February 2016 – Volume 19, Number 4
George M Jacobs
James Cook University, Singapore
Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University, Japan
James Cook University, Singapore
Incivilities are words and actions that may be perceived as impolite. This article reports a study of perceptions of and experiences with incivilities during group activities in English class. Participants were 119 students at a women’s university in Japan. They completed the Pair/Groupwork Incivility Scale, a Japanese-language instrument, which asked participants to rate 17 behaviors as to how uncivil the behaviors are and how frequently they had experienced the behaviors. The results suggested that the average severity of uncivil behaviors was significantly negatively correlated with the reported average frequency of these uncivil behaviors. Limitations of the current study and suggestions for future research are discussed.
Group activities are recommended for regular use in second language learning (e.g., Harmer, 2007), and much guidance is available to teachers as to how to facilitate successful student-student interaction among second language learners (e.g., Jacobs & Kimura, 2013). In facilitating group activities, a crucial area that teachers need to attend to is the quality of interaction among the students, both those interactional features that can enhance student-student interaction, as well as those features that can hinder effective peer interaction.
The current article reports a study of features of interaction among students of English as a second language that might hinder their learning. In particular, the study looked at incivility among group mates. This research report begins with background on the topic of incivility in education in three contexts: students being impolite to teachers, teachers being impolite to students, and students being impolite to fellow students. Next, the paper considers incivility from four theoretical perspectives: Second Language Acquisition Theory, a Learning Communities model, Social Interdependence Theory, and Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. The literature review section of the paper concludes with a short discussion of politeness in the context of the participants’ nationality and gender. Then, the study’s methodology is described, followed by presentation and discussion of the study’s results.
Education involves more than the learning of content, such as learning language or mathematics; education also involves the learning of appropriate behaviors. Such behaviors include teachers and students being polite to each other. Another term for this polite behavior is civility. Unfortunately, incivility, defined as “speech or action that is disrespectful or rude” (Tiberius & Flak, 1999, p. 3) occurs in education contexts. Incivility in education, both online and face-to-face education, takes many forms (Boice, 1996). This literature review begins by reviewing incivility in the three contexts: (1) student incivility toward teachers, (2) teacher incivility to students, and (3) student incivility to peers. Next, the literature review looks at four perspectives on learning and how these perspectives resonate with concerns about incivility. These perspectives are Second Language Acquisition, Learning Communities, Social Interdependence Theory and Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Each of these perspectives is explained and considered in light of civility. Finally, the issue of incivility is discussed with reference to nationality and gender.
Incivility in Three Contexts
This section looks at incivilities that take place in three different contexts: student incivility to their teachers, teacher incivility to students, and student incivility to other students. It should be noted that what might be considered uncivil to some may be considered acceptable behaviour by others. Furthermore, incivility can be considered in yet other education contexts, including teachers being uncivil to their peers and incivility by and directed toward administrators and other people working in educational settings. Physical violence, a severe form of incivility, is not dealt with in this review.
Students being impolite to teachers. Student incivility towards teachers can take many forms, depending in part on the setting. Ways in which students may be uncivil to teachers include arriving late for class, coming unprepared for class, and engaging in activities unrelated to class, for example, having side conversations or doing homework for other classes. These behaviors suggest possible lack of interest in the subject matter and in what teachers have planned to facilitate student learning of the subject matter. Such lack of interest among one or two students can spread to other students.
With the increase in the use of personal electronic devices, such as computers, smart phones, and tablets, another form of incivility has arisen, in other words, the in-class use of these devices for non-class purposes. Some education stakeholders seek to ban the use of these devices, whereas others point to their use in facilitating learning (Rush, 2008). For instance, students can use these devices to take notes, to annotate the notes provided by teachers, and to access online materials. These electronic devices also provide resources that allow students to check the meaning of unknown terms and find other background information (Castek & Beach, 2013). Additionally, electronic devices provide means for students to constructively interact with teachers and peers during class (MasteryConnect, 2015). Furthermore, introverted students may be more willing to interact electronically. Therefore, gone are the days when banning phones and other electronic devices would make sense (Prescott, Johnson, Wrobel, & Prescott, 2012). Instead, the growing number of electronic tools designed for classroom use promises to lead to higher levels of student engagement and, thus, more civil behavior. Rather than banning electronic devices, perhaps promoting responsible use of such devices might be the best policy.
