Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Using behavioral techniques in K-12 education

A new report by the RSA Action and Research Center investigated the socioeconomic attainment gap in K-12 education, using the PISA exams (those international standardized tests you heard about in the news about a month ago) as a general benchmark. 

This particular report stood out to me because they looked at behavioral science as a possible source of interventions.  But then after reading it, I had a scary thought.  Nothing that they recommend is new in behavioral science, but apparently few people in K-12 education are doing much of it.  How disappointing!!!

Here are the main findings:

  • Teachers should help students develop a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.  For those of you unfamiliar with the terms, it basically is about locus of control.  If students think their intelligence, ability, and grades are determined by their genes and factors outside their control, they won’t be as interested in their studies, they won’t try as hard, they won’t persist through difficulty.  Teachers can promote growth mindsets by praising students for their “effort” rather than their “talent” or “intelligence.”  Push the notion that anyone can learn.  Poor past performance is no indication that they can’t do well in the future.
  • Teachers should exploit decision making heuristics to enhance learning rather than let them harm learning.  Use the anchoring and adjustment heuristic to get students to consider themselves smart right from the beginning.  Use feedback to create a confirmation bias that hard work pays off.  Use loss aversion to get students to fear not working hard rather than to fear looking bad.  Prime students with cues of intelligence and high performance. 
I don’t know whether to be happy that they finally got around to implementing what we have known for 40 years or happy that they are finally doing it.