CEPA eprint 2704

Constructivism and the ethics of mutual respect

Gash H. & Gash V. (1999) Constructivism and the ethics of mutual respect. In: Lasker G. E. & Hiwaki K. (eds.) Culture of peace: Survival strategy and action programme for the third millennium. International Institute for Advanced Studies, Tecumseh Ontario: 51-58. Available at http://cepa.info/2704
Table of Contents
Study one: changes in gender stereotyping scores
Study two: changes in perceptions of children with down’s syndrome
Study three: changes in scores of perceptions of other europeans
Data summary
Theoretical deduction and policy implications
Classroom practices
In previous papers we have examined experimental programs for children designed to reduce prejudice towards “outsiders” individuals we called “different others”. We found that initial positive and pro-social responses towards “different others” sometimes became negative as a consequence of reflecting on the “outsider” group. This was particularly surprising in control groups that merely reflected on the “other” in the context of completing a questionnaire. Moreover, a gender difference was apparent in these studies with boys having a greater tendency towards more prejudiced cognitive constructions. In this paper we focus on studies with a pre-(post) test design to assess the impact of completing questionnaires on creating constructions of others (negative and positive). This present meta-analysis of the responses of control groups towards concepts of ‘different others’ covers topics ranging from gender stereotypes to children with forms of mental handicap to children in other European nations. Classroom constructivist discussion is suggested as a means of promoting mutual respect and tolerance towards perceived ‘outsiders’ in the development of relationships.
Key words: Constructivism, Education, Ethics, Gender, Prejudice
Understanding the augmentation and reduction of prejudice is essential to those interested in promoting tolerance and peaceful co-existence. In a series of classroom studies with colleagues, we have examined microsocial processes concerning prejudice in classrooms. These studies have assessed interventions, but we have been struck also by questionnaire completion effects on children’s attitudes. We find that exposure to different others even in their conceptual form provides an opportunity to reflect and generate prejudice. Initially this was worrying, leading some critics to wonder if our studies were ethical and suggesting the need for debriefing to eradicate these negative effects. Our own reflections, however, led us to consider that we were observing a natural phenomenon of cognitive change, one that debriefing itself would be equally likely to set in motion. The converse of this phenomenon is that the classroom is an ideal locus for the promotion of mutual respect. Given the extent and speed which pre-conceptions are formed we argue that classroom discussion may elicit or facilitate their expression. We are observing here the development of ideas through a reflexive process that may result in either greater prejudice or in greater understanding and tolerance. This paper observes the process which impinges on cognitive outcomes - positive or negative - emphasising the role of emotion in one’s view of a different other.
We believe an important issue is the emotional view of “the other” guiding this process. An element within this dynamic is whether, in Maturana’s terms (1988), the other is considered as a “legitimate other” and so accorded respect. In the present paper we examine three appropriately designed studies to examine spontaneous changes in pupils who have only experienced the questionnaire. The studies used permit examination of cognitive reflexivity in children when exposed to different others which cover their perceptions of; gender stereotypes (Gash, Morgan & Sugrue, 1993), attitudes towards children with Down’s Syndrome (Gash, 1998), and attitudes towards children of different cultures. (Gash, 1999). The extent to which gender acts as an axis of cultural and cognitive construction is assessed in this re-analysis of the data.
Study one: changes in gender stereotyping scores
We gave (Gash et al, 1993) elementary school children a sex stereotyping measure (SSM), used previously in Ireland (Best et al. 1977). There were 509 children in the control group. This assessed gender related knowledge of social/personal characteristics. The measure requires children to identify as either male or female a series of male stereotyped adjectives such as aggressive, ambitious, stable, confident, cruel, and disorderly and a series of female stereotypical adjectives such as emotional, gentle, sensitive, complaining, and not making up one’s mind. The SSM score is the sum total of the number of gender stereotypes identified on the test. SSM scores are developmental: there is a well established increase in SSM scores with age (e.g., Best et al, 1977; Williams & Best, 1990). Internal consistency of the SSM on the pre-test was (Cronbach’s α) 0.72, indicating an internally reliable scale. In addition to SSM scores, there were sub-scales for identification of male and female stereotypes.
