30 May 2013

A Learner's Experiment in Social Conformity

Currently, we are studying 'Stargirl' by Jerry Spinelli and exploring the ideas of tolerance, individuality, prejudice, and conformity. The driving question behind this unit is, "Do you Dare to be Yourself?" with the sub-question, "Do you Dare to Let Others be Themselves?". One of the assessments is an independent research project exploring the themes mentioned above, but of a topic and with a research question of each learner's own choosing.

Stanford Prison Experiment, 1971
One of my learners has been exploring the idea of conformity and has been researching the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram Experiment and the Asch Experiment. He had already written the draft of his report but we'd spent some time discussing his desire to conduct an experiment of his own along the lines of the Asch Experiment. He wanted to know if his peers would conform, even when they clearly know that everyone else is wrong.

Today, as our lesson began, he informed me of his plans. His needs often have to be addressed as and when he has them. Fortunately, I was able to set the class off and we mangaged to discuss his ideas. He had one question that he wanted the majority of the class to purposefully get wrong - whilst two members of the class were to be unaware of the 'experiment', to see what they would do. Very quickly, I whipped up a plan that would allow his expeirment to take place.

First, I created a short Google Presentation 'test'. We decided to add in two 'dummy' questions before the 'experiment' question, to try to make is seem more authentic. I also decided that it should be set up as a test to measure how quickly the class can process information. The questions were multiple choice with three options, A, B and C and I stuck up a big A, B and C at different areas of my room for them to move to to show their answers. The first question asked who their English teacher is, with options including me, another teacher and a learner. The second question asked who their Form teacher is, with the correct answer, another teacher and another learner. The final, 'experimental' question asked who the Principal is, with the answers being the actual principal, George Clooney and President Obama.
Asch Experiment, 1951

Next, I sent off the two learners chosen to be 'unaware' to the staff room (the furthest room away from our classroom) to find a support teacher (who I hoped was not going to be there), telling them she had said she wanted to be with us to take part in something happening later in the lesson, but might have forgotten. Once they left, I quickly explained the experiment to the remaining members of the class, who decided to all go to President Obama for the 'correct' answer to the final, 'experimental' question.

The class then settled back into their work, when a learner, who we had forgotten had been at the nurse, appeared back in the room. He became a third 'unaware' to add to the mix. Minutes later, the two envoys returned, informing me they had searched high and low for the support teacher, had found her, and she was on her way! Seconds later, she appeared at the door apologising profusely for having forgotten we had arranged for her to be in the lesson! I managed to take her aside and explain the situation (she was aware of the learner's research and had been involved in discussions about his experiment) and she decided to stay - which added more authenticity to the situation.

Learners continued with their writing and when the time for that portion of the lesson was up, I gathered them into the middle of the room to explain the test that the support teacher and I wanted to perform on them. I explained that they were to go to the letter on the wall of the answer they considered correct as quickly and sensibly as possible. With a laptop set up to record the 'experiment', we started.

The three questions were shown successively, in the same order outlined above. And guess what - all THREE of the 'unaware' students followed the majority to the incorrect answer that President Obama is our school Principal! It was incredible. They said they just went along with the crowd, without really reading the question properly or thinking about it properly, confirming just how easily we conform to the majority viewpoint.  It was brilliant and I admit that I was a little shocked by just how easily they followed along. After a pause they did look twice and then moved, but their initial response was to go with the crowd.

I am so proud of this learner's progress, his thinking that has gone into this research, and his desire to put into practise his research. Once he has included his own experiment alongside the other research, I am looking forward to reading the final draft of his report which opens:

"Were things like the holocaust committed by monsters who eat golden foiled babies for dinner, or were they committed by 'normal' people, the kind of people who play ball with the children and the dog, or go to the theatre to enjoy a school performance, the kind of person who would help an old lady cross the road? These experiments show that, under the right conditions, people can do horrible and illogical things."