So, now that you know I used to be in that camp, allow me to advocate for the other side of the argument.
I think participation grades are inherently a bad idea.
I am a very traditional language student who learned from a very traditional system both in high school and college. I say this in order to establish a "control" of sorts. Granted, I was more motivated to learn a language because I enjoyed it, but being from that background allows me to have a closer perspective to what our typical, middle of the road language students and how they feel in the language learning environment.
Many of our students, and I mean many, still operate from the mindset that we all have areas of academic talent. Even if we don't hear them say it, our students and their parents still believe in the "math person" or "English person" - the different types of learners that we all thought we were.
I recently watched the Gael Garcia Bernal movie, No, about the ad man who created the "no" campaign against Pinochet in Chile during the 80's. I know right now you are probably thinking, "What the heck does that have to do with anything, Amy?" But, just hang with me for a moment. In the movie, Gael plays the part of the ad man who defies all of Pinochet's opposing parties with a political campaign based on the simple premise of happiness. He realized that the people of Chile would not be motivated to risk their lives voting in the election through uncensored looks at police brutality, executions, and the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared marching or dancing in protest. He knew that those images and emotions would only confirm Chilean's deepest fears and keep them from the voting booths. Our participation systems are kinda like that.
Instead he and his team had a soda pop style jingle written, a logo framed by a giant rainbow and created and Laugh In type bits taped to make his people laugh in the face of fear and even forget that they were once afraid to vote. Even more, he realized that Pinochet's regime would have no viable way to discredit happiness, because what is better than that?
What we think we are doing is designing incentives to lure students out of their comfort zones and encouraging them to use the target language because we believe that all of our students will respond to our dangling points, stickers, play money they can use in our "class store" to by foods of little nutritional value in their face, right? All we are really doing is using fear of grade to manipulate them into performing by choice, when the reality is that we are still forcing them to do something they don't believe they can. That's no choice at all.
Having used all kinds of participation schemes in hopes of luring my students into speaking the language I have come to the realization that really none of them work. And trust me, I have tried it all.
The truth is that we have to stop trying to convince them they can learn languages.
Heresy, I know! Rather, we just make it happen!
The way I see it there are several reasons why students don't use the target language in our classes 90-100% of the time on their own.
- They don't believe they can really learn another language.
- They don't want to learn another language.
- They have no ideas what the benefits of language learning are.
- They have cultural biases and/or prejudices that are getting in the way.
- They don't see themselves using the language for any real purpose in the future.
The solution is simple: we just stop pointing the spotlight at those fears and excuses.
1. We design tasks that seem doable in our students' eyes.
2. We BETTER scaffold those tasks.
3. We minimize the down time.
Maybe the problem is that our lessons feel too much like school lessons. What we should strive for is making our lessons feel more like dinner conversation with the family or chatting with their friends before school or even the conversations they have walking out of the movie theater after seeing a movie with friends.
What if we replace the "bell ringer" or "warm up" by opening up a line of conversation with a statement, question or stimulus of some sort? Just elicit a response and require the target language in response.
What if we employ authentic resources to encourage conversation in the same way we do on Twitter or Facebook? Post something that lures an emotional response from them.
What if we take control of the down time in our daily agenda by using the different modes of communication for the purpose of scaffolding their interactions with us and each other. We always think of the communication modes as the performance, but what if they are the the preparation for the performance, too? Then our lessons are no longer disjointed lists of "activities," but fully integrated learning experiences that mimic real life interactions.
Sometimes we are so busy getting them to look at the trees that they forget to enjoy the afternoon in the forest.
Happy Coaching, Friends!