Metadata, Class Sizes and the Need For Some Slow Thinking!

“Worse, in the twenty-first century the massive technological changes that have vastly changed our society have had little effect on our schools; in too many places, the technology is merely being used as the next, best filmstrip, or worse, a better way to quiz and test our students, rather than as a way to open up our classroom windows and doors so that students can learn what they need to, create what they want, and expand the reach of their ideas to almost limitless bounds.”

Building Schools 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need by Chris Lehman and Zac Chase

Every time someone releases figures about how Australia is performing in the education stakes, someone from the Coalition government uses it to justify their stance on education. So recently when the OECD’s snapshot of 46 countries came out recently it showed a number of things, but prinicipally it told us that Australia proportionally spends more on education than most developed nations. It also suggested that Australia went backwards on a number of indicators.

Now while going backwards may not necessarily be as disastrous as the media would have you think  or an indication of a complete failure, I’d certainly agree that we need to make sure that money going into education is well spent. However, it’s the idea that you can draw valid conclusions from looking at metadata that I find most frustrating. Metadata may indicate what you need to look at in more detail but one can’t draw definitive conclusions from metadata.

If we take class sizes as an example, then even if the metadata suggests that class sizes make no difference to outcomes, we can’t make that conclusion by looking at the respective performances of the various countries because we have more than one variable. Even my Year 10 Psychology students know that you can only test one variable at a time. If you want to make any accurate conclusions, you’d need to get classes from the same school and create a control group of the usual class size and compare to classes with significantly less and/or significantly more students.

If we really want to determine whether class sizes make no difference, then maybe we should organise an experiment where a school puts one group of students in a class of fifteen at the beginning of their school career and another group of students in a class of thirty and then tests them at the end of each year. While parents may be reluctant to put their child in the class of thirty, surely there’d be enough advocates of the idea that class size makes no difference who’d be happy to place their offspring in such a class.

To compare the results of students in different countries tells us nothing because there’ll be a whole range of possible reasons for superior performance on particular tests including attitudes to education, the number of non-native speakers in the population and whether the difference in class sizes has made any difference to the way schools structure the learning.

Part of the trouble with looking at metadata is best explained by looking at the work of Daniel Kahneman. As he points out in Thinking Fast and Slow, humans are often quick to reach a conclusion and then they use their rational brains to justify that conclusion, rather than questioning their original conclusion. So if politicians have been looking to cut education funding, then any suggestion that increased spending hasn’t led to amazing improvements in education is immediately confirmation of their idea that it’s “quality teaching that counts”, rather than a more detailed examination of whether there are areas where increased expenditure has improved outcomes.

Until metadata is broken down with some “slow thinking” it tells you nothing. For example, we can increase average income of everyone in a group and conclude that money doesn’t improve work satisfaction at all based on the results of a survey telling us that people were even less happy than they were the year before. It’s only when you dig deeper and discover that the average income was increased by giving a massive bonus to two people, while everyone else worked for less that we can begin to surmise that this may have led to the rise in dissatisfaction.

Another point being raised is that Australia’s increase in spending on technology hasn’t made a “significant”  difference to literacy and numeracy. While I suspect that a large part of the reason for that is that many teachers have only used the technology to do what they’ve always done – reading a text off a screen instead of on the page  is no more likely to increase literacy than moving from chalk to whiteboards – I’ve never thought that the reason that schools need to use technology is to improve the literacy and numeracy rates. Schools need to use technology because society uses technology. While I’m not advocating that schools’ role is to prepare for the workforce, we certainly don’t want a situation where a school-leaver walks into a job asking, “What’s Excel?” More than that, however, we need to be building student awareness of both the potential and drawbacks of technology.

For Australia, nobody should be drawing answers from the OECD results. All metadata really does is help form the questions.



Why Laptops Should Be Banned… Along With Calculators and The Ballpoint Pen

There was an article about Sydney Grammar School banning laptops in the classroom, quoting the principal as saying. ‘I think when people come to write the history of this period in education … this investment in classroom technology is going to be seen as a huge fraud.’

And a few weeks ago we were told by a speaker from the OECD that technology in schools was “doing more harm than good”. This was on the basis of an OECD report which found that some countries have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in results for reading, mathematics or science, in spite of investing large amounts into technology.

Now when I was in primary school, after Year 3, we used pen and ink. I’ve noticed that they now use biros. I wonder  – when schools made the switch from using inkwells – if there were any studies that told us that there was no “noticeable improvement” in reading and writing, and therefore, biros were a huge waste of money and a huge fraud.

To me, there’s one good reason to use technology in schools and it has nothing to do with improving test scores. We should use technology in schools because we use technology everywhere else.

Yes, I can see an argument that sometimes it’s good to get kids to switch off and slow down and get back to nature. I can even see that there are times in some subjects it may be part of the learning to do things in a particular way. On a case by case basis, you can persuade me that students may not need computers for this particular exercise, and that it’s forcing them to think differently by taking them off-line. Just as some Maths classes may ask that students don’t use a calculator, then it may be good sometimes to take away the technology and rough it.

But if we’re going to say that we should stop using them completely, then you probably don’t work in an environment that makes best use of them.

And when I read things like the Principal of Sydney Grammar School telling us, I have to wonder what on earth he’s thinking:

‘We find that having laptops or iPads in the classroom inhibit conversation — it’s distracting.

‘If you’re lucky enough to have a good teacher and a motivating group of classmates, it would seem a waste to introduce anything that’s going to be a distraction from the benefits that kind of social context will give you.’

Now, when I want students to discuss things with each other without being distracted by laptops, I tell them to put their laptops down. If they can’t do that without opening them two minutes later, then I tell them to put their laptops away. I don’t suddenly go, “It’s the laptops that stops them listening to our fascinating discussion”…   Just as I never concluded it was the pen and paper that had kids making spitballs and using the shell of their pen to launch them. I saw it as a classroom management issue. But it is good to know that elite private schools like Sydney Grammar seem to have the same issues with disengaged students that we all have!

