Let me tell you about Campbell’s Law:
- We pick a simple measurement to guide a complex goal.
- Then that measurement becomes the goal.
- Now, by trying to improve the measurement, we actually work against the original goal.
Here’s how it works when I try to become healthier:
- “Be healthier” is a complex goal, so I pick something easy to measure: my weight.
- Now, my goal becomes “lower my weight,” and the real goal of “be healthier” drifts off.
- As I work to “lower my weight,” I start to work against the goal, making myself less healthy by choosing an extreme diet, drinking less water so my number would go down, only weighing myself after sweating in the sauna for half an hour…
Yes, my measurement would improve, but I had actually adopted unhealthy practices! I picked a simple measurement, and it worked against my actual goal.
Here’s how it works in teaching:
- “Improve our school” is a complex goal. So, those-in-charge pick something measurable like, say, standardized test scores.
- 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 may 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 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 definitely harm 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! Hahaha!)
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 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?
Do No Harm
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 simple measurements that actually hurt the real goal. And maybe (maybe!) quietly say no to the very worst ones.