The Hawthorne Effect
April 18, 2016—I remember a playful experiment using the Hawthorne effect I conducted when I was a school principal. There was a kindergarten teacher that I thought would make a great first grade teacher. She was reluctant to move from her K-5 class to first grade. First grade is a critical grade for children and there is a high level of expectation on results. First graders need to end the year as strong readers. That’s critical for their success for the rest of their academic career.
As a last resort I tapped into the Hawthorne effect as a motivator to get the teacher to sign on to first grade. I told her that we would create an “advanced first grade class.” We would identify the brightest students in the kindergarten classes and shepherd them into an advanced first grade class, and she would be the teacher. I explained that while this was an experiment I had high expectations of this class, that they would be super-performers. The teacher jumped at the challenge, as any good teacher would.
Needless to say, near the end of the school year, when the standardized test scores came back, her class significantly outscored the other five first grade classes. Not a small feat given that the rest of the first grade classes all scored one to two grade levels above the national norm. The funny thing, of course, was that there really was no “advanced” placement done by administration. We didn’t hand pick any of the students in her class. They were just regular students who came from all of last year’s kindergarten classes.
What made the difference? High expectations and the Hawthorne effect. The teacher was motivated and had high expectations of her (“advanced”) students. She proudly told her students that they were the “advanced” first grade class, that they were smart, and that they could do great work. Predictably, the students stepped up to her expectations.
In my experience the Hawthorne effect has universal application. It does not only work with gullible students. Tell a sports team that they are a select team and their performance kicks up to a higher level. Pull a team of workers together and tell them they were selected because of their ability to perform at a high level and they’ll start there. Tell an under-performer “I expect better of you,” and most will start performing better. Tell graduate students “This is graduate school; you can do better,” and more often than not, they will.
I also found that when the leader sets expectations for higher standards you can count on two things: (1) the best people in the organization step up to the challenge and perform better, and (2) the slackers start leaving the system.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H), and Theories of Learning for Christian Educators and Theological Faculty.