Yes, I know…

Sometimes you’ll catch kids watching films or playing games when they’re meant to be working. Of course that’s the fault of the laptop and nothing to do with the sheer meaninglessness of the tasks that you’re asking them to perform.

And yes, I know…

Sometimes in life we all need to do things that are boring and meaningless. However, that’s no excuse for spending so much of the day doing  them in schools… Particularly when so many of them won’t actually improve the learning of the students.

Now, I could write heaps about how some educators are using technology in really exciting and engaging ways but there’s plenty of articles out there about that and if you’re not aware of it, I suspect that’s because you don’t want to know. If that’s a surprise to you and you do want to know, try googling (it is a word, don’t be ridiculous) people and sites like George Couros,Will Richardson, Jackie Gerstein, Edudemic, Fluency 21 and scores of others. At the very least, read “Disrupting Class” and understand that education is going through the same sort of disruptive innovation that closed Kodak.

The reason that laptops end up being a distraction is that kids would rather learn than be bored. Anyone playing a video game is learning, being challenged and getting lots of immediate feedback. If that’s not happening in their classes, then no wonder they’re playing games.

However, my main point is a lot more basic than that. If you think that students shouldn’t have laptops in school because they’re a distraction, then how do you expect them to cope once they leave the safe cocoon where they’re protected from such things?

That’s as absurd as the old idea that if one didn’t talk about sex, then the kids wouldn’t find out about it.


Book Review: “Smarter, Faster, Better ” by Charles Duhigg

  • “Motivation is more like a skill, akin to reading or writing, that can be learned and honed. Scientists have found that people can get better at self-motivation if they practice the right way. The trick, researchers say, is realizing that a prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings. To motivate ourselves, we must feel like we are in control.” From Smarter, Faster, Better

Ok, for those in Australia, the title of Charles Duhigg’s latest book, “Smarter, Faster, Better” may remind them of the Liberal Party’s  slogan for the NBN, “Fast Affordable Sooner”, but don’t let that put you off.

Duhigg, who also wrote “The Power of Habit”, outlines several way that we can boost our productivity and one of the things I found more refreshing about the book is when he actually describes some of his own flaws and difficulties in managing his own projects, rather than presenting himself as the infallible person with “the answer”.

The book is divided into sections with such topics as Motivation, Teams, Goal Setting and Absorbing Data, with a useful appendix about putting these concepts into practice. (My kindle tried to tell me that I was finished when I reached the beginning of the Appendix and wanted me to rate the book then and there!)

While the term “boosting productivity” may make you think that it’s only relevant for the business world,  I’d recommend it to anyone, and particularly to people involved in education. It’s an interesting read and has plenty of ideas worth thinking about.

Choice Architecture or Nudging Your Students Toward Success

Choice Architecture 


Nudging Your Students Toward Success

“You want to nudge people into socially desirable behaviour, do not, by any means, let them know that their current actions are better than the social norm.”

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness  by Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein

“Today, as you go through your day, notice how many times people have tweaked the environment to shape your behavior. Traffic engineers wanted you to drive in a predictable, orderly way, so they painted lane markers on the roads and installed stoplights and road signs. Grocery store managers wanted you to spend more time in their store, so they positioned the milk coolers all the way at the back. Your boss’s boss wanted to encourage more collaboration among employees, so she approved an “open floor plan” layout with no cubicles or dividers. The bank was tired of your leaving your ATM card in the machine, so now the machine forces you to remove it before you can claim your cash.”

Switch  by Dan and Chip Heath

“Students get the message about what adults want. When 4th graders in a variety of classrooms were asked what their teachers most wanted them to do, they didn’t say, “Ask thoughtful questions” or “Make responsible decisions” or Help others.” They said, “Be quiet, don’t fool around, and get our work done on time.”

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn

Let’s imagine that you’re a principal and you have a problem at your school with boys peeing on the floor near the urinal. What do you do? Before you read on, stop and have a think and let me know if you didn’t choose one of the following options.

  • You ask the male staff members to be more vigilant and attempt to catch culprits.
  • You call an assembly of the boys and tell them that it’s becoming a problem and ask them to try and aim straighter.
  • You send a letter home to the parents asking them to “have a word to their child” about the need for better habits in the bathroom.
  • You call an assembly and warn them that there will be consequences if this doesn’t stop!
  • You ignore the problem and hope that it’ll go away.
  • You delegate the problem to someone else.

Of course, some of you may have used choice architecture to solve the problem.

Choice architecture is about structuring the world so that people are encouraged to make good choices. Thaler refers to it as “libertarian paternalism”. I suspect that this is mainly to satisfy the many Americans for whom any attempt to influence people’s decision is viewed as an infringement of their rights, or an attempt to create a “nanny state”.

Of course, most schools have no problem with imposing a “nanny state” and most schools are more than happy to make all sorts of decisions on behalf of their students. Naturally, this often leads to conflict, and I very much doubt if many teachers in this country haven’t heard a sentence starting with: “Yes, but why can’t we…” And I’m also sure that nearly as many teachers have at some point replied with: “Look, I don’t make the rules, I just make sure people follow them.”

So let’s think about the potential for choice architecture to solve the problem. Those of you who’ve read “Nudge” by Thaler and Sunstein will be familiar with this approach, but for those who haven’t, at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the image of a black housefly was drawn on each urinal. Without any prompting, this simple act reduced spillage by about 80%. Having something to aim at increased the men’s attention, which increased their aim.

At another urinal, a good aim made a “poster” appear, advertising a coming event.

An approach like this has a greater chance of being effective than most of the strategies that your average school would apply.

As with behavioural economics, even if people know what’s good for them, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll always do it. In explaining choice architecture, one person suggested that while most of us belief that we think as rationally as Mr Spock, in reality, we’re more likely to behave like Homer Simpson, because, apart from not having enough willpower, we’re also likely to be subject to a number of the following biases.

Potential Biases

Anchoring bias

We often use the first piece of information as an “anchor” when making decisions.

