Alfie Kohn: All of Us Are Smarter Than Any of Us
The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively against both other such wholes and against its social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.
— Clifford Geertz, “From the Native’s Point of View”
For me, the first step was questioning our culture’s conflation of achievement (doing well) with competition (beating others). Only once we realize that the first idea has been collapsed into the second is it possible to see that it’s unnecessary and irrational to set things up — at work, at school, at play — so that one person has to fail in order that another can succeed. Indeed, scholars point out that the ideology supporting this arrangement is just a cultural prejudice: People who weren’t raised to worship winning are better able to understand that competition actually holds back everyone — even the winners — from doing their best.
Thus, I found it startling
* to learn from an anthropologist that a familiar American elementary classroom scenario — children waving their hands wildly, hoping to be the first chosen by the teacher to offer the right answer that one of their classmates had failed to produce — would strike “a Zuñi, Hopi, or Dakota Indian…[as] cruel beyond belief”1;
* to read of research showing that American children (unlike Mexican children) not only competed at a specially constructed board game when doing so clearly didn’t help them, but overlooked a cooperative solution that would have benefited both players2; and
* to revisit a scholar’s claim that women exhibit a “fear of success” and learn that its author had simply confused success with competition. (When a different researcher used examples of succeeding that didn’t require other people to be defeated, the gender difference vanished.)3
But it was only when I started to dig deeper that I discovered something else about our culturally bound (and ultimately counterproductive) conception of achievement: The problem isn’t just that we reduce it to a compulsion to triumph over others. It’s also a function of our commitment to individualism. And the practical price for that commitment may be steeper for some of us than others of us, according to a new study (which I’ll describe in a moment).
In America, the individual is almost always the point of reference for thinking about success, about morality, about how children are educated and what defines adulthood. It’s about me, not us. As I argued recently, the astonishing selfishness of people who refuse to wear masks or restrict their activities during an epidemic — putting their “liberty” to do whatever they please above a sense of responsibility to (let alone concern for) the well-being of others — is really just an amplified version of what our whole culture represents.
Once you start to pay attention, you notice this motif everywhere. You hear it when we’re told that the hallmark of maturity — the primary indicator of healthy development for young adults — is self-sufficiency.4 (The corollary is that moms and dads who value their children’s interdependence, not just their independence, are often accused of “helicopter parenting.”)
You hear it when well-meaning teachers talk about providing “scaffolding” for students — that is, temporary support for what the kids can’t yet, but soon will be expected to, do entirely on their own. Again, it’s taken for granted that continuing to rely on others is something to be outgrown. (And if it’s not, well, providing help to — or receiving help from — a classmate is sometimes given another name: “cheating.”)
Most of us are no more aware of the individualistic worldview that shapes us and defines our culture than a fish is aware of being in water. This is the context in which to understand how the central lesson in American schools, as Philip Jackson memorably put it, is “how to be alone in a crowd.” Learning is regarded as an activity for a roomful of separate selves, not for a community. One of my elementary school teachers used to trumpet, “Eyes on your own paper! I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbor can do!” This announcement, which issued from her with all the thoughtfulness of a sneeze, annoyed me at the time mostly for its contrived use of the word neighbor. Later I came to realize how misconceived the whole posture was. An impossibly precocious student might have turned to that teacher and said, “So you want to see what happens when I’m stripped of the resources and social support that characterize most well-functioning real-world environments? Geez, why wouldn’t you want to see how much more my ‘neighbors’ and I could accomplish together?”
About twenty years ago there was a period of what felt like 45 minutes during which a few states experimented with authentic assessments as alternatives to traditional fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests. The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), for example, included group projects. Clusters of kids would do science experiments together, allowing evaluators to gauge their skill at understanding and applying scientific principles. (A few years earlier, the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] had pilot-tested a similar group assessment in American history.) It would be impressive enough that these assessments were tapping kids’ ability to think rather than just to memorize. But learning — and thus the process of demonstrating that learning — was also being treated as not just active but interactive. Imagine!
