Are you looking to change the behaviour of your students, or tweak the habits of your fellow teachers – then go EAST

Make the desired behaviour Easy.
Make the desired behaviour Attractive.
Make the desired behaviour Social.
Make the desired behaviour Timely.

The ‘Behavioural Insights Team‘ is a government organisation (now working with the charity, NESTA) devised to apply principles of behavioural psychology to policy. Their approach has become associated with the popular notion of ‘nudging‘ behaviour, with the unit becoming commonly known as the ‘Nudge Unit‘. From voting, to criminal behaviour, or both at the same time, these ideas are cleverly exploited to help tweak behaviour and sustain crucial habit changes.

Of course, this is the stuff that is eminently useful for schools and teachers looking to maximise their impact on student outcomes.

The ‘Behavioural Insight Team‘ have produced a really helpful EAST document to help policy makers implement projects with greater success. They define a simple method for modelling a project, divided into four main stages:

1. Define the outcome
Identify exactly what behaviour is to be influenced. Consider how this can
be measured reliably and efficiently. Establish how large a change would make the project worthwhile, and over what time period.

2. Understand the context
Visit the situations and people involved in the behaviour, and understand the context from their perspective. Use this opportunity to develop new insights and design a sensitive and feasible intervention.

3. Build your intervention
Use the EAST framework to generate your behavioural insights. This is likely to be an iterative process that returns to the two steps above.

4. Test, learn, adapt
Put your intervention into practice so its effects can be reliably measured. Wherever possible, BIT attempts to use randomised controlled trials to evaluate its interventions. These introduce a control group so you can understand what would have happened if you had done nothing.”

From this point they break down, with great clarity, the behavioural changes they are seeking into the four EAST steps:

Make it Easy

This insight is both incredibly obvious, but at the same time very complex. We are have lazy brains. We automate what we do so that we don’t have to think very hard. Thinking hard is quite literally tiring, so we avoid doing it wherever possible. Therefore, if we want to make a new behaviour stick, we need to remove any unnecessary resistance, making our thinking and feel easy.

The BIT team use examples where our default thinking mode is put in place to make it easy for us to automate our behaviours. Good examples include gym memberships, where the default is monthly payments which require the exertion of effort to stop, or default energy tariffs, which, though more costly, are simply easier to stick with. How can we apply this to schools? Examples abound. For example, If we wanted teachers to use video observation technology, we must make it as physically easy as possible, otherwise people will simply find an excuse not to do it.

My own lazy brain falls for these tricks all the time. I’m beguiled by simple ‘make it easy‘ steps – like Amazon ‘one click‘ for example. It is so easy to buy a book for your Kindle – well, one click – that the momentary impulse to purchase can be satisfied before you have even thought through the damage to your bank account. Those of us with an unread stack of electronic reading will share my pleasure/pain! Can we ‘one click‘ student behaviours? Can we help ‘one click‘ school improvement? Put simply, we need to keep the message of any new project simple and smooth the path to changing behaviours.

Make it Attractive

Another beautifully simple insight. We all love novelty and personalised messages. The BIT team found strong evidence that adding someone’s name to generic text messages enhanced the amount paid in fine to HMRC, whilst personalised emails increased the number if people who contributed to charity in a trial with a major investment bank.

Without being false and potentially manipulative, a universal truth is that teachers and students respond to such personal attention. Of course, this should be a natural state for our schools. Our schools run on the fuel of positive relationships. It makes us ask: how can we personalise messages to our students when we are looking for a huge mass of students to change their behaviour?

How can we utilise images to make an idea or a behavioural change attractive? The BIT team found that letters to non-payers of car tax that included a picture of the offending vehicle resulted in payments rising from 40 to 49%. It can make a message ‘easy’ and more attractive. How can we use this attractive ‘shorthand‘ communication?

Make it Social

An instinctive truth we all recognise in our behaviour is our herd instinct. Making the behaviours we seek a social norm is the key, but it is often a very unpredictable affair. The BIT team give an example of trials at HMRC which showed that statements which indicated people had already paid their taxes increased tax payment rates from recipients.

If teachers get the impression that their colleagues are all performing an action as a typical habit, such as literacy marking, or undertaking research, then they are much more likely to follow along.

An excellent post recently by James Theobold – see here – charts how he changed his approach with his students regarding revision. He began initially by bemoaning the many students who didn’t do their revision. For many, this just reinforces that normal behaviour is to not do the revision. James switched his approach to focus on those successful students who were doing the revision. His subtle change in language is making a difference.

The post struck a chord. I have sat there with a desk full of student planners for missed revision homework. Now I speak to students about the huge number of their peers who read our revision blog before exams. I go as far as quoting statistics and percentages!

The EAST document also charts how social networks can drive behaviour. From Amazon reviews, Tripadvisor and more – people are clearly driven by such influential webs of communication. Then they explain how making a commitment can make a difference. Job centre research has proven that writing down a commitment to pursue work had a significant positive impact. How then do we get students to shift to normative behaviours: be it litter dropping or revision, by making a commitment to their peers?

Make it Timely

Finally, the BIT team identify that our all too human nature means we fall prey to the ‘present bias‘. That is to say we find it hard to commit to long term scenarios that defer gratification as they aren’t tangible and concrete like our present experience. Our students cannot really hold in mind their long term goals, so important to sustaining the deliberate practice that begets real improvement, so that make immediate responses: missing homework or revision, or misbehaving when know it could have long term ramifications.

We must ask the right questions at the right time to help ensure we change a behaviour. An example cited in the EAST pamphlet was on people being asked to contribute to charity in their will at the very moment they are writing their will made a big difference to charitable contributions. It leads us to consider: when do we ask teachers to commit to tweaking their practice, or when do we ask students to begin revising for their exams? The timing is all.

Good practical advice cited by the team is to not only to make requests at the right time, but to also help people set specific, concrete goals within a realistic time frame, whilst at the same time highlighting common barriers and how others have conquered those barriers.

A Tool for Implementation

The EAST framework is superbly simple – they have made it easy! For school teachers and school leaders, it provides a handy framework to help the implementation of pretty much any project. Asking any group of people, be it students or teachers, to change their practice or change themselves, is a hugely complex undertaking, but the clear principles of the EAST framework can help nudge behaviour in the right direction.

The EAST document is all common sense you may say. Yet, as a Frenchman once said, common sense is not so common!

Thank you to Stuart Kime for directing me to the great EAST pamphlet. Find it here and take the time to give it a read.