Forget Socratic dialogues. A new study suggests that another way to spur students to give more complex thought to social issues may be simply to involve them in discussions with students of another race.
Published this month in the journal Psychological Science, the study is based on an experiment involving 357 students on three university campuses. It found that white students wrote in greater complexity about social issues after taking part in small discussion groups that included at least one African- American student—more so, at least, than when the discussions occurred in all- white groups.
Anthony Lising Antonio, the Stanford University researcher who led the study, said his project is the first to use rigorous experimental techniques to test how racially integrated educational settings affect learning.
Studies have long suggested that including someone with a different opinion in a discussion group can stimulate better problem-solving. In the new study, though, Mr. Antonio and his colleagues sought to learn whether having someone of a different race in such a group could produce the same effect.
As part of the study, the researchers randomly assigned the college students to four-person discussion groups on one of two topics: the death penalty or child- labor practices in developing countries. Each participant wrote an essay on the assigned discussion topic before the group met, and afterward, wrote a separate essay on each topic.
The follow-up essay that was not tied to the discussion was what researchers called the "transfer" essay—an attempt to see whether any of the students’ enhanced critical-thinking skills would carry over to a topic they hadn’t just finished discussing.
Reviewers who were blind to the study’s aims rated all the essays on the degree to which they reflected students’ awareness of other perspectives on the topic and the trade-offs involved in potential solutions.
In the end, the students displayed more complex thought when their groups were ideologically and racially diverse. Although the study focused on college students, Mr. Antonio said that finding could apply to learners of all ages.
Vol. 23, Issue 44, Page 9Published in Print: August 11, 2004, as Research