persistent in his contact with his clients and his offers of support.  On some days, one or two of his clients would actually take him up on an offer to go to a clinic, see a financial aid worker, or even get help to look for a safe place to live.

John had an extreme job, and he was working with extraordinary clients. And yet, his determination and mandate remain inspirational for me as a teacher.  I also need to be making consistent attempts to connect with my students, to find out where they are at, and to offer the type of support that will give them the best opportunity to be successful in the moment. For some students, it is helping them to identify their passion, or helping to build their literacy skills. At other times, it may be connecting them with counselling support at a crucial moment in their lives. However, for all of my students, I think the most important support I can give them is to be consistent and persistent in my attempts to connect with them and to foster an ethic of care, even when they are perhaps equally persistent in telling me in their own ways that they are not interested.

This outreach metaphore recently took hold for me when a student I hadn’t seen or heard from in over two years came to visit. He was in a difficult place in his life, and he needed help to find some direction. This was a student who had consistently said “I’m not interested”  no matter what I did to try to connect with him or  help him back when he was in highschool.  Ultimately, he had come back to ask for help when he was ready, and we were able to provide him with the appropriate resources he needed in the moment.  This experience reminded me that our efforts to build relationships with kids can be similar to planting seeds: even though you treat them all with the same care, you can never be sure how each of them will grow. 

 As you do your own “outreach teaching” this year, never doubt the positive power that your consistent and persistent attempts to connect with students can have on their lives.

Re-thinking “special programs” in education.

As a student services teacher and a district helping teacher focused on supporting students at risk of leaving the school system, one thing has become clear to me.  Run in isoloation, special programs for “at-risk” learners often do not work.   Don’t misunderstand me, there will always be a place for alternate education settings, and different classroom set-ups to support students who have unique learning and behavioural needs.  However, it has been my experience that these classrooms are often looked at as places where students are handed off to the alternate teacher, often without a clear strategy of how the student might transition back into the regular school community, or how they might access elements of the broader educational community.  Too often, specialized programs and their students are seen in isolation from the regular classroom.  Once a student has been placed into the alternate setting, the job of “fixing” the student often lay largely in the hands of the support teacher. 

By now, we know that best practice in supporting our most vunerable students doesn’t work this way.  While these programs are created with the best of intentions, and often at considerable expense to a district, they too often isolate students and the support teachers from the greater school community, depriving them of relationships that could provide the spark that they need to feel connected and successful at school.   

Instead of programs, I believe that we need to increasingly look at our support structures from a systems perspective.  Each student that enters our schools has a unique learning profile, and as we move increasingly to a 21st Century Learning paradigm, we need to move away from “programs” and towards systems that build as many positive opportunities for students to connect (or reconnect) with adults throughout the school as possible.  Increasing these connections only improves students chances to feel attached, and to build relationships that will keep them tied to their school.  In a systems approach, students have better opportunities to be linked to learning opportunities that connect with their strengths, whether this is art, applied skills, work experience, or core courses.  Why would we disconnect our most vulnerable students from the rich resources and positive relationships that our school communities have to offer?

Our district has been working hard to find creative ways to ensure that all students can be successful in school.  Efforts in the area of School Completion and Transition have focused on strengthening resources and communication between teachers.  Administrators and counsellors routinely discuss creative ways to keep students connected to the larger school community, such as work experience opportunities, or a combination of alternate classes and regular classes.  This requires collaboration, thinking outside of the box, and measuring success in a different way.  Ultimately, we are trying to find ways to support our most vulnerable learners “one student at a time” as research Sharon Jersoski has urged educators to do. 

A systemic approach provides clear opportunities for students to re-integrate into the larger school community.  It moves away from pathologizing students with labels, and focuses on building on students strengths and resiliencies.  Most importantly, it helps ensure that the school staff collectively owns all of its students, and doesn’t fall into the trap of handing off kids to programs.

Partnerships in Education

Likely the most important theme of teaching in a quickly changing world is that school communities cannot undertake this journey alone.  We need to be connected as educators, but we also need to be more interconnected with our communities at large.  Our most at risk learners require more support than we can hope to provide on our own as educators.  We need to continue to look at creative ways to build partnerships and networks with social agencies to ensure that we are doing everything we can to support students who are living in poverty, dealing with addictions or are involved in abusive relationships (to name just a few issues).  We need to move to a place where respectful dialogue and support networks are consistently fostered in order to best support at-risk students and their families. 