A number of years ago, I was looking at the wine list in a restaurant. On the first page, the cheapest bottle of wine was in the seventy dollar range. On the second and third pages, there were wines costing three and four times that. On page five, when I saw a bottle for a mere forty dollars, I was happy to purchase it. At the time, I would have considered spending thirty dollars on a wine excessive, but the other wines had given me a more expensive “anchor”.

Try this for yourselves. Ask a group of people to estimate how much the most expensive Rolls Royce costs. Ask another group of people how much their first car cost (if they’ve never owned one the answer should be zero). Then ask both groups to guess how much a new model family car from any known company will cost. There’s a very high likelihood that the first group will guess significantly higher than the second group.

Availability bias 

This is a person’s propensity to give a greater weight to recent occurrences when evaluating a topic or concept.

For example, someone tells you  that today’s students waste too much time on social media. You immediately recall the fact that over the past few days you’ve caught three students on Facebook in the past week. Yes, that’s right you decide, without seeking any independent studies or data.

Representativeness bias 

We tend to make judgements based on limited information, and we often make assumptions based on the idea that if a person has one characteristic of a group then they’ll share all the characteristics of that group. For example, “nerds” are portrayed as unathletic and “jocks” are portrayed as bone-headed in a lot of fiction. If you’re told that Eugene is hopeless at sports, you may incorrectly presume that he’s clever, or, if you’re told that Fred has just been given a science scholarship, you may jump to the conclusion that he isn’t also a gun basketball player.

If you ask a group of people the following two questions, then obviously the odds of the first is much, much higher. What are the odds that a randomly chosen person will have above a science student?

What are the odds that a randomly chosen person will be a male physics students who needs glasses?

There are a limited number of science students, but the number of people who are above average and also wear glasses is significantly less than this. So, to find someone who fits all three criteria is going to be harder than finding someone who’s only described by the first. However, because of the stereotype of science students, a number of people will incorrectly suggest a higher likelihood to the second category.

Confirmation bias

When we already “know” something, we notice evidence that confirms it.

  • If Liz believers that students at her school are lazy, she’ll notice the two kids reluctant to work and ignore the fact that all the others have happily commenced and are working as hard as possible.
  • If Tony believes that women are illogical, then the fact that one of them argues with him, just proves it, because his ideas are based on evidence that he’s found on the internet, whereas hers are based on what she read somewhere.
  • If one politician is caught lying, well, what can one expect? Let’s not talk about the ten politicians that told truth so that the lie was discovered.
  • If it’s a cold morning, then that proves that there’s no such thing as “global warming”.
  • And, just to be fair about this, if there’s a very, very hot day, then that’s proof that climate change exists.

Status quo bias

The tendency to stick with what is.

You remember that magazine subscription that you could cancel at any time that you still remember each month when it’s delivered and you think, “I’m must cancel that before the next delivery”?

You know how you can now move your superannuation? Done anything about it yet?

Your remember how you’d decided that you were going to look for a new job because it’s about time you moved on?

As Thaler suggests in Nudge:

“First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed.”

We’ll come back to some of these in more detail in looking at the features of choice architecture.


Choice architecture helps to push us in the right direction.Who determines what that actually is? Sometimes, it’ll be the person themselves; other times it may be a government or employer or school which wants us to make what it believers are the “right” choices.

“Nudge” uses the mnemonic


Understand mapping


Give Feedback

Expect Error

So what does these actually mean, and how can they be applied to education?


The first is pretty straightforward and using incentives is hardly a new idea for teachers. An incentive is something that motivates or encourages someone to do something, and most classroom teachers apply “carrot and stick” consequences for behaviours. From the elephants stamps to the “If you don’t complete up to question nine, you need to stay behind” most schools are familiar with the reward and punishment strategy as incentives.

Of course, sometimes the activity itself acts as an incentive. Students who are expected to perform a play in public rarely ask, “How many of my lines do I need to learn to pass?”

When considering incentives for students, it’s always worth asking:

  1. Does the student have a real short-term incentive to complete the work to the best of his or her ability, or will just dashing something off to satisfy the teacher work just as well?
  2. Can the learning activity have a real life purpose?
  3. What incentives do you use unconsciously?
  4. Do you ever think of new ones?
  5. Can the learning activity be linked to the individual student’s area of interest?
  6. If the activity needs external incentives – like fear of punishment – is it worth doing in the first place? (I’m not saying that it isn’t. I’m just suggesting that the question needs to be asked)
  7. Can the incentive be embedded in the work itself? (See the next chapter on Progress and Video Games)
  8. And most importantly, how well do your incentives work?

Of course, many of these work if you’re in a leadership position as well. As a leader, when was the last time you asked yourself if your “incentives” were working for everyone, or whether, for example, there was a real short-term incentive to have a survey completed by Friday?


When I sign up for a different way of accessing my cable TV, the person assures me that it’s really simple to install.

The box needs to be plugged into the antenna as well as the Internet. These are on opposite sides of the room. I ring back.

I need a power-line adaptor, so I order one.

Three days later, it arrives. After setting it up, I have a new problem. It needs to connect to the modem, but that means that I can’t connect my wireless to the modem.

So, I go and purchase a device which enables me to connect more than one thing to the modem.

When I get home, I discover that I now need another ethernet cable, so after another journey out, I’m all connected. Simple really.

Except that it took two weeks to do. Why?

Well, my choices weren’t made clear to me at the time of sign up. It’d be quite simple to have a series of questions for the salesperson to ask. Or even a survey for me to fill in before I spoke to anyone. That way, the person could have explained exactly what I needed, so that I could have made an informed choice at the time of signing up. Perhaps the logic was that, if I’d known how complicated it was, I wouldn’t have agreed, so hide it all until after. Except that it was far more complicated than it needed to be.

“Mapping” – What does this actually mean?

Well, basically, it means laying out the choices so that we know exactly what they mean. If there had been something that explained that I’d need an extra couple of devices as well as another ethernet cable the whole process would have been less stressful.

