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Nudging into education

04 November 2015

The next time you are waiting at a pedestrian crossing, take a look at the ground. If you see the words, ‘Look Right’ or ‘Look Left’, you are experiencing ‘nudge’ theory. The basic premise of the theory, which has developed from various academic disciplines including behavioural science and cognitive psychology, is that individual and group behaviour might be altered and directed without the need for outright prohibition. In fact, the theory argues that adopting the principles embodied in ‘nudge’ theory is more effective that simple legislative change. In 2010, the Coalition Government established the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), which became known as the ‘Nudge Unit’. Now a limited company, rather than based in the Cabinet Office, its importance with regard to policy implementation is, if anything, growing more pronounced. One reason why BIT is listened to is because of its undoubted track record in improving compliance with various aspects of social and economic policy. BIT has had notable successes in increasing tax collection rates and payments, vehicle excise duty and reducing medical prescription errors. It has, moreover, worked on projects to increase charitable giving and the uptake of organ donation schemes. BIT has taken the work of academics Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman and others and applied it to solving ‘problems’ in the areas of social policy. There is no reason to think that its approach will not be extended within the field of education, over and above its work on improving attendance. While the efficacy of the techniques used by BIT may not be in question, the ethics of using those techniques is something that we ought to consider. The first question to ask of the practical application of ‘nudge’ theory, in whatever form it takes, is who defines the ‘problems’ to be ‘solved’. Even when there is broad political consensus about policy agenda is it acceptable to seek to alter behaviour without being explicit about the techniques used or seeking explicit consent? Just because something works, ought it to be used? Questions of this kind about ethics lead naturally to questions about how the techniques are developed and used, and this means metrics. If we are able to measure one thing, does that mean that we adapt the way in which we think about a whole raft of other issues not subject to measurement? Do we use quantitative means to measure qualitative outcomes? In the era of ‘big data’ and predictive algorithms these are valid questions for those who seek to shape policy implementation in ways that are not always obvious to those directly affected by the techniques used.We are often told that the education system is in crisis and crisis implies that solutions are needed. While we ought not to downplay real problems with how colleges interact with other parts of the education system, with industry and with wider society, the ‘solutions’ we seek have to be thought about with care and nuance. It is not enough to ensure conformity with any social policy simply by being skilled at increasing compliance. Sometimes, a policy is not being implemented well because it is wrong or poorly thought out. We ought not, moreover, to rely on techniques simply because they are relatively cheap. Complex ‘problems’ sometimes require complex, difficult and expensive solutions and the process by which we arrive at them might be informed by the efficacy of any techniques, but not determined by them. Matt Dean is the Technology Policy Manager for the Association of Colleges.