The Hawthorne effect

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pay, more time off and other benefits increased production slightly, production reached a peak when the benefits were withdrawn but the investigators remained.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. 

Playground Barbarism and Incessant Phonics

ImageWhat is it like to go to school for the first time in contemporary Britain?  Yesterday, the first episode of a CBeebies programme, Time for School, attempted to prepare young children for their experience of what the Guardian TV guide called “noise, glitter glue, playground barbarism and incessant phonics”.  For most of the programme, the camera stayed close to the ground to show the child’s perspective: the show was “a great way to ease tinies into their impending future,” according to the Guardian.  My reaction was that, if I were one of the young audience, any forebodings I might have had about the tedium and social control of the classroom would have been reinforced.

I’ve now watched the first three episodes of Time for School, and so far the children have been spared instruction in reading.  So why did the Guardian writer use the phrase “incessant phonics”?   It sounds as if they may have been extending their own child’s experience into that represented by the programme.   Certainly, recent years have seen incessant government promotion of “synthetic phonics” as the key to success in training young readers.   In April 2011, primary schools in the UK were offered government funding to match their own spending (up to £3000) on “materials which meet the Department of Education’s criteria for an effective phonics programme”, and, in September of the same year, the government announced that a new, statutory “phonics screening check” for all children in Year 1 would be introduced immediately, “to confirm that all children have learned phonic decoding to an age-appropriate standard”.   The overall aim is that children should learn phonics “first and fast”, and gain the ability to read even words they don’t recognise by decoding  grapheme/phoneme correspondences.

It would be interesting to know what such a programme of instruction feels like to youngsters – especially, perhaps, to those who start school with some acquired ability to read: an ability that is likely to be multi-faceted, involving contextual clues (such as pictures) as well as emerging grammatical understanding (such as recognising prefixes and suffixes).   I have recently been involved in running a survey of teachers’ experience of helping early readers.  About one in twelve of the survey respondents agrees with the assertion of the Department for Education that the ability to decode grapheme/phoneme correspondences is the first requirement for success in reading.  But the view of more than two-thirds of respondents is that, while phonic decoding is an important part of learning to read, other strategies are also vital. More than a quarter of respondents emphasise the importance of reading for meaning, and there is much concern that an overemphasis on phonics leads to an unbalanced reading curriculum in which other reading skills such as prediction and contextual information are not taken into account. In the view of many, a phonics approach leads to less able children “barking at print” while good readers lose motivation and fail to achieve appropriate assessment results. Some children, it is alleged, develop a style of “reading” that consists merely of phonic decoding. There is less time for reading stories and for listening to young readers, and more time is taken up by “teaching to the test”. In such classrooms, respondents argue, the overall quality of pupils’ literacy experience declines.

It sounds as if the Guardian feature writer might agree.

The full report is available on the website of the National Association for the Teaching of English: