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The Power of Leveraging “Social Exchanges” in Transforming Schools

2010 November 10
by The Busy Signal

A few years ago, researchers Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini collected data on a childcare facility that was having trouble getting parents to pick up their kids on time. So the facility began enforcing a fine on a per-minute basis to see if that would serve as a deterrent.

It had the opposite effect. Parents began showing up even later to pick up their kids.

That’s because the childcare facility previously had operated under what behavioral economists call “social exchanges.” That is, when parents showed up late there was no financial penalty involved; the parents just felt really guilty. By introducing the fine, that shifted the relationship into what’s called a “market exchange.” Now, parents could rationalize, “Well, I’m running a bit late. But it’s OK, I’ll just pay the fine.”

By using A-B-C-D-E grades, schools operate firmly in the market realm. If a student neglects to do the reading for homework, the student loses points off her grade. If she shows up late for class, her response might be something like, “How many tardies do I have now? How many more can I have until I get detention?”

When I was teaching, I would frequently have students say to me, “OK Mr. Miranda, what’s the minimum I need to get an A?” That’s a relationship that defined by market norms.

But researchers have proven that social exchanges are much more powerful than market exchanges. What if, when a student was late, her teacher said, “We miss you when you’re not here. Your presence is important to us.” And what if, when she neglected to do the reading, her teacher said, “I spent several hours preparing a lesson for you today. When you don’t do the reading, it makes me feel like I wasted my time.”

Or how about this one: “I spent all weekend writing that paper. When you just stamp an ‘A’ on the top without including any other feedback, it makes me feel like I’m not getting the most out of your class.”

These are moments that are potentially very powerful. But in a classroom in which the student-teacher relationship is defined by market norms, they would be the exception rather than the rule.

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