Behavioural insights for education 

Practical tips for school leaders to promote learning and support teachers and parents


Richard Thaler won the 2017 Nobel Prize for his research into human behaviour and economics. We’re on a mission to help people make progress in their lives through access to better learning. When we heard about Thaler’s work, we saw an opportunity. Our Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) worked with Thaler to uncover simple strategies to help school leaders better support their teachers and engage parents.

Studies investigating school effectiveness show a strong link between the role of school leaders and student outcomes. But school leaders are busy people. They’re expected to be visionaries, innovators, disciplinarians, budget specialists, and more. It’s not surprising that many report feeling the strain of pressures in their positions.

With this in mind, BIT came up with practical, easy-to-implement strategies designed to help school leaders run their schools more effectively. Strategies focus on:

  • Recruiting teachers – making recruitment relevant
  • Retaining teachers – empowering teachers, showing gratitude, and prompting reflection
  • Getting parents involved – pre-informing parents and choosing the right messenger

Making recruitment relevant

It costs somewhere between $17,750 and $33,000 to recruit an employee who leaves within 12 months. Recruiting teachers can be costly when you consider four in 10 quit within a year of qualifying. And recruiting teachers to rural schools is even more of a problem. It means finding people willing to Few are willing to live and work in remote locations.

And recruiting teachers to rural schools is even more of a problem – finding people willing to live and work in remote locations can be difficult.

Salary and benefits are important when trying to convince teachers to come to a particular school but equally important are debt forgiveness (student loans) and opportunity for personal development (graduate study).

Recruitment messages that emphasise benefits that prospective teachers find important have also shown promise. School leaders can hone in on the “right” recruitment message by asking dedicated teachers what motivates them daily and building subsequent job advertisements around these points.


Empowering teachers

Teacher motivation is an important predictor of student success but motivation can decline during a teacher’s tenure. How can school leaders ensure teachers stay enthusiastic about their job? One answer is autonomy. Studies report that teacher job satisfaction is higher when principals allow more autonomy over decisions.

The “Donors Choose” program is one way to give teachers more control. Teachers post projects/lessons they wish to implement in their classrooms and members of the public can donate to the projects they like. Projects that are sufficiently funded can proceed. Donors Choose is US-based, but mycause is an Australian equivalent.

Showing gratitude and prompting reflection

Teachers may feel that the effort they put into their classes is not fully appreciated by students, which can lead to teacher burnout. To address this, school leaders can help students show gratitude towards their teachers. BIT is currently testing whether asking students to write thank you notes to their teachers increases teacher motivation.

You can also encourage teachers to think of things they are thankful for. A recent study in Hong Kong asked teachers to reflect on their week and write down three good things that had happened to them. For some participants, this exercise increased life satisfaction and reduced emotional exhaustion.

Similarly, teachers can be asked to reflect on what being a teacher means to them and their community. This can help them reconnect with their reasons for choosing the profession.


Getting parents involved

Pre-informing parents

In a recent study, parents were texted about what their child had learned at school that day and any upcoming tests. Each message invited the parent to take specific actions (e.g. “Encourage your child to study for Friday’s test”) so that they understood what their child had to do next.

The students whose parents received the texts outperformed students whose parents did not, by a significant amount: the equivalent of one additional month of schooling in maths. To us, this suggests that parents can have a massive influence on their child’s learning if they are kept simply by being updated on a regular basis.

Choosing the right messenger

If we respect the messenger, we pay more attention to their message. This is “The Messenger Effect”.

In one BIT study, a group of office workers received an email from HR informing them of a charity donation scheme. A second group received an email from a colleague, “Harriot”, in which she offered reasons for donating to a certain charity. Harriot’s message more than doubled the number of donors.

School leaders could use this approach in the written and verbal communications they send to parents. Instead of writing 
a letter inviting parents to a school event, another parent could extend the invitation explaining why they think it’s a worthwhile event to attend.

Want to learn more?

The techniques in this article, plus many more, are discussed in further detail in our Behavioural Insights eBook. Access a free copy of Behavioural Insights for Education.

Learn more about these topics in the eBook:

  • Getting parents involved on page 46

  • Staff exercise: Activate your parent network on page 49

  • Showing gratitude and prompting reflection on page 44

  • Staff exercise: Reflecting on why you became a teacher on page 45

  • Making recruitment relevant on page 40

  • Retaining teachers on page 42

  • Staff exercise: Crowdsource your recruitment messages on page 43

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