How priming research improves school signposting

Since the 1970s a research agenda has emerged around the cognitive functions that underlie unconscious mental processes. Many different ideas and research streams have informed aspects of how the mind responds to the world on the boundary between our conscious control and unconscious automatic response.

Three decades of priming research have now come to our attention, and not always for reasons that flatter our societies. Racial biasing, online political campaigning, social media likes and fake news are all instances of social priming on a mass scale. These rapidly growing, and largely concerning, levers upon the unconscious mind need to be understood.

Apart from such negative findings, priming research also opens up new, positive opportunities for educators to understand and improve the impacts of their school environment upon the developing minds of their pupils. In this article, I will explain why and how educators can use this emerging science to the betterment of their children's education.

Let me start with a brief overview of what priming is and how it's effects were discovered.

Early priming research

In 1977, in a series of studies, Berkley cognitive scientists Walter Schneider and Richard Shiffrin described how the mind processed familiar and repetitive tasks/data faster and less consciously than novel data and tasks. They called this process ‘automatic thinking’.

Down the road at Harvard the following year, Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor coined the term ‘cognitive miserliness’. Their work evidenced that the mind will choose the lowest cost route to a solution rather than choosing a more effortful, higher cost route which may be more accurate. This was an important realisation that conscious, accurate processes are effortful- and that the mind will typically default to more automatic ones, less conscious responses.

Daniel Kahneman

Over a decade-long period in the 1970s and 1980s Stanford psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky led research into error-making within thinking. Their work evidenced that the mind will often fail to detect logical fallacies presented to it, choosing instead solutions which are less complex and less effortful. This leads to errors of judgment and decision making. Kahneman went on to describe various forms of bias which seemed to involve thinkers substituting complex, abstract computations with personal, experiences of the same event. He concluded that a critical element of this quicker kind of thinking was the substitution of the abstract with the personal, imagined, first person scenario.

Kahneman applied these conclusions to the fields of economics, in work later awarded a Nobel Prize, showing how trading decisions which were thought to be rational were often in fact irrational and errorful. The evidence that collective biasing could have an impact on real world events, previously thought to be controlled by rational thinking, was mounting.

John Bargh

Yale psychologist John Bargh then provided the next piece to the jigsaw in the 1980s-90s. In a series of experiments he, and colleagues, evidenced that the mind is unconsciously influenced by environmental cues around it. Negative messages heard or read, resulted in unrecognised physical avoidance movements; being exposed to messages about being elderly caused participants to walk slower; being in a group resulted in unrecognised mimicking behaviours; racial biases were reinforced by priming with coloured faces. Positively, candidates exerted more cognitive self-control when primed with words around thinking carefully before responding.

These so called environmental priming effects evidenced the influence surrounding environment has on biasing the responses of the mind, and body, without our conscious awareness. Not all results were replicated in independent studies, suggesting some effects were weak or culturally specific.

Roy Baumeister

In parallel to this work on priming, Roy Baumeister at Florida State was leading a field of research into the properties of self-regulation. Contra Bargh inter al. Baumeister was interested in the properties of the mind that could exert conscious, effortful control over choices and decision making. Research evidenced that self-regulation was not only an important property underpinning maturation and healthy social-emotional functioning; it was also effortful and demanding. Like using a muscle, self-regulation could be improved by training; but it was also depleted by exhaustion. Our capacity to think and respond consciously, against an automatic response, was negatively related to the amount of effort we had already put into doing so.

A picture of the interactions of environmental priming and individual self-regulation was emerging. Environmental priming causes individuals to adjust their behaviours and thoughts automatically and largely unconsciously. Becoming aware of, and resisting, such priming required effortful control, through conscious alternatives.

As far as we understand it at the present time, both environment and individual interact, like a driver steering along a road which signposts their speed and driving behaviours.

To improve the quality of the driver, you needed to both improve the road signposts, but also train the driver to steer.

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 most certainly extend to the school campus. Professor Bargh explained it this way to me 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.

The research work of STEER

The research work of STEER has been to apply these findings to the context of school and education. Our own research has involved innovating a technology which isolates and measures that steering the mind, whilst eliminating or significantly reducing the noise of other cognitive activities. This has allowed us to reliably measure the effects of pupils’ steering on educational outcomes, wellbeing, welfare risks and learning.

STEER technologies measure the effects of school priming on the minds of pupils in relation to their social, affective and cognitive biases. AS Tracking, for example, measures the impacts of school signposting on the social-emotional biases of both individuals and whole cohorts of pupils, as they go through their school career. CAS Tracking, launched in 2018, measures the impacts of classroom signposts on the biases that effect pupil’s learning.

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.

John Bargh believes that this is an important breakthrough in pioneering the application of priming insights into the management of schools. He writes

“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.”

Education has long focused on developing the power of the mental engine. We believe that it is possible to improve educational outcomes by improving the signposting of the school road. In an age when online information, data and opinion biases our knowledge and decision-making ever more universally, we believe that improving the ability of the mind to steer will become an increasingly urgent educational goal.