Persuasion: a holiday read we can all learn from

1st August 2008 at 01:00

"Summer afternoon: the two most beautiful words in the English language," Henry James famously declared. Sitting here in the garden with a glass of chilled rose, a summer break stretching enticingly ahead, I suspect that master craftsman of fiction may have got it right.

But then, like wasps at a picnic, there are always the discordant sounds of summer to contend with. Another Parcel Force lorry rattles past, delivering a pallet of unmarked Sats papers to some hapless office tea-boy or cocktail waitress with time to spare. There's the background baying of opportunist politicians who, having told us that Sats are unreliable and irrelevant, are now whipping up a half-hearted controversy over the marking delays. And, above the drone of a distant lawnmower, some rent-a- quote pundit is already starting to type up a press release about falling standards, ready for the August announcement that key stage test scores have fallen and A-level pass rates increased.

But, for now, it's the summer holidays - an opportunity to shrug off the barbed and envious comments of non-teaching friends and to find quality time to argue with the family.

As we stuff our holiday cases with the books we didn't have time to read during the year - or couldn't quite stay awake for - we learn that the fashionable hardback to flash at the Tuscany poolside is Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein - the book that will apparently shape future Conservative policy. It's a bit like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, which shows us that first impressions - our instant reaction to things - can be more reliable than we would imagine.

Nudge is about what is grandly being termed behavioural economics. Most teachers will probably know the concept better as "how to get people to do things that they don't think they want to do". It's our bread and butter. For example, Thaler and Sunstein demonstrate that one way of getting more people to become organ donors is to tell them that most of their peers already are.

It's a kind of peer pressure, raising people's awareness of what others like them are doing. Another example: showing householders how their energy use compares with that of their neighbours makes us significantly less wasteful, according to US pilot projects.

It's the same principle that Noah Goldstein, Steve Martin and Robert Cialdini write about in Yes! Those signs in hotels asking us not to needlessly change our towels every day are apparently 26 per cent more effective if they tell us that other guests choose to re-use their towels, rather than just stating the environmental benefits.

All of this nudging is what we see great teachers doing around schools all the time. It's the way they can get even the most truculent teenager to pick up some litter by saying: "Could you just pick that up for me - thanks". That "just" minimises the scale of the request, making it more unreasonable to refuse. The "for me" emphasises a personal transaction. The use of "thanks" rather than "please" assumes that the action will be done rather than pleading that it might.

These are the micro-skills of teachers, the persuasive tools of our profession. Now, for a few weeks, we can try to switch them off, although only last summer my wife, in default mode, told off a boy in a shopping centre for dropping some litter. Once a teacher, always a teacher, it seems.

No doubt, just like Blink, Yes! and Nudge, there's a book in this somewhere. Here, in the calm backwater of these summer afternoons, I might be inclined to call it Clench. That sums up the self-control we're going to have to summon up for the next whirligig of controversy in mid-August, when the exam results are published and those wretched Sats finally get marked.

Meanwhile, happy reading.

Geoff Barton, Head of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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