Archana Shrestha & Sarah Chevallier
In any classroom, there is a constant struggle to balance the needs of the individual against those of the collective. This struggle is visibly manifested in the push and pull between class participation and classroom management, particularly within the context of teaching English as a foreign language in Nepal.
Many Nepalese classrooms are dominated by two equal and opposing forces: the highest and the lowest performing students. Spurred by a system of individual praise, top students dominate class discussion and participation. Conversely, the lowest-performing students, who frequently have no confidence in their ability to answer questions correctly, seek attention (albeit negative) through misbehavior and disruptive tendencies.
The obvious losers in these classrooms are those students in the middle, cowed into silence by the raucous behavior of the lowest-performing, and scorned into shyness by their domineering higher-performing peers. These students rarely volunteer to participate in class activities, exhibit sometimes spectacular reticence to speak when called upon (due to the fact that their errors are frequently mocked by both ends of the performance spectrum, as these dominating forces seek to re-secure attention), and generally display a lack of confidence in spoken abilities, preferring instead to focus their energy on the lower-pressure context of written homework. These middle students form an impenetrably meek and mute collective, unmotivated by the lure of individual reward, given the potential for individual rejection and ridicule.
In our own English classroom, we have decided to address this imbalance through the implementation of team activities to encourage in-class participation, and collective rewards for homework completion. In this way, we hoped not only to address individual needs and behaviors, but also to render the collective mastery of material more effective and class time more productive, as the students would take on the responsibility for participation and behavior management.
Practical Effects of Collective Reward and Punishment
We have found that this method of regularly combining students at various performance levels into teams for group activities and games has proved immensely valuable in our classroom. First, it has served to create a sense of unity and equality, as it impresses upon them that they all have an equal role to play in their team’s success or defeat and by extension in their own individual reward. Students’ immediate focus is transferred from the individual response to team performance – the highest-performing students are no longer able to simply answer every question; the lowest-performing students’ energy is harnessed, directed, and motivated by the promise of reward; and those in the middle (given more opportunities to perform) are inherently more likely to perform well, and their efforts are thereby positively reinforced and more likely to be repeated.
Beyond the innate merit of this team dynamic, however, it has become even more effective through a consistent implementation as a system of reward and punishment. In our classroom, this has taken the form of tracking teams’ wins and losses, rewarding the first team to win a total of five games. After this reward, both teams start again at zero. We have also expanded this concept of teamwork to apply to homework – when all the students have completed five consecutive homework assignments, they are rewarded. If one student does not do his or her homework, the class tally is returned to zero. In this way, homework becomes more than an easily avoided classroom formality – it becomes a class-wide team effort in which their opponent is their own lack of motivation. In this way, students learn the value of consistent and cumulative effort.
Finally, an unintended but certainly welcome effect of this system has been the transferring of responsibility for class behavior onto the students themselves. When misbehavior disrupts a game, or results in the withholding of a game entirely, students become incredibly apt to police one another’s behaviors, attention, and participation. If one student does not complete his or her homework, he or she then suffers the consequences of letting down their classmates. If one student’s disruptive behavior results in the class copying silently from the book rather than playing a game with the hope of eventual reward, that student will hear about it from his or her classmates.
In this way, the collective’s interest polices the actions of the individual, and the classroom dynamic shifts from an individual struggle to a team effort to master English.