Social psychology, the study of how the social environment shapes human behavior, is not an ivory tower science; it is a tool for helping to solve real world problems, like bigotry and violence. Dr. Elliot Aronson, a social psychologist and author, always preached this philosophy to his graduate students, but one day a phone call from a former student forced him to prove it.
It was 1971 and Dr. Aronson was head of the social psychology department at the University of Texas. By then, the former student had become an assistant superintendent in the Austin schools, which were in crisis after desegregation. Riots had broken out among black, Hispanic and white students and the district asked Dr. Aronson to help.
He and some of his graduate students devised a plan, a cooperative learning method in which fourth, fifth and sixth graders were divided into small racially mixed groups to work on some lessons. Each student had a component to research and teach. How well students learned — and did on the exams that followed — depended on how well they worked in the group. So, it was in the students' best interest to get along and to get the best work from one another.
At first, the students resented having to work together, but after several weeks their resentment seemed to give way to acceptance. Prejudice, measured by a psychological test, declined. Students of different races were even playing together at recess.
Now, Dr. Aronson believes that his cooperative learning method, called the jigsaw classroom, can help prevent school violence. As Dr. Aronson sees it, the jigsaw classroom has an edge over several of the preventive measures that have been put into place, like zero-tolerance policies, because it gets to the root of the problem: the cliquish environment in many schools in which unpopular students are ostracized.
Dr. Aronson describes how the jigsaw classroom can be part of a larger plan in his latest book, "Nobody Left to Hate: Teaching Compassion After Columbine," as well as on his Web site (www.jigsaw.org). He estimates that 15 percent to 18 percent of American schools have used the jigsaw classroom, and he continues to get letters from teachers interested in trying it. One came just days before the shooting at Santana High School in suburban San Diego from an administrator of a nearby middle school.
Soon after the shooting at Santana, Dr. Aronson elaborated on his ideas in a telephone interview from his home in Santa Cruz, where he is professor emeritus at the University of California. "There's no bigger, stronger clique than race," he said. "And we overcame that."
Q. You are critical of some policies instituted to curb school violence, such as zero- tolerance policies and posting the Ten Commandments at school. Why?
A. There's nothing wrong with posting the Ten Commandments. There's everything wrong with it if you think it's the solution to the problem.
I don't want to come out and say I'm against zero- tolerance, but that strategy is not without serious problems. There are an awful lot of kids who make idle threats because they are frustrated and unhappy. The question is, How do you separate the kids who really mean it from the kids who don't? None of these strategies gets to the root cause of the problem of school violence, which is the poisonous atmosphere in junior high schools and high schools.
Q. What do you mean when you speak of a poisonous atmosphere in schools?
A. It's the cliquish atmosphere of rejection and humiliation that makes a very significant minority of students, I would say 30 percent to 40 percent of them, very, very unhappy. If kids at the top of the pyramid start calling a kid a nerd, then the kids in the second tier of cliques tease him because that's one way of identifying with the powerful group. Next thing you know, everybody's teasing him. Everybody in school knows what group everybody belongs to. They know whom they can get away with taunting.
Most of the kids who are taunted suffer in silence. Some of them seriously contemplate taking their own lives. A handful — and it's going to be more than a handful in the next few years — lash out at their fellow students almost randomly.
Q. In "Nobody Left to Hate," you cite research on men and boys convicted of murder that shows that most had suffered a tremendous sense of shame brought on by rejection and humiliation. How long does it take for repeated rejection and humiliation to have an effect on the person who's the target?
A. That depends on how severe it is. It can happen overnight if the rejection is coupled by humiliation and bullying, especially if it takes place in front of other people whom you'd like to like you. There's a saying that nobody likes a bully, but I think the more likely statement is that nobody likes the person being bullied. Having been bullied is like having a contagious disease in that other students lose status if they hang out with you, so they move away.
Q. Many adults think that forming cliques is a natural part of being a teenager. Is it?
A. I think that there is a tendency to have separate groups and to exclude others. By itself, that wouldn't be such a bad thing. But if the exclusion takes the form of taunting and humiliation, you're beginning to sow the seeds of violence.
