New Report: Everyone *Starts* with an A

March 14, 2014 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

It’s trumpet time again.

After a highly successful launch of the RSA’s first foreign language publication in Germany earlier this week, we are pleased to announce that today we are releasing the English-language (original) version of our report: Everyone Starts with an A: Applying behavioural insight to narrow the socioeconomic attainment gap in education which was written mostly by RSA’s resident Behavioural Economist Nathalie Spencer and supported by the Vodafone Foundation Germany, based on Berlin.

I believe it is a sound, creative and timely report, presented with suitable caveats about its grounded but still speculative ideas and its potential impact. Whenever you come to know a set of ideas well enough to believe they are ripe for further exploration, it is healthy to remember that those who are not as familiar with the ideas will struggle to share your conviction.

Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.

This report is a bit like that, as indicated by an unreasonably simplistic and hostile (if predictable) response from The Daily Mail, and a more measured, but still cautious response at The Daily Telegraph. ,The Times, and The Times Educational Supplement. We have also had appearances on BBC Five Live, Sky News, Drivetime, BBC Breakfast Television, ‘Voice of Russia‘, a range of national German newspapers, and we had the familiar honour of being ‘bumped’ from The Today programme at the last minute due to breaking news (last time it was the Pope’s resignation and North Korean nuclear tests; this time the death of Tony Benn).

Failing Better

In the feedback, there have been several hundred comments, some highly sceptical if not downright dismissive, but many of them favourable and curious. For the record we didn’t ever say you should eliminate the idea of failure entirely, or that failing is not a crucial part of learning…do commentators asked for a soundbite really think we are that naive? If you look closely at the ideas in the report, they are not classic ‘bleeding heart liberal’ material at all. Some of them (e.g. starting with an A) have the potentially to be highly exacting in spirit.

Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.

A new angle on an old and stubborn problem:

There is a hugely stubborn and intractable issue at the heart of debates about social justice and it’s called the socioeconomic attainment gap in education. The point is broadly that children from families and communities that have better social and cultural resources get better school results, regardless of the quality of school provision (Crudely: richer kids do better at school, not so much because of the schools they go to, but because their families are richer). The attainment gap is a huge part of how inequality is perpetuated and why people get uneven life chances. So not only is it hugely important for major debates about equality  but it’s perhaps the toughest nut to crack in the whole field of educational research and practice.

The attainment gap issue is relatively ‘stuck’, and we had the audacity to think that some ‘behavioural insight’ might be at least relevant in our efforts to address it. However, we also had the humility to recognise both that it might not, and that if it did, it would only be part of a much bigger picture. (Unfortunately you can’t put all those caveats in a press release, or nobody would pick it up at all). This kind of research is precisely what organisations like the RSA should be doing, because it is cross-disciplinary and too speculative for most academics to take on (although we had a great deal of academic input into the report and it is as rigorous as we could make it).

How much can we expect from schools?

Given how much of education takes place outside of the school and outside of the classroom(very different things), addressing the attainment gap without major structural and cultural changes outside the school is always going to be difficult. The question then becomes: what can schools do? And part of that answer is to work in ways that ensure the learning dispositions that are picked up automatically outside of school by relatively advantaged children, are fostered as far as possible in school, by those who have less of such advantages outside.

The question then is: how do we do that? Which is where we thought some behavioural insight might come in.

Everyone Starts with an A:

The idea in the report’s title (perhaps my main contribution to the report, most of which stemmed from the excellent work of Behavioural Economist Nathalie Spencer) is based on the endowment effect, which suggests that we value things more when we own them already, and are more motivated to avoid losing what we have than we are motivated to gain what we don’t yet have.

This widely known and important (it might explain rather a lot about home ownership and property bubbles, for instance…) idea made us wonder if it might make sense that starting with the top grade might motivate students to hold on to it through continuous improvement (it’s not at all about not having anything left to aim for!) rather than starting from a completely undefined place, and aiming upwards.

It’s an idea that is at least worth considering, no? The point is not the wishy-washy ‘all must have prizes’ idea, but more about how you best get all students – not just those with high levels of educational support at home – to care about continually giving their best, when you have the best opportunity to do it (i.e. in school).  

Well, apart from continually improving to stay where you are, the only way is down, and then either further down or back up. Just as when you start without a grade the only way is up, and then down, and back up, or down….we are not changing ‘the ups and downs’ of learning, all we have changed is the default starting point. This is why the details of the implementation and the judgment of the teachers is crucial- there are many ways to do it.

