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pay, more time off and other benefits increased production slightly, production reached a peak when the benefits were withdrawn but the investigators remained.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

My Ofsted breaking point: why I left school teaching to pursue academia


This is the original longer version of my Guardian blog published on 28 August 2014

By 1997, I had completed eleven years as Head of the English Department in a large rural comprehensive school.   Overall, I felt pleased by what had been achieved, but I wanted a break from the myriad daily tasks of dealing with colleagues, students and parents, all the while trying to teach my own subject on a virtually full timetable. I also wanted to do something more academically rewarding – such as researching and teaching in a university.

Over the years I had worked in this school, political interference in the curriculum had become an increasing irritant. For many years, we had followed the AQA A level Literature course, which required students to submit eight essays and an extended project on the texts they had read. The students enjoyed the opportunity to research in their own time and to write creatively as well as analytically. It was a pleasure to work with them and to see their writing develop. The unwarranted decision in 1993 to reduce A level coursework to a token 20% was a blow for thousands of teachers and students across the country.   Equally disturbing was the development of a culture of targets that positioned teachers merely as operatives in the examination industry and students as figures in league tables. Our students and staff always exceeded our targets, but I often wondered what I would have done if we had consistently missed them.

The breaking point for me was an Ofsted inspection. This had a very different feeling from the HMI visits to which I had become accustomed in my earlier career. HMIs had an air of critical friends who earned teachers’ respect.   They would spend an entire period in one classroom, sometimes take part in the lesson, and speak to the teacher at the end. The Ofsted inspectors seemed less able to relate to the teachers and pupils or, indeed, to each other. They had been supplied by agencies working for Ofsted and had not previously worked as a team. They took over the careers suite for a week, temporarily disabling a functioning part of the school. Each morning at 8.00 they assembled, darkly and formally clad, for their briefing by the lead inspector. I had determined to be proactive and to collect examples of students’ work for the inspectors’ scrutiny. On the first morning of the inspection, I approached the careers suite carrying a large red plastic box of exercise books. Through the window I could see fourteen or fifteen people, mostly middle-aged men, sitting around a rectangular arrangement of desks. Several of them had their elbows on the table, fingers together, mirroring the lead inspector’s posture. I felt like a schoolboy outside the staff room, and did not enter. I later found an opportunity to speak to the lead inspector and to give him the sample of student writing.   At the end of the week, the English inspector, whose experience was largely in international schools abroad, recommended we try to improve students’ vocabulary – an extraordinarily bland recommendation that was disconnected from any coherent subject pedagogy and showed no recognition of the efforts we made to increase students’ cultural understanding (and thus their vocabulary) by a richly contextual study of literary and media texts.   The English department got a good report from the inspectors, but they were formal and distant and I didn’t trust the basis of their assessments.

So it was time to go. My year eleven set – fourteen boys and two girls – told me that I would miss them, which was true.   (They had turned to the inspector as I strained to impress and told her: “He’s not usually like this, you know.”)   I enrolled as a PhD student at a regional university to undertake a longitudinal study of student literacy. For several years I returned regularly to the school to interview some of my former students about their media use in relation to their everyday lives. After nine years’ work, I gained my doctorate.

The research took nine years because I became very involved in university teaching. I liked the teaching and I needed the money. Initially, teaching small classes (rarely more than 15 students) at undergraduate level was very satisfying. In some ways, though, working in higher education was an opposite experience to school teaching. Whereas school required too many daily contacts and decisions, university required me to do no more than prepare and teach my classes. My colleagues worked and researched at home whenever possible, and there was little of the constant talk about students and education generally that characterises the school staffroom.

One discussion I had fairly frequently, however, was with university colleagues who felt that students coming up from school should have a better grasp of academic writing. I argued that the referenced academic essay is a specific genre that has to be learned in use, and offered to run a weekly essay-writing workshop. Initially intended for Humanities students, over thirteen years this became increasingly popular and was attended by students from across the university.   This workshop was the most satisfying aspect of my university teaching: it filled a clear need and was appreciated by the students, and allowed me to work creatively and develop my relationship with them.   It also gave me an academic specialism that has resulted in publication and other academic activity.

The least satisfying aspect of my university work was experience of the low status accorded to hourly-paid staff (who do a significant amount of the teaching in many UK universities).   I never knew until late in September whether I would be required to teach during the following academic year, and my part-time colleagues and I suffered from not being recognised as full members of staff in various ways, such as our invisibility on the university website. After gaining election to the executive of the local branch of UCU (the lecturers’ union), I tried to ensure that the university offered permanent appointments (as is required by employment law) to lecturers who had worked on temporary contracts for four years or more. The union branch also gained agreement that all lecturers should have access to a desk, phone and computer, and should be represented on the website.

Although I found the transition difficult and initially wished I hadn’t left school teaching, I found my way through academia and created a niche for myself in a way I could not have predicted.   In a sense, I didn’t leave teaching – I just changed the context and gave myself scope to develop my academic and professional interests. Any such move must, I think, be taken for positive as well as for negative reasons. It is always best to take the road that offers opportunity.