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.