Of course, those few brief flashes of enlightened thinking about assessment from policymakers are long gone. And because standardized tests, especially those with high stakes attached, tend to drive instruction, the choice to evaluate students only as individuals, which few of us even think about as a choice, helps to ensure an individualistic approach to teaching.5 The Powers That Be want to see only what you can do devoid of neighbors.
What a mammoth missed opportunity. Decades’ worth of research demonstrates the benefits of cooperative learning (CL) — an arrangement in which students of all ages and in just about all subjects figure stuff out together, in pairs or small groups.6 CL isn’t just about dividing kids into teams; it’s about creating “positive interdependence,” meaning that assignments are constructed so as to foster active collaboration.
That’s a smart thing to do because, as a rule, learning emerges not only from what transpires between student and text, or between student and teacher, but between student and student. Research over the last forty years or so shows that carefully structured CL produces consistently impressive gains of many kinds: healthier self-concept, improved social interaction (and more favorable views of peers from different ethnic backgrounds and ability levels), more positive attitudes about learning (and about particular topics), and higher achievement (comprehension, creativity, problem-solving strategies, and — last and also least — recall of facts).
Some research compares cooperation with solo efforts; other research compares it with competition.7 Across a wide range of environments, and on a wide range of tasks, cooperation proves more effective than either alternative. David Johnson, a social psychologist, conducted many of those studies in cooperation with his brother Roger and reviewed even more done by other scholars. Their summary: “That working together to achieve a common goal produces higher achievement and greater productivity than does working alone is so well confirmed by so much research that it stands as one of the strongest principles of social and organizational psychology.”8 (Incidentally, I borrowed the title of this essay from a favorite motto of the Johnsons.)
CL in particular is so powerful not only because students can share their talents and resources, but also because they are encouraged to explain and refine their thinking, to challenge one another’s ideas and build on them. Higher-quality reasoning tends to emerge from a process of considering others’ perspectives. Those left to their own devices miss out on all these benefits.
And yet most of the time kids are on their own. They’re made to sit at separate desks, as if on private islands, and the fact that each is supposed to be responsible for his or her own assignments and behavior means that each is (at best) irrelevant to the others’ learning. (At worst, they’re pitted against one another, which means their classmates have been set up as obstacles to their success.) Thus does all the research and experience demonstrating the benefits of cooperation smack headlong into a culture marinated in individualism. Again and again we need to be reminded that this ethos, which is baked into our understanding of concepts like achievement and justice and maturity, is not a fact of life. Nor is it shared by most human beings.
In fact, even within a single culture like ours we may witness class-based differences. Consider those widespread warnings about helicopter parenting that, as I noted, are rooted in an individualistic ethic: A successful young adult is primarily seen as someone who can make it on his or her own. A fascinating series of studies published in 2012 by a multi-university research team revealed that “predominantly middle-class cultural norms of independence that are institutionalized in many American colleges and universities” are particularly ill-suited for young adults who are the first in their families to attend college. These norms “do not match the relatively interdependent norms to which many first-generation students are regularly exposed in their local working-class contexts prior to college.” And the result of this mismatch is to create a hidden academic disadvantage for these students, one that adversely affects their performance.9
Given the expectations of self-sufficiency that permeate our institutions — “learn to do for yourself” — connections with, support from, and maybe even interventions by parents become that much more important to help students persist and succeed in a challenging environment. Often unpleasant denunciations of helicopter parenting, which are simplistic and troubling in any case,10 are particularly unfortunate when no attention is paid to differences among students and their backgrounds.
And that takes us to a brand-new study that considered just such differences in the context of classroom performance.11 Citing earlier research showing that people with less education are often more likely than those with a college degree to see themselves as “connected to others and social contexts,” researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Southern California found that students from working-class backgrounds who were enrolled in a particular college course did better when working collaboratively than when working alone — as long as they were in groups with at least one other working-class student. A follow-up study showed that cooperating actually helped such students to perform better than middle-class students.
