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Behavioural insights for education teachers

Monday, August 26, 2019

Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler’s tips for teachers

 

At Pearson, we want all learners to reach their potential and make progress in their lives through access to better learning. With that in mind, our Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) teamed up with Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler to apply behavioural science to education. 

 

As many teachers know, it’s not just the content you pass on to your students that matters, but the life skills. Evidence gathered by BIT suggests that teachers can assist students to improve their non-cognitive skills by making the classroom a safe place to learn and encouraging deep thinking. Teachers can do this by:

  • promoting belonging;
  • counteracting negative self-perceptions;
  • helping students see the relevance of classroom material;
  • helping students learn to learn;
  • and giving effective feedback.


Belonging

A feeling of belonging comes from positive relationships with others or feeling committed to others through a shared interest or way of life. It’s viewed as the foundation of learning and is important for academic success and wellbeing.

Members of minority groups feel the strain of not belonging more than most. Research suggests that Aboriginal students have positive self-identity as Indigenous people, but lack positive self-identity as students. To address this, schools should be places where Indigenous people feel they belong.

Teachers can promote a sense of belonging by encouraging students to reflect on similarities they have with each other. Here’s a simple activity you can try: ask students to turn to the person next to them and discuss three things they have in common (e.g. shared hobby, or culture).

A feeling of belonging comes from positive relationships with others or feeling committed to others through a shared interest or way of life.

 

Counteracting negative self-perceptions

Anika wants to study engineering at university but feels there’s a negative stereotype around women and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). She enjoys and feels suited to STEM subjects, but she’s daunted by the prospect of pursuing an engineering career. She worries about making mistakes or struggling, and confirming the stereotype that women are not good at STEM.

 

“Stereotype Threat” – the anxiety that we possess a negative stereotypical characteristic associated with our group

 

This is an example of “Stereotype Threat” – the anxiety that we possess a negative stereotypical characteristic associated with our group. Stereotype Threat can be a source of stress for students and impact negatively on academic performance.

We can help students to partly overcome it by asking them to reflect on their personal values (e.g. friendship, music) and write about two or three of them for 10 minutes. This exercise prompts students to reflect on who they are as individuals, rather than their stereotype.


Seeing the relevance

A student might question why they’re studying trigonometry when they want a career in media. That’s not uncommon – many students can struggle to see the relevance of what they learn.

 

To help students see the relevance in classroom learning, we can encourage them to define it for themselves.

One study asked students to summarise what they had learnt after each science class and then consider how they could apply their knowledge to life outside school. At the end of term, the students who completed this exercise received higher grades and reported being more interested in class, compared to students who didn’t.


Learning to learn

The Philosophy for Children (P4C) program promotes metacognitive skills and deeper understanding by encouraging children to question material, not just accept it.

Since introducing one P4C class per week for 6-18 year olds, The European School of Madrid educators have found that students develop personality characteristics associated with success, demonstrate improved cognitive ability, and are more likely to help others, compared to non-P4C students.

In a P4C class, students read text or watch a video around a philosophical concept (e.g. truth). They are given time to reflect and choose one discussion question each. Teachers help to ensure everyone feels comfortable contributing to the subsequent discussion so that it’s not dominated by the opinions of one or a few students.

The P4C team have gathered together several resources online to help teachers start or extend deep thinking activities.

 


Giving effective feedback

Quality feedback has been shown to be one of the most efficient ways to improve student learning. But it’s got to address the root of student error. It should also be specific, timely, and provide clear guidance on what students should do next.

Students may pay more attention to their marks rather than their mistakes. To counteract this, and help them understand their potential in a given subject, teachers could give a true grade and a possible grade for completed work. Then they can explain to each student what they need to do to achieve their possible grade.



To understand a student’s potential in a given subject, we could give a true grade and a ‘possible grade’ for completed work.

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