Over the past year, I have been involved in meetings with members of the business community, police, mental health practitioners, and social workers, to name just a few.  While some of these meetings came as a result of reactions to student issues, more often than not, these meetings are being arranged to try to establish proactive plans around supporting students and their families to experience success in school, and in their day to day lives.  Many districts are actively looking at creative ways to partner with social agencies and other community members to help provide more meaningful support to all students.  As an example, 0ur school has made an effort to free up meeting space for outside agency counsellors, as we have found that students are more likely to attend meetings held in school than in a traditional counselling office.  This has also increased the level of communication and planning between school staff and community agencies.  

Ultimately, there needs to be a shared understanding that issues that occur in schools are merely reflections of larger community issues.  If we are to move all students towards success as 21st Learners, we must collectively share the responsibility of educating and supporting the whole child. 

21st Century Learning – Reflections on Three Themes

I recently read a Twitter post from a fellow educator that stated simply “if we are going to expect our students to write, we should be writing as well.”  I had been thinking of starting a blog, if for no other reason than that I agree with the idea that we should be regularly practicing the art that we teach.  Perhaps just as importantly, I find that writing enables me to construct my own knowledge and understanding of issues in a deeper manner.  And the issues today certainly require deep thinking!  We raise our children and teach our students in a world that is changing at exponential rates.  Creativity expert Ken Robinson suggests that the totality of human knowledge doubles every few years, while futurist Ray Kurzweil (the inventor of one of the original text reading software programs) claims that artificial intelligence will soon render biological humans obsolete.  Needless to say, we are truly living in revolutionary times, certainly beyond anything Gutenberg dared to dream of when he invented his printing press. 


 It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of change facing us as parents, educators and citizens.  Within this time of unpredictability and constant change, three themes keep me focused as I move forward on my own educational journey as a “21st Century Learner and Educator”.  These themes include: the importance of social media as a tool to stay connected and learn from other educators; the shift to having students construct, and not simply absorb, knowledge; and the importance of building partnerships with parents, community agencies, businesses and other stakeholders to ensure that we are supporting all students.  


Clearly, there has never been a more important time to connect and collaborate with other educators than the present.  Web tools certainly facilitate this opportunity in remarkable ways.  My brief experience this year using Twitter to connect with like minded educators and to be directed to professional development resources has been incredibly powerful.  Blogs, websites, Twitter, and Facebook pages are only a few examples of how we are now using the web to connect and learn.  Recently I read a Twitter feed from an educator in Turkey about a great web tool to use in digital storytelling.  In the moment, it seemed quite a natural exchange.  Upon reflection, it is simply incredible.  Another inspired educator I’ve connected with through social media includes a blog site from a principal in New Jersey.  This individual has changed his viewpoint from a place where he was totally against social media and smart phone use in his highschool, to embracing these tools.  Within the face of this incredible networking, learning and communication explosion through social media, I believe we are only now just skimming the surface of the possibilities that these tools can provide to enhance learning, both for educators and students. 

A second educational theme that I believe is important to keep in focus as we move forward comes from John Abbot’s work around 21st Century Learning.  Specifically, Abbot’s argument that we need to find ways to help students construct, and not simply absorb, knowledge, is at the crux of a positive educational shift.  Getting past this hurdle is in my estimation one of the biggest challenges of moving public education forward in a meaningful way.  As a student services teacher, I have struggle in my own practice to find ways to move from a position of “knowledge authority” to “learning facilitator”.   This is in large part because changing traditional practices requires making a complete paradigm shift in the way we view pedagogy throughout our entire educational system.  How inspiring to see people actively engaged in this debate.  I have appreciated learning from them and sharing ideas around best practice as we shift from teachers as “knowledge holders” to teachers as “facilitators of learning”.  When Sir Ken Robinson eloquently argues that we need to help students learn to “create” rather than simply “experience” life, it is hard to argue against the idea.  

In my next post, I plan to reflect on the theme of building partnerships in public education.  Of course, it goes without saying that relationships are key to fostering student success.  However, I also believe that if we are going to find ways to help all students have success in our education system, we need to be continually looking at ways to implement support that is holistic and systemic.  In my view, this will require creative thinking, bold approaches, and broader networks of collaboration between our school system and the communities at large than we have ever seen before.