Sunday, July 09, 2006

the hawthorne effect

One of the most startling if predictable features of a Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute is how consistently it demonstrates the educational efficacy of the Hawthorne Effect. Here's a short description of the study from which this name derives:

That individual behaviors may be altered because they know they are being studied was demonstrated in a research project (1927 - 1932) of the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois. This series of research studies, first led by Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo along with associates F.J. Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson started out by examining the physical and environmental influences of the workplace (e.g. brightness of lights, humidity) and later, moved into the psychological aspects (e.g. breaks, group pressure, working hours, managerial leadership). The ideas that this team developed about the social dynamics of groups in the work setting had lasting influence - the collection of data, labor-management relations, and informal interaction among factory employees.

The major finding of the study was that almost regardless of the experimental manipulation employed, the production of the workers seemed to improve. One reasonable conclusion was that the workers were pleased to receive attention from the researchers who expressed an interest in them. (see research summary)

I've noticed over the years that participants in the writing project's invitational summer institutes tend to exhibit talents as teachers and writers in pretty direct proportion to how genuinely they are regarded as talented in these areas. It was no surprise to me, in fact, when Harvey Daniels and Steve Zemelman admitted in 1985 that they had no criteria at all for selecting the participants in their 'invitational' summer institutes. You were accepted by the simple fact that you were willing to spend five weeks of your hard-earned summer vacation 'talking shop' with your K-college colleagues (A Writing Project: Training Teachers of Composition from Kindergarten to College, Heinemann, 1985).

But the key word here is "genuine." Teachers in general and English Language Arts teaches in particular are a wary and skeptical lot, conditioned by the nature of their work to distrust hollow assertions and false promises. You can't simply tell teachers they are exceptional and expect them to believe it. You have to show them.

My next blog will be devoted to some of the ways we've learned to do this in the San Jose Area Writing Project's Invitational Summer Institute. And hopefully by that time I'll have learned from our SJAWP Tech Liaison Todd Seal how to manage links to these blog entries, so it won't take me all morning to type just a few lines, including citations!


miz p said...

It's kind of reassuring to know that what we experience over these summers together actually has a name. Reassuring in the sense that it's possible to recreate back in our "regular" lives outside of the project. I'm thinking about what this means in my own interactions with my colleagues--what a huge difference it makes to take a genuine interest in what their trying out in their classrooms. Again, I look to you as my example. The Hawthorne effect also explains very well why teachers from the summer institutes invariably finish the summer feeling more appreciated, more confident, more LISTENED TO than they did when they first come in; it's a testament to your finely honed skills of listening with genuine interest.

grant said...

I am convinced that just a pinch of positive encouragment produces a huge effect in writers (even writers who are already well developed or even published, and perhaps especially so)the caveat is that the encouragement must be sincere and detailed to be effective.
On the other hand, negative reinforcement tends to do relativly little.

Don Rothman said...

It's interesting how most of us assume that careful selection (rather than the structure and substance of the institute) shapes its remarkable success year after year. I have often felt that colleges and universities could pay less attention to students' entrance qualifications if they had more faith in the experience being offered. Over 27 years, there have been, maybe, two people who really didn't thrive in the summer institutes in which I participated.

jonathan said...

Hi Don,

Good to hear your voice. Do you remember how quiet the writing project community was when Smokey and Steve first published that 'scandalous' fact about their own extended summer writing program for teachers? Do you suppose they still pursue this 'radical' idea? For most of us, of course, we're extremely thankful when a full complement of 20 k-college teachers actually have the courage to overcome their anxieties and self-doubts and apply! We were just talking about this reluctance to apply this afternoon with four of the members of our leadership team, including one who had waited at least a decade before she worked up the courage to apply. The big factor here was not wanting her writing to be judged by others and found wanting. That's never been one of my problems, arrogant s.o.b. in such matters that I always seem to have been. I've always figured it's because I've never understood my best and most forceful and strong writing to come from me in any simple sense. As we've discussed, in my best writing I've always felt like I was channeling the voice I hear from some source outside myself. Or perhaps deep within myself. I think that's why I so often say, when certain readers find this or that aspect of my writing off-putting, "Well, fuck em; they were not the readers this piece was written for!"

This response, I find, is not widely shared by other participants in the ISI's I've co-directed over the years. It's especially not shared by the women who've attended these summer institutes. Any thoughts on why this might be so? Or have you had any female participants in your ISI's who've had a response to the readers of their writing like the one I've described above as typical of my own response?

And by the way, how are you doing?

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