"Nudging": A new frontier for education policy in Jordan

In one famous policy experiment in the United States, parents of three- and four-year olds were sent text messages several times a week prompting them to practice literacy exercises with the children. Results from this experiment were positive; both parental engagement and children’s cognitive performance increased as a result of these text messages

 

Over the last decade or so, governments have sought to influence public decision-making and behaviors through the introduction of ‘nudge’ policies – policies that model decision-making not on traditional assumptions of rationality, but on the tendencies of humans to behave in a certain way when confronted with a particular decision or set of options under certain conditions. Hence, governments ‘nudge’ the public to make better decisions using simple biases we are all subject to.

Coined by Dr. Richard Thaler – winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2017 – ‘nudging’ has come to the forefront of public policy in recent years due to its simple, cost-effective rationale. Any policy-maker would argue that the most difficult type of policy to implement is the one that involves behavioral change: significant amounts of funds are dedicated to combat or promote a specific type of behavior through awareness campaigns and activities, and a lot of them fail to achieve their intended outcomes. These funds could be better spent elsewhere.

In education, nudge policies have been used by governments to promote positive practices among parents and students alike, and across all levels. In one famous policy experiment in the United States, parents of three- and four-year olds were sent text messages several times a week prompting them to practice literacy exercises with the children. Results from this experiment were positive; both parental engagement and children’s cognitive performance increased as a result of these text messages. Another experiment in Turkey employed animated videos to a group of 4th graders promoting the idea of failure as opportunity to learn, and that brains are not fixed and capable of growing. These students showed more persistence as a result of this intervention, and scored higher in mathematics and language exams.

Although still in its infancy, this notion of influencing behaviors, outlooks, and decision-making in education is promising; especially for Jordan. The National Strategy for Human Resource Development 2016-2025 (NHRD) calls for a shift in individual mindsets to bring about the necessary change needed for a human resource development system that suits the Kingdom’s needs. This is where nudging policies can be useful, as they can influence public behaviors through utilizing simple biases common across most (if not all) individuals at a low price tag. An example where nudging can be employed is in boosting enrolment in vocational education and training which suffers from chronically low demand and is negatively perceived by the public. The NHRD calls for delinking vocational education and training from low scholastic achievement as a means to improve the stream’s public image. Policy-makers can nudge students and their parents into choosing this stream through communicating its financial benefits -in the form of rates of return, compared to degree holders and setting minimum entry requirements to signal a high quality caliber of students and service delivery. Other applications of nudging can be seen in potentially supporting early education at home (as is the case in the experiment highlighted earlier in the United States) given low enrolment in early education, and in alleviating some of the pressure surrounding the high stakes Tawjihi secondary examinations through the dissemination of positive, supportive messages to all students sitting the exam.

There are countless other applications for such an approach in education. But, how and when should governments ‘nudge’ when it comes to education? Ben Castleman, head of the Nudge4 Solutions Lab at the University of Virginia, cites three general guidelines for applying behavioral insights in education: starting with critical choice junctures (e.g. choice of academic vs. vocational educational streams for students and parents), prompting active engagement rather than giving specific directions, and using nudges as supplementary policies rather than replacing educational investments. Indeed, while nudges may not be suitable for all problems in the education sector, they have the potential to influence great change at a relatively small price; especially when combined with other educational interventions.

 

By: Sami Dahdah