The Milgram Experiment

What does it mean when we say something is “human nature”?  I love these broad questions – are we basically good (thanks Locke) or evil (shout out Hobbes)?  Do we have the capacity for altruism?  Who are we at our worst moments?  Stanley Milgram, a social scientist in the 60’s, pushed the limits of experimentation about one area of human nature – our obedient responses to authority.  Milgram was filled with questions that sprouted initially from Nazis in WWII.  How could a baker or college professor become a guard at a Nazi death camp? Didn’t they feel a sense of responsibility?  Why didn’t they stand up?  His research came up with one answer, an answer that also comments about our nature.


  1. Prior knowledge – ask students to write or talk in pairs about the response to the following, “Think about a time that you did something you that you were uncomfortable about because a person you perceived as an authority told you to. Describe the situation, the people involved, and the outcome. What happened? Who was the authority? Why? Why were you uncomfortable?”  Help students share responses and tell them they will learn about an experiment that probes how humans react to the authority.
  2. Depending on your access – either read the NYTimes article or watch one of the video’s below (each is about 8 minutes) that reviews the Milgram experiment. (Ideally – watch the video in advisory and discuss and use the short article for homework).
  3. Encourage students to take notes on the basics:
    1. Who are the participants?
    2. Which of these people are actors?
    3. What is the machine that the “teacher” is using?
    4. What is the experiment testing?
    5. What “Pressures” were put on the teacher when they began to feel uncomfortable? (list quotes if you can).
    6. What are the results of the experiment?
    7. What do you think from these events?
  4. Discuss the Milgram Experiment and the dark side of authority and obedience (and shedding responsibility).
  5. Why do you think they use roles like “teacher”, “experimenter”, and “student” instead of names?  What do you think this means?
  6. Does authority have to be a “guy in a white coat”.  What are other ways we might think about authority? How have you seen people respond to this?


  1. The original 1960’s experiment (10 Min Video) (You can fast forward to get the basics).
  2. The a recreation of the experiment
  3. NY Times Article “Decades Later I would Pull the Switch”
    1. Related Discussion Questions
  4. Wikipedia Overview of the Experiment

Update: (3.28): Well you might have heard the ruckus all the way from France, but a live French TV show (“The Game of Death”) just used the basis of the Milgram experiment for a reality show.  They asked members of the audience to flip switches to pulse electricity through a man who needed to be “punished” until the actor (though no one knew this) appeared dead.  This has started a hot debate – are humans programed to listen to “experts” and act out on others or do they understand the artifice of the tv context and they are playing out fantasies because they must know it can’t be real?


  • This experiment has obvious relations to the behavior of Nazis in World War II.  Many asked, how could a whole country, usually common working people become part of a discriminatory murder machine?  Consider reviewing Facing History and Ourselves materials on Obedience and Conformity specifically in the context of the Holocaust.
  • As a reflection from this experiment – assuming this is true, what safeguards do we need to put in place to make sure that people don’t shed their responsibility and act (in some cases) barbarically?


Journaling – General

A lot of people love the idea of students becoming reflective critical thinkers, and then they act as if this can’t be taught or coached.  The most effective way to help students acheive the level of critical reflection on their work, their world, and themselves is through processing, in writing, on a regular basis.  In BP schools, a consistent journal (3 times a week) is the aim.

Some general Methods to success.

  • Have an actual Journal or a place online to write in/on
  • Provide Prompts:
    • There are a lot of great places that have prompts – use all of them (you’ll have four years need work – at 2x per week + an LTI reflection, you’ll need 320 minimum!)
    • Provide both abstract and theoretical topics to reflect on (love, the nature of good and evil, etc) and concrete experiences (what was your internship like today?)
  • Encourage different modes of reflection – sketches, song lyrics, poetry, collage, in addition to writing a prose response.  Encourage it also as a place for play and experimentation.
  • Spend time in advisory at least every week
  • The Journal must be INTERACTIVE – that means you (the advisor) have to respond back to it.
  • Don’t correct the journal (file the issues away and note if there are others with the same issues. This could become the topic of an advisory investigation or a small group of students working on the same skill.)
  • Give students an “out” for a journal entry that is too personal – they can fold over the page and you promise not to read it.
  • Clarify with students that you will have to bring others into the mix if they write things that show themselves or others in dangert.
  • Collect a third of the journals three times a week
  • Don’t expect great things initially – think about what you’d like to help them focus on, and respond accordingly.  If you have to work on their fluency -just getting words out – ask questions to solicit details. If you want them to think more carefully and assess their actions – ask them questions to weigh their choices.
  • Use journals as part of the school culture (in advisory, PMU, exhibition, in talks with administration) so that students see how important it is.



