Elliot Aronson, PhD, vividly remembers a telephone conversation he had shortly after the Columbine shootings: His grandson told him that his school principal had warned students to be on the lookout for "weirdo" students like Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who were looking or acting strangely.
"Here are these kids who are being rejected, taunted, humiliated, and now you are telling the top dogs that they are potential killers and you should be doing the authorities a favor by turning them in," he exclaimed to a packed room at APA's 2001 Annual Convention. Creating such distrust and competition in schools is the wrong way to prevent violence--in fact, it does the opposite by breeding a "poisonous social atmosphere" of bullying, humiliation and rejection that spurs violence, he said.
Yet such competitive behavior often permeates school environments, starting with games like musical chairs in kindergarten, where, Aronson explained, "We learn early in school that if you don't shove [other students] out of your way, they get in your way and you're going to be humiliated."
A better model, Aronson argued, is one that encourages students to learn from and respect their diverse peers, rather than single out those who are different. A classroom model that Aronson designed--the jigsaw classroom--attempts to build such collaborative environments by placing children in small, socially and racially diverse groups to learn material together. For example, to learn about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, each member of the group is assigned to teach the others about a specific part of her life. Because students are forced to work with each other, they develop compassion as a learning skill, he explained.
"You quickly learn that, in your own self-interest, it pays to not only pay attention to the kids, but, if they are stumbling, to help them," Aronson said.
In his research, he's found that students in jigsaw classrooms have higher self-esteem, less prejudice and lower absenteeism. They also like school better and are academically more successful.
Without the taunting and social rejection that many school shooters have recounted--and with the compassionate environment that jigsaw classrooms build--tragedies like Columbine never would have happened, Aronson asserted, because the shooters never would have seen violence as the only way to gain respect.