The term “peer pressure” usually comes with a negative connotation. But if properly harnessed, it can generate a positive result by letting your students take care of most of the discipline issues for you. Using my battle-tested system of cooperative learning, honed during 25 years of teaching middle school, you will be able to use the incredible power of positive peer pressure.

Any good system relies on having a set of procedures in place that cover routine, everyday tasks. When the children know what you expect them to do when they first enter your room they will follow those expectations. Get them into good habits from day one and those good habits will last all year.

Although a complete cooperative learning system incorporates many things, these are some of the most essential elements. First, have a clearly defined, consistent, and highly visible means of immediate and long-term feedback that encourages positive peer pressure. Second, always provide ways to have all of your students demonstrate individual accountability.  Third, make sure you set classroom procedures in place for all repetitive tasks. Last, keep your expectations high. When you believe they can, your students will rise to any challenge.

I will explain the system through a series of examples that together  comprise a complete lesson. See if you can identify which actions taken by the teacher demonstrate cooperative discipline. Likewise, try to identify what students are doing that suggests the teacher has implemented the essential components listed in the previous paragraph.

 

Middle school cooperative discipline
 
Example 1: The teacher stands just outside her classroom greeting each student by name as they enter her room. Once inside, the students put last night’s homework in the IN box on the teacher’s desk and begin working on the DO NOW problems on the board. The bell rings and the teacher steps inside the room and quietly walks between the groupings of five desks checking on the students’ work. Group 2 all have their pencils down and are sitting quietly waiting for their reward. A quick glance at their papers show they have all finished the three problems and shown all their work. With a smile and a thumbs up, the teacher picks up her green marker and writes 100 under the column on her whiteboard labeled Group 2.

Another important procedure is the one that tells the children when you need their attention. Well-known author, educator and psychologist Spenser Kagan calls this the quiet signal. The room can get fairly loud and very active at times so this is a necessity. The best signal is something simple, quiet, and visible.

Middle school cooperative discipline 
The teacher takes two steps towards the center of her whiteboard, holds up her right arm and quietly says, “time.” All pencils that were in motion drop, any quiet talking stops, and all faces turn towards the teacher expectantly as the teacher starts talking. “Group 2 finished the DO NOW correctly and showed their work before time was up so they got 100 points. Let’s give the other groups a chance to get some points.”

An essential aspect of a cooperative learning system is incorporating individual accountability. The loudest and bossiest child in a group will always be the one to speak up if you allow the students to choose. It is much better to randomize who you call on to answer a question. Also, take into account that some children are not comfortable with public speaking or even talking in front of a few people. Give them a different way to express themselves.

 

Middle school cooperative discipline The teacher continues talking. “Group 1, today is Tuesday so I’m sure all the students sitting in their group’s seat number two are ready. Dawn?” All elbows, knees and black curls, Dawn is a tall, shy child. So instead of reading and solving the problem aloud she picks up the small whiteboard her group shares and writes the problem out on it and hands it to the teacher to read for the class. The teacher reads the solution to the class and writes 25 under column 1. “Nice job Dawn,” the teacher says as she awards 25 points to Group 1.

With these things in place, we can focus on the way to maintain your students’ interest and motivation. Unless you are lucky enough to teach a class on video games, most of your students will not have a lot of intrinsic motivation in your subject material. Of course, presenting unusual and engaging activities will take care of this, but some activities are more routine than others. To provide some additional motivation with these activities you can leverage game mechanics. Each group becomes a team in the learning game.

As with any game, there needs to be a way to keep score. The scoring needs to be easy to understand, highly visible, fair, and consistent. And the players must  have a goal. A simple system of both short- and long-term rewards and punishments is best. The point system illustrated by the examples above is my way of doing this. Let’s look at the punishments first and see how these mechanics bring positive peer pressure to work for you.

Middle school cooperative discipline 
 Before the teacher can continue, Jimmy is up out of his chair and tossing a wadded up ball of paper towards the trash can. The teacher picks up the red marker and subtracts 25 points from Group 3’s score. “Next time it’s minus one hundred and the third time Group 3 all gets extra homework tonight.” Three voices pipe up at the same time telling Jimmy to sit down. Jimmy quickly sits.

I use the extra homework example here in spite of the fact that it’s controversial. I believe that daily homework is not necessary in most cases. Having a project to do or an assignment to finish is one thing, but always giving the students 20 math problems nightly is another thing entirely. My rule of thumb is 10 minutes’ worth of carefully chosen problems that allow my students to demonstrate their understanding away from the classroom group dynamic. Those students who successfully demonstrate this in class do not even need to do that much. I manipulate the homework as a daily reward/punishment system. Should you fall into the camp that believes more daily homework is essential, some other small and tangible reward like stickers will do just fine. Either way I suggest staying away from candy or other food rewards.

Middle school cooperative discipline
The teacher holds up her hand, says “time,” and all work and noise stops. On the far left side of her whiteboard the six columns showing each group’s daily points is full of numbers. She adds them up aloud and then writes the totals on the large piece of white grid paper taped to the wall next to the whiteboard. “Group 5 is today’s winner so they all get homework passes,” says the teacher. “Everyone else, copy the three homework problems from the board and clean up.”

My daily reward for the winning group is a homework pass good for that night’s homework assignment only. I even allow for those students who wish to do the work to use the pass for extra credit. If a winning student writes the words “homework pass” on the assignment and hands it in they get an extra credit point on that week’s quiz. I also have a set long- term goal. Over the summer I find a game sale and buy some thinking games such as Connect 4. I wrap them and place them in a highly visible spot in my room so the students can see them. At winter break I give these wrapped presents to the students with the highest individual point totals.

Usually the promise of a reward is enough to get the groups motivated to do all their work. I hear a lot of “Hurry up!” and “Do you need help?” and other words of encouragement. Since I require everyone in a group to have all the work done, complete with all the steps needed to solve the problem shown, it is in everyone’s best interest to help their groupmates. Sometimes this gives the less motivated students the notion that all they have to do is copy from a diligent friend so I have a way to handle this. As the students work, I walk around and give bonus points to groups that are explaining how to do the work to each other and take points away from groups where I see copying. Once the children get used to this they don’t copy anymore. On some assignments I give the title “Student Teacher” to those students who finish the work first and allow them to roam the room in search of students they can teach.

Middle school cooperative discipline 
The bell rings for the end of the period and the teacher dismisses the children by groups, allowing the quietest group to leave first. She smiles as she wishes the children a good night. Then she begins the process of mentally reviewing her day, thinking about the activities that worked well and those that need more tweaking. The lesson may be over, but her desire to improve it is never-ending.

Middle school cooperative disciplineDavid Eisenstein teaches 6th-grade math at the New Brunswick Middle School. He is retiring from public education after 27 years of service to open Purplearn, a company using social education to help adults and older adults maintain good mental health and prevent dementia. He can be reached at davideisenstein@purplearn.com.