Table One: Perceptions of Stereotype by Gender:
Female StereotypeMale StereotypeSSM ScoreBoysPre-testPost-testPre-testPost-testPre-testPost-testMean12.2212.77++12.6813.25+++24.7225.86+++St.Deviation2.812.922.532.444.584.68GirlsMean12.1712.55+12.6813.2524.0324.85+St.Deviation2.762.772.532.444.624.61
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Comparing pre-test and post-test scores, boys significantly increased their knowledge of both male stereotypes (pre-test mean 12.68 - post-test mean 13.25), female stereotypes (pre-test mean 12.22, post-test mean 12.77) and of total SSM score (pre-test mean 24.72, post-test mean 25.86). Similarly, girls increased their knowledge of sex stereotyping, though their perception of stereotypes only increased slightly and only increased in their perceptions of female stereotypes (pre-test mean 12.17, post-test mean 12.55). The girls surveyed also increased their total SSM score (pre-test mean 24.03, post-test mean 24.85).
Study two: changes in perceptions of children with down’s syndrome
The questionnaire used with elementary school children was an adaptation of that described fully in Gash (1993) and on this version photos of children with Down’s Syndrome were used. The control group consisted of 51 children. There were three parts to the questionnaire, (1) a twenty item attitude scale concerning a child with Down’s Syndrome, asking respondents questions such as: “I would like you to pretend that a new child came to your class this year. He or she has Down’s Syndrome. Here are some questions for you to answer.” Responses to items were either “yes”, or “no”. (2) A thirty four word checklist was used asking respondents to describe the child with Down’s Syndrome, and finally (3) a section to assess the child’s experience of children with Down’s Syndrome, asking the children if they know any children with Down’s Syndrome. Composite variables were constructed concerning two attitudinal variables based on the 20 questions in the questionnaire and other variables based on the words used to describe the child with Down’s Syndrome. The two attitudinal variables reflected (1) sociability towards the child with Down’s Syndrome with an internal consistency (Cronbach’s α) of 0.60, and (2) attitudes towards inclusion in school with a = 0.73.
The items summed to create the variable concerned with inclusive schooling (mainstreaming) were: ability of the child with Down’s Syndrome to do the same maths, reading, and hobbies as other children; and three others about inclusive class arrangements. In interpreting mean scores for the two attitudinal variables, note that “yes” was scored “one” and “no” was scored “two”, so low scores indicate more positive attitudes. It was found that both boys and girls in the control groups were significantly more pro-inclusion on the pre-test than the post-test so we report here only their combined scores regarding mainstreaming (pre-test mean 7.43) and (post-test mean 8.45). Further details are provided in Table Two.
The items on sociability concerned the following activities: smiling at, sitting beside, chatting to, telling secrets, making friends, (not) being angry if he or she breaks rules of a game, inviting to a party, and being angry if he or she is teased. On this variable boys unsociability scores increased significantly (pre-test mean 12.94, post-test mean 13.77), whereas the girls’ scores did not change significantly.
Table Two: Perceptions of Stereotypes by Gender.
Sociability ScaleNegative WordsInclusive AttitudesBOYSPre-testPost-testPre-testPost-testPre-testPost-testMean12.9413.77+
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The scales created by summing the number of words in descriptive categories used by pupils who took the test show the salience of these dimensions to their ways of thinking about a child with Down’s Syndrome. On these variables high scores indicate greater salience of the measurement. Girls changed on a scale summing negative words. The indicators included, terms such as : dirty, stupid, untidy, bold, dumb, rough, spa, crazy, geek, thick, simple. Internal consistency of this scale was (Cronbach’s α) 0.76. Girls showed a slight but significant tendency to use more negative words on the post-test (mean 1.95) than on the pre-test (mean 1.20), whilst the boy’s scores did not change beyond chance levels.
Study three: changes in scores of perceptions of other europeans
Finally, we present a study of perceptions of young Europeans (Irish and French) towards other young Europeans (French and Irish). In the European educational system access to Comenius programs offers cultural inter-change allowing pupils and teachers opportunities to come to know peers in other European countries. This has for result a European Inter-communication between people with different cultures, languages and different ways of experiencing. Whilst part of the purpose of these projects is to provide opportunities for Europeans to work together, such projects also provide opportunities for perceptions of national stereotypes to change. The control group consisted of 51 French and 58 Irish pupils.
Questions similar to those in the study on attitudes towards Down’s Syndrome were put to pupils in the context of imagining that a boy or girl from the other country would come to their school, and what words would they use to describe him or her. Three variables are considered here un-sociability, perception of difference, and use of prejudiced words. The unsociability/sociability scale was created using the same items described above. The consistency of this scale was as follows : the Irish sample had a Cronbach’s α = 0.65 and the French sample had a Cronbach’s \alpha = 0.58. In the whole sample both Irish and French girls were significantly more likely to be less sociable on the post-test with a mean of 13.38 than the pre-test which had a mean of 14.00. This finding held when these analyses were repeated within each national sample: Girls spontaneously became less sociable on the post-test.
