Nudging as paternalism

This is a story about serendipitous connectability connecting both the online and offline worlds and making me aware of a growing narrative or theory. Which makes me question whether or not nudging or nudge theory is libertarian paternalism

The connections

At lunch today I was reading the Australian newspaper and came across this article – “No nudging, please”. In which the author refers to something called “nudge theory” as a recent bandwagon and boils nudge theory down to being libertarian paternalism.

While I wasn’t aware of the phrase nudge theory, the descriptions of nudge theory did ring some bells

nudge theory finds individuals often behave in ways that do not conform to the conventional view of the rational economic man

This connects with some of my long term thoughts, recent reading and recent writings.

This morning, before lunch and before I read the paper, I posted the first public thoughts on a presentation I’m working on that seems to connect here. The presentation is going to argue that most approaches to improving L&T at universities assume techno-rational approaches (herding cats) – or at the least assume that people are rational – and this is why they continue to fail. I was going to argue that better approaches would be based on an environment that encourages small, on-going improvements in practice (weight loss). An approach informed by complex adaptive systems and the observation that people aren’t rational (it’s still a work in progress.

The idea that this approach could be interpreted as paternalism is somewhat troubling.

Then this afternoon, I’m trying to find some more mp3 recordings of presentations to listen to while walking (part of my personal weight loss program applying similar principles) I came across a post on choice architecture and education by Gardner Campbell

Aside: I came to Gardner’s post via a Stephen Downes’ post reporting on Gardner’s talk at OpenEd’09. Anyone have an mp3 of the video? Perhaps I should learn how/if ustream videos can be converted into mp3s.

Garnder’s post reports on his initial thoughts of the book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. Reading the Amazon page suggests that the book and the theory very much brings together the ideas I’ve been thinking about. But I still find the question of paternalism somewhat troubling.

It’s a point that Gardner picks up on in his post

Although their advocacy of “libertarian paternalism” probably won’t please either the rigid high-stakes testers or the unschoolers, it does (so far) offer in my view a very interesting model for education that takes into account the need for expert understanding and guidance of the developing learner

Does my initial concern make me a rigid high-stakes tester or a unschooler?

Why am I troubled? Should I be troubled?

One of contentions is that much of the current attempts at improving learning and teaching within universities and how they are implemented are very paternalistic. I phrase it as level 2 approaches to learning and teaching. It is my belief that these approaches get in the way and actively reduce the chance of improving learning and teaching.

This is a flaw I’m seeking to address. So any chance that I’m also be paternalistic, strikes a nerve.

I have to admit that my initial reaction to the Australian newspaper article was moderated somewhat when I saw the byline of the author

Julie Novak is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs.

The Institute of Public Affairs bills itself as “Australia’s leading free market think tank” and has a tag line “free people, free society”. So they probably fit in Gardner’s “unschooler” category.

Also, I believe that Professor Michael Sandel’s Reith Lectures for 2009 titled “A new politics of the common good” do a pretty good job – from my perspective – of arguing that the application of only free market principles to education has some flaws. In fact, I’m pretty happy that this perspective provides a reasonable arguent against the “unschoolers”.

At the other end of the spectrum – “the rigid high-stakes tester” – in my context equates to the top-down managerialists and the the technologists alliance. The folk who think there is a single idea (or maybe a few) that will radically improve L&T and that if only we can get those silly academics to adopt this approach, then everything will be alright. Just about anyone from a systems background (Senge etc) fit into this group as well. As long as we all have the same values, we’ll be okay.

To me this people are strong paternalists. They’ve come up with the solution. We will do as we’re told. Only we don’t. We’re irrational, we’re different and we have agency. We will fight back. So the whole thing disolves into tension and conflict.

While the underpinnings of the nascent approach I’m trying to develop and communicate draw on aspects of nudge theory (I have to read more to find out just exactly how much) it’s not the core. The core of the idea is that the environment that support L&T at a university has to have appropriate features that continue and enable academics to reflect and change their practice. And that this approach should be based on what we know about human cognition and rationality, i.e. that we’re not.

