Doubt of the benefit

11th December 1998 at 00:00
One of the few findings in social science that anyone has ever heard of is the Hawthorne effect. This was discovered at the Hawthorne works of the Western Electric Company near Chicago between 1924 and 1936. Briefly, the effect is that of change on productivity. The change might be physical, like improved lighting or brighter decor; or it might be a change in working practices. Whatever it was, it tended to lead to better work.

It did not seem to matter what the innovation might be, so long as the workers could interpret it as provisional evidence of the management's interest. It was the change that made the difference.

This may not seem very surprising: socialists and trades unions have always argued that if you improve the workers' conditions, their work would improve too. The Hawthorne effect would seem to confirm this but for two other findings. The first is that the changes did not have to be for the better. Improvement also followed reductions in the lighting and a dulling of the decorations. The second was that improvement was most often unsustainable or at any rate unsustained.

To sum up: Hawthorne suggests that any change is likely to lead to immediate improvement; the improvement is no evidence for the quality of the innovation; and success cannot be claimed until improvement is lasting.

It is with this in mind that we can judge Michael Barber's paean and panegyric on the literacy strategy (TES, November 27). He is no doubt right to say that teachers are working hard, as they have always done, and that they are responding to the changes required of them, as they tend to do, but none of this tells us whether the literacy strategy is good or bad,or likely to lead to lasting improvement. His claims are at best premature.

They are also vacuous. It is, after all, unlikely that a particular change will have no good effects at all. As Leigh Hunt memorably wrote of a character in The Story of Rimini: "Not without virtues was the Prince. Who is?" The question about change is whether any good effects are worth the upheaval and whether they might not have been more effectively and lastingly produced by some other change or even by letting well alone. One benign effect of the Second World War was the the general health of the nation very greatly improved, but even health fanatics stop short of trying to get further improvement by starting another war.

It is never hard to find evidence to support one's prejudices or confirm the success of one's policies. Ministers, civil servants and advisers do it all the time. What they should be doing is looking for indications that the policy is not working, or worse, is having unwanted and unintended consequences. Not only do they not do this but when presented with such evidence they explain it away. Ministerial reaction to the faltering improvement in test results was a case in point.

Michael Barber takes this a stage further. He asserts that the success of the strategy requires all teachers to employ the methods it advocates: ". . . flexibility does not stretch to choosing not to learn or apply the more difficult skills at the heart of the programme" (my italics). Leave aside the question-begging "more difficult", this is merely totalitarian. Fortunately, the threat is quite empty; but it reveals the bureaucrat's need to control and unwillingness to admit possible error. No method is "proven" in the sense that it always works: when it does not, better methods can be found and applied. They will not be found or applied by bureaucrats.

Perhaps the threat is a sign of uncertainty after all. When the literacy strategy goes the way of all the other central initiatives of the past decade and a half, its inconsequence can be blamed on a conspiracy of those who would not apply it.

People who have been into primary schools recently tend to report what one might expect: that teachers have taken the material on the literacy strategy and responded to it in a professional way.

They have taken from it what seems to them to be worthwhile, have used it as a spur to their own thought and practice and have tried to mitigate what they see as its disadvantages. They have had to be particularly alert for unintended and unwanted consequences to the rest of their work with pupils.

My own prejudices are different from Michael Barber's. I doubt whether lasting improvement is likely from political or bureaucratic initiative. Rather it will come from the growing professionalism of teachers. I should like to test this hunch, but I cannot do so while Michael Barber is enforcing his own.

Tyrrell Burgess is Professor Emeritus at the University of East London

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