GUEST BLOGGER: Dr. William L. Heller, Using Data Program Director, Teaching Matters*

There is an important lesson to be learned from a soccer game played between Barbados and Grenada at the 1994 Shell Caribbean Cup. In this tournament, tied games would go to sudden death overtime, and any subsequent goal scored would be a “Golden Goal” worth two points. Barbados needed to win by two to progress to the next round, and in fact they were ahead 2-0, when Grenada scored.

soccer ball on the goal line of the fieldWith just minutes left in the game, a quick-thinking Barbadian player scored on his own goal, tying the game in order to invoke sudden death and buy some time for his team. Grenada’s players then tried to score on their own goal, hoping to lose by one, but Barbados was able to successfully defend Grenada’s goal. The game went into overtime, and Barbados won 4-2.

You would think that it would have taken a great deal to get these players to go against years of training and experience to want to score on their own goals, but all it really took was a momentary change in their accountability system.

We’ve seen a similar effect this year in New York City middle schools. Due to budget constraints, there was no 8th grade social studies exam this year. Predictably, as the statewide math and ELA tests drew closer, social studies teachers found themselves facing more and more disruptions to their schedule. Nobody made a conscious decision to abandon social studies instruction. It’s just that, as the clock ticked down, schools didn’t mind scoring on their own goal in social studies if it meant buying more time to score a “Golden Goal” in the areas where they would be held accountable.

Sometimes, even just the perception of accountability is enough. A study conducted in the 1920’s and 30’s attempted to determine whether changing the lighting in the Hawthorne Works factory near Chicago would affect worker productivity.  Researchers were three dimensional bar graph showing incremental gainssurprised to see that productivity increased regardless of how they changed the lighting.  After the study was over, productivity went right back down. As it turned out, the presence of the researchers measuring productivity motivated the workers more than any lighting change could. Today, we call this the “Hawthorne Effect” and it has wide ranging implications. You can see it in practice almost anywhere you look, and sometimes you can see it precisely because you’ve looked.

How can we who use data formatively take advantage of this effect? As a part of the TERC Using Data process, teams create action plans with a timeline for implementation. Built into these plans is a monitoring system. The teams ask what kind of data would tell them whether or not their strategies are working, and they create a plan for collecting that data. The purpose is to determine if the plan needs adjusting, not to apply the Hawthorne Effect. But if, for example, a survey asking teachers to rate the effectiveness of a particular strategy being implemented also serves as a reminder or encouragement to actually start implementing that strategy, all the better for our students’ success.

What gets measured gets done, so measure what you treasure!

*Teaching Matters is a non-profit organization that partners with educators to ensure that all students can succeed in the digital age.  They are an official TERC Using Data partner organization, conducting the Using Data for Meaningful Change institute for New York City schools.