While firms may wish to hide any extra costs in the hope of making a sale, in this case the extra cost wouldn’t have been the issue, and, if I’d had some easy way of pulling the plug on the deal halfway through, I would have, because it just seemed too complicated.

Another example of “mapping” of where better mapping would be the purchase of a mobile phone. While many people wouldn’t understand exactly what they need, the shop is likely to be advertising extra power or data, but do you really know what phone will best suit your needs? Are you aware of how much data are you likely to use? Or whether you need 64 or 16gb? Do you even know what the gb is? A series of questions could help you “map” what you need and lead you to a better choice.

So how do students make choices at school? Are choices largely made for them?


The “status quo bias” means that any default option will end up with large numbers. The difference between an “opt-in” and an “opt-out” is extremely significant. A number of Australian primary schools have religious instruction classes where parents have the option to opt out. Compare the number of students taking these at primary school compared to the number of those attending church or Sunday School.

Schools have many other default options. In many cases, they’re almost invisible because the very nature of them means that nobody ever “opts out” or even questions them. In fact, your local school is itself a default — it’s where you go when you don’t make a conscious decision to go somewhere else.

Electronic roll-marking systems are often set up so they default to present, meaning that the teacher has to make a conscious decision to mark a student absent.

Another example of a default is the subjects which a student does. For many subjects, this is not even considered something that anyone has a choice about, and it’s only when schools are dealing with an atypical student that they may consider that he or she may be given extra help in a particular area instead of doing one of the normal “core” subjects.

But defaults don’t simply have to be about things that already exist. Does your school have any areas where you’d benefit from creating a default?


“Learning is most likely if people get immediate, clear feedback after each try.”

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Yep, I know. You spend most of your time “correcting things” or “marking”, don’t you? So you’ve got this one covered. We get feedback when we receive information about what we’ve done and it works best when it’s immediate. Teachers often receive immediate feedback from their class, and I don’t just mean when the students complain. Body language will usually tell you whether the students are engaged or uninterested, understanding or confused. You can adjust a lesson according to the feedback you’re given. However, not everything in education is so immediate. When you actually look at the sort of work you’re correcting and the sort of feedback you’re giving, you may start to question whether it’s worth the time you’re spending on it. Giving effective feedback is important, but how much of your time is being wasted by reading student work with the sole aim of checking that they’ve actually done it? Are the demands placed on you, leading you to be more concerned with auditing student work than improving it? How much of the work you’re taking away from the students tells you much about their capabilities? To what extent does your feedback improve their future work? Do they read it avidly or are they more concerned with what “mark” they received?

For feedback to be most effective, it needs to be as close to immediate as possible

How do you help students to improve with timely feedback, when you have several classes each with a large number of students?

Of course, not everything relies on detailed feedback from a third party. If shoot an arrow at a target and miss, you receive immediate feedback, and you adjust your aim accordingly for the next shot. When it comes to your classes it’s worth asking:

  1. Could you be using technology to speed up the feedback? Some tests and quizzes can be done on computer and the results calculated immediately, While this won’t work for every activity, it’s worth considering if there’s technology that can save you time and effort.
  2. Can the feedback be embedded into the activity itself? Just as with the bow and arrow example, some tasks will have the learning embedded into it, and the student knows immediately that what they’re doing isn’t succeeding.
  3. Can you use peer feedback in any way? Placing students in pairs, for example, and asking each student to give written feedback on each other’s work before you even look at it, can be a help to both, as well as the teacher. This can structured with specific questions to help students to know what to look out for.


If I wasn’t paying attention, it was easy to leave the headlights on in my first car. Result – a flat battery. A few years after that, I bought a car where I’d hear a buzzing if I turned off the ignition and the headlights were still on. Then my next car simply turned off the headlights when I turned off the ignition. The designers of this car really understood that people make errors, because the petrol cap was attached by a short chain so it was impossible to drive off and leave it on the roof or the petrol bowser.

Basically good choice architecture understands that people aren’t perfect and works toward overcoming their shortcomings. Think about the birth control pill as example. Why is there a pill for every day of the month when there’s only a need to take them for three weeks out of four? While it’s still possible for people to forget, it’s a lot less likely when it’s part of a daily habit.

How does your school plan for error? One school rewrote its Internet Usage Policy and sent forms home for students to have their parents sign and return. A few weeks later, any student who hadn’t returned the form was cut off from the internet, including their school email account and their access to various learning tasks and resources that had been posted on the school’s website. This was about thirty percent of the school. Needless to say, if the aim of the person in charge was to discourage teachers from ever using technology again, then they were very successful, because a number of students still took their time returning the form as it was a great excuse not to do any work. In circumstances like that one, it’s only realistic to expect that a large number of students won’t have returned the form, so would there have been a better way to have encouraged students to return the forms?

Many teachers are in the habit of taking extra resources into class, because they expect that some students will have forgotten or lost theirs. While supplying a student with a pen may not be teaching self-reliance, it’s a good example of the “expect error” concept. Similarly, having a back-up plan for when the overhead projector doesn’t work, or the sound won’t play on a film is something that most teachers do.

So where could  you or your school improve in this area? Are there “errors” that constantly happen, and each time, it’s as though nobody expected it. For example, do you leave space near the entrance when running an assembly so that any latecomers can enter quickly without creating a distraction? Does your electronic roll marking system fail to work one morning in ten, and paper rolls aren’t readily available? Does the system for late passes break down when Person X is away, because nobody is ever assigned to replace them? Do students have clear instructions for what to do if a teacher fails to show for a lesson (or do they all believe the urban myth that after fifteen minutes they’re allowed to go)?

Behavioural Economics, Human Nature, Teenage Nature

“This theory-induced blindness now strikes nearly everyone who receives a PhD in economics. The economics training the students receive provides enormous insights into the behaviour of Econs, but at the expense of losing common-sense intuition about human nature and social interactions. Graduates no longer realise that they live in a world populated by Humans.”

