Here’s a crackerjack story about how a school in New Jersey improved student performance by teaching the basics of grammar, vocabulary and composition:
One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:
“Although George …”
She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.
Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”
By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject. So in chemistry class in the winter of 2010, Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although.
By sophomore year, Monica’s class was learning how to map out an introductory paragraph, then how to form body paragraphs. “There are phrases—specifically, for instance, for example—that help you add detail to a paragraph,” Monica explains. She reflects for a moment. “Who could have known that, unless someone taught them?”
Homework got a lot harder. Teachers stopped giving fluffy assignments such as “Write a postcard to a friend describing life in the trenches of World War I” and instead demanded that students fashion an expository essay describing three major causes of the conflict.
There’s a tendency to read specific stories and try to wring generics out of them. Maybe all of America’s students are deficient in basic grammar! Maybe a nationwide curriculum on prepositions, argumentation and sentence structure would make up our education gap!
I don’t know anything about education, but after spending most of my career working in NGOs, I’ve realized that in development, the hard part isn’t coming up with a great idea, or even implementing that idea in a specific place. The hard part, every single time, is making that idea work in more than one place at a time.
Whenever we face this problem at work, I can’t help thinking about the Hawthorne effect:
This effect was first discovered and named by researchers at Harvard University who were studying the relationship between productivity and work environment. Researchers conducted these experiments at the Hawthorne Works plant of Western Electric. The study was originally commissioned to determine if increasing or decreasing the amount of light workers received increased or decreased worker productivity. The researchers found that productivity increased due to attention from the research team and not because of changes to the experimental variable.
In other words, people don’t work harder because the bosses change the environment, they work harder because the bosses are watching them, and care what they’re doing. It’s like a group placebo.
This has societal implications. As William Baumol’s new book points out, the story of the last 50 years is steadily increasing productivity in farms, factories, computers, all the hard stuff. Efficiency gains in the soft stuff—healthcare, education, hair salons—haven’t kept up because in the service sector, someone fundamentally has to pay attention to someone else.
Some sectors of the economy, like manufacturing, have rising productivity—they regularly produce more with less, which leads to higher wages and rising living standards. But other sectors, like education, have a harder time increasing productivity. Ford, after all, can make more cars with fewer workers and in less time than it did in 1980. But the average student-teacher ratio in college is sixteen to one, just about what it was thirty years ago. In other words, teachers today aren’t any more productive than they were in 1980.
Growing 10 acres of corn doesn’t take 10 times as much effort as growing one acre. The more land you have, the more you benefit from irrigation, tractors, etc. But giving two haircuts takes exactly twice the effort of giving one haircut. There’s no way (now, anyway) for a doctor to examine 100 patients, or a teacher to pay attention to 100 students, the same way a factory makes 100 iPods.
And this is the hard part. Every time we come up with a new paradigm for education (Sentence structure! Standardized testing! STEM programs!) or development (Microcredit! Millennium goals! Mosquito nets!), we’re trying to get around the fundamental nature of the activity: Someone has to be there. They need to watch. They have to care.
I don’t want to take anything away from this school, its students or its achievement. What this principal has done is remarkable, and teachers and administrators everywhere should be given the freedom to try approaches that respond to the specific challenges of their students.
But every time an anecdote becomes a paradigm, and a paradigm becomes a rule, we risk forgetting that education and development aren’t always driven by great ideas or great methodologies. Sometimes they’re just great individuals. Standing there, turning the lights up and down, and paying attention to what happens.