Teachers should consider giving every student an A grade at the start of the academic year, and urge them to work towards keeping it in order to boost standards, research suggests.
The study, which was released by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in the UK and Germany this week, made the unconventional recommendation in an effort to improve the attainment of lower-income students. Researchers also suggested that schools should take steps to counteract "unintentional biases" that could affect the performance of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The report, Everyone Starts With an A, states that using behavioural science techniques could help to close the attainment gap between rich and poor students. One of the key proposals is for teachers to assign each of their students an A at the beginning of the year, with the hope that children would work harder in order to keep the grade.
The method is based on the phenomenon of "loss aversion" - the tendency for people to be more motivated when trying to avoid losing something. Humans are hardwired to feel the pain of loss more acutely than the pleasure of gain, the academics behind the study say.
A similar idea has already been floated by researchers from Harvard University and attracted attention in the UK amid debate over performance-related pay for teachers. As previously reported in TES, the research involved US teachers being given bonuses in advance, then being forced to hand the money back if their students failed to reach exam targets.
Nathalie Spencer, senior researcher at the RSA's Social Brain Centre, said experiments had shown that the technique could be beneficial to students: those who were given the top grade before a test performed better.
"What was interesting with the experiments was that the students weren't given time to study for the tests. They were only told they would lose their grade just before sitting the exam, but still they performed better," Ms Spencer said. "It showed they were more motivated, or that they were motivated differently.
"The idea is that we reframe the incentives. It doesn't mean everyone gets an A, just that everyone starts with one. It plants a seed in the pupil's mind right from the start that there is the potential for them to get an A."
The research draws heavily on the work of US psychologist Carol Dweck, who first put forward the notion that people have either a "fixed" or a "growth" mindset. Those with the latter are more likely to succeed because they view hard work rather than innate ability as the basis for improvement.
As well as giving every student an A grade, the report suggests that teachers should replace the term "fail" with "not yet". The paper also recommends that teachers and students discuss "cognitive biases" that can lead to teachers making assumptions about a student because of their social background, which can have an impact on performance.
"There is an issue about teacher expectation and there is an issue of how pupils themselves view their own capacity and performance in the classroom," said Louise Bamfield, associate director of education at the RSA and co-author of the report. "So this work is about changing how pupils see themselves but also how teachers see pupils from different backgrounds.
"We can draw lessons from other high-performing countries who have a very low tolerance of poor performance among lower income groups. That is something the UK needs to shift."
Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the University of London's Institute of Education, said there was no doubt that loss aversion could be a powerful motivator, but he questioned its use in the classroom.
"There is a risk of just jumping on to behavioural economics like this and not thinking it through," Professor Wiliam said. "There is no point in using loss aversion if the students do not know what it is they need to do to keep the A grade.
"It is one thing saying we won't accept poor-quality work from anybody, that everyone can get an A, but that's different from all getting an A, particularly when it's not straightforward what is required to keep it."
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