The “Right” Kind of Nudge in Education

The effect of nudges – small changes in a child’s behavior that could lead to bigger change – cannot be overstated in a young child’s education and development. This outcome of promoting behavioral change is intrinsically powerful, shaping the course of a child’s development through momentary choices.

One example is the reminder: reminding a child of alternative choices is said to “promote children’s cognitive flexibility, as well as children’s engagement in and enjoyment of [a] task” according to a publication by Li Qu and Jing Y. Ong. This study analyzes how the effects of reminders are dictated by who gave them. It assigned groups of children to perform a task with either a child partner or an adult, with or without reminders. It finds that reminders given by adults actually decrease the intrinsic motivation and cognitive flexibility of the subject while reminders given by peers performed better. While the study has limitations, notably that it doesn’t measure how these children deal with later situations in a developmental fashion, it still illustrates one key point: the delivery and context around nudges matter as much as what the nudges themselves advocate for. As the researchers note, both the testers and the partners gave similar alternative choices, but the older testers might have been taken more seriously resulting in more distraction for the child, or the child could have simply been feeling more pressure from the adult than a peer (I know I would feel the same).

This is why thinking about the context and methodology of nudges is important. It inevitably affects what their subjects would think of them. Developmental psychologist Junlei Li focuses on nudging educators themselves into “enriching human relationships”. He emphasizes reinforcing what educators are already doing instead of what they are not but ought to be doing. This is a clear choice in the context of the previous study in which focusing on alternatives as an authority figure proved to be a distraction. While it seems like either option would accomplish the same end goal in promoting a certain behavior, one better takes into account the context of the nudge-giver as an authority figure in determining how to compose the nudge. This more effectively changes the behavior of the recipient.