Donald Campbell, a 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 is known as Campbell’s Law. Let me rewrite it a bit 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.
“Better teaching” is about as complex a goal as you can find, so those-in-charge seek something measurable. Then that measurement takes over as the real goal. Teachers are pressured to focus on an easy-for-the-boss-to-check measurement that, in the long run, hurts the very thing we’re trying to improve.
Weight Loss vs. Health
Here’s a sample situation of Campbell’s Law in action. Trying to become healthier is a common (but complex) problem. Here’s how focusing on a simple measurement ends up detracting from the actual goal:
- I want to be healthier, so I decide to measure my weight.
- 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 bunch of unhealthy decisions to improve my simple measurement:
- I only weigh myself after I workout (but before I drink any water).
- I start to weigh myself only after working out and then taking a hot shower (to sweat more water out).
- I don’t eat days when I plan to weigh myself.
- I go on a “juice-cleanse” or only eat celery or some other extreme diet before weighing myself.
By focusing on a simple measurement, I’ve lost sight of my real goal of healthiness. In fact, I’m becoming less healthy by focusing on the measurement.
Complex problems always have simple phantom solutions that get in the way of the real goal.
In my experience working with schools around the country, good teachers are deeply uncomfortable with these simple phantom solutions! They know they’re wrong.
One I hear everywhere I travel (and faced myself as a teacher) is the principal who says, “Always post your lesson objective on the wall.” This sure is easy to check, but it doesn’t lead to “better teaching” and can certainly hurt many types of lessons.
One principal at my school got on a kick about only teaching language arts until 11 am. Easy to check? Sure. Did it actually lead to better teaching? Uh, no. (Where do they get these things?)
I used to give a talk about how my students improved their narrative writing. In one state, at the end of the session, folks said, “This is really great stuff, but our students only have one side of a hand-written page to write their narratives for our end-of-year tests.” Limiting kids to one side of a page sure makes things simpler, but has this ever produced better writers?
Do No Harm
Just like you, I knew these simple solutions were wrong, yet I went along with them for years. Why? What else can I say but I was cowardly. I was afraid to even get in a tiny bit of trouble for the sake of protecting my students.
Eventually, that started to change. Eventually, I started ignoring the worst of the demands. (It helped to have some brave compatriots.) Did I get “talked to”? Yes. I even got called to the principal’s office. In fact, I actually got a call from the district office once! Did I receive any actual punishment? Nope. Did I sleep way better at night? Yes. I wrote more about learning to stand up here.
So, keep your eyes open for these simple measurements that actually hurt the real goal. And maybe (maybe!) quietly say no to the very worst ones.
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