Q. How can your jigsaw method help improve the social atmosphere in middle schools and high schools?
A. The jigsaw classroom is a way to help kids learn from experience that kids who are different from them might have something to offer that's interesting and useful. Someone can tell you over and over that the short fat kid with pimples is really sweet. But there's no substitute for being in a small group with that kid and seeing that he's warm, funny and clever.
Q. Did you see less teasing and bullying in the schools where you used your jigsaw method?
A. There were striking behavioral findings. One of my graduate students went to the roof of some of the Austin schools and took photographs of the students at recess. After six weeks, there was more interracial mixing at the jigsaw schools than at the other schools.
In addition, teachers who didn't know that anything special was going on, such as the music teacher, would tell the classroom teachers that they saw a whole different atmosphere, an atmosphere of friendliness, empathy and inclusion, rather than a tense atmosphere.
Q. How long did these benefits last?
A. We didn't follow any single group of students for more than a year. But I've gotten letters and phone calls from teachers telling me that even though they weren't using jigsaw, kids in their classrooms who were in jigsaw five years earlier were still showing more empathy and compassion than other students.
Q. How much of the school day should be devoted to the jigsaw classroom to get the social benefits?
A. We tested that and we found that with as little as one hour a day, students showed all the benefits, such as decreases in prejudice and in liking school more. If kids spend just one hour a day working in groups, they develop empathy for people they would otherwise have had nothing to do with because of their appearance. So, when teachers say that it's difficult to teach arithmetic with jigsaw, I say, teach only social studies or some other subject that you think works better with jigsaw.
Q. Clearly, cooperative learning alone isn't going to solve the problem of hostile cliquish behavior in school, or of school violence. What else should schools do?
A. They can specifically try to teach kids how to resolve conflicts amicably and institute a policy against bullying.
There's a very successful program in Norway instituted by a social psychologist
named Dan Olweus. In this program, teachers are trained to recognize and
deal with bullying, cooperative learning is used, principals ensure that
lunchrooms and playgrounds are adequately supervised, and counselors conduct
intensive therapy with bullies and their parents. The program has reduced
bullying by about 50 percent.
Q. Several states are considering legislation that would require each public school district to have an anti- bullying policy. Is this a good step in the right direction?
A. It's outrageous that there needs to be legislation for such a thing. Clearly, schools should be trying to prevent bullying. My fear is that the legislation is likely to be reactive rather than proactive — that is, that there will be mechanisms in place to punish bullies rather than to prevent bullying.
Q. In your book you also recommend that schools conduct "friendship coaching" for unpopular students. How does this work?
A. There's a small group of children in each school who are unpopular because they lack social intelligence — they're extremely shy, they don't know how to start conversations, their interactions with others are awkward of inappropriate.
One psychologist, Steven Asher of Duke, designed a series of six friendship coaching sessions in which unpopular students in the third and fourth grades were taught to act in ways typical of more popular students. A year after the coaching sessions, the students had moved up to the middle of their class popularity ranking.
Q. How could "friendship coaching" be put in place in the real world of a school? I can imagine some parents objecting to their children being singled out.
A. I'm not an educator, so I'm not sure what's the best way to do this.
One way would be to set up a club on public speaking or sensitivity training and open it to all students. But the teachers might encourage the unpopular kids to join. Every teacher knows within a month who these kids are.
Q. Could teachers help improve the social atmosphere at school if they intervened when they heard students taunting someone in the hallway?
A. Absolutely. A lot of parents say that the administration and the teachers at their children's schools turn a blind eye to verbal assaults. They will intervene if there's a fistfight, but not if there's taunting. I think it's a good idea for them to intervene. It helps for all the kids to know that the school is coming out against taunting.
Q. What can parents do to help reduce taunting and exclusion among students?
A. Parents can teach their kids about the positive aspects of diversity, whether it's racial, ethnic or the kinds of clothes people wear or whether they're short, tall, fat, thin. Attitudes about that stuff begin in the home.
Q. How much of an effect can we expect schools and parents to have on reducing hostile behavior at school?
A. I think they can have an enormous effect, not necessarily in eliminating
cliques, but in making them less aggressive, less humiliating, less exclusionary.
I think schools and parents can certainly soften the edges of cliques and
make the school a less hostile environment.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company