Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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23/10/16: genuinely helpful innovation - or going round in circles?

One of the great pleasures of being a PhD student at the Institute of Education, University of London, was having immediate access to one of the finest - the finest? - education libraries in the world. One book which I had thought would be deep in the archives, but actually was there immediately on the shelves, was:

Roethlisberger, F. J., Dickson, W. J., & Wright, H. A. (1939). Management and the worker:  An account of a research program conducted by the Western Electric Company, Hawthorne Works, Chicago. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

This book gives the origin of the term 'Hawthorne effect' and, in summary, goes something like this.  The Hawthorne Electrical Works near Chicago was a huge components factory employing tens of thousands of people.  A decision was made to do some research looking to identify optimal working conditions in terms of productivity.  So a small number of workers - about 10 if memory serves correctly - were chosen to be in an experimental group, continuing to produce electrical components as working conditions were varied around them.  So one of many things that was tried was varying lighting levels. Lighting levels were increased, productivity went up.  Lighting levels were increased again, productivity increased.  The researchers said they were increasing lighting levels but actually didn't, productivity went up.  Lighting levels were decreased, productivity went up - until the workers couldn't see what they were doing.

Other variations were also made, so workers were paid according to how many components they produced on an individual basis, on a group basis and then also with no accountability, ie. to be paid according to the number of hours worked.  Work was discontinued on Saturdays which was normal at the time.  Pretty well whatever innovation was tried, productivity went up.

So, the conclusion was reached that the important thing was not exactly what was being done, but the sense of importance, being listened to, collaboration, that membership of the experimental team.  So the term 'Hawthorne effect' has come to mean the benefits of being involved in an experimental group simply because it is an experiment, irrespective as to what the experiment is actually about.

This is very closely aligned to Professor John Visser's point, which I heard him make at a conference talking about innovations in special educational needs in 2007 and has stayed with me ever since, "The crucial question here is not: what works?  But: why does what work, work?"  Watching many education initiatives come and go over the last few decades, this seems to me to be an important question.  So from time to time newspaper stories come up about secondary schools abandoning homework - so this one from the UK in 2005 and  this one from the US in 2015.  Applying the 'why does what work, work?', one can see, particularly for younger children, that the sense of change and something new happening may well give rise to positive benefits.  I wonder if the same schools getting these headlines will end up getting the reverse headlines a few years later down the line.

And it was with a certain sense of weary amusement that I saw this recent story about the harm done by super heads, highly paid individuals often working with a number of schools at the same time, supposedly driving up standards.  I can't prove this, but it was always obvious to me that the time would come when this would be regarded as a very costly - and unnecessary - additional layer of leadership.  Similarly, I was never a fan of subject specialism in secondary schools, my one surprise there is that the initiative came to an end rather more quickly that it did.

So, change is good, fresh vision is good, valuing people's opinions is good.  But it does seem to me to be useful to distinguish between initiatives which are good simply because they are initiatives rather than intrinsically a good move.  I would say that one change over the last 30 years or so which does come firmly in the latter category has been the hugely increased use of additional adults in classrooms - not without its problems and no automatic benefits, but if well managed - as suggested in this this blog post - I think it is a move which represents a genuine move forward.


But writing this blog makes me realise that, on a number of occasions with varying success, I have made predictions in the political and education worlds.  So in 1992 I predicted that Labour support would fall away in the last few days before the election which did indeed happen, leading to a narrow Conservative victory.  In 2010 I predicted that the next general election would lead to a huge collapse in the Liberal vote which again happened.  Not always right though - I didn't believe the size of the 1997 Labour win until it actually happened.  So, I think I'll start putting my predictions in this blog for me to then refer back to for good or bad.  Just one prediction right now which doesn't take me out on a limb - Hilary Clinton will be the next President of the United States.  We can see if I'm right soon.

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