Teachers being impolite to students. Some teachers act as judge and jury in their classrooms. These teachers attempt to rule with an iron fist, punishing students who break the teacher imposed rules. Fear of punishment, these teachers hope, motivates students to study hard and to be polite (McPherson, Kearney, & Plax, 2003). This teacher centered view of education lends itself to what, from a student centered perspective, might seem to constitute incivility by teachers toward students.
Teacher incivility toward students can also take such forms as teachers arriving late for class, being unprepared, showing a lack of interest in teaching the class, not making an effort to adjust materials to students’ needs, yelling at students, belittling students, and ignoring certain students while favouring others (Clark & Springer, 2007). Teacher incivility can also manifest itself in teachers not seeing incorrect answers as opportunities to better understand students and to adjust instruction to students’ learning needs (Tanner & Allen, 2005).
Students being impolite to peers. The rules of traditional classrooms are, “Eyes on your own paper; no talking to your neighbors.” However, modern education emphasizes social construction of knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978), that is, students interacting with others to understand and shape their worlds. To facilitate this social construction, students can work with others (teachers, peers, etc.) to each build their own understandings. Group activities (usually in groups of two-four) have become a prominent learning mode in many classes, one endorsed by many governments (e.g., Ministry of Education Singapore, 2010).
However, student-student incivility can cause group activities to fail to deliver optimal learning (Kimura, submitted for publication). For instance, students may exclude certain group members from participating, or students may opt out of their group and work alone. Other uncivil forms of student-student interaction include insults, bullying, speaking in a language some group mates cannot understand, not taking the time to explain to group mates who are having difficulty, and not thanking group mates for their efforts at helping the group succeed.
An example of student-student incivility is classmates laughing at the answers given by peers. At Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, a lecturer used to give a “getting to know you” questionnaire to her Accounting students before each semester started (H. Siriwardane, personal communication, February, 4, 2013). One question was: “I dislike it the most when my lecturer … .” The most common answer was “asks me questions”, and students explained that they were afraid that the answer would be “wrong” and others would laugh at them.
Four Perspectives for Viewing Incivility in Education
The focus of the present exploratory study is student-student incivility. Such incivility is considered in light of four perspectives, derived from theoretical work on learning. As data for the study were collected in classes where students were studying a second language, the first perspective to be considered is Second Language Acquisition Theory. Three hypotheses from Second Language Acquisition Theory are: the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis (Krashen, 2003), the Interaction Hypothesis (Long, 1981), and the Output Hypothesis (Swain & Lapkin, 1995). Next, the Learning Communities perspective (Roth & Lee, 2006) from general education is considered for what it says about classroom climate. Third, Social Interdependence Theory (Deutsch, 1962), from social psychology, is explained, as it is widely used by proponents of group activities in learning. Fourth, the role of conflict in learning is discussed from the perspective of Piaget’s (1985) work on cognitive development.
Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition. One of the best known views on Second Language Acquisition is the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis (Krashen, 2003). It posits that second language acquisition requires that learners receive large quantities of input, in other words, what they hear and/or read, in the second language, and this input must be understandable to the learners. Furthermore, in order for this input to become part of learners’ knowledge framework, their affective filter (Krashen, 2003) must be low, that is, they must be emotionally ready, for example, their anxiety level should not be too high. Incivility might decrease the amount of comprehensible input that students provide each other and might raise students’ affective filters, making it less likely that the input students receive will become uptake, in other words, learning.
