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When a person throws a pebble into a pond, he will see a splash and possibly hear the resounding plunk of the pebble. He might notice concentric circles rippling out from the locus point of where the pebble hit the water. The thrown pebble might also have other effects: it might frighten a nearby duck that leaps out of the water, hit another rock and bounce off, or scare a bunch of fish as it sinks into the pond. The person who throws the rock is connected to the pebble, the water and, by his actions, to the duck and the fish. He has caused change through a single and simple act. In education, this concept is known as the ripple effect.
A classwork management theorist named Jacob Kounin coined the term "ripple effect" in 1970 to describe the positive effect teachers may exert on students. According to Kounin, the effect occurs when a teacher asks a student to stop a distracting or destructive behavior. He observed that, when a teacher asked a student to stop a behavior in front of the rest of the class, this affected on all other students in the class. This engagement made other students who might not be paying careful attention to also stop distracting behaviors, promoting better class control.
Kounin suggested that failure to reprimand a student for poor behavior in class caused a negative ripple effect. If one student could misbehave without being told publicly to stop, this gave other students license to misbehave. Through his studies, and his 1970 book Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms, Kounin advocates for understanding this in order to achieve a more disciplined classroom.
Just as the pebble thrown into the pond might have negative unintended consequences, like frightening the duck and the fish, so can the ripple effect, when injudiciously applied by teachers. Students who have behavior problems due to persistent learning disabilities or medical conditions may be negatively affected by having their faults discussed publicly on a frequent basis. A student who is subject to frequent reprimands might be socially challenged and marked out by other students as different or simply disliked by others. Studies since Kounin’s work suggest teachers need to be aware of the possible negative ripples produced by public reprimand.
The term is also used in sociology, economics, and in many other fields to discuss how the behavior or occurrence of one thing can have an effect on many things. For example, an article in the January-February 2007 Duke Magazine discusses the effect of the Iraq war on the American people. The article, “War’s Ripple Effect,” suggested that the war became more personalized when people actually knew soldiers who have either been killed or injured. This, in turn, may shape public opinion regarding the benefits of continued engagement in Iraq.
Economists might use the term to describe the effect of low wages on a housing market, or of a depressed housing market on interest rates. In all, the ripple effect asserts that actions always have consequences, either for good or ill. No action is without reaction, and the ripples, in some cases, may be far-reaching.