So, rather than applying “nudge theory” to encourage academics to adopt “good approaches to L&T” that I, or anyone else, has identified. The aim is to apply aspects of nudge theory to encourage academics to reflect and support them in identifying improvements to L&T that work for them in a sustainable way.

But then, when is all said and done, organisations always have limited resources there will, at some stage, need to be decisions made. Is this where management steps in? Novak makes the following point in her Australian article

The notion that the state should nudge individuals to make better decisions overlooks the fact politicians and government officials are also afflicted by behavioural biases.

. It is important that when management do end up making decisions, that they also be aware of their limitations. That they are also nudged in the right direction.

More thinking to be done.

Herding cats, losing weight and how to improve learning and teaching

The purpose of this post is to work out some initial ideas for a presentation I’ll be giving at CQUniversity in the next month or so. The title of the presentation is probably going to be “Herding cats, losing weight and how to improve learning and teaching”. The talk is related to my current position and is the first step in making the position better known within the organisation.

I’m hoping that this post will help me formulate some of the ideas that have been floating around about this presentation. The main purpose I hope to achieve is sufficient understanding of what I’m trying to do to come up with an abstract.

If you have an comments on the following please contribute. I’m particularly interested in references that might support or argue against any of the views below.


The talk will draw on many of the perspectives I’ve recently read and shared on this blog. The basic argument is that most of what Universities, at least those of my experience, have been doing to improve learning and teaching (quality, implementation of learning management systems, L&T innovation grants, graduate certificates in learning and teaching, curriculum design, over emphasis on discipline based teaching etc.) can be characterised as attempting to herd cats. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, it’s best summarised in an old EDS commercial (YouTube video included below).

The problem

It’s my belief, that at best these approaches help the innovators – the small percentage of university academic staff that are inherently interested in improving their learning and teaching. That’s it, that’s the only positive I see of these approaches.

The negatives include:

I think I’ll argue that such approaches are symptomatic of an increasingly techno-rational approaches to universities and learning and teaching. An increase driven in part by the change nature of the context within which higher education must operate. i.e. decreasing funds, increasing calls for accountability etc. Approaches which are based on the assumption of ordered systems.

I’ll argue that the assumptions of ordered systems and techno-rational approaches are increasingly unquestioned. In fact, I’ll suggest that the nature of these assumptions and their mismatch with the context leads to defensive routines and that these assumptions become undiscussable. Actions which further restrict the ability of an organisation to improve learning and teaching.

The solution

First, I’ll try and use the idea of losing weight as a metaphor for the individual decisions around trying to improve learning and teaching. It will suggest that achieving both goals in a sustainable way, requires a change in the day to day practice of the individual. Not something that can be achieved by outside direction.

This metaphor/analogy will be used to make connections between the nature and outcomes of fad diets and fads in learning and teaching. It will also be used to highlight what we know about individuals, cognition and rationality. In particular, this will talk about the tendency for past experience to directly influence and limit how we will act in the future and how this influences both teachers and the managers that direct teachers.

Importantly, around about here it is important to connect with some of the “lessons from people” I’ve developed for the thesis.

At this stage, I’m getting a bit more fuzzy as to content and direction. The standard approach for me at this stage would be to talk about complex systems and the work of Dave Snowden. In particular the various principles he has. I may translate this into specific examples of things that can be done and connect it back to examples at CQU. In particular the limitations of teleological approaches to the support of e-learning systems.

More work to be done here, but I think the point has to be to bring all this abstract stuff back to real examples, suggestions or principles that can be applied in this context.


The environment within which Universities operate has changed significantly over recent years. Two of the biggest changes have been a reduction in state funding for universities and, at the same time, an increased need for universities to demonstrate the quality and appropriateness of their services, especially learning and teaching. Consequently, most universities have developed a range of strategies, policies, structures and systems with the intent of improving and demonstrating the quality of their learning and teaching. This presentation will draw on the metaphors of herding cats and losing weight to examine the underlying assumptions of these attempts, the resulting outcomes, question whether or not they are the best we can hope for, and present some alternatives.