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«CLASSROOM COMPETITION 
 AND CULTURAL DIVERSITY American education has been in a state of crisis for almost as long as we can remember. This has ...»

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BASIC JIGSAW 1

CLASSROOM COMPETITION 


AND CULTURAL DIVERSITY

American education has been in a state of crisis for almost as long as we can remember. This has

been particularly true during the past four decades, when dramatic changes in our society as awhole

have are reflected in our public schools, turning them into veritable pressure cookers. Added demands

are being placed on teachers who struggle to open minds and guide the development of skills in increasingly crowded and impoverished surroundings. Declining test scores have had many explanations: Teachers view many children as unprepared for learning when they first arrive at school.

Parents point the finger at the schools as incompetent to educate their children. Politicians put the blame on "frills" and periodically demand that schools go back to basics. Everyone blames society for lowered standards of behavior. But finger pointing and blaming are not the best way to solve problems.

What is clear is that our society is moving toward increased diversity and children come to the classroom with as almost as many different experiences and expectations as there are children. They have different personalities, different skills, different abilities, different cultural backgrounds, different levels of self- esteem and different emotional needs. All of these must be accommodated--at least to some extent--in order for a child to learn efficiently. Most teachers are well aware that classroom learning is not an "either-or" thing: Rather, a child's emotional well-being and sense of self are certain to have a powerful impact on his or her acquisition of traditional knowledge and basic skills in the classroom. Indeed, research has shown that, under conducive conditions, emotional and intellectual growth go hand in hand; sensible techniques aimed at increasing a child's emotional well-being also have a positive impact on learning the basics.

JIGSAW BASICS !1 What are "conducive" conditions--and how can they be implemented? On the following pages we will describe one classroom technique that, over the past 25 years has succeeded in establishing a classroom atmosphere that produces exciting changes in the performance, the morale, and the wellbeing of children. The technique is a very simple one; hundreds of teachers and thousands of students have mastered it quickly and enjoy using it. In a nutshell, the technique produces a classroom structure that enables children to cooperate with one another to attain their educational objectives and, simultaneously, to develop important interpersonal skills and a sharp increase in mutual appreciation in an atmosphere that is exciting and challenging rather than threatening or anxiety- producing. As class sizes have continued to grow, teachers who have used this strategy have learned (to their delight) that they can rely, increasingly, on their students' enhanced interpersonal skills to help with classroom management. In the following chapters we will describe this technique and present some evidence for its efficacy. We will then present detailed ways of establishing it in the classroom. But first, let's take a brief look at the broader societal issues that form the background out of which this educational strategy emerged.

COMPETITION IN SOCIETY

Americans have made a religion of winning. From the fans in football stadiums chanting "We're number one" and the little leaguer who bursts into tears when his team loses to business leaders and economic pundits who worry about trade with Japan and the value of the dollar, our society asserts its allegiance to victory and its contempt for losers. Our economic system is based on competition and much of American life is framed in competitive terms; newspapers regularly publish rankings of everything from sports teams to movie box office receipts; magazines publish articles about the 50 most beautiful people, the 10 best restaurants, or the 25 Americans with the highest incomes. One of the worst things you can sat about your neighbor is that he or she is "a loser"!

What are the consequences of this attitude? How do people behave when competition is a way of life? We experience a great deal of anxiety when our performance is being observed or measured;

we come to view one another as competitors and potential enemies; we are forever looking over our shoulder lest someone overtake us. We may experience pangs of envy when an acquaintance lands a good job or becomes a successful doctor, lawyer, or barber and we come to look down on those who don't succeed. Once on this treadmill there is no respite, no resting place. For many people in our JIGSAW BASICS !2 society, even reaching great heights of accomplishment does not lead to peace but to still greater anxiety lest they fall from grace. And this anxiety is not unwarranted. Coaches who don't produce winning teams, salespeople who don't make quota, even scientists who don't publish first, find themselves looking for employment. In a society obsessed with winning, each of us is only as good as our most recent performance. Some may become so anxious about losing that they decide to stop competing altogether; they become listless in school or at work, simply trying to get through the day-or they might drop out altogether.





This is not to suggest that competition is evil, or even that it is always dysfunctional. Under many circumstances competition can be fun. It can add zest to an otherwise dull assignment. Moreover there are situations where adding a dash of competition can enhance performance. But, over and over again, we have found that unbridled competition--the relentless concern with being number one, with beating the other person can be, at best, limiting and, at worst, destructive and debilitating.

COMPETITION IN THE CLASSROOM

Intense competitiveness is not inborn, but, in our society, it often seems to be because it is learned so early and is so pervasive. Undoubtedly, for most of us, it is communicated and fostered by the family and the media. But one of the major places where it has been taught, indirectly but systematically, is the classroom. Before looking at the competitive aspect of classroom education, it might be useful for our adult readers to try to remember what it was like to be a youngster in elementary school. Some may recall their elementary school days with feelings of pleasant nostalgia, others with dread and anxiety. Either way, it is almost invariably the bond (or lack thereof ) with the teacher that stands at the center of the memory. Recent innovations such as team teaching, computers in the classroom, and the extensive use of outside resources have added new dimensions to the atmosphere of many modern classrooms. But whether primarily traditional or primarily innovative, virtually all classroom share two common aspects: the major "process" that occurs is highly competitive, and the ultimate goal of the competition among students is to win the approval and respect of the teachers--to show these important people that we are worthy of their or his respect--and perhaps even their love.