The Interaction Hypothesis (Hatch, 1978; Long, 1981) links with the Input Hypothesis. Often, the input that language learners receive is not comprehensible. The Interaction Hypothesis states that when confronted with such incomprehensible input, learners can interact with others to increase the comprehensibility of the input and, thus, enhance their second language acquisition. For instance, students can ask their interlocutors to repeat what they have said, speak more slowly, or spell words. If students are less civil to each other, they may be less likely to engage in the interaction necessary to convert incomprehensible input into comprehensible input.
While a consensus exists among Second Language Acquisition scholars about the importance of comprehensible input, some scholars feel that such input although necessary is not sufficient for second language acquisition. They believe that learners must also produce comprehensible output, that is, speaking and writing in the second language that can be understood by others. This view is termed the Output Hypothesis (Swain & Lapkin, 1995). Civility might play a role here, as students who enjoy civil relations with each other might be more likely to speak and write to each other and to let each other know if their output is comprehensible.
Learning Communities. Another perspective on learning that offers insights into incivility is Learning Communities (Roth & Lee, 2006). The concept of Learning Communities emerged in the 1980s as a development from cognitive views of learning, such as constructivism, which focused on individual students as the center of learning. In contrast, a learning communities view, guided by the work of Vygotsky (1986), sees learning as a social endeavour, with learning taking place first on the social, interpsychological plane before moving to the private, intrapsychological plane. Both students and teachers function as learning community members. Thus, incivility impedes learning by disrupting the interaction among potential learning community members.
One way that student incivility toward peers can hamper formation of inclusive learning communities stems from students’ reluctance to look to peers for assistance and feedback, preferring to look immediately to teachers. After all, teachers are the experts, and teachers are the ones who usually give the grades. Teachers may seek to overcome this turn-to-the-teacher proclivity in a few ways: (1) doable tasks on which students can help each other; (2) teaching students how to provide constructive peer feedback; (3) structuring tasks so that group mates have information group mates need, instead of all the information coming from teachers and course materials; and (4) policies such as Team Then Teacher that urge students to ask classmates for help before asking teachers. However, teachers’ use of these strategies may come to naught if students are uncivil to each other.
Social Interdependence Theory. Insights into causes and effects of student incivility toward peers may be gained from Social Interdependence Theory (Deutsch, 1949, 1962; Johnson & Johnson, 2006; Lewin, 1935). This theory seeks to understand how people view their connections with others. When applied to formal education, the theory provides ideas that educators can use to understand and positively impact interactions among students, so as to encourage students to learn from and with each other and to make education a satisfying experience for all.
Social Interdependence Theory discusses three lenses through which people, including students, can view others: positive interdependence, negative interdependence, or no interdependence. A feeling of positive interdependence exists when people believe their outcomes are positively correlated with those of others, in other words, what benefits one benefits the other(s), and what harms one harms the other(s). Negative interdependence refers to the situation when people feel that their outcomes are negatively correlated, that is, what benefits one harms the other(s), and what harms one benefits the other(s). No interdependence describes the situation when people perceive little or no correlation between their outcomes, in other words, they believe that they neither benefit nor are they harmed by what happens to others. Please note the repeated use of the subjective term feel that is used to highlight that people’s perceptions do not necessarily mirror the reality of others’ impact on their outcomes.
The role of conflict in promoting cognitive development. Prata and his colleagues (2009, 2016) investigated the role of conflict, even insults, in collaborative learning groups. Prata et al. based their research on Piaget’s (1985) claim that cognitive conflict leads to learning by causing a state of disequilibrium amidst people’s schema, that is, their current mental structures for their understanding of the world. To restore a state of equilibrium, people seek to learn more. Other theorists, such as Dewey, supported the use of conflict to promote learning. Dewey (1916, p. 188) stated, “Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity and sets us at noting and contriving …. Conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.” While conflict can be useful, conflict conducted in an uncivil manner may not constitute facilitative peer interactions.