Table Three: Perceptions of Cultural Stereotypes by Gender.
BoysSociability ScaleDifference perceptionPre-testPost-testPre-testPost-testPre-testPost-testPre-testPost-testIrelandFranceIrelandFranceMean14.7814.813.8513.937.158.24+7.677.78St.Deviation2.152.12.332.112.352.282.342.03GirlsMean13.2014.6+13.513.594.866.578.367.00+St.Deviation1.822.131.921.532.’s α0.650.580.570.61BoysPrejudiced wordsPre-testPost-testPre-testPost-testIrelandFranceMean23.4126.59+20.5222.67St.Deviation8.2210.325.456.38GirlsMean2324.7120.2719.45St.Deviation5.8910.744.64.62Cronbach’s α0.770.64
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Two items dealing with similarity/ dissimilarity: looks like me or dresses like me were central to a second common scale measuring difference perception with high scores indicating greater levels of difference. The internal consistency of the French sample was 0.61 (Cronbach’s α) and 0.57 for the Irish sample. When analysed within national samples, the French girls tended to see Irish children as less different on the post-test (mean 7.00) than the pre-test (mean 8.36). This however, was not significant in the case of the Irish girls. Irish boys saw French children as more different on the post-test (mean 8.24) as compared to the pre-test (mean 7.15). This conversely was not significant for French boys sampled. (See Table 3.)
The words used to capture prejudice included: greedy, weak, bad, hard life, sad, dirty, unhealthy, lazy, lies, not nice. The internal consistency of these items was satisfactory (Cronbach a = 0.77 for the Irish sample; and a = 0.64 for the French sample). We again find that use of prejudiced words increases from pre-test (mean 22.13) to post-test (mean 24.85) for boys - (where 3 points were given for each of these words and one for its opposite). This increase in use of prejudiced words only held for boys, and was not a significant difference for girls. Examination within each national sample by gender showed that only Irish boys significantly increased their use of prejudiced words from pre-test (mean 23.41) to post-test (mean 26.59). The increase in the French sample in use of prejudiced words from pre-test (20.52) to post-test (mean 22.67) was, however, not significant.
Data summary
In a number of these studies generally boys were more prejudiced than girls, so it came as a surprise to find that in this analysis of control groups that both girls and boys show increases in prejudice in these data sets, all be it in slightly different ways. Boys and girls show increases in their gender stereotype scores on the post-test. Awareness of the difficulties of schooling pupils with Down’s Syndrome increases for both girls and boys with exposure to the questionnaire, whereas increases in boys’ and girls’ prejudices occur on different variables. Boys become more un-sociable and girls use more negative words. Finally, in regard to Irish-French “other perceptions”, girls become less sociable towards others, - French girls and Irish boys think others look more different on the post-test, and Irish boys use more prejudiced words on the post-test. Clearly distinctions are being constructed.
Theoretical deduction and policy implications
Within Freud’s and indeed Norbert Elias’s theories, civilisation is built on repression. Repression is seen to operate on at least two distinct levels. On one level individuals operate the restrictions on themselves (intra-individual consistency), and on the other, society orchestrates the constraints on the individual (inter-individual consistency). Whilst a collective cannot exist without a shared cultural and ideological system - which each individual will of course adhere to differentially - the logic of individuals submitting themselves to a repressive set of cultural and ideological norms is less clear. This must be answered in terms of how the individual balances the importance of intra-individual and inter-individual constraints.
So what do individuals gain from society that makes people stop acting on their impulses and desires? Is the reality principle strong enough (inter-individual consistency)? A tentative answer is that through allegiance to the system the individual accrues security from the system. This can be illustrated micro-socially: in so far as a collectivity can live according to a set of norms and values (unified belief system), we can anticipate others’ behaviour and actions and consequentially plan and organise our own. Bauman (1997) argues that in our post-modern society the balance existing between individual and society, between impulse and security, repression/suppression, has shifted. In a modernist perspective there was a greater emphasis on individuals submitting themselves to the dictates of the social whole. In post-modern society, it is argued that the balance has shifted towards a greater recognition of individual constructions, in other words in post-modern society there are greater capacities for individual freedom. Given the continual dynamic which exists between agency and structure, the implication of greater individual freedom (read: less socially imposed constraint) is greater insecurity (read: less socially negotiated order).
