The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Power of the Hawthorne Effect

on March 6, 2016

Today’s post, as promised, is another reference to research that shows the importance of  human feelings about themselves in any situation where people are being asked to do a particular task.  My argument, as it has been in my posts over the past week–and earlier in “Let Teachers Reinvent the Wheel”–is that you can’t formally “teach” students grit, perseverance, or resilience, but you can motivate them to develop those behaviors on their own by consistently treating them as important, powerful people.  

When the National Reading Panel began its work in 1998, one of its goals was to bring reading research up to the “Gold Standard” of medical research. Unfortunately, reaching this goal was –and still is–impossible because reading researchers, unlike medical researchers, cannot separate treatment effects from effects caused by other factors, such as classroom distractions, student hunger or illness, home culture, work habits, and personal feelings.

Medical researchers have the advantage of being able to remove or minimize outside factors by assembling very large groups of potential subjects and then forming randomly selected treatment and control groups. Just as important, they are able to use a “double blind” procedure in which neither the subjects nor the people applying the treatments know which doses are the experimental ones and which are placebos.

Rather than trying to explain how all the factors present in reading research may skew results, I have chosen to focus on the one I think is the most troublesome: the “Hawthorne Effect.” This term derives from a series of studies done in the Hawthorne Works Plant of Western Electric near Chicago from 1924 to 1932. There, researchers manipulated various physical conditions, such as lighting and the number of rest breaks, to see which ones most affected worker output. What they found was that almost any change increased production, and what they concluded was that being a part of a scientific experiment created feelings of importance and belonging that were a more powerful determinant of productivity than any change in conditions.

It is hard to believe that the outcomes of much reading research are not similarly affected. In many studies both the teachers and their students know when they are part of a research plan and whether they are in the treatment group or the control group. There is no way to “double-blind” such a study when the teachers are the people applying the treatment, only one group of students has new materials, and the type of instruction given to that group is different from what is going on in the rest of the school.

Under such conditions, the feelings of the experimental teachers and students are pretty certain to be positive. After all, being chosen to implement a scientific experiment is an honor. It implies that the researchers and the school’s administrators think you are intelligent, competent, and trustworthy enough to do it well. Add to this the special training for teachers and the frequent classroom visits of researchers monitoring implementation.

In contrast, neither the teachers nor the students in a control group get any extra attention, new materials, or special training. They may also feel dishonored by not being the chosen ones. Their feelings could be called a “Negative Hawthorne Effect”

Just as production increased in the Hawthorne studies, we can expect that the results will be better for the experimental group in the type of reading study just described, whether or not the new program or strategy is any better than the old ones. This explains why so many studies report positive results for the treatments applied, and it should make us cautious about accepting those conclusions.

But, hold on! There is a way to do reading research that eradicates the influence of the Hawthorne Effect: have two or more treatment groups, with each one trying out a different program and receiving the benefits of being a part of an experiment. Ideally, there should be a control group also, using the old program. Actially, a few research studies do follow this two-treatment format, but not enough of them. It is more expensive and more complicated to carry out, and most researchers—being human—believe ahead of time that one type of program is superior to all others and want to prove that when they design their studies.

The lesson for us as followers of education  research is to consider not only results but also how carefully those studies were carried out, especially how likely it was that the “Hawthorne Effect” came into play.





2 responses to “The Power of the Hawthorne Effect

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    Dr. Yatvin is writing about cool stuff these days. Recently, she wrote of the Rosenthal Effect, which occurs when a teacher is deliberately misled about the intellectual capabilities of a group of average students.The result, because the teacher has mistakenly demonstrated an elevated respect for abilities of the students, is that the students perform better than the control group (a big reason why parents leverage their kids into “gifted” programs). Powerful insight for an educator, huh?
    “Hawthorne” is a similarly useful phenomenon but reminds me a little of quantum mechanics: If the photon knows it’s being observed, it suddenly shows up. Otherwise, it mysteriously exists in a lot possible places.
    In her introduction to today’s essay, the Professor makes the point that “that you can’t formally ‘teach’ students grit, perseverance, or resilience, but you can motivate them to develop those behaviors on their own by consistently treating them as important, powerful people.” This observation seems so self-evidently obvious that it should be a bedrock principle beneath all public school missions, yet this process of consistent polite recognition is elusive in any places; certainly awareness of Rosenthal and Hawthorne are not at all constant in public education. Instead, I would argue that, too often, education programs perform adversely, when teachers demonstrate overt disrespect, thereby diminishing select children. Effective teachers understand Rosenthal and Hawthorn. They learn they must create the experiences that happen automatically for coaches, band leaders, drama instructors and camp counselors, where their “team” must face some failure and deal with some stress to follow a schedule to make something…together. This principal of participant/teacher is the underlying reason why camp counselors are such effective teachers–they understand the importance of doing the stuff with the kids–creating and overcoming challenges together. Sadly, some teachers are more comfortable maintaining distance–they control the tests, the lesson plans, the feedback, the timing.
    Shouldn’t universal success be the mission of every teacher? Then why doesn’t every teacher begin the semester thinking he/she is going to give the whole class “A’s?” (I’ve done it three or four times in media (elective) classes.
    Grades are far more effective as motivators than as evaluators–but that is for another time.
    Finally, I disagree with the eminent professor’s underlying theme: I feel that competent teachers CAN teach grit and tenacity…by exemplifying it. I believe that role modeling is the most powerful teaching tool–nothing else is close–and that, by creating a challenging goal for a group of students-an effort in which the teacher can become an active participant–you will have a pretty effective methodology for teaching students “grit, perseverance, (and) resilience”–if you have it yourself (Therein, Dr. Yatvin, lies the rub).
    There are even ways to show teachers how to use Rosenthal and Hawthorne in the classroom (btw: Hawthorne works great in conjunction with the double-slit experiment in quantum physics).


  2. ciedie aech says:

    Your look into the skewing of educational studies takes me back to years of watching my students “change” as years of NLCB/R2T school accountability policies invaded our school, allowing a forever churning number of “specialists,” “evaluators” and “coaches” to enter our classrooms in their effort to, in theory, unobtrusively observe. Every single intrusion brought change to my classroom, so that what the observers were “observing?” Was not, in actuality, my daily reality. MY BOSS IS NOT HARRY


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