Incivility among Japanese Females
Participants in the current exploratory study were students at a women’s university in Japan. This sample may be of particular interest, as Japanese people are often seen to be especially polite (e.g., Richie, 2001), and females are often viewed as being more polite than males (e.g., Holmes, 2013). Thus, Japanese females might be among the least likely students to exhibit uncivil behaviors in group activities, especially as Japan is considered to be a collectivist, rather than an individualist society (Minkov & Hofstede, 2011). However, Iwaski (2011) pointed out that, as with other constructs used to understand humans, politeness is not straightforward. Instead, “[P]oliteness and impoliteness as social practices are embedded in daily interactions, and they rely on interactants’ assessments of norms of appropriateness that are historically constructed by each individual” (p. 68).
In this exploratory study, the researchers hoped to gain insight into participants’ experiences and views as to the presence and seriousness of incivility during group activities in their English classes. The research questions were:
- Do participants perceive themselves to have experienced uncivil behaviors during group activities in their English classes? This question was answered by looking at the data from the first task in the instrument, the task that asked about the frequency of uncivil behaviors.
- Is there a correlation between the frequency and severity of these perceived uncivil behaviors? This question was answered by checking the correlation between the first task and the second task, the task that asked about the severity of the 17 behaviors in the instrument.
One hundred and nineteen female students at a women’s university in northern Japan participated in the study in June 2013 (Mage = 18.4 years; age range: 18–20). The main majors of the students were child education, cultural studies, English literature, food science, and psychology, in alphabetical order. These students were familiar with group activities, in particular in their English as an Additional Language (EAL) classes. All students were native speakers of Japanese. [Note: the term group includes students studying in groups of two.]
The Pair/Groupwork Incivility Scale is a Japanese-language instrument created by the second author (see Appendix for an English translation). The instrument consists of 17 items, which describe uncivil student behaviors in groupwork. The items were derived from three sources: (1) a review of the research on incivility (e.g., Bjorklund & Rehling, 2010; Boice, 1996), (2) data from a 45-minute focus group interview with three students at the university, and (3) insights from the researchers’ observations, both as students and teachers.
Instructions on the Pair/Groupwork Incivility Scale asked participants to do four tasks, two closed tasks and two open tasks. However, the current study only utilized the findings from the two closed tasks. On the first of these tasks, participants rated the 17 items as to the frequency with which the students had experienced the uncivil behaviors in groupwork in their English classrooms. Participants used a six-point Likert scale to rate the frequency of each behaviour (1 = don’t experience at all to 6 = experience quite regularly). For the second of the closed tasks, participants rated the 17 uncivil behaviors according to the degree to which they considered each to be uncivil in groupwork in their EAL classrooms, in other words, the severity of the behavior. Participants used a six-point Likert scale to evaluate each behavior (1 = not a problem at all to 6 = quite a big problem).
Results and Discussion
Research Question 1
The answer to Research Question 1, do participants report experiencing uncivil behaviors by peers during group activities in English class, was Yes. Table 1 presents in descending order of frequency participants’ responses on the Pair/Groupwork Incivility Scale as to the frequency of the 17 uncivil behaviors during group activities in their English classes. Eight of the 17 uncivil behaviors had a mean frequency above three on the six-point Likert scale, with two indicating that the behavior occurred rarely, and three indicating that it occurred but not regularly. None of the behaviors had a mean rating of four (“sometimes occurs) or above. Given that some scholars believe that Japanese (e.g., Richie, 2001) and females (e.g., Holmes, 2013) are more polite than average, this finding suggests that incivilities may be a general problem during group activities. However, to present an alternative view, perhaps in other cultures and/or among males, many of the behaviors in the scale, for example, group mates using a phone or complaining about the task the group had been assigned, might not be considered uncivil or would be acceptable if they did not occur regularly.
