Friday, July 8, 2011

Situations & systems matter: Lessons for higher ed from the Stanford Prison Experiment

After looking at it on my bookshelf for the better part of three years, I finally resolved to tackle Philip Zimbardo's book, The Lucifer Effect.  I'm only about half-way through, but it has been a fascinating read and helped me see both my work and personal life through a new lens.  The underlying argument of the book is that individual behavior can be heavily influenced through what Zimbardo terms "situational forces" and that the systems we create, be it in prisons, businesses, homes, or schools, are critical in determining actions of the individuals within those systems.  Zimbardo also points out the common tendency we have to attribute negative (or even evil or destructive) behaviors to individual dispositional factors (e.g. genes, personality traits, personal pathologies, etc.), while completely disregarding situational or systemic factors.  

Those of us working in higher ed (particularly those of us who work with first-year students) frequently yield to the same cycle of analysis in that we attribut student failures, less-than-desirable learning outcomes, etc. to the personal or dispositional attributes of the students on our campuses.  As I read Zimbardo's book, I had to ask myself, what situational factors on my campus might be to blame?  And, what could we do on campuses to create systems that are more likely to facilitate the behaviors we want from students?

This post, is not in any way meant to compare college campuses to prisons or to suggest that the negative things that happen on campuses are comparable to the horrific things that happened in Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE).  However, there are lessons and findings that emerged from the SPE that could be instructive for any organizational leaders, including higher ed administrators:

1.  Rules, policies, and requirements matter.  Students come to understand expectations and behavioral norms, in part, from the rules and policies enacted on a campus.  What they read in the student catalog and see on the campus website communicates a set of values about the institution and what is viewed as most important.  Even more importantly, if we want students to have particular types of experiences (e.g. service-learning, engagement with peer mentors, etc.), then it is imperative that we embed these practices and experiences within the required curricula and co-curricula.  George Kuh has repeatedly made the case for making high impact practices more visible and institutionalized on campuses.

2.  Inviting individuals to take on new roles changes thinking and behavior.  When individuals integrate or socialize into new organizations (e.g. a college campus), their subsequent behavior is shaped, in large part, by the role they see themselves playing.  Consequently, careful attention should be given to the way in which new students are "inducted" into the campus community and what kinds of messages are conveyed about their role as students.  Even using the term student has potential for being problematic because students see this as a role they have played (and played well) across their K-12 school experience.  Subsequently, they see themselves in a similar role as before and bring with them the same set of behaviors, attitudes, and dispositions that, frequently, are not a good fit for their new college environment (e.g. study skills that worked in high school but which are ineffective in facilitating the kind of deep learning necessary for success in college courses).   Something to chew on--what if we frequently referred to students as "scholars" or "learners" in our conversations, literature, etc.?  Maybe it's a bit cheesy or over-the-top, but if that is the role we hope for students to play, our language needs to reflect that and reflect that we expect them to play a different role than the one they likely played before they arrived on our campus.  Interestingly, clinical psychology and its practice of role induction, may have something to contribute to our thinking in this area.  In short, therapists and clinical psychologists have found that patients persist in treatment at higher rates and demonstrate desirable patient behaviors more frequently when they clearly understand their role as patients.

3.  Leaders can shape behavior by playing reciprocal roles.  In the SPE, subjects selected to play the role of "prisoners" would have had a difficult time playing that role without others playing the reciprocal "guard" role.  Consequently, the role faculty members, advisors, peer mentors, and administrators play will influence student behaviors.  When we play the role of parent, disciplinarian, grader, or punisher, we invite students to play the reciprocal role (e.g. child, rebel, surface learner, victim, etc.).  Constrastingly, if we see ourselves (and our behaviors align with this view) as mentors, guides, co-learners, etc., we're more likely to call forth the behaviors and attitudes we most want in students and which we know will lead to transformative learning.

4.  Anonymity = Trouble.  One of the most powerful lessons I have taken from reading about the SPE thus far is how much conditions of anonymity influence individual behavior.  What's more, many of the current practices on college campuses (particularly large research institutions) have the potential to increase students' feelings of anonymity.  Think for a moment about the experiences a new student on a college campus might have--the classes they take, the communication they receive from the institution, the way they conduct business or transactions with the institution, etc.--and then ask yourself whether these experiences leave a student feeling "known" or anonymous (there seem to be some strong connections here to Schlossberg's work on marginality and mattering here as well).  I doubt that students who feel anonymous or marginalized will begin to behave like prisoners on our campuses; however, when our campus practices and policies make students feel as though they don't matter or limit their access to meaningful personal relationships with faculty members, advisors, and administrators, their learning will suffer.  

So, the next time you hear yourself or a colleague complaining about students, take a moment to think about the system and situuational forces your institution has created and how they might be contributing to the problems.

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