“It’s been two weeks since school started. Last year this was the time when I first cried at the thought of having to work the next day, and not knowing how I was going to do it. I thought I couldn’t make it. I didn’t want to teach while separating fighting kids all the time, while I had to constantly shout to get even the slightest attention. I didn’t want my life to be about disciplining children and overpowering them. I wanted teaching to be about cooperation. I didn’t want to work like this.”
Örkény, where the school is, is not even near the most disadvantaged regions in Hungary, but the proportion of disadvantaged and extremely disadvantaged children in Örkény’s only elementary school is 50% and 80%, respectively. These pupils come from understimulating home environments and families of poverty, often from the gypsy community that is gradually segregated and pushed out of every chance to integrate into the majority society in Hungary.
The second year was fundamentally different in Murinai’s class. She introduced a new system of keeping order and motivating children – that is closer to them and their real life situations.
“I am unable as a person to operate school as a system of coercion, but I couldn’t see how it could be done differently. I hate raising my voice, handing out warnings, punishment, and messages to parents. But I had no other tools, just as most teachers. It pained me, it is toxic even for myself to feel anger towards children who are full of problems and frustrations of their own, who are misbehaving but not because they want to hurt me.”
Last November she started to seek new ways. She took her children’s toys to class. “My pupils were happily playing with the toy trains, while the curriculum expected them to read. This gap was so wide it had to be closed before teaching could even start.” The class reached the level expected of to start first year by the end of that year. Then Murinai received help in the form of a teaching assistant.
Expectations, without reward
Motivation and discipline were still problems to be solved. This is when Murinai introduced the garas, the toy currency of the class.
“School expect things from children that are completely alien to them. Learning to write, for instance, is a slow and painful process. This is not a happy thing for them, this is hard work for them, yet we expect them to do it just because, in exchange for nothing. This is their duty. How much better it would be to lure them into doing it, for fun. Good marks are insubstantial – only valuable for those who can get them because of their competence. For the rest it is depressing, for them there are only low grades as punishment. I tried to replace this depressing system by paying them for their work.”
As a start, the class was asked to write up together a list of behaviours that bothered them. Children didn’t like malicious telling on others, physical hurt, lying, threatening to call in the older siblings to settle disputes, etc. This is how the system of rules was created together.
“I told them I have little treasures they can buy for garas. You can get garas for classwork, doing your homework, doing extra tasks, collecting things, the right answer, as well as putting things back to their place after class, picking up rubbish, giving help or someone eating their soup. But if you break these rules you have to pay with your garas.”
No need to discipline
It took the children just an hour to understand the system. The teacher is handing out garas generously for their classwork – so they can feel that their work and attention pays. And if someone interrupts class, he has to pay. If he has no garas, he gives an IOU to the “bank”.
The results are spectacular. Children are working hard for garas and don’t want to waste them on stupid things like breaking a rule. Disciplining moved from the emotional to a more rational level. When you misbehave, your teacher won’t be angry with you, yell at you, withhold her love or punish you. You simply pay the price.
“The severity of the punishment does not depend on how my day was. I don’t get more lenient when I’m in a better mood because everything has a set price. Loud talking that is not related to classwork costs two garas. Period.”
If someone makes a mistake, he pays for it and life moves on. There is no shaming, report book, and the teacher is not frustrated for having to repeat the same things a thousand times. After a penalty garas or two everyone learns that it is not worth it.
The system also had unintended benefits, such as children’s sudden improvement in math and counting their coins. Without needing to nudge them they have learned to count and making the decimal change (without even knowing what it’s called). And since a tidy book and bag also pay off, their tidiness had also improved.
There’s a little treasure trove in the cupboard with pencils, erasers, little books, notebooks, chocolate or vitamins. The children can buy these for their garas. They come in different price categories – with the most expensive being the most desirable. That motivates them to save and plan for the future. At the beginning, they wanted to spend their money as soon as they got it. Soon, however, they have set their eyes on bigger things and started to save. It is not necessary to explain how important it is to their future attitude to money and finances. They also often help out each other when someone cannot afford the desired treasure.
One can also buy rights for garas, such as going to fetch breakfast from the kitchen or a class out. For 10 garas, anyone can buy a class during which he or she is left alone and can just hang out on a beanbag at the back of the class – while involuntarily still listening in to the class.
The most interesting (and most expensive) thing to buy is playtime. This is real community building because anyone can buy playtime for the entire class. When someone buys it, all the children get to enjoy it. It only took a week for one of the least popular boys to buy playtime for the entire class. He has many conflicts but few successes. By buying playtime he grew in he eyes of his peers, they applauded him.
One of the biggest benefits of the system is that children can gain recognition with more than just their coursework – as it works with academic grading.
Children trade with each other. They exchange gifts, buy and sell things, lend and borrow. Sometimes a transaction is unfair, then we can discuss it. In the meantime they learn to communicate, to use arguments in dispute resolution – because no one wants to feud with his business associate. In the long run they could learn about banking, interest and finance – life skills that are simply not part of the official curriculum today.
Isn’t it materialistic?
There was plenty of (unfounded) criticism that giving “money” to children makes them materialistic. Some even argued that children would start stealing garas from each other, and classroom violence would increase. These comments tell a lot about the people who made them – but not about the actual experimental results in Örkény elementary school.
“The system today makes it very hard to gain praise in the form of grades. We expect children, who cannot reach a certain academic level, to keep trying nonetheless. Children thus encounter more frustration than success. An 8-year-old is only able to sit and listen for a few minutes, yet we expect her to do so for 45 minutes. And if she fails, she doesn’t only miss her chance to be praised but we keep hammering in the message that she doesn’t reach the expectations.”
“They are happy to come to school, and I can see they are enthusiastic and enjoy work. They never ask how many garas a certain task is worth. They complete the task, get something for it, and ask for more. They ask to solve math problems in their free time!”
It seems that garas is a unique and tangible good grade – that they have to return if they misbehave. Maybe one day they will grow out of it. But the everyday routines of keeping their books in order, doing their homework, planning for the future and not spitting at others will become part of their behaviour and routine.
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