How better signposting can improve the quality of your school road

In my last thought piece I surveyed the history of priming research. That this topic is rapidly coming in popular consciousness is evidenced by the growing crisis of ‘fake news’ - essentially a cognitive priming phenomenon.

One of the father figures of global priming research is James Rowland Angell Professor of Psychology at Yale University, Professor John Bargh. Professor Bargh’s life's work has just been published under the intriguing title Before you know it, by Simon and Schuster. It is touted as a follow up to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

I have known John for several years because of my organisation’s research measuring the unconscious priming influences in schools on the minds of pupils. Before I share Professor Bargh’s evaluation of STEER’s work, let me explain the significance of priming in relation to schools, pupils and wellbeing.

Social priming on your school campus

Unconscious social priming happens through the messages your school gives to pupils’ throughout the day. These are both implicit and explicit messages: from the discipline policy, to the school uniform; from the tutor conversations to its grading structure; from the colour of its branding to the language in its pupil reports. Every teacher, tutor and House Parent reinforces the priming effect in the conversations and interactions they have.

The effects of such priming are now well evidenced. Professor Bargh explains that “three decades of research in social psychology has demonstrated that the situations, the contexts, even mundane features of the environments that surround us have a profound influence on how we think, how we feel, the choices we make, and the goals we pursue -- quite often without our being aware of or intending those influences at all.”

Think about these priming effects as SIGNPOSTS on the school road along which your pupils are driving. These signposts steer the route pupils follow, their speed, interactions and direction. Good signposts teach children’s minds to steer. Good signposts reduce the risk of children crashing socially and emotionally, especially over the inevitable bumps of the adolescent road. Likewise, poor signposts can have an adverse effect.

Improving the signposting on your school road

What impact is your signposting are having on the steering of your pupils?

Heads tell us that one of the most powerful reasons for implementing AS Tracking is that it provides them with measurable data on the impact of their school signposts on the wellbeing of their pupils.

Some of you have not (yet!) implemented AS Tracking. In the interests of improving pastoral signposting for all children, let me share what we have learned from those schools which have. There is indeed, it appears, clear best practice when it comes to signposting the school road.

First, good signposting is targeted and stimulates reflection.

There is a good reason why many drivers ignore the message ‘Child on board, slow down!’ in the rear of the car in front. The message is indiscriminate. It shouts its warning to the careful anxious driver just as loudly as to the boy racer.

By contrast, the intelligent street sign which lights up and flags your speed (36!) as you enter the village, catches your attention. It is targeted; it speaks directly to you.

Likewise, schools that signpost well avoid broadcast warnings to all children. Messages such as ‘Focus hard with exams coming up’, to ‘Set your aspirations really really high this term’, ‘Always be kind to those who ask for help’, to ‘Never accept banter as it may be bullying’. Children are primed to hear these messages differently, and the over-conscientious, eager to please and quick to be offended will be negatively primed by those messages.

Instead, use your messages to equip your pupils to reflect on the consequences of their actions: ‘What would happen if you worked till 10pm every night this term?’ ‘Are there times when it’s right not to offer to help?’ ‘When do you think banter may become bullying?’ This teaches pupils to steer rather than yanking the steering wheel out of their hands.

Second, good signposting is consistently applied.

On the road, we need consistent signposts about the speed, direction and risks ahead. Likewise, schools which signpost effectively ensure that any specific messages given to an individual pupil is communicated by everyone in the staff body. The signposts given in Science are the same as those on the sports pitch and the Sixth Form Centre, otherwise mixed messages leave the child confused.

Third, good signposting gets the right people involved.

My colleague, Dr Jo Walker, and I see more evidence of schools working much harder to integrate the voices of all pastoral staff- nurses, counsellors, DSLs, HMs etc- in focused conversations around a child. Structural procedures and mechanisms by which messages are first articulated, then implemented, then reviewed ensure signposts are effective.

Does targeted signposting work?

Unequivocally yes. Last year, our data showed that schools which used targeted signposts like this had a positive impact on the steering biases of 80% of their pupils, compared to just 47% of pupils when they did NOT use such targeted signposts.

Back to Professor Bargh. I promised I would share his evaluation of the work of STEER. After 30 years of research into the profound effects of priming, John Bargh’s opinion is, I think, one to trust.

“If schools can now obtain feedback on the unseen impacts of their school campus environment on the developing minds of their students, through a technology like AS Tracking, this has great potential for more effective educational management - and thereby in unlocking the potential of our children.”

*[http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Before-You-Know-It/John-Bargh/9781501101212]