If you’ve ever walked into a grocery store only to discover you have left your shopping list at home, you may have experienced a phenomenon similar to my experience recently. Walking in aimlessly, with a vague recollection of several items I required, I found myself drawn toward the bakery section. The smell of baked goods was enticing, as was the sign above the laden shelves that read ‘Freshly baked today’. Before I knew what was happening, I had added a sourdough loaf, croissants and some ridiculously large chocolate chip cookies to my cart. I’m not sure exactly what was on my shopping list waiting for me on the kitchen table, but I know it wasn’t any of these items!
On reflection, it is obvious that I had been primed to buy those delicious baked goods- from their position in the supermarket (immediately as you arrive), the mouth-watering aromas from the onsite bakery and the words ‘freshly baked’ evoking a sense of urgency to buy. All these techniques are examples of priming, which means exposing someone to a stimulus that will influence their behaviour later on, without the individual being aware of what has made them behave that way. We are all open to being primed, both positively and negatively. While we like to think we know when we are being influenced, we are largely unaware of how our ideas form in the unconsciousness.
Priming to encourage more behaviours that we want to see from our students and priming for learning and engagement is a strategy that you can deploy in numerous ways. Priming isn’t trickery or playing mind games; it’s simply stating the way you desire things to be.
For example, greeting your new class with a statement, “It is so great to see you all. I am really looking forward to spending the year with a bunch of young people who are cooperative, kind and hard-working”, is an effective way to let students know which behaviours will be encouraged and rewarded. Noticing when young people do these things and taking the time to thank and congratulate them reinforces this as the desired norm.
Human nature, however, often sees us unintendedly priming for negative behaviours. When we return after a break to the classroom, and we have asked our kids to have their history books ready and to be sitting quietly, we are drawn to and often can’t help commenting on the few that aren’t displaying this behaviour. We are likely to exclaim something like, “Girls, what are you doing still chatting over there by the lockers!?” We draw attention to and therefore prime the undesirable behaviours instead of the ones we want to see more of. Becoming aware of how we use priming language is an important first step toward learning to use it regularly and successfully.
As we start the new school year full of hope and expectations for our students, there is never a better time to deploy another of our teaching superpowers and get them primed for a successful year of learning and growing.
Check out other articles Kirsty has written here.