The framing effect is an example of cognitive bias, in which our reactions to a choice depend on whether it is presented as a loss or a gain. Our tendency is to avoid risks when they’re framed negatively and embrace risks when they are framed positively. For instance, we’re happy to pay home insurance on the off chance that our house is burnt to the ground, but we’d likely be unwilling to gamble the same amount of money on a horse race. Insurance makes us feel secure – we won’t lose what’s already ours – whereas gambling makes us feel we might lose what we already own. Both tend, on average, to result in a similar net loss, but how we feel about this loss is very different.

Cognitive psychologists, Tversky & Kahneman explored how linguistic framing affects our responses to choices in hypothetical life-and-death situations. They asked participants to choose between two treatments for 600 people affected by a deadly disease. Treatment A was predicted to result in 400 deaths, whereas treatment B had a 33% chance that no one would die but a 66% chance that everyone would die. This choice was then presented to participants either with positive framing, i.e. how many people would live, or with negative framing, i.e. how many people would die. The results probably won’t come as much of a surprise. Treatment A was chosen by 72% of participants when it was presented with positive framing (“saves 200 lives”) dropping to only 22% when the same choice was presented with negative framing (“400 people will die”.)

This effect has been shown in other contexts:

  • 93% of PhD students registered early when a penalty fee for late registration was emphasised, with only 67% doing so when this was presented as a discount for earlier registration.
  • 62% of people disagreed with allowing “public condemnation of democracy”, but only 46% of people agreed that it was right to “forbid public condemnation of democracy”.
  • More people will support an economic policy if the employment rate is emphasised than when the associated unemployment rates is highlighted.

The implication is clear: framing statements negatively have a powerful effect on our perception. Which brings us to No Pens Day. The Communications Trust are responsible for this initiative in which schools are encouraged to instruct pupils to ‘put down their pens’ and ‘pick up their language’. Guess what? The kids absolutely love it!

“The buzz around the school is palpable. The children genuinely look forward to a day in which they know that writing is banned and clues are scattered throughout the school, however we have found that the day has often resulted in the most fabulous writing in the following week as the children have gained so much from their day.”

“I work with young people who have difficulties with their behaviour. No Pens Wednesday showed how putting speaking and listening at the heart of the school improved relationships and engagement for our young people.”

“As a SENCO, so much of my work is aorund [sic] enabling the children to say something, because until they can say something – they can’t write it. If a child can only speak in one or two word answers, they can’t write a sentence” 

“We all, staff and children, thoroughly enjoyed it and will be doing it again next year.”

“No Pens Day Wednesday gives children the opportunity to take time to think about and communicate their ideas rather than rushing to pick up their pencils to start writing”

“A really wonderful day in school which I feel is just the start of embedding speaking and listening throughout the curriculum. Thank you for making it possible!”

And here’s what Professor Mick Waters has to say on the matter:

Now I’m sympathetic to some of these aims, but Waters expresses my reservations clearly: writing is boring and a lot less fun than talking or screwing up tissue paper. “We could make life so exciting without a pen.” The assumption is that if you’re unfortunate enough to have a pen, life is dull: the benefits of oral communication cannot be achieved with pens.

But that’s just wrong. The opportunity to write things down can enhance discussion and aid creativity. Imagine a meeting in which you weren’t allowed to make notes or jot down thoughts. Is that really ‘preparing children for adult life’?

The SENCO quoted above has experienced a problem I’ve written about at length in my book The Secret of Literacy: “until they can say something – they can’t write it”. I have a simple theory about writing: Talk is an incredibly powerful lever for cognitive change. Once you can say something it change how you are able to think. And once your thinking changes, improving writing becomes almost incidental. If we want children to be academically successful, the solution is to make them speak the language of academic success. But none of this should be seen as anathema to the process of using pens or writing. “Picking up our language” need not (maybe cannot) come at the expense of “putting down our pens”.

Waters’ point about children being made to produce reams of writing is fair. Children write an enormous amount in school. But too often we don’t value what students write and so actively (but unintentionally) teach them that writing is unimportant. We’re hardly likely to tackle this incredibly damaging lesson by telling them that No Pens Day is all about “improving relationships and engagement” and that to achieve these aims “writing is banned”.

None of this is to say I’m against speaking and listening, or that I think writing is the only route to worthwhile learning. Far from it. To my mind discussion and debate are at the very heart of what we should be doing in schools. I’m not against the principle of No Pens Days so much as the way it’s been branded. (And the irony that The Communication Trust has miscommunicated this message should not escape us.)

Why not rebrand it as Debate Day or Speech Wednesdays? I doubt very much whether The Communication Trust or Mick Waters is actively against writing. Probably what they want is for teachers and children to place an increased value on speaking and listening. So why not define our aims by what we want to achieve rather than what we might be opposed to?

Let’s give Malala the final word: