Amplify desirable behaviour
How to influence norms in the classroom
Hope your week is going okay and you’re noticing some examples of how norms influence your work and life. Today’s big idea continues this theme from a more actionable perspective. Let’s go…
Big idea 🍉
The presence of norms in school is inevitable—there is little we can do about it. However, the nature of these norms is within our influence. Here's how we can shape them:
A quick reminder: norms are the unwritten rules of conduct that influence behaviour and learning in school (& society). They are so powerful that they often override more formal policies and rules. However, they typically operate below our conscious awareness and so we sometimes neglect to consider and harness them.
Our perceptions of norms arise predominantly from the observation of others. And so, the best way to influence norms in school is to raise the visibility of those behaviours and attitudes that we want others to emulate. For example, we can:
Highlight individual action. Jem has got her book out and is already working through the activity.
Narrate group activity. Almost everyone is tracking me and ready to listen.
Share stories of others. My other classes asked me some really tough questions about this topic.
Nuance → Normative messaging is more effective when it emphasises what we want to happen, rather than what we don’t. Chastising a class by telling them that most students didn’t do their homework can reinforce rather that deter such behaviour (I've totally done this before 🤦).
“What we permit, we promote.”
100% adoption is the ultimate lever—even a single dissenter makes it easier for us not to follow along. When we see one person picking up litter, we might consider doing it. When we see everyone else picking up litter, we will start to worry about not doing it.
Where there isn’t an established norm, we can point to evidence of an emerging norm, one that appears to be growing in adoption or approval. Or we can point to norm outcomes—a full pile of homework books handed in or a tidy classroom signal 'how things are done around here'.
Normative messaging is most potent in novel situations. Once norms have taken hold, they become increasingly hard to change. This is why it is worth taking time to get things right in the early days of establishing a class. And why some schools host new student groups by themselves for a few days at the start of the year—it provides the elbowroom needed to establish desirable norms and routines before the rest of the party arrive.
🎓 For more on strategies for influencing norms, see this meta-analysis of social norms interventions in healthcare, by Tang et al.
What things do you do (consciously or not) to influence norms in your classroom? What seems to work best? What else could you try?
• Our perception of norms arises predominantly from the observation of others.
• The best way to influence norms in our classroom is to raise the visibility of those behaviours and attitudes that we want others to emulate.
• Norm messaging works best when we focus on what we want to happen rather than what we don't.
Little updates 🥕
On topic, here’s a summary of a recent paywalled paper around how norms play out differently in countries with more individualist vs more collectivist cultures.
Jared Cooney Hovarth just dropped this video explainer on a paywalled paper comparing the sequencing of retrieval practice and generative learning strategies.
And finally, here’s a helpful new review of the value of Growth Mindset approaches in school by Prof Dan Willingham.