Over at KQED Mindshift, I have an article about the blossoming field of social pyschology, behavioral economics, and decision science research that is being applied to educational issues. I try to raise public awareness about the extent and growth of research that uses all kinds of “nudges"--text messages, survey questions, other brief activities--that help students advance their education:
Peter Bergman used a series of text messages and other communicationsto parents in Los Angeles and increased GPA and math scores by .2 standard deviations. Hunter Gehlbach and colleagues conducted a recent classroom intervention where students and teachers completed surveys that identified commonalities in their relationships that closed achievement gaps by 60 percent. David Yeager used a writing intervention in an online freshman orientation course at the University of Texas to improve first-year credit completion by 4 percentage points. Each of these studies involved a trivially small and inexpensive intervention, with effects that rival the gains from some of the most expensive efforts in education.
Overall, I bring a cautious optimism to these experiments:
Education has a long history of silver bullets -- and these certainly look an awful lot like silver bullets. But the published effects are striking and many experiments have been shown to be most effective on our least advantaged students. When I consider any of these experiments in isolation, I think it would be immoral not to send students a few text messages if we knew that could help struggling students improve their grades or get to college. At the same time, I'm unnerved by how, in the aggregate, these experiments seem to be manipulating students as they proceed through an educational journey that, ideally, would develop a strong sense of student independence, curiosity and autonomy. My strongest belief is that the research community needs to engage the public in a conversation about these approaches. The scale of experimentation and adoption means that these methods deserve greater public awareness and scrutiny. Researchers have come to believe that nudges and pings can have enormous power over individual student choices, and educators, parents and the public-at-large need to discuss how that power should best be used.
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