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March 6, 2000


Unlearning Hatred on the Playground: Lessons from Michigan and Colorado

By Elliot Aronson

A six-year-old boy does the unthinkable, and within hours, we learn of the depraved conditions in which he lived: He came from a dysfunctional family with a drug-addicted mother and a father in jail. At the time of the shooting, he was living with his uncle in a rundown shack suspected of being a crack house.

Again, we're reminded of how strongly our surroundings affect us all. And again, we're hearing the chorus of calls for gun control and the installation of metal detectors in schools.

Although the circumstances were very different, beginning with the age of the Michigan boy, the tragedy reminds us of Columbine, West Paducah, and Conyers. We as parents and grandparents understandably crave actions that will fix whatever is dangerously broken in our schools. We want to fix it--and fix it fast.

Why is it that we can so clearly see the importance of the context of the young Michigan boy's life, yet we're reluctant to look at the underlying atmosphere of the schools in which the other shootings occurred?

Tighter gun control laws are fine. In some schools, metal detectors may be useful. But let's also be sure to focus attention on the undercurrent of anger, bullying, and taunting that is prevalent in most American schools. Let's not rush in with half-baked interventions, like posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms, when richer options are readily available.

Social psychologists have compiled an impressive library of data over the past 40 years that tells a lot about why humans behave the way we do. Our work is concerned with important aspects of human social behavior, including persuasion, conformity, love, hate, aggression, and prejudice. For years, those with a financial incentive, like politicians and advertisers, have been able to ferret out useful findings that help them get elected and sell cigarettes, but we as scientists have done a poor job of getting the news out to the general public. Unlike medical research, social psychological findings rarely make it onto the evening news.

But there is an upside to this story. While the media have been paying attention to other things, social psychologists have spent years conducting careful research that has the power to change what is wrong in our schools.

Years of classroom research reveals that the social atmosphere in most schools is competitive, cliquish, and exclusionary. Most schools are places where students are shunned if they are in the "wrong" group, if they come from the "wrong" side of the tracks, wear the "wrong" kind of clothes, are too short or too fat, too tall or too thin, or are the "wrong" race or ethnicity. In short, the general school atmosphere is one of exclusion that many, if not most, of the students find unpleasant, distasteful, difficult, and even humiliating.

Clearly, the tragedies that unfolded in Littleton, West Paducah, and Springfield were pathological, violent acts. The perpetrators of these horrifying deeds were disturbed. But if we chalk up these events simply to individual pathology, we are missing something of vital importance. These perpetrators were reacting in an extreme and pathological manner to a general school atmosphere that breeds an environment of exclusion, mockery, and taunting.

If we can change the social atmosphere of the classroom, we might succeed both in making schools safer places and also in producing the kind of social environment that will make schools a more pleasant, stimulating, compassionate, humane place for all students. By creating an atmosphere in which there are no "losers," we can help students learn important human values as they learn arithmetic, reading, and science.

Easier said than done, you say? Not necessarily. For the past 30 years, social psychologists have been conducting scientific experiments in classrooms at hundreds of schools all over America on a cooperative learning structure called "the jigsaw classroom." This strategy, used primarily in grade school classrooms but also applicable at the high school level, involves structuring the learning environment in a way that requires students to pay attention to one another, to cooperate with one another, and to share their knowledge with one another.

In the process, students are motivated to listen respectfully to one another, to help one another, and to begin to care about one another. Students who have been prejudiced against each other because of racial or ethnic differences--or simply because they looked or acted differently--have actually become close friends.

Best of all, they learn all this while in the process of learning history, geography, biology, and all the traditional academic subjects as well as or better than they would in more traditional classrooms. The strategy doesn't require any new curricular material; it simply involves teaching traditional material in a nontraditional structure where children pull together rather than compete against one another.

By working closely with one another in a cooperative way, students begin to see positive qualities in their classmates that they hadn't seen before. Within a few weeks, artificial barriers of exclusion begin to recede, and a general atmosphere of compassion and respect eventually prevails.

Unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy to arouse the public's interest in changing the atmosphere in our schools and to motivate social psychologists to make our research more accessible to people who can use it. Knowledge is power, and parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens need to know that there are proven, effective classroom interventions that can reduce their feelings of helplessness and empower them to take action to make their children's school safer and more humane.

If we cannot succeed in teaching our children to be more compassionate, more caring, more empathic toward one another, gun control and metal detectors will never make them safe. The beauty is that the tools for teaching compassion exist. The tragedy is that they are not being utilized.

Elliot Aronson, professor emeritus of psychology, is the creator of "the jigsaw classroom" and author of the forthcoming book Nobody Left to Hate: Teaching Compassion After Columbine (New York, NY: Worth/Freeman, 2000).

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