Yesterday, my son was describing an initiative to improve the learning of “weak” pupils by offering them three words or phrases to guide their efforts. These might be “attend”, “engage”, “remember” or similar profundities. He remarked that, if this worked at all, it would be because of the Hawthorne effect – the effect of being considered and listened to.
The Hawthorne effect refers, of course, to a famous study of American factory workers that found that, while incentives such as increased pay, more time off and other benefits increased production slightly, production reached a peak when the benefits were withdrawn but the investigators remained. The study concluded that the motivational factor for these production line workers was their sense of being important.
Perhaps the same conclusion can be drawn in education. Education is not a business, and its problems cannot be solved by initiatives and accountability alone. Of course, education can be profitable. Ruth Miskin, whose phonics textbooks are often found in British primary schools (and as far away as Zambia), used her influence with Michael Gove, the former UK education secretary, and Chris Woodhead, the former UK chief inspector of schools, to market her wares. As a result, UK primary school teachers are instructed to teach “literacy” by getting children to sound out the letter-sound correspondences of words without giving them any clues (such as pictures) to meaning. As Andrew Davis has remarked, no classroom teacher would conform to the narrow method of decoding apparently required; to do so would be to abdicate their role as teachers. Reading is about meaning, and it usually begins in social relationship with trusted others.
Many initiatives are conceived by senior executives in academy chains in order to improve “results”. But the results of an educational process are subtle and complex. Success depends less on the techniques employed than on the social context. If an Ofsted inspector judges a school in need of improvement despite its acknowledged success in engaging a wide social and ethnic population, some parents may withdraw their children in favour of the private sector. No remote executive, however highly paid, can rectify this loss of a supportive community.
Beyond education, social life is beset with initiatives and techniques that are claimed to fix problems. “Literacy” is often used to describe methods of handling matters that are essentially relational. A recent item on BBC Radio 4 spoke of “death literacy”: ways of talking to people who are dying. Campaigners to reduce adolescent suicide suggest that teenagers should be directed to weblinks to inform them that everyone has “down times” and to look for positives in their lives. Depressed people with financial means may seek out psychotherapy, but this too may prioritise technique over relationship. Guy Saunders proposes a cubist psychology that adapts the approach to the patient without insisting on a specific technique.
We are born in relationship, and disruptions to personal development are caused by failures of relationship. The Hawthorne effect, which so surprised the investigators, reveals that human beings are not merely rational economic units. In the 17th century words of John Donne, no man is an island, entire of itself.