Donald Campbell, social psychologist, wrote:
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
This, now known as Campbell’s Law, must be considered in our schools and classrooms. Let me rewrite it more simply:
When we focus on a simple measurement to guide a complex goal, that measurement becomes the goal, and the measurement starts to work against the real goal.
Weight Loss vs Health
Trying to become healthier is a common, but complex, problem. Here’s how Campbell’s Law applies:
- I want to be healthier, so I decide to measure my weight. Lower weight means I’m healthier.
- Uh oh. Now “lower weight” has become the goal, rather than the more complex (and harder to measure) “better health.”
- Now I start to make a whole host of possibly unhealthy decisions to force my weight down:
- I only weigh myself after running (but before drinking water).
- I start to take measurements only after running and then taking a hot shower to sweat more water out.
- I don’t eat on “weigh-in” days.
- I go on a “juice-cleanse” or only eat celery or some other extreme diet.
- By focusing too much on my measurement, I’ve lost sight of the real goal of healthiness. In fact, I’m possibly becoming less healthy, by trying to push the weight down faster.
Complex social problems always have a phantom simple solution that gets in the way of the real issues.
“Better teaching” is about as vague and complex a goal as you can find, so we seek something measurable. Then that measurement takes over as the real goal. Well-intentioned administrators are heavily pressured by their bosses to heavily pressure teachers to improve some easy-to-check measurement that, in the long run, hurts the very thing we’re trying to improve.
The one I hear frequently is “Always post your lesson objective on the wall.” This is easy-to-check, but doesn’t necessarily lead to “better teaching” and can even hurt a lesson.
Shoot me an example of how you’ve been pressured to improve a measurement that might actually harm the real goal of learning. What are the phantom solutions you’ve experienced? I’m firstname.lastname@example.org and @ianabyrd on Twitter.
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