The Hawthorne Effect

To make its workers more productive, the Western Electric Company, makers of phones and other parts for the Bell Telephone System, conducted one of the great scientific experiments of all time. The researchers increased the brightness of the lighting at a plant in Hawthorne, Illinois just outside of Chicago, incrementally, while measuring worker output. They alerted the workers to the experiment and they found that as the workplace got brighter the output increased. Then, in a great out-of-the-box experiment, they dimmed the lights incrementally, telling the workers the experiment was still going on. Output continue to grow!

This became known as the Hawthorne Effect.

…the novelty of being research subjects and the increased attention from such could lead to temporary increases in workers’ productivity. Wikipedia “Hawthorne effect”

I got to thinking about the Hawthorne Effect while rereading the Common Core State Standards and thinking about the testing controversy that embroils us. In their website under the Key Shifts in Mathematics menu, they shine a bright light on what they consider to be the core topics:

  • In grades K–2: Concepts, skills, and problem solving related to addition and subtraction
  • In grades 3–5: Concepts, skills, and problem solving related to multiplication and division of whole numbers and fractions
  • In grade 6: Ratios and proportional relationships, and early algebraic expressions and equations
  • In grade 7: Ratios and proportional relationships, and arithmetic of rational numbers
  • In grade 8: Linear algebra and linear functions

And they conclude:

“This focus will help students gain strong foundations, including a solid understanding of concepts, a high degree of procedural skill and fluency, and the ability to apply the math they know to solve problems inside and outside the classroom.”

The Hawthorne Effect caused by these brighter illuminations will no doubt improve student productivity as measured by test results. But as with the Hawthorne plant, once the experiment, and it is an experiment, is over, once the lighting no matter what the brightness level, stays constant, then productivity will return to its “normal” level. For we have not really changed either the product to make it much more integrated nor have we changed the process to make it more productive.

For the past 50 years we have put math education through a series of Hawthorne Effects. This is the reason that the NAEP scores have remained flat lined. If we truly want to substantially improve math education, as we must, then we will have to reinvent both its product and its process and not just shine brighter lights on it.