Table 1. Participants’ ratings of 17 uncivil behaviors in descending order of frequency
|Talking about irrelevant things||IR||3.760||1.332|
|Conversing with others||CV||3.760||1.382|
|Complaining about the task||CP||3.450||1.364|
|Coming to class without doing homework||HW||3.380||1.255|
|Using a cell/smart phone||PH||3.290||1.679|
|Going off task||OT||3.010||1.393|
|Not bringing learning materials||NM||2.920||1.197|
|Looking and acting bored||LB||2.900||1.182|
|Doing homework for other classes||DH||2.820||1.450|
|Displaying inattentive posture||IA||2.790||1.124|
|Being distracted from learning||BD||2.720||1.024|
|Not cooperating with their partner/groupmates||NC||2.480||1.167|
|Not listening attentively to their partner/groupmates||NL||2.450||1.110|
|Making their partners/groupmates do all the work||LZ||2.310||1.155|
Note. Abbr. = Abbreviation; six-point Likert scale (1 = don’t experience at all to 6 = experience quite regularly).
Research Question 2
Table 2 presents participants’ responses on the Pair/Groupwork Incivility Scale as to the offensiveness of the 17 uncivil behaviors included in the instrument.
Table 2. Participants’ ratings of 17 uncivil behaviors in descending order of offensiveness
|Making their partners/groupmates do all the work||LZ||4.84||1.081|
|Not cooperating with their partner/groupmates||NC||4.69||1.048|
|Using a cell/smart phone||PH||4.34||1.245|
|Not listening attentively to their partner/groupmates||NL||4.34||1.060|
|Looking and acting bored||LB||4.29||1.051|
|Being distracted from learning||BD||4.29||1.068|
|Doing homework for other classes||DH||4.28||1.171|
|Displaying inattentive posture||IA||4.24||1.039|
|Going off task||OT||4.15||1.132|
|Not bringing learning materials||NM||4.15||1.331|
|Coming to class without doing homework||HW||3.88||1.106|
|Talking about irrelevant things||IR||3.39||1.136|
|Complaining about the task||CP||3.01||1.037|
|Conversing with others||CV||2.88||1.243|
Note. Abbr. = Abbreviation; six-point Likert scale (1 = not a problem at all to 6 = quite a big problem).
To answer Research Question 2, the researchers checked to see if a statistically significant correlation existed between the reported severity of the incivilities and the reported frequency of those incivilities. The reported average severity of uncivil behaviors was significantly negatively correlated with the reported average frequency of these uncivil behaviors (Spearman correlation coefficient = -0.90, p-value < 0.001), as depicted in Figure 1. For instance, yawning was seen as the least offensive but most common incivility, and being disrespectful was seen as the most offensive but least common incivility. This finding suggests that incivility, while present, may not have been a major problem during participants’ group activities. However, it might be that students had become inured to the more frequent incivilities, and thus found them less offensive.
Figure 1. Correlation between the severity and frequency of uncivil behaviors.
Beyond Reducing Incivilities
The current study collected data on students’ perceptions of the frequency and offensiveness of uncivil behaviors during group activities in their English classes. The fact that students did perceive incivilities suggests that teachers and students might want to devote learning resources, in terms of materials and curriculum time, to attempting to reduce uncivil behaviors. However, reducing incivilities needs to be accompanied by increasing the frequency of those behaviors that promote learning. For instance, do students only repeat instructions to each other and provide each other answers, or do they provide elaborated help, for example, explaining, giving examples, debating, brainstorming and otherwise engaging in elaborated interactions? Studies by Webb and her colleagues, for example, Webb (1991) and Webb, et al. (2009), suggest that such quality interactions benefit all group members, regardless of whether they are the relatively lower or higher achieving members of the group.
Limitations and Future Research
The current exploratory study of incivilities among group members in EAL classes was limited in a number of ways. For instance, more could have been done by the researchers to validate the instrument used to collect data. Additionally, data collection could have been triangulated, for example, by recording group interactions to provide information on incivilities that actually took place, rather than only collecting data on perceived instances of incivilities. Future researchers might wish to address the above shortcomings, as well as investigating differences in what behaviors people consider to be uncivil. Additionally, it might be interesting to explore whether being in a second language setting increases or decreases the frequency of incivilities and, if so, of which incivilities. In a similar vein, are incivilities more or less common among students who are more proficient in the second language? One more suggestion for future research would be to examine the effectiveness of programs to reduce incivilities, perhaps while simultaneously attempting to increase the frequency and quality of helping behaviors among group members. One idea for such a program would be to utilize work in Social Interdependence Theory to attempt to enhance the feeling of positive interdependence among group members (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 2008).