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics Richard H. Thaler

“With a lack of jobs and a great deal of uncertainty about participating in contemporary society, however, the adolescent period may in many ways be even further prolonged. Because modern cultural practices do not offer transitional relationships with non-parental adults to help acknowledge and facilitate the adolescent period, we have some major challenges as adolescents in our modern times.”

Brainstorm  Daniel J. Seigel

It may seem strange to begin a conversation about education by talking about behavioural economics, but there are some very obvious parallels in the way economists and educational theorists have approached their work.

Behavioural economics pointed out that part of the problem with much of the traditional economic thought assumed that people always behaved like economists, rather than being the irrational, inconsistent beasts that humans are. For example, if you were told that a toaster which you were about to buy for $80 was half price at a store ten kilometres away, would you travel the distance to save $40? Of course, most people would say yes. However, if a person were told that they could save $40 on the cost of  a new car by going to a dealer the same distance as in the toaster example, the number prepared to travel the distance would be significantly smaller. “It’s only $40,” they’d argue. “It’s hardly worth it!”

In terms of the toaster it represents a bargain, but, in comparison to the overall cost of the car, $40 hardly seems significant. Yet to an economist, $40 is $40 is $40. But the average person doesn’t think like that. While certain actions should lead people to behave in particular ways, economists – and governments taking their advice – often find that their action doesn’t have the desired result. For example, an austerity program designed to get a federal budget back on track may have the effect of causing people to tighten their own belts, leading to a recession and less government revenue, creating an even worse budget position.

Humans do not behave like economists. We are not always rational and don’t always do what’s best for us. More information won’t necessarily lead us to give up smoking, drinking or gambling, but apart from obvious vices like these, we often fool ourselves that we’re behaving rationally, when we’re simply justifying our decisions.

As Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking Fast And Slow” puts it:

“We think, each of us, that we’re much more rational than we are. And we think that we make our decisions because we have good reasons to make them. Even when it’s the other way around. We believe in the reasons, because we’ve already made the decision.”

Work on delaying rewards

Kahneman and Tversky’s work on behavioural economics should encourage us all to challenge some of our assumptions, and, in particular, we should consider some of the implications for education.

Secondary school students are just like human beings only more so. As well as having all the irrationality of the average adult, they are also going through the enormous changes that adolescence brings. Very few of them are long term thinkers, and even short term planning is a challenge at times. Yet, we often expect that they’ll be motivated by the idea of how this will help their final result at the end of secondary school. Even more ridiculously, schools expect that students have an image of who they’ll be in ten years time and should be using their opportunities to work toward the achievement of that image.

Of course, the reality for many secondary students is that – even at the start of their final year – they still have no firm idea of a career path. They are being told that their decisions are extremely important and will affect the rest of their lives, while also being told that, unlike the twentieth century where people performed one job for much of their lives, in the future people will hold many different jobs and have to re-train many times in their lives. Many students will have picked subjects for their final years, not because of an interest or aptitude, but because somebody assured them it was a good idea or that it gave them more options.

Like the economists trying to predict economic outcomes while ignoring human behaviour, most schools are structured as though all their students are future oriented beings, but for many, their main motivation for school work will be the short term reward and punishment strategies on which many teachers rely rather than having any concept of how their learning fits into the bigger picture. Many of them won’t even be concerned about the bigger picture, being more present oriented and concerned with the immediate difficulties of their lives. Adolescence is a time when it’s natural to test boundaries and to embark on voyages of self-discovery. For many the immediate pay-off is always going to trump the long term. In other words, binge drinking tonight is so much fun that we can ignore the possible hangover tomorrow. And yes, it would have been a good idea to have studied for Tuesday’s test but it’s Monday and watching “Games of Thrones” has more going for it than revising some Shakespeare play. Tomorrow’s consequences exist in some fictional netherworld that isn’t real.

Schools don’t need to be always involved in the journey of their students, but it’s worth keeping in mind that for much of the time the dramas and internal conflicts are going to seem more important than how to calculate the inverse of a three by three matrix.

Of course, the future oriented kids exist. They’re the success stories, but trying to change the behaviours of present oriented hedonists by convincing them that they should be more concerned with tomorrow will have about as much effect as telling a politician that rather than being concerned with re-election, he or she should be thinking about the long term future of decisions.

Implications for the Classroom.

Of course, it’s easy to be critical of what it is happening. But what should be happening and how can a classroom teacher implement changes that actually improve the system? Particularly when there’s an increasing focus on testing which emphasises the short term results of students performing at school. By contrast there’s very little interest in what happens to a teacher’s students once they leave the school.

Now there’s nothing wrong with testing to see what students have learned, but one must be very careful with how the results of any tests are used. Once doing well in the test itself becomes the aim, then you risk substituting genuine learning for the capacity to excel in tests. As Martin Thomas says in Loose:

“It is said that it takes a mere 18 months before the people in any organization work out the best way to manipulate or “game” a target-based system, whether it governs the allocation of healthcare funding, a ranking in a government-backed league table or decisions about bankers’ bonuses.  After this time the system starts subverting itself, delivering a set of outcomes completely different to those that were intended, and, all too often, the numbers that are being counted become more important the behavioral change that the organization is trying to deliver…

“A single-minded focus on numbers and targets also shifts the source of expertise and investment, particularly in our public institutions, form the front-line practitioner – the teacher, or the surgeon – to the measurer of their performance – the auditors accountants and managers: hence the growth of the back-office or managerial function in most public bodies.”

As a classroom teacher, many things are outside one’s control. While one has limited control on the shape of the room, the times that classes run or the number of students in a classroom, there are many, many aspects of organising learning that are only limited by one’s knowledge and imagination.

Behavioural economics has some interesting implications for the classroom. Let’s look at some of the ideas and how they could change your classes.

