Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Shools need Shills

Casinos, and less reputable organizations (like marketers), regularly employ shills: people playing the game not for fun, but to keep the game going if there are too few players, and/or just to ramp up players' enthusiasm. One could get into a heavy discussion of whether a shill is actually "playing" the game at all (the term shill usually implies playing with house money, not keeping any winnings), whether the presence of shills implies a metagame around the original game, etc.

But my question is this: if shills are effective enough that casinos use them, why don't we use them in classes?

Consider the (unsubstantiated - send me references!) truisms:

  • a few good students can enhance the learning environment for everyone else;
  • peer regulation is the most effective enforcement of classroom discipline;
  • students ask questions in classes that other students are asking questions in;
  • students won't do what you tell them to, but will model themselves after peers that they see as successful.

Imagine you could plant a student who would ask the poignant question of the day, who would patiently help the struggling student while you addressed the rest of the class, and who would be your eyes and ears in the back of the room. Imagine a student who could ask probing but answerable questions of the strong students, credibly asking for help.

Sure, some of these tasks could be done with a TA, but a shill _models desired behavior_, and the only person better than a shill would be an actual role model student. And there's not enough of those for every class. Maybe because not enough students had a shill show them how to be.

I just told my differential equations class to read a section in the book and teach it to me next time. Which they took as a joke, but might actually make a decent exercise. But it got me to thinking -- what if they _always_ had someone to teach to, asking all the right questions?

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Terri said...

Hmm. There could be a market for this. I, for one, would love to be a shill if it meant free classes.

Sarah said...

You might take a look at Rudolf Dreikurs, Maintaining Sanity in the Classroom; Classroom Management Techniques. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Accelerated Development, 1998, for the proposition that peer regulation is the most effective classroom discipline enforcement method. Dreikurs posits that all students want to belong. Their behavior is directed to belonging. Misbehavior is the result of their mistaken belief that it will gain them peer recognition.

For the proposition that students ask questions in classes in which other students are asking questions check out Cayanus, Jacob. "Student Question Asking in the Classroom" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the NCA 93rd Annual Convention, TBA, Chicago, IL, Nov 15, 2007. 2009-02-03 http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p190310_index.html. Based on numerous interviews, Cayunus found six categories for why students ask questions (clarity, the teacher, participation, other students, class size and other) and five categories for why students do not ask questions in the classroom (fear, size of class, not wanting to talk, the teacher and other).

Regarding the truism that students won't do what you tell them to, but will model themselves after peers that they see as successful, see The Utilization of classroom peers as behavior change agents
By Phillip S. Strain Published by Springer, 1981
ISBN 0306406187, 9780306406188 and Peer Models and Children's Behavioral Change by Dale H. Schunk, Review of Educational Research, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Summer, 1987), pp. 149-174 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1170234