Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Text Alerts Make Sure That Parents Get a Nudge

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Text Alerts Make Sure That Parents Get a Nudge

Article excerpt

Pupils' progress boosted as messages prompt parents to ask about schoolwork

The phone pings. Or beeps. Or buzzes. Or, in some cases, crows like a cockerel.

There is a new text message: "Today, in science, Tilly learned about solids, liquids and gases. Ask her: which one is shaving foam?"

This kind of electronic missive is at the heart of new research, which has revealed that sending parents text messages about their children's schoolwork can lead to improved academic performance.

The study, conducted by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), draws on the psychological concept of nudge theory, which posits that indirect suggestions are an effective way of influencing individuals' decision-making processes.

David Cameron famously set up a nudge unit in the Cabinet Office, to try and persuade the British public to act in a socially responsible way. Similarly, Barack Obama's campaigners sent text messages to voters on election day, encouraging them to vote by providing directions to their nearest polling station.

"It's putting ideas at the front of the brain for parents," said Barry Burningham, deputy head of The Nobel School in Hertfordshire, which took part in the EEF study. "So we'll say: 'Your child has a science test coming up: make sure you ask them about cells when they get home'. As a parent, knowing what to ask about is the hard bit."

Thirty-six secondaries took part in the study, sending text messages to the parents of more than 15,600 pupils in Years 7, 9 and 11. The text messages took a number of different forms. Some warned parents that their offspring had tests approaching: "Your child has a maths test this week," followed up with, "Your child has a maths test tomorrow."

Others notified parents of children's missing homework: "Johnny didn't hand in his English homework today."

The final set of text messages was sent out weekly, alternating between English, maths and science. These provided conversational prompts that parents could use to discuss their child's classwork with them after school: for example, would they consider shaving foam to be a solid, liquid or gas?

"With primary schools, the size means that it's a lot easier for parents to feel like they're involved," said Mr Burningham.

"Parents at secondary often feel like there's a drawbridge mentality: their kids go to school at the start of the day, and the drawbridge goes up. So we're trying to fill in the moat."

'Giving them a nudge'

Parents received an average of one text message a week during the one-year trial. The prompts were preloaded on to messaging software, and were then sent out to the parents of an entire class.

Danielle Mason, EEF head of research, said that the project relied on simple behavioural psychology. "You could have a requirement for every parent to talk to their child once a week about schoolwork," she said. "That would be seen to be very heavy-handed and onerous, and might not work.

"Or you can send an unobtrusive text message to parents. Rather than using financial incentives or statutory incentives, you're framing options in a way that might change their behaviour."

At schools such as Nobel, where some parents feel self-conscious about their own levels of education, such techniques can make a difference. "You aren't putting any requirement on the parent to learn or to work something out," Ms Mason said. …

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