1.Risk Aversion

‘I remember one of them saying how important it was to Oklahoma’s future for the state to develop a culture of innovation. “But I’m just not sure,” he said, “where all these great ideas are going to come from.” I told him they would come from all over the state. People everywhere have ideas they would like to develop, but they need permission to try them out and see if they work. If they fear failure or humiliation or disapproval, they will usually hold back. If they’re encouraged to try their hand, they usually will. Culture is about permission. It has to do with what’s acceptable and what is not, and who says so. Sometimes changes in permission happen slowly, and it’s only when we look back over time that we can see the true scale of them.’

Creative Schools  Ken Robinson 

While we’ve acknowledged teenagers’ preparedness to take risks, as one grows older, this diminishes. People become more risk averse.

Of course, when we talk about risk, we’re often talking about different levels of risk. If you decided to devote a lesson to studying the lyrics of a contemporary pop group, you may consider that you’ve taken a risk, but there’s hardly likely to be much of a downside beyond your students being bored and the lesson being a fizzer. On the other had, drinking a bottle of vodka and playing “chicken” with cars on a freeway is liable to result in long-term consequences. So when we refer to “risks”, it’s probably important to ask yourself exactly how serious the risk is. Trying something slightly unconventional may not work, but if it has no lasting consequences, it’s hardly a risk. However, with the growing emphasis on external testing, schools and teachers are more inclined to “play safe”. As John Maynard Keynes said: “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

Of course, when we’re dealing with a school where the conservative approach of “teaching to the test” has failed to yield the sort of results that will save it from whatever negative consequences poor test results bring with them, then the bigger risk may be to try nothing new. “Failing conventionally” may be the inevitable consequence of “doing to the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” which Benjamin Franklin said was the the definition of insanity. (Often attributed to Einstein, but he was quoting Franklin)

In “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics”, Richard H. Thaler’s describes a meeting where a group of executives were asked if they’d take a risk where they had a fifty percent chance of either making $2,000,000 from an investment or losing $1,000,000 from the same investment. (To understand this in basic terms, someone is offering you two to one on the flip of a coin. Assuming the coin isn’t suspect, you’ll almost certainly win if you bet over a long enough time period and don’t risk too much of your money on an individual toss.) In the example given, only three out of twenty three said that they’d take the risk. The others declined for fear of losing their reputation or their chance at promotion, or even their jobs. On the other hand, when the head honcho was asked would he want any of his executives to take a gamble like the one described, his position was that he’d rather that they all took the risk, as they’d only need a handful of them to be successful for the company to be better off financially.  However, most firms produce managers who are reluctant to gamble because the consequences of failure are too severe for them, personally.

Similarly, schools often produce environments where it’s safer to stick with the status quo. Preparing your students for a test or exam, and simply doing what your own teachers did when you were in school will attract generally attract less criticism when it fails than if you attempt to implement something new – even if that initiative is based on the best research or the suggestions from some of the brightest minds in education. Recently, in Victoria, the government was suggesting that teachers would be judged on the goals they’d set, and anything less than a high percentage of achievement would be looked upon as failure. While there would be discussion with the reviewer, and not reaching your target wouldn’t necessarily lead to disciplinary action, the overall effect of the strategy was likely to encourage teachers to set the bar as low as possible for their professional goals.

Of course, there are many things that schools do that work well, and there’s no reason for a complete overall of everything, every fortnight, but how can you help to encourage an environment where at least some innovation is tried, and where practices are improved? Nothing is risk-free, even standing still. so how do you build a safety net so that people are encouraged to think about the best ways to encouraging learning, and don’t simply “failing conventionally” because it attracts less attention.

Remember, for many teenagers it may be the “new” that drives them. While they often seem listless and uninterested, they still have a desire to discover and learn, to test out what’s true, what’s possible, what’s there. It’s just that school doesn’t always offer the opportunities to do this.

Not everything has to be done at once, but when was the last time, you or your school chose to take on anything that might be a great success or a spectacular failure. What were the possible consequences?

Some of you will be familiar with Google and Atlassian and the idea of allowing allowing employees free time once a week to work on their own projects, and from these both companies have managed to develop some of the most profitable income streams. In a similar vein, many schools are doing a great deal with “Inquiry learning”, while others will be suspicious of anything that doesn’t involve a teacher standing and delivering.

Is there any scope for something similar to “Google Time” could be given to the staff or students, or is it just too risky? Or is doing what rarely ever works, the biggest risk of all?


Do you ever “risk assess” what you do? Do you ask what are the possible consequences of changing something? Of changing nothing? How serious are the negative consequences? Loss of job? Potential lowering of student numbers? School closure? What are the potential positives that could occur, and would they be worth it?

How do you “risk assess”?

  • As a teacher
  • As a faculty
  • As a school

2. Inside view/Outside View

Ask a person if everyone can make money gambling. Well, the answer is obvious, isn’t it? For someone to win, someone else has to lose. Ask a gambler if they’re going to win, and they’ll tell you that they might. Sometimes they’ll even assure that it’s a certainty. Why will they win when statistically most people lose? Well, because they’re smarter than the average punter. They know more. If they tell you that, ask them why they still have a day job.

We have an inside view and an outside view. The inside view refers to the way we see things that we’re involved in, while the outside view is how we view the same project or activity when we’re not involved. A teenager falling in love for the first time will have an inside view, while those around him or her will have an outside view. “You don’t understand how I feel, this is going to last forever!” While occasionally the teenager will be right and the relationship will last, if not forever, at least for long enough for them to say, “I told you so”, generally the outside view is more reliable.

But it’s not just teenagers and gamblers who have unrealistic inside views. When was the last time a  major project came in on time, and under budget? I’m not just talking about governments here, consider how often private industry gets it wrong.

Our inside view is often the subject of unrealistic optimism.  Think about how this applies to students, teachers and schools.

If you ask a student what they think will happen if a student leaves things till the last minute, or rocks up to a test having done no study. Most will give you a pretty accurate assessment. However, when they talk about themselves they’re more likely to tell you not to stress because they’ll “get it done”.

If a teacher or counsellor wants to change the unrealistic optimism of the average student, it may help to start with encouraging the student to consider the outside view:

“What do you think will happen to a student who does little work in class, and does no work at home and fails to meet deadlines?”

