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Thursday, 30 June 2016

Homo Educationist: Insights from Behavioural Economics


It seems contrary to common sense, but advances in Economics Theory have implications that need to be understood in the context of Education. Surely not… right?

In order to learn, students make choices about those things that provide optimal outcomes for their development. In economics, consumers make purchases that provide optimal outcomes for their lives. When making choices about strategies for learning, students will choose strategies that are optimal for understanding. When consumers decide to purchase items they make choices based on cost-benefit analyses that subjugate uncertainties. In an ideal world, rationality and reason influence decision making processes. Choices, whether consumers or learners, would not be influenced by external indicators that could have implications for the choices being made as decisions would be made on simple costs and benefits that are ultimately informed by individual preferences or prior knowledge.

The world, however, does not conform to our intuitions – and the above, however intuitive, is misconceived. Rationality and reason in decision making, whether economic or educational, is not elusive but rather illusory – and necessarily so. The central pillar of enlightenment thinking has been called into question by evidence based on the contrary. The challenge, coming from Behavioural Economics, suggests that human decision making is strongly determined by contextual factors. For example, the presentation of information can lead to divergent choices about the same idea based on how it is presented to us. Behaviour ought to be understood as subject to cognitive biases, emotional response and social pressure. Economic decision making has been shown to be immeasurably less deliberate, linear and controlled than it appears to us. Education is slowly catching on.

So what – making consumer choices is incommensurable with learning processes and any indication of analogy surely invites hostility? In one sense I agree – we are built to discriminate on the basis of qualitative differences. Fundamentally, however, there is no difference at all: the condition for the possibility of both educative and economic decision making processes can be reduced to physical processes that occur in the brain; we are effectively dealing with the same biological processes. Does this make is analogous? Yes, despite the different objectives that are manifestly obvious. If we agree (even if we have to suspend our belief for a moment), then we can ask the question: can anything be extrapolated from Behavioural Economics research that is applicable in Educational research?

Before we look further into this there is, perhaps, a more pertinent analogy to be made between this Economic theory and Educational theory: Behavioural Economics has instigated an analogous paradigmatic shift in economic theory in the same manner as advances in evidence-based theory have necessitated a paradigmatic shift in education. The shift, as outlined in my prior blogs, can be summarised as a transformation in the way we value evidence over intuition and utilise evidence to advance knowledge and enhance decision making.

Behavioural Economics too is consistent with naturalism insofar is concepts prevalent in the discourse can be reduced to scientifically understood principles – homo economicus has been reduced from rational to predictably irrational on the basis of insurmountable evidence. Once again, homo economicus guided by reason and rationality has proved himself more than elusive, but illusory, and necessarily so. This illusion too can be understood on the basis of our folk psychological and intuitive default positions – as such they can undergo the same reduction and, if need be, elimination as invalid concepts (rationality has been surely eliminated in Behavioural Economics). But enough on this point.

The overlap between Behavioural Economics and educational theory does not end purely on the basis of analogy. Behavioural Economics shares something more fundamental with Hattie’s educational and paradigm shifting revolution: Dual Systems Theory. The idea that consciousness is the ‘tip’ of the iceberg has long been established – rather interestingly, widely held to be intuitive on the basis of deductive reasoning. Once again, our folk psychology has played an important role in the establishment of this understanding: whatever epoch you research, a dualistic model has been present in some manner. Of course, the ‘mind’ has proved more than elusive, and rather illusory. Reductionism has, however, eliminated the folk psychological concepts surrounding this illusion and replaced it with the Dual Systems Model – a model taken very seriously by Hattie and Yates in Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (2014) as well as in Behavioural Economics. This should not be surprising, despite the overt qualitative differences between economics and education, as both can be reduced to biological principles and Neuroscientific research. As both are epistemically concerned with truth and their evidence reflects objective facts about the world then we would expect there ought to be a cohesive association between the two areas of research. I implore you to go and research this model as it gives credence and enhances our understanding of learners and learning exponentially.

So what are the implications for teaching and learning? For Theories of Learning, we can use Behavioural Economics as an exemplar in the utilisation of naturalism as beneficial for enhancing an understanding of the underlying principles involved in decision making – in our case, educational not economic. For Theories of Teaching, there is an exemplary application of these understandings to enhance economic outcomes, or in our case, educational outcomes. These outcomes, however, come at a contentious and foreseeable cost: they are deceptive insofar as they utilise these understandings to enhance economic outcomes. The great moral question for education, however, would be whether we should use the same deception to enhance learning outcomes. Theories of Teaching, built on these principles, would look vastly different from the way in which we design Theories of Teaching now as we currently aim to provide a transparent and harmonious association between Theories of Learning and Theories of Teaching. Behavioural Economics does not disseminate its theories in manifestly transparent ways in which allow the individual to transcend their impulses – it exploits the consumer on the basis of deception in order to enhance capital gain. I am not sure what is to be taken away from this… perhaps I will return to this at some time in the future.

As noted in the beginning, the major findings of Behavioural Economics was that by changing the way one product is marketed that opposing choices can be made about it – why not for ideas, concepts and knowledge too? Surely this gives us a hint of how to establish an accurate and sound translation of theory into practice. Irrespective of its deception, Theories of Teaching must present in ways that correlate with higher probabilities in positive outcomes. Learning is measured in progress in much the same way that economics is. Lastly, learning as based on ‘decision making’ surely ought to be influenced by the same cognitive biases, emotional response and social pressures that give rise to economic ‘choices’. It’s time we do away with our intuitive understandings of learning and pave the way forward in educational research that takes the science seriously. Behavioural Economics leads the way in paradigm shifts that utilise evidence over intuition – education is still coming to grips with it. Which way will it go?