Exploring some theory.

Exploring some theory.

A few days ago I had my first digital literacy seminar of the year and we explored, amongst other things, learning theories. (By the way, during our sessions we will normally tweet out questions or snippets of information under the hash tag #ESSP501DL . Check it out – there’s some really interesting stuff on there!). We were each given a theory to explore and asked to present our findings. Naturally, I decided to use my blog to communicate what I found out.

I was given Zimbardo, who I recognised having taken Psychology at A Level. I instantly remembered the Stanford Prison Experiment and the idea of deindividuation, but not much else. It wasn’t until I started looking back into it that I remembered the sheer lack of ethics and how dangerous the experiment became.

The experiment featured ordinary men who signed up voluntarily. They were split into two groups and half were assigned as prison guards, the other half prisoners. They were placed in a “prison” and were monitored to see what would happen. Initially; not a lot. But as time went on, some shocking and quite scary situations unfolded. I could go on for hours about the experiment  but I want to focus more on how the theory could relate to education.

So first of all, what theory exactly underpins Zimbardo’s experiment? What is he trying to explore? The main concept for me is the theory of deindividuation, but also very prominent is the idea of conforming to social roles/norms. Deindividuation is thought of as a person’s behaviour becoming controlled less by their own values and morals and more by external norms and expectations (Doyle-Portillo and Pastorino, 2010, p.400). This is clear in the prison experiment; as time went on the guards, for example, started to act more like how they thought a guard should act, rather than how they normally would. They were conforming to that social role. This is apparent in the prisoner’s actions also. They took horrendous orders off the guards and carried them through, however, they’re not actually prisoners and they could have left at any time; so why didn’t they?

When applying these theories to a classroom situation, my first thought is uniform. This could be seen as an attempt to conform all children in the class. By wearing the same items of clothing one could assume this is an attempt to deindividuate those pupils and make them look the same. In particular schools, where there are strict rules on how children can wear their hair and/or jewellery, even the type of coat they wear, this could be seen as a stronger attempt to repress individuality and expression. Is this right? What are schools trying to achieve by making children wear uniform?

Before we jump to conclusions though and start accusing schools, it is important to look at the opposite side of the arguement. Many schools carefully plan their school uniform so that it is something children can wear with pride; they are part of a community and that is something children should be proud of. Some schools have a variety of clothing options to wear also, for example, girls can choose between wearing a dress, skirt or trousers. Boys can choose between trousers or shorts, or a different style of shirt. I know of some schools who have events such as “free sock Friday” where children can wear as outrageous socks as they like, instead of the customary black or white, in a way to allow children to express themselves and their individuality in a controlled way. Despite this though, the arguement still remains. I’ve often heard teachers say they dislike non-uniform days, as the children are always so much more exciteable and hyped up. Why is this? A suggestion could be that when they are wearing their school uniforms, they know they are expected to behave in a certain way, as they are in school.

Another example of deindividuation in the classroom could be bullying. If there is a particular bully in a class picking on another child, other children in the class may tend to side with the bully, as they know sticking up for the victim could lead to them being ridiculed also. They will likely conform to the group norm that “yes, the bully says that child is weird, everyone else thinks they are weird, so therefore I do too.” In doing this, they will feel part of a group and will feel following the group norm is safest for them, despite their inner morals knowing that it is wrong. This shows they are deindividuated within this situation.

An further interesting thought lies with the teacher and not the children. Does what a teacher wears have any effect on the children in the class? I have found it a common conception that a teacher who dresses very casually will have less of an authoritative impact on children than a teacher dressed formally. Is this a true statement? I don’t have a definitive answer – I can see both sides of the arguement, but I also feel that if a teacher is strong and authoritative enough, they could walk into a classroom wearing a clown costume and still have control over the pupils in it. Additionally, does what a teacher wears have any effect on their own ability to be authoritative, or teach a class successfully? Again, I don’t have an answer, but I’d like to know what you think on all of these matters.

Let me know any comments or ideas you might have below. I found this area of social psychology really interesting during my A Levels and I still do now, so I’d be interested to have some other opinions!


Doyle-Portillo, S., Pastorino, E. (2010) What is Psychology? Essentials. 2nd edn. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.


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