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The 160-Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education

reviewed by Dino Sossi - January 12, 2016

coverTitle: The 160-Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education
Author(s): Benjamin L. Castleman
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421418746, Pages: 160, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

Paul was en route to be an American success story. Blessed with keen intelligence and an inquisitive nature, Paul’s English steadily improved after he immigrated to the United States from his native Mexico. However, he was also cursed; Paul was forced to escape from abuse, family neglect, gang violence, and unrelenting poverty. Despite these obstacles, he succeeded academically throughout school. A talented artist with a keen eye for landscape photography that rivaled the professionals he apprenticed with, Paul gained admission to a prestigious art and design program, but he did not want to attend college. Paul felt a distinct absence when he visited campus—there were not enough people who looked like him, sounded like him, or shared his background. Paul was severely disadvantaged by the socioeconomic challenges caused by his peripatetic, transnational existence, and scarred by incidents that victimized him, and may limit him for the rest of his life. In short, Paul jeopardized his future by choosing to forego college.

Benjamin L. Castleman’s important book, The 160-Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education, invokes arresting anecdotes like Paul’s and weaves them within a multidisciplinary theoretical framework with the goal of lessening the impact of economic inequality by helping students make better educational decisions. The book incorporates Castleman’s wide-ranging experiences as an administrator, college residential advisor, parent, and teacher into his scholarship, keeping it grounded and impactful. Attuned to the realities of education from the kindergarten to post-secondary level and acknowledging a variety of valuable perspectives, he makes suggestions to improve decision-making in low cost, impactful ways that could help those on the lower end of the economic scale compensate for the often-neglected limiting factors caused by their humble beginnings. For example, Castleman discusses the plight of his Harvard student advisees who were overwhelmed by educational decisions that they found strangely complicated. Even something as presumably straightforward as selecting courses from an academic calendar can challenge the uninitiated and cause long-term catastrophic effects if poor choices are made. Calendars are notoriously thick and detailed, their intended usefulness shrouded under complex jargon, providing little guidance for first-generation college students who find academic code words foreign.

Castleman recognizes that attaining academic success is a challenge, but overcoming these difficulties is exacerbated by the numerous pitfalls caused by economic inequality. For example, impoverished parents often lack post-secondary education themselves, making them ineffective advocates for their children, especially if they were born abroad. They do not understand the tortuous process of schooling in a late-capitalist society premised on competition. Academic success is largely based on important factors that lie underneath the surface—applying to the right school, earning high SAT scores, writing persuasive admissions essays, submitting financial aid applications, and differentiating between prohibitive college sticker prices and their more modest net cost. These hurdles collectively conspire against poor people, tripping them up, and making acceptance to a post-secondary institution unlikely, let alone the prospects of finishing this long and expensive educational race. Without scholarship like Castleman’s book, the cycle of deprivation will spin for another generation, young lives ground down much like their unfortunate forebears while poverty relentlessly ruins everything it mercilessly impacts.

The first chapter, “The Cost of Complexity,” discusses the substantial burden of understanding complex information that necessitates significant cognitive energy to unpack. Chapter Two, “Starting With the Status Quo,” chronicles the difficult educational situations students face if they are unable to make an academic decision. The third chapter, “Encouraging Active Decisions,” suggests strategies like providing prompts, planning assistance, and encouraging students to make decisions rather than remaining stuck in their current situation. Finally Chapter Four, “Following Our Friends, Or Not,” investigates social influences on decision-making, such as the daunting prospect of being a sole minority representative on campus, like Paul.

The 160-Character Solution is most effective in achieving its overall purpose—applying the ideas of behavioral economics and social psychology to sharpen decision-making and, as a corollary, improve educational outcomes. The principles embedded in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s highly-regarded Nudge (2008), Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational (2008) contribute to Castleman’s attempt at democratizing education across income levels. We all need to be nudged at times, including summoning the will to turn away from the mesmerizing short-term allure of our electronic devices to focus on more long-term beneficial ends like homework. Students need tangible solutions to achieve their goals, especially if they are burdened by poverty and the seemingly infinite constellation of negative effects associated with it. Castleman is effective in providing timely, illuminating examples, like Paul’s story, as well as offering suggestions that educators at all levels can apply to learning environments to improve student decision-making, including using targeted text messaging to prompt student response. To achieve this, Castleman wisely resists the seductive simplicity of the reductionist black-and-white world of the economically rational man, perhaps the most worn trope in economics. Much of neo-classical microeconomics is premised on the idea of fully informed actors, unburdened by the perils associated with asymmetrical information (Stiglitz, 2002), making decisions solely on the utility of their prospective economic choices. Castleman wisely pokes holes in this shibboleth. Even when poor students transcend the daunting barriers that result in imperfect information sharing and find out what is best for them, they often still do not choose the correct path. The 160-Character Solution could help these students overcome this conceptual barrier and make this practical leap.

My only significant criticism of this book is its overall purpose. Changing anyone’s behavior—let alone an entire generation of students—could be perceived as manipulative or paternalistic, a large-scale socio-behavioral experiment that incorporates arguably dubious means. However, if you accept the reality that educational costs are currently prohibitive, they will continue to outpace inflation, student debt loads are frequently unsustainable, and high-quality education appears to increasingly be the birth rite of the privileged few, improving the educational lot of the poorest in an unconscionably economically stratified society is a laudable goal. In essence, the desired end justifies the debatable means. Better information can help our most vulnerable students earn an education and hopefully begin to renegotiate the deeply flawed current social contract (Rousseau, 2003) that systematically disenfranchises the poor, vitiating their ability to contribute to the political process and advocate for their own concerns.

Education is the outcome of a series of decisions, such as transcending your humble upbringing and entering the academy, like Paul was tragically unable to achieve. Providing students with the tools to make more informed decisions regarding the increasingly complicated, costly path through education is essential when the system is stacked against the poor, forcing them to consistently lose a game many do not even know they are playing. The 160-Character Solution is a timely book that acknowledges the corrosive impact of income inequality on people like Paul who dream of a better life but are unaware of the fundamentally important decisions they must successfully navigate. It also provides easily adoptable solutions to limit the deleterious, dispiriting, and ultimately anti-democratic effects of poverty.


Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Rousseau, J.- J. (2003). On the social contract or principles of political right. (G. D. H. Cole, Trans.). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc. (Original work published 1762)

Stiglitz, J. (2002). Information and the change in the paradigm in economics. The American Economic Review, 92(3), 460–501. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3083351

Thaler, R., & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 12, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19309, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:35:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Dino Sossi
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    DINO SOSSI earned his doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University. He read educational research at the University of Cambridge.
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