I will confess to some misgivings about the class-based conclusions drawn from these studies as a result of the limited way the researchers defined class (and also because the “working class” sample was somewhat atypical by virtue of attending an elite university). But the larger point is that it doesn’t make sense to think of achievement in a purely individualistic way, as we do in schools, workplaces, and our society more generally. Tackling tasks together — particularly but not exclusively for people already predisposed toward interdependence — is usually a lot more productive.
Not only should we offer opportunities to learn and work cooperatively — the whole idea of achievement should be reframed to reflect collective accomplishment.
1. Jules Henry, Culture Against Man (New York: Vintage, 1963), pp. 295-96.
2. Many of the American children, moreover, preferred a strategy that had the effect of taking a toy away from the other child even when doing so didn’t help their own position in the game; they did so “for apparently no other reason than to prevent the other child from having it” — and again, this behavior was far less common among Mexican and Mexican-American children. (See Spencer Kagan and Millard C. Madsen, “Cooperation and Competition of Mexican, Mexican-American, and Anglo-American Children of Two Ages Under Four Instructional Sets,” Developmental Psychology 5 : 32-39; and, by the same authors, “Experimental Analyses of Cooperation and Competition of Anglo-American and Mexican Children,” Developmental Psychology 6 : 49-59.)
3. It was Georgia Sassen’s research that provided a salutary correction to Matina Horner’s original claim. For more, see my book No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986/1992), pp. 170-72. Notice, too, that to the extent that women were more likely than men to avoid an adversarial encounter, it was Horner’s value judgment that led to this being described as “fear” (something to be overcome) rather than as, say, healthy resistance (something to be celebrated and perhaps taught to men).
4. For a thoughtful counterargument, see Robert Kegan’s The Evolving Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), which suggests that intimacy is more developmentally advanced than individuation or at least than the simple assertion of the highly differentiated self. A sophisticated facility for relationship may be a better criterion for maturity. But Kegan and a handful of others like Harry Stack Sullivan are exceptions in the history of the field. In fact, the two most prominent American schools of psychology, while diametrically opposed in most respects, share an individualistic worldview: For behaviorists, the laws of learning pertain to the individual organism as it responds to the contingencies of its environment. For humanists, the summum bonum is self-actualization. You can see why one observer lamented that the whole discipline of psychology “plays an important role in reinforcing an individualistic, self-contained perspective; it helps play down the importance of interdependent values” (Edward E. Sampson, “Psychology and the American Ideal,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35 , p. 780.)
5. Even if the goal were to evaluate the proficiency of individual students, one could do so by having students solve problems in a series of different groups and then average the scores of those groups. And the fact is that standardized tests are often used to judge not just students but teachers, schools, districts, and even the quality of education in entire cities, states, or countries. Thus it’s even more difficult to understand why group projects wouldn’t be the default arrangement for assessment. The burden is on policymakers to defend the (rather odd) choice to evaluate schools or communities by testing students individually.
6. For a detailed description of various models of cooperative learning, along with the research base that supports the whole approach, see chapter 10 (“Learning Together”) of No Contest.
7. The striking benefits of cooperation (working with others) in comparison with competition (working against, as opposed to merely apart from, others) reflect not only the advantages of cooperating but the effects of competing that make the latter uniquely counterproductive.
8. David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, Learning Together and Alone, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1991), p. 40.
9. Nicole M. Stephens et al., “Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102 (2012), pp. 1193, 1192.
10. I discuss this in detail in The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Coddled Kids, Helicopter Parents, and Other Phony Crises (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).
11. Andrea G. Dittmann, Nicole M. Stephens, and Sarah S.M. Townsend, “Achievement Is Not Class-Neutral: Working Together Benefits People from Working-Class Contexts,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 119 (2020): 517-39.
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