July 23, 2020



Nudge to Your Advantage

Each EmpowerED 3.2.1 features a brief summary of my musings about and learning from multiple disciplines as they apply to leadership in education. 


Gmail has a feature I noticed last week while clearing out my inbox. There on the line was a question in small orange font, “dismiss nudge?” I attended a webinar today on a topic of urgent concern, “Effective Attendance Messaging and Interventions: Nudging Students and Parents to Engage.” My fitness tracker sent me a nudge asking for me to input my exercise and meals for the day. While paying my water bill, I noticed how our water consumption compared to my neighbors and to the county. Finally, I received a letter in the mail asking me to schedule a routine doctor appointment. Nudge is not a word I use often, and maybe not at all, yet I find I am nudged a lot. I found it curious that I was being nudged several times this week. I wondered if it was changing my behavior or that of those I nudge. Nudge is defined as a gentle prod, typically with one’s elbow, in order to draw their attention to something or a light touch or push. I wondered how my nagging my son about reading or practicing violin could be replaced with a nudge. I thought about how my leadership might grow by using the nudge. I planned to go all in with the nudge for a week. Here’s what I learned.


3 Big Ideas

    1. To nudge is hard. It is a shift from the direct communication I am accustomed to. Although I use questions a lot to help others come to their own, hopefully deeper, understandings. The nudge is different. Nudges are small changes in the environment that are easy and inexpensive to implement. Even when I knew I was being nudged or was nudging, I had to stop myself from giving a command or suggestion. Bookstores nudge us by putting tables of best sellers in prominent places with comfy chairs to invite us to read a little and then (hopefully) buy. Could this and all of my recent nudges translate to the schoolhouse? Absolutely! Can creating thoughtful spaces help students make better choices? I think so. Highlighting exemplars can be a nudge for others to follow like a piece of writing or a painting. Placing books in prominent easy to access locations in the classroom or on the cafeteria table can be a nudge, shaping more reading behaviors while reducing cafeteria noise.
    2. To be nudged can be annoying, yet effective. Nudge Theory (who knew?) is based upon the idea that by shaping the environment, also known as Choice Architecture, one can influence the likelihood that one option is chosen over another by individuals . Didn’t we do this when our kids were younger by asking if they wanted broccoli or carrots or to do their homework now or in 15 minutes? “A key factor of Nudge Theory is the ability for an individual to maintain freedom of choice and to feel in control of the decisions they make,” says the Imperial College of London. Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago professor won the 2017 Nobel prize in economics for his work on Nudge Theory explains the theory telling about the etched fly in urinals, risk management, automatic enrollment, incentives and more in this YouTube video.

      Nudges have been effective at getting voters to the polls and getting homeowners to reduce energy usage.  And they seem to work for improving school attendance, especially when schools tell parents how many absences their students have accrued. Learn more about this in “Reducing Student Absences at Scale by Targeting Parents’ Misbeliefs.” Many parents believe their child has no more absences than others, but when working in Philadelphia, Todd Rogers (Harvard) and Avi Feller (UC Berkley) sent five postcards to the families of more than 40,300 high-risk students throughout the 2014-15 school year. One group received a message about the value of good attendance. A second set received a card telling them how many days their children had missed so far. And a third set got a breakdown of how their children’s attendance compared to that of classmates. The researchers found the third approach, comparing classmates, was most effective: It reduced total absences by 6 percent and the share of student who were chronically absent by 11 percent, when compared to similar students not involved in the study. Easy to implement and not very expensive to target a problem all schools face. The postcard method can translate to text messaging (not email) with an “opt-out” not “opt-in” approach. It works! Attendance did improve, the intervention worked in both elementary and secondary schools, and it’s cheap and scalable. The study is impressive.

    3. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not. What’s next to the cash registers at your favorite shop? At Starbucks, I noticed a basket of bananas and a basket of KIND Bars. I was nudged and added one of each. Could schools use these psychological tools to influence decisions in education? I think so. The best nudges in education encourage productive behaviors like reading at the cafeteria table or in hallways and improving attendance. What about using classroom data to normalize desirable learning behaviors too? For example, if we tracked number of tries to solve challenging problems, we might find results that can graphically show students how more tries at the problem resulted in better understanding and better grades. The norm trying to be set is clearly that it takes most people multiple tries to get the correct answer. That’s a positive signal to students to persevere.



“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”
– Viktor E. Frankl


“The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.”
-Oprah Winfrey


1 Question

How were you nudged today?



About the Author: Marcia Baldanza is also the author of Professional Practices, a Just ASK Senior Consultant. and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.


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