Thanks to the innumerable ways in which we receive news and other content today, we tend to go through several hundred links before chancing upon an article or two that really open our eyes wide and grab our attention. Some years back, discovering Sudhir Venkatesh and his amazing work with the Chicago housing projects was one such window into how communities survive and cope despite apathetic policies, poverty and ghettoization of the country. Another such aha moment for me, at a different end of the spectrum was a long David Brooks article called “The Organization Kid” that had very pertinent observations around amazingly talented students and how society is producing a “meritocracy” that is internalizing that one does not question authority.
There are many other examples of course. In the immediate past, I finally got around to reading “Work Hard. Be Nice.” – a book that Bill Gates wrote a review for and recommended in his TED talk and at several venues. It speaks about the incredible journey of two young Teach for America volunteers as they try to teach children in low income, minority populations and develop the KIPP Schools. The book also has sections devoted to critiques of the KIPP method and references statistical studies that show proof of how these schools improve academic performance in several parts of the US. It was also heartening to read about two individuals in the US who would not give up on their children, just like the dozens of NPO founders that I knew back in India through Asha for Education. The insights from the book resonated with some of the anecdotal evidence I had heard over the years as well.
Just as I finished reading the book, I came across another fascinating study today, thanks to Time magazine – on whether it pays to pay for grades. Hats off to Roland Fryer for persisting with his research into an area that is so difficult to study in a scientific manner thanks to all the socio-political repercussions. The insights seem so simple, yet so profound – it does not help to just reward the outcome especially since most of the children that you are trying to reward may not know the steps to get there; reward often, and reward immediately. But the key insight among all of it was that rewarding behavior that led to the desired outcome was crucial in showing statistically significant performance jumps, even after the rewards were stopped. The example of rewarding a child for each book that she finished reading was so simple, yet so effective.
In general, behavioral economics studies like these and the ones quoted in books such as Nudge show how gentle nudges in the right direction through the right set of incentives and “default options” go a long way towards achieving amazing socioeconomic results. Several more examples that Dan Ariely spoke of at the Startuponomics conference come to mind as well, that he has elucidated wonderfully in his books. One can only look forward with a lot of expectation towards these results making their way into informed education and health policies at the Federal and State level.