This paper reported a study of the reported frequency and severity of incivilities among group members in EAL classes at a women’s university in Japan. Participants reported that incivilities did occur. However, concern over the effect of the incivilities on group effectiveness might be lessened somewhat by the fact that the incivilities felt by participants to be more severe tended to be those incivilities reported to be less frequent. The researchers have suggested that efforts to reduce incivilities might best be paired with efforts to: (1) increase behaviors, such as providing explanations, thought to enhance learning; and (2) enhance the feeling of positive interdependence among group members.
About the Authors
George M Jacobs teaches tertiary students, as well as a wide variety of teachers, in Singapore. He enjoys the difficult but doable and often delightful dance of cooperation with his colleagues, and together, they have produced many publications of cooperative learning and other topics.
Harumi Kimura, Ed.D., teaches at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University, Sendai, Japan. She studied L2 listening anxiety in her doctoral study, and her academic interests range from learner psychology to cooperative learning. She coauthored a book with Dr. G. M. Jacobs, Cooperative Learning and Teaching, in English Language Teacher Development Series (2013, TESOL).
Nicolas Greliche, PhD, teaches at James Cook University Singapore, advising students and faculty on research design and statistics. He enjoys playing with words, numbers, software, and images, and he also enjoys sharing his toys with his colleagues.
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Pair/Groupwork Incivility Scale
Male/Female Age ______ Nationality ____________ Mother Tongue ______________ Major ___________________
How frequently do you experience your partner’s or groupmate’s behavior in English classes? Please rate the following behaviors according to the frequency you experience these. Circle the number of your choice.
|1 = don’t experience at all||2 = rarely experience||3 = don’t experience regularly|
|4 = sometimes experience||5 = often experience||6 = experience quite regularly|
|1||Coming to class without doing homework||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|2||Looking and acting bored||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|3||Making their partner/groupmates do all the work||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|4||Using a cell/smart phone||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|5||Going off task||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|6||Not cooperating with their partner/groupmates||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|8||Complaining about the task||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|9||Conversing with others||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|11||Displaying inattentive posture||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|12||Not bringing learning materials||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|13||Being distracted from learning||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|14||Talking about irrelevant things||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|15||Not listening attentively to their partner/groupmates||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|17||Doing homework for other classes||1–2–3–4–5–6|
How do you think you can contribute to your pair/group activities in English classes? Write what you can and want to do for more productive pair/group work?
Thank you for your cooperation! Harumi Kimura @ Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University
How offensive do you feel about your partner’s or groupmate’s behavior in pair/group work in your English classes? Please rate the following behaviors according to this 1-6 scale. Circle the number of your choice.
|1 = not a problem at all||2 = not a problem||3 = not much of a problem|
|4 = a bit of a problem||5 = a rather big problem||6 = quite a big problem|
|1||Coming to class without doing homework HW||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|2||Looking and acting bored LB||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|3||Making their partner/groupmates do all the work LZ||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|4||Using a cell/smart phone PH||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|5||Going off task OT||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|6||Not cooperating with their partner/groupmates NC||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|8||Complaining about the task CP||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|9||Conversing with others CV||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|10||Arriving late AL||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|11||Displaying inattentive posture IA||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|12||Not bringing learning materials NM||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|13||Being distracted from learning BD||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|14||Talking about irrelevant things IR||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|15||Not listening attentively to their partner/groupmates NL||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|16||Being disrespectful DR||1–2–3–4–5–6|
|17||Doing homework for other classes DH||1–2–3–4–5–6|
Write your own experience of students’ uncivil behavior. Why do you think that particular behavior is uncivil?
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