How the Columbine High School Tragedy Could Have Been Prevented

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1 How the Columbine High School Tragedy Could Have Been Prevented Elliot Aronson Abstract The author reviews motivations of students who commit violent acts in schools. He recommends the use of "jigsaw groups," an intervention originally developed to ease the tensions of desegregation in Texas schools. This model involves grouping students multiculturally and encouraging collaboration and interdependence instead of competition. The intervention has had a positive effect on standardized test scores and self-esteem. In 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, two students (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold), heavily armed and very angry, went on a rampage, killing a teacher and 14 students (including themselves). It was the most lethal school shooting in U.S. history, but it was not unique. It was merely the most dramatic and most devastating of 15 such incidents that took place in U.S. schools in four years. What drove these kids over the edge? After an intensive study of the incident (Aronson, 2000), 1 concluded that the rampage killings are just the pathological tip of an enormous iceberg: The poisonous social atmosphere prevalent at most high schools in this country an atmosphere characterized by exclusion, rejection, taunting and humiliation. In high school, there is an iron-clad hierarchy of cliques with athletes, class officers, cheerleaders, and "preppies" at the top. At the bottom are kids who those at the top refer to as nerds, goths, geeks, loners, homos kids who are too fat, too thin, too short, too tall, who wear the wrong clothes or simply don't fit in. The teenagers near the top of the hierarchy are constantly rejecting, taunting, and ridiculing those near the bottom. Those in the middle join in the taunting as a way of differentiating themselves from those at the bottom and showing those at the top that they are different from the geeks and the loners. My interviews with high school students indicate that almost all of them know the rank ordering of the hierarchy and are well aware of their own place in that hierarchy. Experiments by Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, and Stucke (2001) demonstrate that being rejected produces a wide range of negative effects, not the least of which is a dramatic increase in aggressiveness. What Twenge was Journal of Individual Psychology, Vol. 60, No. 4, Winter 2004 O2004 by the University of Texas Press, P.O. Box 7819, Austin, TX Editorial office located in the College of Education at Georgia State University.

2 356 Elliot Aronson able to do to participants in her laboratory was, of course, much more pallid than the day-to-day rejections faced by teenagers in high school. For example, in one of her experiments, college students met in a work group. They were then asked to indicate which of their fellow students they would want to collaborate with in the future. A random sample of the participants received information that nobody wanted to work with them. When subsequently provided with an opportunity to aggress, the "rejects" expressed far more intense hostility (against those who rejected them as well as against neutral individuals) than those who had not been excluded. In the helter-skelter world of high school, my research reveals that rejection and the accompanying humiliation was the dominant issue underlying every one of the rampage killings in the United States. At Columbine, for example, Harris and Klebold made this graphically clear. In a videotape they produced just prior to the rampage, they specifically railed against the ingroup who had rejected and humiliated them. Their rejection and humiliation was confirmed by a student in the Columbine in-group a football player who was wounded in the attack who, when interviewed a few weeks after the tragedy, justified his own behavior by saying: Most kids didn't want them there. They were into witchcraft. They were into voodoo. Sure we teased them. But what do you expect with kids who come to school with weird hairdos and horns on their hats? If you want to get rid of someone, usually you tease 'em. So the whole school would call them homos... (Reported in 77me Magazine, December 20, 1999) Of course, not all students who are rejected and taunted go on a murderous rampage.thebehaviorof the shooters was pathological in the extreme, but it is certainly not unfathomable. My educated guess is that there are hundreds of thousands of students undergoing similarly stressful experiences who suffer in silence, but they do suffer. Some become depressed; others contemplate suicide; others simply long for the day when they will graduate and be relieved of the angst of this unpleasant social situation. This guess is based on my interviews with high school students as well as statements from Internet chat rooms, which in the weeks following the Columbine massacre were flooded with postings from unhappy teenagers. Although not condoning the behavior of the shooters, the overwhelming majority made it clear that they understood it and empathized with the shooters. They expressed their own anxiety, hurt, and anger about being rejected and taunted. A great many of these students made statements that can best be summarized as, "Of course, I would never shoot anybody, but I sure have had fantasies about doing it!" Our data indicate that the problem is widespread and is far broader than the shootings themselves. Moreover, it has been going on for a very

