O is for the Observer Effect

| April 30, 2014

This post goes back, well, a whole bunch of class sessions, to when I wasn’t lazy and taking weeks off of posting. You might remember that, back in those halcyon days, we talked about the impact observation has in the classroom. I think this general question was posed in some form or another: i.e., what impact does observation have in the classroom, either on the student teacher (read: all of us English people in the class) or the teacher teacher; or in terms of someone outside, observing the classroom as a piece of art (an aesthetic observation?). If the lesson is being filmed, then there is the entrance of the panopticon—the all-seeing eye, here of the camera—into the equation. And as the Moffett put it (I’m paraphrasing here): does the camera/observer make something a performance, or just bring to the surface the essentially performative character of the educational experience? More on this later.

Scientists will jump in here and start yelling about the observer effect, along with maybe some mumblings about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which of course is the theory that no one will ever know for sure whether Walter White’s true love was his family or his meth. (What? No scientists would care about any of this stuff? Well, my straw man scientists do.) The observer effect in physics, as per the all-knowing Wiki, refers to the act of observation itself making changes on the phenomenon being observed.

Side Note 1: A quick wiki-search of “observer effect” comes up with a lot of interesting pages, from the Hawthorne effect, the social version of the physics principle, to the “Heisenbug,” when a software bug seems to disappear when the computer programmer attempts to study it.

Side Note 2: During our discussion of observation in class, I was constantly thinking about a scene in “Futurama” where Professor Farnsworth loses a horseracing bet in a photo (“quantum”) finish, then rips up his ticket and angrily accuses the racetrack of cheating, yelling “No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it!”

Good news, everyone! I inspired a post!

But returning to the observer effect and the classroom, I’d like to put forth this basic argument:

1) Premise: Observing a phenomenon changes its outcome. [the observer effect]

2) Premise: The classroom is always observed—whether by the supervisor, the camera, the teacher, or the student.

3) Conclusion 1: Therefore, the classroom experience—teaching and learning—is inevitably, always, in every case, changed by this observation.

4) Conclusion 2: Therefore, “authentic teaching”—that is, some “real” or “true” form of teaching unaltered by observation—does not exist; at least it does not exist in any actual classroom.