bathrooms, hand-washing and behavior change

Ever since I read Sanjoy Mahajan’s post, “Why Are Restroom Hand-Washing Signs By the Sinks?“, I have used it to illustrate how important context can be in trying to affect behavior. In the post Mahajan asks why hand-washing signs are posted above the sinks, where people who are not washing their hands are less likely to see them.

In Cooperative Extension, we are in the behavior change business. If we are going to help people be healthier, help communities thrive, help farmers be more productive and help kids be successful, we are going to have to affect their behavior.

Unfortunately much of the time we act like we are not in the behavior change business, but instead in the information transfer business. Many Extension educators operate under the assumption that information=behavior change, but the idea that assumption is challenged by a lot of research (here’s one example) and by the fortune cookie fortune that Jean Clements quoted in her article, “Results? Behavior Change!” The fortune read “Knowing and not doing is equal to not knowing.”

If we are going to affect behavior, pushing information out to people devoid of context is not an effective way to do it. The right message, at the right time, in the right place just might have more impact. Information alone will not result in effective long-term behavior change, but paying attention to context can be a first step to thinking more deeply about how we can really affect behavior.

The good news? I saw the sign below posted on a bathroom door, the proper context for the forgetful and negligent. Let’s follow this facilities lead and start thinking hard about behavior change and stop posting hand-washing signs by the sinks.

Hand-washing sign on door



Breaking Down to Rebuild

I was reading a very good blog post about a teacher’s experience integrating iPads into her classroom, when the mental fireworks went off. I sometimes let my ideas ferment a little too long. Instead of being released at their prime, they become something yeasty, unpalatable and highly combustible. One little spark and…KABOOM! Welcome to the aftermath.


Photo courtesy Michael Welsing. Used under CC BY-ND 2.0 license.

I’ve had a nagging feeling for some time that, although Extension educators have been making progress in using social media for communication and utilizing new media for education, the use of social tools and online networks across cooperative extension has been mostly superficial. In other words, we are doing the same things, just promoting them differently. We are just adding a layer of new technology on top of what we do, but we are not really working differently.

I am sure there are many who disagree and even more who would say, “So what. We really shouldn’t be changing how we work” (that’s what the comments section is for folks, so have at it). Maybe that’s why I kept this feeling to myself a little too long.

The Spark

In her post “Redefining Instruction With Technology: Five Essential Steps,” 4th and 5th grade math teacher Jennie Magiera talks about the lessons she learned from her effort to integrate iPads into her teaching.

Jennie Magiera is a 4th and 5th grade math teacher and a technology and mathematics curriculum coach in Chicago Public Schools.

Jennie Magiera is a 4th and 5th grade math teacher and a technology and mathematics curriculum coach in Chicago Public Schools.

Her first efforts were not successful.

“Despite my high hopes, the next two months were less than successful. A casual observer would have witnessed a sea of students glued to glistening tablets, but the effects were superficial. The iPads were not helping my students make substantial progress toward self-efficacy, academic achievement, or social-emotional growth.”

Here’s what Jeannie writes about why she feels the effects of the iPads were only superficial.

“The problem, I began to realize, was my own understanding of how the iPads should be utilized in the classroom. I had seen them as a supplement to my pre-existing curriculum, trying to fit them into the structure of what I’d always done. This was the wrong approach: To truly change how my classroom worked, I needed a technology-based redefinition of my practice.”

That’s where I feel we are in cooperative extension, trying to fit social media and online networks into the structure of what we’ve always done. Instead, we need to embrace Jeannie’s first essential step to redefining instruction with technology, “Break down to rebuild.”

“As terrifying as it may sound, the first step is to take a proverbial sledgehammer to your existing classroom framework. This realization was a turning point for me. I would have to be willing to depart from what I had “always done” or “always taught.””

Until we are willing to take that proverbial sledgehammer to the way we educate and communicate, our use of social media and online tools will remain superficial.