Have you ever noticed this pattern:
- We have a complex goal.
- So, we pick a simple, numeric measurement to track that complex goal.
- Eventually, that simple number replaces our original goal.
- Finally, as we try to boost the number, we actually work against the original goal.
This is called Campbell’s Law, and you see it at play all of the time. Here’s how it works when my goal is to become healthier:
- “Become healthier” is a complex goal.
- I pick something easy to measure and track: my weight.
- Now, I become obsessed with “lowering my weight” while the real goal of “become healthier” drifts away.
- As I work to “lower my weight,” I start making myself less healthy by following an extreme diet, drinking less water so my weight goes down, only weighing myself after sweating in the sauna for half an hour, etc.
Yes, my number improves, but I have actually adopted unhealthy practices! By focusing on a simple measurement, it worked against my actual, complex goal.
Here’s how it works in teaching:
- We want to “improve our schools.” But that’s a complex goal.
- So, those-in-charge pick something simple to measure like, say, a test score.
- Now, the goal becomes “improve test scores,” and the original goal floats away.
- As we work harder to “improve test scores,” we actually make our school a worse place to be.
Complex problems always have simple phantom solutions. They look tempting, but (just like a fad diet) they actually work against the real goal.
In my experience working with schools around the country, good teachers are deeply uncomfortable with these simple phantom solutions! They inherently know that they’re misleading and often contradict their own goals.
One I hear everywhere (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 will mess up many types of lessons. (After getting hassled about this enough, I would write the stupid objective on the board and then cover it up, only revealing it to students when it worked best in my lesson!)
One principal I worked for got a bee in their bonnet about only teaching language arts before 11 am. Easy to check? Sure. Did it lead to better teaching? Uh, no. (Seriously, where do they get these things?)
I used to give a presentation about how my students drastically improved their narrative writing. At one conference, folks said, “This is really great, 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 to measure, but has this ever produced better writers? Is it possible that this practice produces worse writers? Almost certainly.
Nowadays I run Byrdseed.TV full time. I occasionally get an email from an administrator who, after 11 months, wants a “usage report.” That’s a spreadsheet showing what percentage of their teachers have logged onto my site. I always decline, saying “To judge Byrdseed.TV’s usefulness, you should speak with your teachers and look at students’ work.” No one ever replies to that!
Do I lose customers? Eh, not really, actually! But, more importantly, I am proud to take a stand for what’s right. It is easy to manage by spreadsheet. But it’s obviously wrong. It’s much harder to take time to visit classrooms and look at students’ work. Yet, that’s the real goal, right?
Do No Harm
As a teacher, I knew these simple solutions were wrong, yet I went along with them for years. Why? 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 compatriots!) I didn’t make a big deal about it, but I just stopped doing the stupidest, most obviously harmful things I was asked to do.
Did I eventually get “talked to”? Yes. I even got called to the principal’s office! I actually got a call from the district office once! But 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 overly simplfied measurements that are easy for bosses to track, but actually hurt the real goal. And maybe (maybe!) quietly say no to the very worst ones.