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August 06

Gail Brown

Classic prison study: Lessons for educators, Part 2

  • Mon 7th Jan 2013
  • Gail

This classic prison study, by Professor Zimbardo at Stanford, has been cited countless times for its impact on students, just by being placed into the role of a guard or prisoner. My previous blog post outlines the first lesson teachers can take from this study, the importance of background knowledge on all students, in any classroom, anywhere.

This second post, extends the findings of Professor Alex Haslam, from the University of Queensland, in his recent review of this classic student. Secondly, Alex Haslam reviewed in detail the instructions given to guards and he found that the experimenters actually told the guards the goal of their study, during their instructions on how the study was to be conducted. Haslam found that Zimbardo’s role, as Prison Superintendent, included telling the guards to both “create a sense of fear and control over the prisoners”, setting them up with a clear goal (see reference below for source citations, page 6). Haslam concluded that “in this way, Guard’s desire to support, and work towards, the goals of the experimenters appears to be a significant part of the story” (same citation source, page 6). As well, he found that Zimbardo used the word “we”, implying that he and the prison guards were working together.

This provides two more important links into classrooms and for teachers in their practices: The importance of goal setting and working with students to achieve that goal. Goal setting is powerful, and enables students to clearly see their goals – which will hopefully be more positive than the prison experiment’s goals. Secondly, working with our students, knowing their strengths and weaknesses and supporting their learning, in both modelling and also guiding their learning activities, through what Haslam calls “engaged followership”.

Goal setting and supporting students’ learning are likely to be even more effective in classrooms today, than in 1971.

Reference - Preprint of 2018 Haslam paper

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