Changing Classrooms: One Nudge At A Time

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Paul Ainsworth

Paul has been writing for the Teacher Toolkit website since 2012 and is the author of 'No Silver Bullets: Day in, day out school improvement'. He is a system leader supporting primary schools, secondary schools and MATs currently with with Infinity Academies Trust as Education...
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Isn’t it about time we gave children a nudge?

Have you ever thought about the dashed white lines in the centre of the road?

Painted lines on roads were introduced when cars kept crashing into each other in America. Three states apparently all introduced them independently from each other in 1917. One of the most famous early examples was painted along “Dead Man’s Curve” on what is now County Road 492, in Marquette County, Michigan.

The white line does not tell you must drive on one side of the road, but suggests it is a good idea. It is only on foggy days or on very dirty roads that we realise how vital they are.

Now, have a think of how products are arranged in a supermarket. Every time I stand looking at the wine aisle, there are perhaps three different shelves of wine. The two higher shelves tends to be the wine that is about average price. If you are in a rush you just grab one of those. The cheapest bottles are always at the bottom, you have to bend down to find them and make a little more effort. The more expensive bottles tend to be a eye line, so if you are not just grabbing a bottle quickly, you will see those prices and then think the other bottles are a good price but they are still more expensive than those on the bottom shelf. Which ever product you are looking at, you will probably see a similar arrangement strategy.

Nudge Theory

Both of those ideas are example of a theory called, ‘Nudge’ which argues that using positive reinforcement or indirect suggestion is far more effective than direct instruction or enforcement to persuade people to do something. It is an idea that was first proposed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book, Nudge.

If we think about the classroom, we can spend lots of times telling children to do something or making rules but ‘nudge’ says that is less effective.

Here are three examples of when teacher try and nudge their pupils into making positive choices:

Classroom Nudges

There are lots of examples of good behaviour management when Nudge theory is used. Rather than reprimanding children we may praise other children near them for doing the right thing.

We arrange the chairs and tables in our classrooms to promote certain behaviours that we require in that lesson. I have seen lots of teachers use raffle tickets to reward children for doing the right thing such as arriving in the classroom with tie done up or planners out on the desk ready to start the lesson. Then having a draw at the end of the lesson or the end of the week.

In the current climate, I hear many Headteachers say to their teachers, ‘book is king’ with the expectation that good presentation is promoted. We may take a ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ approach and if we want children to write in black pens, have them available on the table, if we wish them to use rulers to underline, again have them on the table to do this. Even with interactive white boards, why not use the special pens and rulers so pupils see you underline dates and titles!


I have seen lots of strategies being used to nudge children to think for themselves or solve their own problems rather than asking the teacher when they are stuck. There are the memorable ‘snot’ posters, don’t get stuck get snot which I have seen in different classrooms!

Self – What can you do for yourself

Neighbour – Can your neighbour help?

Other – What other materials do you have that can help you?

Teacher – Then when all else fails you can ask your teacher.

I’ve also seen self-help corners developed with resources are available. This could range from a differentiated tips sheet for the current task, to reference works (thesaurus/dictionary), text books or calculators. All there to encourage the child to find their own solution whilst the teacher does their own planned interventions to move learning forwards.

Nudge Nudge, Think Think

Over the next week, rather than thinking of new rules or enforcements try and consider how you can nudge children into making good decisions, which support their learning. Consider how you can arrange the classroom environment to help with this too.

In my next blog, I’ll explain who researched nudge and consider how leaders can use nudge theory to improve their school.


Paul Ainsworth writes for Teacher Toolkit and his new book is called Bloomsbury CPD Library: Middle Leadership.

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