Tuesday, July 25, 2006

is there a hawthorne effect on the 'noticer'?

Having gone on and on a few blogs ago about how important it is for bloggers to cite their sources if they wish their arguments to be taken seriously, I'm now going to do just the opposite: rely on your faith in my recollection and basic integrity as a blogger.

Here goes.

A number of years ago Peter Elbow described an interesting experiment conducted by one of his colleagues in the composition program at SUNY Stony Brook, where he was then serving as Composition Program Director.

Seems this colleague wanted to know whether positive comments only, positive and negative comments, or negative comments only led to the greatest improvement in her students' papers.

This was classroom-based research at its very best, in my opinion: an interesting question, pretty clear ways to measure the results to the satisfaction of the researcher, and immediate consequences in terms of changed behavior, should the results conclusively indicate the value of one way of proceeding over another.

So she started by writing positive comments only on the papers of one of her freshmen composition classes, and a mixture of positive and negative comments on the papers of another of her classes.

The results: both groups of students improved about equally in their writing, and both seemed to value the types of comments that were written on their papers about equally. The difference was not in the performance of the students, but in the attitude of the composition instructor herself. "Writing positive comments only on one set of papers was the best form of professional self-renewal I've ever experienced," she claimed. I'd look forward to reading that set of papers as a challenge--even as a contest between me and the students in that class. Could any of them write one paper that was so bad I'd find nothing positive to comment on, at least with a genuinely positive comment?

"Each time I'd sit down with those 'positive comments only' papers I've have a sense of thrill, a sense of expectation. What would I encounter with this set; how successfully would my students try my capacity for discerning and writing about something genuinely positive in each of their papers?

This not-so-surprising version of a "hawthorne" effect (see July 9 post) on the teacher who is 'observing' her students has interesting implications, it seems to me, for the sorts of 'appreciative noticings' I've suggested might initiate a school-site based blog site. It suggests that there might be a value to doing this 'electronic noticing' even if you sent out invitations to this particular party and none of your school colleagues deigned to 'appear' at your electronic party.

More practically, this informal research finding on the ameliorating effects of making positive comments on the person making these comments suggests that there is a strong reason for doing so, whether or not one envisions or believes in the larger vision of educational change that I've argued for in previous posts. You should do so because you'll feel better about your job and your working environment if you do. And does anyone really doubt that a more positive attitude on the part of a teacher has anything but a salutary effect on her or his students' learning?

I'll end this blog entry with a post I just received from EdWeek, since it relates in such an interesting way to what I've been talking about above, and because it involves one of the teachers who has been doing, for many years, just what I have been suggesting with his classes. Noticing what goes right when things go right, and talking about it electronically (as well as, quite voluminously, in more traditional print forms). The teacher is Jim Burke, an high school English teacher at Burlingame HS in Burlingame CA (just south of the SF airport), and the site he uses to discuss his educational suggestions is (check it out!)

Dear Jonathan Lovell,


Getting Ready for the New School Year: Advice for Teachers

When: Wednesday, July 26, 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., Eastern time
Where: http://www.edweek-chat.org

Submit questions in advance:

Join us for a special live Web chat for teachers on preparing for the new school year. Our special teacher-guests will take your questions on what to expect in the early weeks of school, what teachers need to before school starts, classroom-management and instructional strategies, and much more. This is your chance to get a jump on planning and get feedback on your ideas and potential problem areas.


* Jim Burke, an English teacher an Burlingame High School in California, is the author of "Letters to a New Teacher: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Year Ahead" (Heinemann). He is also the recipient of the 2000 Exemplary English Leadership Award from the National Council of Teachers of English.

* Hanne Denney, a career changer starting her third year as a special education and social studies teacher at Arundel High School in Maryland, writes TEACHER MAGAZINE'S blog "Ready or Not." She recently received a master's degree in leadership in teaching. Read her blog here:

Please join us for this special discussion:

Submit questions in advance:


Laura said...

During Nicola's ISI demonstration I stepped back and took a Noticer role. I observed how partners approached a pre-writing activity and how they interacted with the other partnerships around them. I was just watching what the behaviors were. I was fascinated by the differing tactics writers took to approach the same problem.
In my detachment I was really watching them more closely than through a social filter. I was making 2-column notes and looking up as quickly as I could because I didn't want to miss what anyone did. I moved around.
In those "stolen" moments, in which I had decided to try out my ability to observe writers, I was rewarded with a wealth of behaviors to ponder. But more important and less expected, was my state of being as a noticer. Very tuned in, appreciative, smiling, enjoying, listening more closely...
Somehow this informal assessment was very satisfying and I determined to plan time to simply observe my writers in class.
Lucy Calkins gives a lovely analogy for making writing assessment more like the parents at the swimming pool. The kids trying stuff, "watch me!" and the parents looking up from the novel frequently to "ooh" and "ahh". A relaxed, aware state.
Of course criticism can shut down any kind of creativity and sometimes we give our advice, our teaching point, without that big helping of compliment and without those caring, real time questions while the work was in progress.

In salsa rueda I have been observing how some of the more experienced followers get an attitude and want to get on the case of less adept leader dancers. The effect is of course that the leaders do less right and with more tension.

So, to practice up for the classroom I am dancing with this idea of equipoise, to remain alert and attentive but at ease. Not grabbing control and certainly not criticizing. I am not inclined to frustration then when we have to repeat something over and over until dancers catch on. I have more time to notice other details around the room and smile.
When that leader comes around the rueda, around the circle to me the next time, he likely won't panic over whatever move is called and we will dance it. If he doesn't know it, rather than back lead the move, I can enjoy whatever we did accomplish, maybe just hanging out in guapea, looking good.
Well, it worked well at Beginner II and Bridge classes this past week. Dancing with newbies takes patience. Experienced dancers are a dream.

Back to the application at a school site. Many of my colleagues on campus are not prone to blogging and openly dislike things technical. They do check email...the genuine noticing of them is trickier than my students, because. How do we know what our fellow teachers are doing well?

Face to face with tact, questions and compliments. Only not so canned as that.

The pattern of effective feedback for writers is genuine compliment then instruction in a relevant point. In third grade, I think I prefer to handle the teaching point with my voice than write it on a paper, because then the tone and delivery is clear in the writer's mind.

Maybe I didn't get the sense of criticism so much from those English teachers of mine along the way who marked up my papers, not criticism as much as cryptic. What did they mean and what did they really want, I wondered?

miz p said...

We all think and plan for positive classroom communities, but so often leave ourselves out of that equation. How important it is to remember that little things like starting with what went well when reviewing a day or lesson or what a child can do when examining his or her needs positively alters our entire perspective. Laura, I love your reminder of how going with the flow can open up awareness of so much more. I'm also reminded that one good way to get students who are more likely to be 'checked-out' more involved is to assign them that role of Noticer. Thanks for the tips on 'Getting Ready for School'-- hope I can remember them!