3 Preventing School Violence 357 long time at least since I was in school some 55 years ago! It is akin to the proverbial elephant in the living room that has been ignored for so long that, prior to Columbine, most people failed to notice that it was there. Is there anything we can do to change the social atmosphere in our schools? Can we find a way to teach students to respect and empathize with one another? Fortunately, such a strategy has been developed and tested and has been around for more than 30 years. It is called the jigsaw technique and was developed as a way of easing racial tensions in the Austin, Texas, school system following desegregation. The city of Austin had been residentially segregated ever since its founding. Desegregation was not an easy thing for that community to swallow. Accordingly, in response to a court order, when ethnic minority children were bused into previously White schools, it was not surprising that all hell broke loose. African American, White, and Mexican American youngsters were in open conflict; fistfights broke out in the corridors and schoolyards. At the time, I was a professor at the University of Texas, doing research on prejudice and exploring ways to reduce prejudice. Because he knew of my research, Austin's school superintendent asked for my help in finding a way to create a more harmonious classroom environment. After spending a few days observing the dynamics of several classrooms, my students and I were struck bythe highly competitive nature of the typical classroom and realized that this could contribute to the tensions among the students. Within a few days, we invented a way to change the social dynamics of the classroom so that the structure encouraged students to cooperate with each other rather than compete. We called our technique the jigsaw classroom because it resembled the assembling of a jigsaw puzzle, with each student having a vital piece of the puzzle (Aronson, 1978; Aronson & Bridgeman, 1979; Aronson & Patnoe, 1997; Walker & Crogan, 1998). Here is how the jigsaw classroom works: Students are placed in diverse six-person learning groups. The day's lesson is divided into six paragraphs so that each student is assigned one segment of the written material. For example, if the students are to learn the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, her biography is broken into six parts and distributed to the six students, each of whom has possession of a unique and vital part of the information. Each piece, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, must be put together before anyone can view the whole picture. Each student must learn his or her own section and teach it to the other members of the group who do not have any other access to that material. Therefore, if Debbie wants to do well on the exam about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, she must pay close attention to Carlos (who is reciting on Roosevelt's girlhood years), to Shamika (who is reciting on Roosevelt's years in the White House), and so on. At the end of the session, the teacher administers a quiz on Eleanor

4 358 Elliot Aronson Roosevelt. Each student takes the exam individually and is responsible for the entire lesson. Thus, the students quickly learn that their grade is dependent on their ability to learn from one another. Unlike the traditional classroom, where students are competing against each other, the jigsaw classroom has students depending on each other. Consider Carlos, a Mexican American student who is uncomfortable in a classroom that, for the first time in his experience, is dominated by Anglos. In the traditional classroom, if Carlos is having difficulty reciting because of anxiety and discomfort, theother students can easily ignore him or poke fun at him. In their zeal to show the teacher how smart they are, they are motivated to show up other students; Carlos is seen as their enemy. Because of his anxiety, his performance suffers and he is seen as stupid, therefore confirming the existing stereotype. However, in the jigsaw classroom, if Carlos is having difficulty reciting, it is now in the best interests of the other students in his group to be patient, make encouraging comments, and even ask friendly, probing questions to make it easier for Carlos to bring forth the knowledge within him. To the extent that each student can help Carlos recite more effectively, then each student will do that much better on his or her exam. Through the jigsaw process, the children find it essential to pay more attention to each other; in the process of paying attention they begin to gain more respect for each other. A student like Carlos quickly responds to this treatment by simultaneously becoming more relaxed and more engaged; this would inevitably produce an improvement in his ability to communicate. In fact, after a couple of weeks, the other students were struck by their realization that Carlos was a lot smarter than they had thought he was. They began to like him. Carlos began to enjoy school more and began to see the Anglo students in his group not as tormentors but as helpful and responsible teammates. Moreover, as he began to feel increasingly comfortable in class and started to gain more confidence in himself, Carlos's academic performance began to improve. As his academic performance improved, so did his self-esteem. The vicious circle had been broken; the elements that had been causing a downward spiral were changed, and the spiral moved dramatically upward. The formal data gathered from the jigsaw experiments are clear and striking: Compared to students in traditional classrooms, students in jigsaw groups showed a decrease in prejudice and stereotyping and an increase in their liking for their groupmates, both within and across ethnic boundaries. In addition, children in the jigsaw classrooms performed better on standardized exams and showed a significantly greater increase in selfesteem than children in traditional classrooms. Children in the jigsaw classrooms also showed far greater liking for school than those in traditional classrooms (absenteeism was significantly lower in jigsaw classooms).