“They’ll fail.”

“So are you expecting to fail?”


“Why not?”

“Well, I’ll get it done.”

“What makes you believe that you’re different?”

At this point, the student will either come up with a more realistic assessment, or tell you about past experiences where they did manage to cobble together enough work to gain a satisfactory assessment, which means that their optimism may not be altogether misplaced. And this is a good point to move onto teachers’ misplaced optimism.

What are students learning from what you do? For example, is a student learning that there is no need to have work done on time, because it was too easy to get an extension when they didn’t hand it in? Are students learning that substandard work is all that’s needed because what they’re doing is really just “busy work” and nobody, not even the teacher, really cares.Not really what I’m trying to say.

Develop your own “outside view”. List your some of your behaviours as an educator.

Here’s a list of some of the things I’ve heard people say over the years (Loosely quoted). It’s by no means exhaustive so get into the habit of compiling your own on a regular basis. (More on habits later!)

  • “I spend hours reading students’ work and write detailed comments which the students don’t read and just ask me for the mark”
  • “In spite of asking for the survey to be returned by Friday, I only received them back from a third of the staff.”
  • “There’s a student in my class who does very little work. I’ve tried keeping them back and reporting them to the coordinators, but nothing seems to work.”
  • “I’ve been overlooked for a job I applied for again, and I feel that the school doesn’t really value me.”
  • “Numbers in this school are declining and I’m worried that we may face closure in the next few years.”
  • “Jason was given an extension and he still hasn’t done the work. I don’t have time to follow him up.”
  • “I don’t want to waste so much class time preparing my kids for that external test, but I’m worried that if I don’t, it may reflect badly on me if they don’t do well.”
  • “My students don’t do the reading I give them for homework.”

What would you think if it were a teacher from a different school doing the same thing? What advice would you have for them? Now, ask yourself if that’s what you’ve done in the past when confronted by a similar problem.

3. Loss Aversion

“Dangerous Minds” is a film based on the autobiography, “My Possie Don’t Do Homework” by ex-marine, LouAnne Johnson’s. At one point in the film, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character tells her students that they’ve all got “A”s but they need to work to keep them. Johnson actually did this, and while she hadn’t studied the behavioural economics theories, she was on solid ground because research tells us that people value what they have and don’t want to lose it.

In an experiment by behavioural economists, some students were given a mug worth about $5 at the start of a session, while others were given nothing. The students were also given a questionnaire where they nominated a price at which they’d sell it if they were the holders of the mug, or a price at which they’d buy it if they were in the group who missed out on the mug. The median price of the “owners” was significantly higher than the actual value, while those who didn’t have a mug nominated a median price lower than actual value.

Should we start with the idea that students own the pass/A grade/positive outcome and give them feedback on how what they’ve just done is taking away from that, rather than having the final result as what’s an unrealistic goal for many. Once they “own” the mark, they’re a lot more reluctant to lose it.

So you could have a marking scheme that tells the student:

“At the moment you have been awarded thirty marks for this assignment. You will lose five for handing it in after the due date. You will lose five for not reaching the word limit. You will lose one mark for each of the following you do not mention. a, b, c, etc. You will lose one if you did do not explain each of these…” 

And so on, till they’re on a potential zero if they manage to lose everything.

Can you think of other ways that loss aversion could be structured into your class?

Summing Up

  • Economists think that people think like economists. Once you acknowledge that people don’t always pursue the rational path, you can start looking at ways to motivate them which actually work.
  • Teenagers are even less likely to be rational and forward looking than adults.
  • Once one acknowledges these two ideas, many of the behavioural economics findings may help in education.

Laptops and Exponential Change and “let’s just get back to basics”. Or “I can drive perfectly well by looking in the rear-view mirror!”

The manager and leader differ in the way they use technology. The manager is primarily concerned with using technology to improve the current outcomes. The leader, on the other hand, is interested in proceeding to new destinations and in examining the role technology may play in reaching the destination.”

“Ideas for the new Millennium” by Peter Ellyard


Someone observed that it was strange how, in the Star Wars series, the weapons and gadgetry that were being used when Anekin was young, were more sophisticated that when he was older and had become Darth Vader. A rare case of technology becoming less advanced as time passes.

Apart from that anomaly, technology is going to change at incredible pace. And with it, the way we do things. What’s science fiction one minute, is possible the next – and mundane, thirty seconds after that. We all know this.

And of course, I’m with you. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the latest jargon that we lose track of what it’s all for. The basics of education, after all, don’t change. It’s all about students learning. AusVELS is just another concept that’s kept some bureaucrats in a job. You wait, in a few years, we’ll have something different. I don’t want to ever hear about “maximising potential” – can potential really be maximised? As for “World’s best practice”…

Which brings me to the laptops. Well, where do I start? I’m not anti-change – I thought it was great when we stopped using pen and ink in schools and started using biros. (The Luddites were given such a bad press. They weren’t a mob of ignorant, anti-progress loonies. They were skilled craftsmen who were upset that mass production was putting them out of a job.)

The fundamental question is surely:  What does a student need to learn?

And we have the answer.

It’s just like doing the shopping. You make a list and fill your shopping bag with the things on your list. With education, you take a student and you fill him or her with Maths, English, Humanities, Arts and Technology and then they’ve got a bit of all the areas they’ll need to know about for the rest of their lives.

So, notwithstanding the fact that some things are basic and won’t change that much whatever happens, how much of this new world is just a passing phase, a new jargon, the latest craze. Well, I think we can agree that computers are here to stay. Until they’re superseded. But the difference is that whereas once, schools saw part of their function to teach about this new-fangled idea of computers, now our students – certainly by secondary school, and often much younger – bring a knowledge to the classroom that frequently exceeds that of the teacher. One of the questions is: How can we best utilise that knowledge?