What do we mean by "process"? Whenever two or more people interact, two events occur simultaneously. One of these is the content and the other is the process. Content refers to the JIGSAW BASICS !3 substance or subject matter of the encounter; process refers to the dynamics of the encounter, how it occurs. For example, in a classroom the content could be arithmetic, geography, social studies, or music; the process is the manner in which these lessons are taught. It is through the process that people learn a great deal about the world they live in. Indeed, it might even be argued that in the elementary school classroom the process is a broader and more important source of learning than the content itself.

The teaching process as it relates to competition is well known. Here is a common scene: the teacher stands in front of the classroom and asks a question which the children are expected to answer. A few children strain in their seats and wave their hands in the teacher's face, seemingly eager to be called upon. Several other students sit quietly with their eyes averted as if trying to make themselves invisible. When the teacher calls on one of the students you can see looks of disappointment, dismay, and unhappiness on the faces of the eager students. If the student who is called upon comes up with the right answer, the teacher smiles, nods her head, and goes on to the next question. That smile and nod is a great reward. Among the other eager students, however, the success of the fortunate student causes disappointment because now they will have no opportunity to show the teacher how smart and quick they are - until the next question. Others remain still, hiding.

Through this process, students learn several things. First they learn that there is one and only one expert in the classroom: the teacher. They also learn that there is one and only one correct answer to any question she may ask: the answer the teacher has in her head. The task is to figure out what answer the teacher expects. The students also learn that the payoff comes from pleasing the teacher by showing her how quick, smart, neat, clean, and well behaved they are. If the child does this successfully, she will gain the respect and love of this powerful person. This powerful person may then be kind to the child and tell her parents what a wonderful person the child is. Other children may opt out of the academic race and satisfy their need for attention in other, less desirable ways.

This process, then, is a very competitive game. Moreover, the stakes are extremely high. In conducting workshops in all regions of the country, one of the most touching things we have discovered is that, most even--even those in their sixties and seventies--have vivid recall of the name and face of their elementary school teachers. Elementary school is a vivid place where important and memorable things happened to all of us. It is a place where the stakes are high precisely because it is important to be liked and respected by the teacher-- who, naturally enough, is usually one of the two or three most important people in their world.

JIGSAW BASICS !4 It is precisely because the teacher is so important, that the generally competitive atmosphere in the classroom takes on such a powerful aura. Suppose you are a fifth-grader; the teacher asks a question--and you know the correct answer. You raise your hand; but the teacher calls on one of the other students. What do you suppose is going on in your heart and mind? Are you hoping that the student recites the correct answer? Possibly. But in our research we have found that it is far more likely that you will sit there praying that he or she comes up with the wrong answer so that you will still have a chance to show the teacher how smart you are.

Furthermore, given the competitive atmosphere, it is likely that those who fail when called upon or who do not even raise their hands will resent those who succeed. They become envious, or try to denigrate a more successful student by branding him a "nerd" and might find an excuse to mock him or taunt him during recess. Or worse, they may tune out altogether. The successful students, for their part, often hold the unsuccessful students in contempt, considering them to be dumb, uninteresting, not worth knowing. The result is that, to a greater or lesser extent, the process which takes place in most elementary school classrooms is virtually guaranteed not to promote friendliness, understanding, and cooperation among the children. Quite the reverse.

DESEGREGATION AND COMPETITION: 


THE ORIGINS OF JIGSAW

In 1971, an exciting event took place in Austin, Texas. In accordance with the Supreme Court ruling of 1954, the public schools were desegregated. Unfortunately, as in many communities, this event did not occur without turmoil. Because Austin, at that time, was residentially segregated, the desegregation of the schools was implemented by means of a busing program. Thus, f or the first time in their lives, youngsters from various ethnic and racial groups suddenly found themselves in close daily contact with one another. There was a great deal of conflict across racial lines which occasionally flared into physical violence.

As, it happened, one of us (E.A.) was living in Austin (teaching at the University of Texas) at the time.

As a social psychologist, Aronson had done a great deal of research in interpersonal relations. Moreover, as a father, with four children in the public school system, he took more than a passing interest in the turmoil in the schools. As an experienced professional in crisis management, he considered several possible JIGSAW BASICS !5 intervention strategies that might help in the immediate crisis, but he was much more interested in long term prevention than in immediate alleviation of the symptoms. Let us explain.

When there is a "hot" crisis in the schools--with students engaging in inter-ethnic conflict and aggression, the obvious short-term solution is to slap on a band-aid by, for example, instituting emergency multi-ethnic human relations councils that can begin discussing issues, problems, points of tension, and so forth. While this may be adequate as crisis intervention, it would be far better for society if methods could be devised to prevent these tensions from developing. Moreover, it would be far more efficient and effective if these methods could be built into the structure of the institution rather than stitched on as an afterthought. Specifically, it would be valuable if the basic process could be changed so that youngsters could learn to like and trust each other --not as an extracurricular activity but in the course of learning their reading, writing, and arithmetic. In order to accomplish this goal, it might be useful to deal with students who had not been completely indoctrinated into the existing competitive process and had not yet developed deep-seated distrust for people of different racial and ethnic groups. For this reason, Aronson and his colleagues approached the situation as a learning problem not as a crisis-management problem--and they began their research in the elementary schools rather than in the high schools.



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