Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals

I’m always interested in widening my reading list and understanding of the role/world I work in. I’ve worked on the Warwick MOOC ‘The Mind is Flat’ for nearly four years now, and the concept of how we ‘encourage’ change (either personal, professional or organisational) through individual perspectives and acrtions is something I’ve explored a bit. From the Behavioural Science team and Nick Chater at WBS to individual discussions with the individual course teams, the concept and theory behind ‘nudge’ is something I think we can learn a lot from for learning, students, assessments, library, student affairs, etc.

‘Nudge theory’ is defined as the behavioural science (in/from politics, economics, individual or group actions) that “proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to try to achieve non-forced compliance to influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals” (Wikipedia). From subtle changes to the way we think about a problem or how we interact with colleagues to how we approach a problem or it’s solution, being aware of what a nudge is and how it can be of benefit is useful.

What is this book then? Called ‘Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals’ (Amazon) written by Owain Service and Rory Gallagher, two of the behavioural science team in the first Nudge Unit. Taking their experiences, understanding, research and results they’ve put this framework together that we can (note: can, not should or have to) use for personal or professional improvement. The framework is not a this-then-that approach but rather a set of ideas and

“We’re often told to dream big, the sky’s the limit and that nothing is impossible. While it is undoubtedly good advice to set yourself goals that have the potential to make you and those around you healthier and happier, how to reach those goals is often less clear. From getting fit or securing a new job to becoming a better manager or parent, simply setting your mind to something will rarely get you where you want to be, and big plans can quickly become overwhelming, leaving us feeling as though we’ve failed.”

How about these examples … using the theory of behavioural science and nudge to encourage individuals to choose to change their behaviour, rather than tell them they must change it. Examples below include how to make a dangerous pedestrian crossing work when cyclists are introduced, and how to encourage people to  use the stairs rather than the escalator:

YouTube: Nudge – Increasing Traffic Safety with Duct Tape

YouTube: Piano stairs

YouTube: Rory Sutherland on Nudging in the Bathroom

Here’s another great example of how nudges are being used when buying new kitchen appliances:

YouTube: GreeNudge #1: Triple win tumblers

I would really like to explore how we can use these ‘nudges’ in/for learning …

  • Can students be encouraged through nudge to participate more online (MOOCs)?
  • Will students realise the nudge, positively or negatively?
  • Can nudges work in electronic communications (library notices, course announcements, tests, assignment deadlines, assignment feedback, module evaluation etc.)?
  • What can we do with signage (online and campus) to increase footfall? Can we use nudge to help students enter/exit lecture theatres without the standard expected blockages?
  • Can nudges be used to increase numbers in MOOCs?

So many areas of education and learning technology where nudges could work either individually, for a cohort, etc. If you’ve done anything like this please tweet or comment below, I’d really like to know (and broadcast, so we can all learn from your experience).

Here are some more examples of nudge and how it has benefited individuals or organisations:

“It [HMRC] found that replacing the sentence “Nine out of 10 people in the UK pay their tax on time” with “The great majority of people in [the taxpayer’s local area] pay their tax on time” increased the proportion of people who paid their income tax before the deadline.”
The Telegraph

“Fewer solutions capitalize on the availability of student data and student-facing technology to create and automate delivery of nudges. A smart solution using Nudge Theory can impact all students, not just those identified as at-risk, and do so without increasing staff or administrative burden.”
Elearning Industry

“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.” 
Teacher Toolkit

“People don’t always act in their own interests – by filing their taxes late, for instance, overeating, or not paying fines until the bailiffs call. As a result, they don’t just harm themselves, they cost the state a lot of money. By looking closely at how they make their choices and then testing small changes in the way the choices are presented, the unit tries to nudge people into leading better lives, and save the rest of us a fortune.”
The Gaurdian


As I work my way through the Kindle edition I’ll tweet passages I find interesting or useful, using the #nudge and #edtech hashtags.

“If any structure is to survive, be it behavioural or physical, it needs strong foundations, and to be wisely placed, to take the weight and stresses it will be subject to. As you start to build, its cement and structure will be weak. To succeed, you will need scaffolding to support its initially delicate joints and links. You will need to keep on building the scaffolding too, protecting your structure from the wind and rain as you go. But do it right, and the time will come when the scaffolding and covers can be dismantled. Your building will stand tall and strong on its own, serving its purpose, whatever that may be.” Book extract.

Image source: Lego Construction (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)