We need to stop thinking of computers as ends in themselves, and start thinking of them in the same we now think of videos. (No, not something to use to keep the kids quiet while we catch up on our correction.) If there is a video or TV show that will help to teach a concept or skill, then we use it. We don’t feel it necessary to ensure that kids are shown at least three videos a week, in order to develop their video watching skills. As David Nettlebeck says in Computers, Thinking and Learning, “The old computing was about was computers can do; the new computing is about what users can do.”

As teachers, we can react like the Luddites. Let’s not forget that the Luddites were skilled and intelligent. We can see them as something that threatens to put us out of a job. Not that a computer could ever totally replace a teacher, but when a leader like Jeff Kennett, started putting money into ICT, we were naturally suspicious. Some people imagined computer labs with hundreds of students and two or three teachers to supervise. However, I believe the reason for the push toward computers has to do with changes in the society. – the same changes that are driving many of the changes in education.

As I went through the school system, people “dropped out” of education and got jobs. A certificate called “Leaving” was awarded at the end of a successful Fifth Form (Year 11). The elite few continued on to Matriculation or H.S.C., and fewer still went on to university. Once a person left school, they were unlikely to take on further education. They would go into a job where they were expected to be docile, obedient and compliant. Schools were excellent training grounds – students were taught to behave themselves and to do what they were told. There were apprenticeships for many areas – the concept being: “We’ll hire you, and train you to do what we need.”

Now, I am aware that we haven’t changed that much. We still desire unquestioning obedience, and docile students. However, the needs for our workforce are different. Yes, the fast food store and the factory floor may still prefer a 1950s style attitude, but that sort of unskilled labour is disappearing. And even there, a basic knowledge of ICT skills is necessary.

We need a workforce capable of undertaking further training, and developing new skills. People capable of anticipating changing circumstances and preparing for jobs that are still to come into existence. In the past it didn’t matter if their early educational experiences put students off learning forever. They’d had their education. Peter Ellyard in “Ideas for the New Millennium” talks about the twenty-first century being a time of continual workplace change. He argues that there is a need to develop a new pedagogy that will enable people to adapt to these shifts.

“If learning is to be maximised a new model and pedagogy of learning – a new learning culture – is needed. This learning culture should contain eight elements:

• Life Long Learning

• Learner-driven learning

• Just-in-time learning

• Customised learning

• Transformative learning

• Collaborative learning

• Learning to learn. ‘

Ellyard goes on to define the need for “enterprising individuals” with the following skills:

“One such list has been compiled by David Turner, and includes:

o Assessing strengths and weaknesses;

o Making decisions;

o Working cooperatively in teams and groups;

o Planning time and energy;

o Carrying out agreed responsibilities;

o Negotiating;

o Dealing with power and authority;

o Solving problems;

o Resolving conflict; キ Coping with stress and tension;

o Evaluating performance

o Communicating verbally and non-verbally”

The idea of students setting their learning goals may not seem that much different from concepts of self-assessment. But while self-assessment, was often a reflective, navel-gazing exercise, the thrust behind VELS is to develop students’ capacity for a number of the elements in Peter Ellyard’s list. For example, setting goals encourages Learner-driven Learning. In the past, schools have relied heavily on summative assessment, and attempts to move away from it have been met with resistance. However, the important thing is to ensure that assessment is linked to learning. (“Assessment should improve performance, not just audit it.” Wiggins)

I was about to start this paragraph with the phrase, “As students complete their education, whether secondary or tertiary…” I realised the word “complete’ was a redundancy, a hangover from the way education has been viewed in the past. I must watch my language!

As students join the workforce, they must be confident with technology, and positive about future learning experiences. They must be capable of looking ahead, of defining where they need to up-date their skills, of anticipating new opportunities. Many will not be “hired and trained”; they need to develop the skills in order to be hired. Others will be creating the jobs of the future.

Of course, not all students will enter the workforce as the “enterprising individuals” that Ellyard talks of creating, any more than every student developed a love of literature or high-level logical thinking. But the change is in intention is clear: As teachers we must move more towards encouraging students to take responsibility for their education, and move away from ranking, labelling and defining students.


Pyning Away

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has announced a $70 million Independent Public Schools Initiative, which aims to make around 1,500 more public schools autonomous within the next three years.

“I imagine the Commonwealth’s money will mostly be spent on building the skills base for principals and their leadership teams in schools that apply for independent public schooling,” he said.

“The more a principal and their leadership teams have control over the destiny of their own school the more that seems to lift that school’s performance.”

Mm, there are only three points about the latest thought bubble from Christopher Pyne.

  • First, if they think that making government schools “independent” will improve them, why restrict it to just a quarter of schools?
  • Second, I’m fascinated by language. So the words “imagine” and the other words I highlighted are significant.
  • Third, how does this fit with the review of Australian Curriculum?

If the first point is correct, is this a beginning? Will we see all schools “autonomous” in future years? And if it’s a better system, why not? Now, there is something to be said for autonomy. However, how will Mr Pyne react when this autonomy is used in a way that isn’t politically acceptable? For example, what if the principal encourages the students to write to the local member complaining about the failure to implement Gonski? I could go on, but I haven’t really thought this through. I merely imagine how this will work, but it seems that there is no actual model that I can talk about.

Which brings me to the second point about language. Here we have a government that can’t find money to keep things going. Forget SPC-Ardmona, there are a range of other things that have to close because the government doesn’t have the funds. But we’re committing $70 million dollars to something which the Education Minister IMAGINES will be spent on “building the skills base for principals and their leadership teams”. And how much will be spent on building the skills base for principals in schools which don’t?

Still we have something worth spending money on because it SEEMS to lift performance. Enough said on that one, even before I say anything.

And, of course, the third point, is the fact that Pyne has just appointed Kevin “My way or the highway” Donnelly to conduct a review of the Australian Curriculum. There is so much to write about that one that I’d be here for a month. Suffice to say that I suspect that autonomy may only be given to the principals that show they know how to use their autonomy in ways that please the “home team”.

Yes, I realise that this is rather brief. It only has even less detail than Christopher Pyne’s announcement.