The messenger and the message: Using role models in the classroom

Written by: Harry Fletcher-Wood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As well as telling distracted and disengaged students why they should do something, Harry Fletcher-Wood says we could spend more time showing students who else is doing it


We’ve all been there. The lesson has barely begun when a student challenges us.

They may ask: “What’s the point in studying this?” Or tell us: “I can’t wait to drop this subject.” Or simply complain: “This is boring.” Now what? How can we convince them that the subject, topic or skill is worth their effort?

Our immediate reaction is often to highlight the value and worth of what we are doing. We may explain that it will matter next lesson, in the exam, or for future employment. Often, however, this leaves students unmoved.

We could try to make our explanations more compelling. But while studying the evidence from behavioural science, I have come to see the potential of another approach. As well as telling students why they should do something, I think we could spend more time showing students who is doing it.


An example

Think about a student who could and should go to university but doesn’t. Or a student who could be going to a top university, where they will really fulfil their potential – but opts to play it safe. As in the opening example, we could sit and explain why they should raise their sights. We could talk about salary data, explain career opportunities, describe intellectual challenges. It might work.

In a series of neat experiments over the last few years, however, the Behavioural Insights Team showed that the messenger you choose is crucial to swaying potential applicants (BIT, 2017). Hearing from a recent graduate, for example, was far more compelling than being given data about the impact and cost of university.

One ambitious experiment saw the team testing the power of this approach at a large scale. They sent letters from real undergraduates describing their university experience (and the financial support available) to randomly selected students who had the grades but were unlikely to apply to top universities.

These letters provided factual information (for example, about the cost of attending different universities). As importantly though, they provided reassurance and connection from a relatable peer. This put abstract messages in concrete terms. One undergraduate put things simply: “I now live 200 miles from home but have not suffered financially for doing so.”

The randomly selected students who received these letters were more likely to apply for top universities. And they were more likely to be accepted.

What this illustrates is the power of information about others as a tool for encouraging students. When we show students that an action is common and accepted among relatable peers, we change how they see that action – whether we want them to apply to university, do their homework regularly, or just start writing.

There are many things to consider when using this approach, but I find it helpful to think about two different kinds of social messenger: the individual and the group.


Individual role models

Students choose who they look up to. We can’t make them see anyone as a role model. But we can introduce students to potential role models, giving students the chance to see themselves in the role model’s shoes.

A good role model is accessible. This just means they need to seem similar or relatable in some dimension. Clearly, we cannot always find role models who look, talk, and feel identical to every student in a diverse class. That’s okay.

Students just need to be able to see something of themselves in the role model. That might be similarity in age, gender and ethnicity. But it could also be something simple they have in common, from a favourite football team or video game to a similar relationship with a younger or older sibling.

So, we can seek role models with whom students may share something – and we can encourage potential role models to find things they have in common with our students.

If a student is to learn from a role model, their actions must be legible. A distant hero can prove motivating: students may hope to grow up to be just like whoever it is. But that does not guide their immediate actions. For that, students need to know exactly what to do.

So if we are introducing a potential role model to the class – or just describing their actions – we must ensure that students know exactly what they did, and how it helped. How long did they study? Where did they get help? What did they worry about, and how did they overcome those worries? The clearer we make the steps, the easier it is for our students to follow them.

Role models are powerful messengers, and potential role models are all around us. They may be older students, family members, or famous figures. By highlighting what they do, and focusing our students’ attention on their actions, we can light a path for students.


Group norms

Group norms are incredibly powerful. If you were in a crowded room, and everyone goes quiet, you do too – even if you have no idea what is going on. That is a social norm at work: we do what we see others are doing. Everyone responds to social norms, but teenagers are particularly attuned to their peers’ actions and approvals. This means we can use normative messages to highlight the value of action.

First, we need a good grasp of what students are doing: how many are working hard and how hard are they working? This may mean stopping long enough to take stock of what is going on in the classroom, or how many pieces of homework have been submitted. Then we can draw students’ attention to this.

“I can see almost everyone has started,” for example, or “Most of us are already on to Question 6.” Not every student will be swayed, but for many, this conveys an important message about what they should be doing.

Clearly, normative messages are most effective when everything’s going well. Highlighting a negative social norm – “No-one has even completed the first question” – is likely to have the opposite effect.

But if things are not as we would wish, we can still highlight positive trends. This has the same effect as highlighting existing successes: by showing the way things are going, it clarifies what students need to do to be part of the group.


Use with care!

I am not suggesting abandoning our efforts to show students that what we are doing matters. I am suggesting, instead, reinforcing our message by emphasising that it is not just us who believe this – it is others as well. Unsurprisingly, these tactics need careful use.

Some research suggests that students who are highlighted as particularly successful reduce their effort to avoid attention.

Students in older year groups are far less likely to be affected by this kind of negative social pressure – so our choice of role models and normative messages must be careful. But what is clear is the power of these messages. Social pressures influence us as much as they do our students. If we want to encourage students to learn, it is worth explaining why: some students may be convinced. But others will be swayed by knowing that those they admire, or those around them, are learning too.

  • Harry Fletcher-Wood is an associate dean at Ambition Institute, where he leads the Teacher Education Fellows programme. He worked in schools in London, India and Japan. His book, Habits of Success: Getting every student learning (Routledge) was published in August. Visit https://bit.ly/3IDArzr or follow on Twitter @HFletcherWood


Further information & resources

  • Behavourial Insights Team: Inspirational students encourage university applications, March 2017: https://bit.ly/3oQBBzr


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