Applying Milgram’s Findings to Teaching and Learning

Milgram’s classical experiment into obedience led to some surprising revelations, putting the ethical and bias issues to one side.  Milgram developed the Agency Theory (1974) which indicates that people will obey and take responsibility for their own actions (agentic state).  For example, those students who show concern, guilt and/ or remorse for their actions within school.  Whereas others will indicate that they were told to carry out their actions by another (autonomous state).  This is often been referred to as been deputised and thereby taking on authority. For example, “it’s not my fault, you put me in charge” or “John told me to hit him.”

Another way of interpreting this is when a teacher asks a student to act on their behalf, by acting as a teaching assistant (peer support) or collecting the bank of computers from the classroom next door.  This is all rooted in the concept of legitimacy (legitimate power), that is the person carrying out the activity (student) believes that the person who is making the request (teacher) as the authority to direct them, thus any consequence is levelled against the legitimacy of the teacher, not the student. However, there are other factors which influence the students’ obedience and conformity.

During the experiment, it was discovered that if the experimenter (person giving the instructions) was not wearing a lab coat (uniform) obedience drop by 20%. This indicates that legitimacy within the classroom is linked to the way a teacher dresses.  For example, physical education (PE) teachers wear sportswear whilst other teachers wear professional clothing such as a suit and tie. Some teachers refer to this as their professional armour.  What is interesting is that when the teacher (experimenter) was not present obedience dropped and the subject/ respondent cheated or attempted to circumvent the experiment to avoid giving the electric shock.  This is reflected in the classroom when the teacher leaves the room.  Students typically relax and start chatting, what Milgram discovered was that the proximity of the legitimate power (teacher) influenced obedience. For example, in the classroom, simply moving closer to a student who is talking will result in that student refocusing due to the perception of consequence (verbal reprimand) of their action (talking), behaviour management by proximity.  Other factors such as the number of students who are showing inappropriate behaviour can result in reduced conformity, leading to a poor learning experience for the whole class.  However, Milgram’s experiment suggests that if you can reduce the negative behaviour in one student, it is likely to reduce the negative behaviour in other students too (social modelling).

Finally, Milgram’s findings suggest that the location (classroom) has an impact on obedience and conformity. Indicating that the classroom and school is a teacher’s power based, linked to the students perceived value and prestige (high regard) of the school. Thus, if a school and/ or a teacher can build prestige within the classroom, students are more likely to follow and achieve the learning expectations. Along with other factors like a sense of identity and belongingness, this is one of the reasons of a student uniform.

A recent review of the Agency Theory (1989)

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