The norms and values of a society are clarified and reiterated over time as it becomes recursively self-aware. A symptom of modernity and of cohesive societies is a pursuit of order according to the dictates of the negotiated ideological system. The implicit pact of civility exists between agents of the system and requires an understanding of and adherence to this pact. This assumes both that the other (a) has an understanding of the normative boundaries and (b) is willing to comply with them. The introduction of a different other, hence, can pose a challenge to agreed normative expectations. We suggested that children initially expressed tolerance towards different others due to a desire to maintain inter-individual coherence in their relationships with their teachers. In other words, individuals strive to balance two types of coherences: inter-individual consistency, maintaining a normative coherence between members of the group, and intra-individual consistency, where coherence is maintained within individuals’ own ideological systems (Gash and Gash, 1997). However, tolerance rates in all of these studies change as a result of increased contact with different others. This has been explained by the greater differentiation which occurs with increased contact between self and other. The issue with ethical implications is whether the attitudinal change is positive.
At a broader micro-social level, the agreed ways of interacting with others in a group may be set aside if the different other is recognised as such. We see this being enacted in each of the three analyses offered above. The educational and social challenge in a post-modern pluralist society is to promote an ethic of mutual respect to ensure tolerance.
Classroom practices
In our previous paper (Gash & Gash, 1997) we argued for class discussions and workshops designed to promote “realities” because “objectivity” in parenthesis implies an ethic of mutual respect. Here we continue in this vein, speculating about ways of promoting an awareness of a constructivist epistemology within primary schools using the pedagogy of philosophy in the classroom. This latter approach is devoted to promoting philosophical discussion in general rather than constructivist approaches in particular, however we believe an early introduction to constructivist ideas and practices could contribute enormously to the development of co-operative dialogues of mutual respect.
What elements of the constructivist approach might easily be adopted by teachers? We propose two. First, by taking responsibility for “making ideas”. We each make ideas and understand experience constrained by our existing knowledge. If this is understood, difference invites discussion and does not threaten. At issue is the viability (Glasersfeld, 1995) rather than the truth of ideas. So how we construe knowledge has profound implications for the relationships we have with others.
The second element we propose is both a pre-condition and a desired outcome. It is that teachers help children discuss in an atmosphere of mutual respect. This is already fundamental in philosophy for children classes. However, the dynamic of human interaction poses a central difficulty. We are social animals. The spontaneity of human interaction invites, and under certain conditions even compels, response. Emotional expressions in relationships may demand a response of a certain type. Observers may notice power in any interaction. The difficulty is that by being spontaneous, by being human and interacting emotionally, it is so hard not to accept the premises underlying the emotion. So the habits learned during times and arguments not lived under a constructivist paradigm emerge and the dominant emotion is truth, dominance, and loss of mutual respect. A crucial task for teachers is to find ways to conserve mutual respect in interaction so it can be learned and fostered. A next step is to examine this in children’s classes - focusing on process.
Bauman, Z. (1997). Postmodernity and its discontents. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Best, D.L., Williams, J.E., Cloud, J.M., Davis, S.W., Robertson, L.S., Edwards, J.R., Giles, H., & Fowles, J. (1977). Development of sex-trait stereotypes among young children in the United States, England and Ireland. Child Development, 48, 1375-1384.
Gash, H. (1993). A constructivist attempt to promote positive attitudes towards children with special needs. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 8, 106-125.
Gash, H. (1998). Changing attitudes towards Down Syndrome. At the annual European Conference on Educational Research (EERA), Ljubljana Slovenia, September.
Gash, H. (1999) Prejudices of Irish and French pupils. At the “Troisème Congres International D’Actualité de la Recherche en Education et Formation (AECSE), Bordeaux France, June 1999.
Gash, H., & Gash, V. (1997). Constructivism and tolerance of difference. In G.E. Lasker (Ed.) Advances in Education. International Institute for Advanced Studies: Windsor, Ontario. (1997).
Gash, H., Morgan, M., & Sugrue, C. (1993). Effects of an intervention and school type on gender stereotypes. Irish Journal of Education, 27, 60-70.
Glasersfeld, E von. (1995). Radical constructivism. London: Falmer.
Maturana, H. (1988) Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. Irish Journal of Psychology, 9, 25-82. (Special issue: Radical constructivism, autopoiesis and psychotherapy. Ed. Vincent Kenny.)
Williams, J.E., & Best, D.L. (1990). Measuring sex stereotypes: A multinational study. London: Sage.
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