Exhibitions – Reminders


Many schools across the country that use various forms of authentic assessment, in the form of public exhibitions, will have quarterly or trimester exhibitions soon. You have already had your conversations with staff about what the main goals of exhibition are for the quarter in general, what the tenor of the experience will be like (where on the continuum between celebration and proving ground).

Some reminders:

  1. Have an expectation for each student about what success means.
  2. Decide where on the continuum between celebration and proving ground your exhibitions should be and communicate this transparently to students, parents, other panelists and other staff when coming to your exhibitions.
  3. Train panelists before the exhibition.  Don’t rely on the feedback form to do the training for you!  Students should be coached to observe carefully, look for specific benchmarks, ask questions, and provide feedback actively.
  4. Have students prepare to reflect on their learning at exhibition.  Stage one – say what you did, Stage 2 – talk about what you learned from what you did. (See the What I did | What I learned chart)
  5. Have a feedback form that supports your goals and philosophy. ( I favor the open ended feedback forms…).
  6. Do things that will increase the comfort and effectiveness of each student while speaking and presenting:
    1. Prep and run through
    2. Note cards + visual
    3. Have objects there
    4. Hold it in an “inspirational” place.
    5. Bring food (set the culture)

Post Exhibition:

  1. At the end of the exhibition, consider circling up the panel and have every person give brief warm and cool feedback.  Also ask the presenter to give their initial impressions.
  2. Consider having a process for creating a “contract” or list of work to be completed along with due dates and strategies for completion.



Reflecting Like Clint Eastwood


The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

As a main goal of advisory is to build relationships (between students and with students), I used to spend at least one part of one advisory per week “checking in” with them.  And doing this, I came up with a myriad of ways to check in with students.

First, I went minimalist:

  • “How are you doing?”
  • “What do you mean?”
  • “I mean, how are you?”
  • Quizzical looks, after contemptuous eye rolling.

Ok, so that didn’t work well… (The Ugly)

Perseverance… I tried other techniques.

“Everybody pick a number between 1 and 10 – 10 being the best and select how you feel about this week.”

That was better.  (Bad?) We even had conversations about what a 5 meant to different people – which led to conversations about optimism and pessimism.  I also had an interested student track our responses and create a chart and graph and present out his findings at advisory. That was fun…

When I was reaching, I borrowed from psychologist and tried a mood cube (take a piece of paper, cut and fold into a cube, color each side a different color and ascribe it different meaning.  Red = angry mood, yellow = content, orange = sunny, brown…dim, etc). This had mixed results.  Luckily no one had seen “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” yet.

With each of these, I varied the formats:

  • Written, oral, art/kinesthetic (ok, i didn’t do intepretive dance)
  • solo, pair, small group, full advisory
  • sitting in advisory circle, walk and talk,
  • inside, outside (not underwater or skydiving…)
  • just our advisory, gender groups, paired with other advisories.

I guess I felt like we had to keep making it new and exciting.

One of the debrief activities I liked the best was the Clint Eastwood reflection.  It doesn’t require a poncho (though it coudn’t hurt), and you don’t need to squint (though that doesn’t hurt either).  I would just ask students to journal as a quickwrite the “Good the Bad, and the Ugly of that week”. Depending on time, I might have people share out one of the categories in a group or discuss them all with a partner, or just turn them in. Sometimes we tallied up which of the three categories was the strongest for that person that week and took the Clint Eastwood temp of our advisory (10 of 15 were good this week, 5 Uglies).  How narrow was out collective squint (by the way, I own the rights to Collective Squint as a band name.)…

This was “the good”

Anyway, those are a few of my check-in reflections.  Any great ideas out there to share?