5 Preventing School Violence 359 Moreover, children in schools where the jigsaw technique was practiced showed substantial evidence of true integration. For example, in the schoolyard, there was far more intermingling among the various races and ethnic groups than in the yards of schools using more traditional classroom techniques. One reason for the success of this technique is that the process of participating in a cooperative group breaks down in-group versus out-group perceptions and allows the individual to develop the cognitive category of "oneness" where no one is excluded from group membership. In addition, the process of working cooperatively encourages the development of empathy. Here's why: In the competitive classroom, the goal is simply to show the teacher how smart you are. Therefore, it is not necessary to pay much attention to the other students in your classroom. To participate effectively in the jigsaw classroom, however, each student needs to pay close attention to the member of the group who is reciting. In doing so, the participants begin to learn that great results can accrue if each of their classmates is approached in a way that is tailored to fit his or her special needs. For example, Alicia may learn that Carlos is a bit shy and needs to be prodded gently, while Joshua is so talkative that he might need to be reined in occasionally. Maria can be joked with, but Darnell responds only to serious suggestions. If our analysis is sound, then it should follow that working in jigsaw groups would lead to the sharpening of a youngster's general empathic ability a change that enables youngsters to put themselves in the shoes of their fellow students. To test this notion, Diane Bridgeman conducted an experiment with 10-year-old children. Just prior to her experiment, half of the children had spent two months participating in jigsaw classes and half in traditional classrooms. In her experiment, Bridgeman (1981) showed the children a series of cartoons aimed at testing a child's ability to empathize to put themselves in the shoes ofthe cartoon characters. For example, in one cartoon, the first panel shows a little boy looking sad as he waves goodbye to his father at the airport. In the next panel, a letter carrier delivers a package to the boy. In the third panel, the boy opens the package, finds a toy airplane inside, and bursts into tears. Bridgeman asked the children why they thought the little boy burst into tears at the sight of the airplane. Nearly all ofthe children could answer correctly because the toy airplane reminded the boy of how much he missed his father. Then Bridgeman asked the crucial question: "What did the letter carrier think when he saw the boy open the package and start to cry?" Most children of this age make a consistent error; they assume that everyone knows what they know. Thus the youngsters in the control group thought that the letter carrier would know the boy was sad because the gift reminded him of his father leaving. But the children who had participated

6 360 Elliot Aronson in the jigsaw classroom responded differently. Through their experience with jigsaw, they had developed the ability to take the perspective of the letter carrier to put themselves in his shoes. They realized that he would be confused at seeing the boy cry over receiving a nice present because. the letter carrier hadn't witnessed the farewell scene. The extent to which children can develop the ability to see the world from the perspective of another human being has profound implications for interpersonal relations in general. When we develop the ability to understand what another person is going through it increases the probability that our heart will open to that person. Once our heart opens to another person, it becomes virtually impossible to feel prejudice against that person, to bully that person, to taunt that person, or to humiliate that person. It is our guess that if the jigsaw strategy had been used in Columbine High School and in the elementary and middle schools feeding into Columbine, the tragedy would have been avoided. References Aronson, E. (1978). The Jigsaw classroom. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. Aronson, E. (2000). Nobody left to hate: Teaching compassion after Columbine. New York: Henry Holt. Aronson, E., & Bridgeman, D. (1979). Jigsaw groups and the desegregated classroom: In pursuit of common goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5(4), Aronson, E., & Patnoe, S. (1997). Cooperation in the classroom: The Jigsaw method. New York: Longman. Bridgeman, D. (1981). Enhanced role-taking through cooperative interdependence: A field study. Child Development, 52, Twenge, J., Baumeister, R., Tice, D., & Stucke, T. (2001). If you can't join them, beat them: Effects of social exclusion on aggressive behavior. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 87(6), Walker, I., & Crogan, M. (1998). Academic performance, prejudice, and the Jigsaw classroom: New pieces to the puzzle. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 8,

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