This article from the Boston Globe called “How to Change a Culture” really rang true to me from what I’ve seen in the classroom. The author asks how policymakers might influence culture in a positive way, say by reducing corruption or getting people to vote? Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not by trying to convince them what they are doing is wrong. Instead, the best way is to convince them that other people don’t share their beliefs (i.e. apply peer pressure).
”The inner conformist is stronger than the inner activist,’ said Michael Morris, a psychologist at Columbia University who studies the role of culture in decision-making.”
So if you want people to vote, don’t scold them about how disappointing it is that people aren’t voting. That will probably have the opposite effect. If no one else is voting, why should I bother? A 2009 Journal of Politics article fond that it’s way better to “tell people that turnout had been higher in the previous election than at any in history. In other words, more people were voting — so if they wanted to be normal, they should vote.”
The author uses the example of Prohibition to demonstrate how quickly culture can change under the right circumstances:
“According to a paper coauthored by Michael Morris, most Americans supported [Prohibition] ‘because it was socially undesirable to publicly defend alcohol, and few people did.’ But when polls revealed that a majority of Americans actually wanted to be allowed to drink — and in fact large numbers of them were drinking, out of public view — more people were emboldened to speak their minds on the subject, and the tide quickly turned against the 18th Amendment.”
The reason this reminds me of my classroom experience is that sometimes you can try so hard to get students to engage in class but they refuse. You can offer extra credit (carrot) for participation, you can dock them points if they don’t (stick), but they stubbornly stay silent. Thankfully, I haven’t had this experience in years, but it is tough to deal with. In my opinion, if students think that no one else cares about the class, no one else speaks up, and no one else does the reading, then they don’t need to either. And of course the more you chide the students on not engaging, the more it reinforces that this is a “loser class” (that’s what I call it, I’m not sure exactly how to explain it, just an attitude of “this class sucks”). And to top things off, teaching such a class is no fun, which makes professors start to dread coming and hitting their head against a wall. All of this is immediately picked up on by the students, further reinforcing the loser class status. If the professor doesn’t even care and doesn’t like us, why should I try harder?
I have since worked hard to find fun ways to get them to engage so they feel peer pressure to participate and rise to the challenge rather than the opposite. It isn’t always easy but if you can change the perception of what students think their classmates believe about the class, then you have a chance.