Teaching Tolerance

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In California's San Fernando Valley, swastikas are found painted on the walls of a high school.

In Seattle, a high school student attempting a free throw at a school basketball game is taunted by a crowd yelling, "Miss it, nigger!''

But in Annapolis, Md., the news is different. At schools in the city, race relations are good--and improving. "I see a much higher incidence of inter- racial friendships,'' says Peter Zimmer, principal of Germantown Elementary School. "Blacks and whites play together more. They sit next to each other at lunch time.''

Zimmer traces this improvement in race relations to his school's move to cooperative learning. He and other educators are just discovering that this educational technique, long touted as a way to raise student achievement, can also break down racial barriers and promote tolerance among students from different backgrounds.

First introduced in the early 1970s, cooperative learning refers not to a single technique but to a number of different methods all based on the same principle: Students working as a team toward a common goal learn better than students working by themselves.

"Most people use cooperative learning because it's more effective,'' says Robert Slavin, an educational researcher at Johns Hopkins University and a cooperative learning pioneer. "The nice thing about it is that for free, along the way, you also get improvements in race relations and self-esteem.''

Teamwork is the key, says Slavin. He argues that tensions often persist in schools because racial and ethnic groups remain isolated from each other, even in schools considered wellintegrated. "Why should we expect that the mere presence of students of different races in the same building would break down long-held racial barriers?'' Slavin asks. Blacks and whites may speak to each other in class, he says, but outside of the classroom it's a different matter. Where interracial friendships are rare, stereotypes and hostility persist.

Slavin believes cooperative learning's team approach creates a basis for friendships that cross the line of race and ethnicity. The teams force students to work together, giving them a chance to see their classmates as individuals rather than as racial or ethnic stereotypes.

In the most common models of cooperative learning, students are organized into four-member teams mixed by race, gender, and academic ability. The teacher often presents the lesson in a fairly traditional fashion, and then the class separates into the teams to master the material. Afterward, students are quizzed individually. Final team scores are based on each team member's individual improvement over time. So, for the good of the team, students must interact; high-ability students must help the slower learners, and everyone in the group must make sure that the lesson has been mastered. Because of the grading system, slower learners are not necessarily pegged as burdens for the team. By improving, they may actually increase the team's score the most.

Research has consistently found that student friendships cross racial and ethnic lines more frequently when cooperative learning is used than when it is not. Slavin, studying one experimental program, found that students in a classroom where cooperative learning was practiced had, on average, 2.4 friends of another race. Students in more traditional classrooms, on the other hand, averaged less than one such friend. Stated another way, Slavin says, almost 38 percent of the cooperative learning students' friendships were interracial compared with less than 10 percent of the friendships of the other students.

Teachers and principals are also enthusiastic about the effect of cooperative learning on race relations. "I have seen black children and white children studying together and working together and not being uncomfortable because they are from two different backgrounds,'' says Susan Jones, a teacher at Hoagland Elementary School in East Allen County, Ind. "I have seen very bright children in my class working with children with very serious difficulties and not feeling like they were superior or that they were reaching down.''

East Allen moved to cooperative learning in 1987, when students from an overcrowded, racially mixed elementary school were moved to primarily white Hoagland.

"We had all kinds of children come, and cooperative learning really helped them all feel that this is their school,'' says Jones, who, along with the school's principal and another teacher, introduced Hoagland to the teaching method. "The minority students have felt accepted and feel a part of the school. They're all Hoagland kids now, and that's important.''

Liz Coville, a 3rd grade teacher in Bay Shore, N.Y., has had a similar experience. The Gardiner Manor School, a public elementary school where she teaches, serves a student body that is 15 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic. Coville believes cooperative learning has made a difference in the way her students interact. "I have seen examples of children initially antagonistic to each other become friends,'' she says. "I have seen minority children mixing with non-minority children.''

Coville arranges her students into new cooperative groups every six weeks or so. But during the last month of the school year she lets the students choose their own group mates. "Last year, I was pleasantly surprised,'' she says. "The groups were racially mixed.'' Such amity, she says, was rare before she began using cooperative learning three years ago.

For educators like these, improving relations among races is as important as making sure students learn. Cooperative learning seems to do both. At a time when racial tensions too frequently make headlines, it could prove to be an important antidote against hate.

Debra Ladestro

Vol. 02, Issue 05, Page 1-24

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