The other standard objection has been: surely the only way to go is down – won’t students find that really disappointing? Well, apart from continually improving to stay where you are, the only way is down, and then either further down or back up. Just as when you start without a grade the only way is up, and then down, and back up, or down….we are not changing ‘the ups and downs’ of learning, all we have changed is the default starting point. This is why the details of the implementation and the judgment of the teachers is crucial- there are many ways to do it.

You can, for instance, use it as a ‘love of learning’ or ‘learning to learn’ measure, and keep a different grading system for actual performance. You could interpret it very strictly so that 90% of the class lose the grade within a few weeks, or more leniently so that you really have to go quite far off the rails before losing the A. We don’t have firm ideas about such things, which are a matter for contextual and personal judgment, but what we are sure about is there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with everybody starting with an A; it’s just a different default, a new framing and a new set of teaching and learning challenges that we have reason to think might work well.

Keeping behavioural insight in perspective:

Those who are not psychologically minded, temperamentally sceptical, and wary of the idea that somebody else might know what could be good for them, instinctively feel suspicious of such ideas, but often make judgments before really knowing what is meant too, and sometimes react viscerally to the idea of behaviour change or ‘behavioural insight’.

In fact, Behavioural insight means a variety of things, as I argued in the seminal piece for the Guardian’s new Behavioural Insight blog. Moreover, behavioural insight need not be an elite discourse, and could be for everyone. Indeed I think behavioural literacy should be a core part of education.

However, some people struggle to hear new ideas as helpful additions to shed light on old ideas rather than some kind of special fix that will sort everything out. For this reason, we went out of our way to make clear that we are not suggesting our ideas are some kind of panacea.

For instance, one of the three authors of the report, RSA Associate Director of Education Louise Bamfield said:

“We’re not saying that these measures represent a silver bullet or that they will magically fix all the problems teachers face on a day to day basis. What they do provide, however, is more than a ‘nice to have’ optional bag of tricks. The ideas in this report include simple, low cost interventions that when added together could have a significant impact on the relationship between teachers and learners. Behavioural insight alone is certainly not sufficient to cure educational disadvantage, but it may be a necessary component of a larger whole.”

Here are the core ideas in the report, as expressed in our Press Release:

1) Mind-sets and attitude towards student’s mental abilities and intelligence: The report concluded that academic ability is not a fixed personal characteristic, but can be increased through practice and diligence. The report said that teachers should focus on developing a ‘growth mindset’ in order to break through stereotypes (held by both pupils themselves and teachers) and subsequent expectations about ability and performance. Researchers recommended that pupils are praised for effort instead of ability. The report also suggested giving a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’ and positioning wrong answers as an opportunity to learn more and enjoy the natural learning journey.

2) Cognitive biases: Whilst most of us like to think that we make rational, calculated, carefully weighted judgments and decisions, in reality, we are susceptible to biases in our thinking. Teacher’s first impressions of pupils in the first days or weeks of the academic year may have undue weight on their continuing evaluation of them throughout the year, and pupil’s may behave and perform in response to how they see themselves in the teacher’s eyes. The report recommended that educators engage in ‘perspective-taking’ (role-playing) exercises and discuss the relevance of such biases on a regular basis to promote learning reflexivity. They also suggested structuring incentives around ‘loss aversion’ with having an entire class defend an A grade.

3) Surroundings (environment influences): Subtle and no-so-subtle cues in our surroundings can affect pupils’ effort levels, aggression and test scores, the report said. The evidence in this area is significant and given the relative ease of the interventions they’re worth exploring. Changes to pupil’s environment could include priming students with exposure to words associated with intelligence, including priming with the letter ‘A’ on top of a quiz. The report concluded that views of nature of ‘green space’ can reduce mental fatigue and reduce aggression. Poorly maintained school buildings and classrooms (cues of poverty) were also found to have increased students impulsivity and short term thinking (over long term gain).

Professor Carol Dweck’s work on ‘growth mindsets’ features prominently in the report, and her core message, which is also, I believe, the very heart of behavioural insight, is that the most fundamental human trait is our capacity to change. More to the point, making sure this message is understood by everyone is one of the most effective changes we can make, which is what we hope this report will help to do.

 

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