How peer pressure is a force for good in Japan

13th November 2015 at 00:00
A culture of collective responsibility makes tackling low-level disruption a breeze

Peer pressure, as all teachers know, is a powerful force among teenagers. Usually mild-mannered individuals with a clean record can suddenly become the most mischievous of miscreants under the persuasive powers of friends. But what if we could turn this into a force for good, or, more specifically, use peer pressure to manage behaviour in class?

There are a few ways of achieving this – house systems and class reward charts are old favourites for peer pressure fans – but Japan does things slightly differently.

Until the age of 15, Japanese students stay in the same mixed-ability class groups for all their subjects. Each group has a designated classroom, which they decorate with class slogans and artwork. This breeds strong relationships within the class, but also strong competition with other classes, something the Japanese system encourages.

Indeed, it is clear that the outcome for the whole class is as important as the outcome for the individual. This is incredibly useful for teachers in Japan.

Seizing on the close relationships between students, teachers employ “rentai sekinin” – collective responsibility. This means that if one child is misbehaving, it is the whole class’s responsibility to make sure they fall into line, otherwise they all get in trouble.

Young enforcers

At primary school, children work in small groups called “han”. Off-task behaviour is ignored by the teachers, who believe (correctly in most cases) that these students will be encouraged by their peers to return to the task they should be working on together.

Later on, in middle school, this collective responsibility is formalised by having one boy and one girl as “class leaders”, whose job it is to ensure the class is orderly and on time.

Because this role rotates around the class during the course of the year, the students are more inclined to do what these leaders say, as they will want that obedience reciprocated when their turn comes.

It all seems to work so well and you wonder how it would fare in the UK. If we kept students in the same classes and same classrooms for all their lessons, and encouraged competition between them, would it improve their behaviour and work ethic?

My guess is that most teachers would like students to take responsibility for helping each other with their school work, but neither parents nor pupils would put up with students sharing responsibility for others’ misbehaviour. The “good kids” suffer enough through loss of teaching time when the “naughty kids” are misbehaving, they would say, so why should they be punished for it, too?

Another less appealing consequence of this social dynamic is that although most Japanese students feel a sense of belonging, those who don’t fit in are truly outsiders in a system based on a cohesive class unit.

And there would be a danger in England’s less authoritarian culture that if a class decided to ignore the rules, their enhanced sense of class identity could exacerbate negative peer pressure.

Despite these problems, the Japanese way does provide an interesting case study for the UK. Low-level disruption is cited in most teacher surveys as the biggest issue for schools and in Japan they have a strategy that seems to work to address that.

Lucy Crehan is a teacher who has spent the past two years researching top-performing education systems. You can preorder her book Cleverlands at unbound.co.uk

What else?

Hints and tips for productive peer- and self-assessment. bit.ly/TESpeer

Behaviour tsar Tom Bennett takes on low-level disruption in this video guide. bit.ly/TESdisruption

An Inset powerpoint tackling low-level disruption. bit.ly/InsetDisruption

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