Published on:

April 3, 2015

On Cooperative Learning

By Saryta Rodriguez

The best teachers are those who are also students.

  Cooperative learning is best achieved through mutual respect and forgiveness of each other's inevitable mistakes.
Cooperative learning is best achieved through mutual respect and forgiveness of each other's inevitable mistakes.

Social justice issues are sensitive, emotionally charged topics for many of us.  Often, what seems an obvious point, course of action or choice of rhetoric, is lost on someone with whom we are speaking—and that makes us angry.  Why can’t they just get it?  If they don’t, why can’t they just admit that they don’t get it without getting defensive? Without arguing nonspecific points that simple don’t jive with our experiences, our readings and our observations of the world around us?

For these reasons, cooperative learning can often feel like a chore, and many an attempt can be labeled a FAILURE before it has even really begun. It’s easy to just blame the other person for “not wanting to learn,” or to dismiss their views as an irreparable product of the culture in which they have been reared.  Before we jump to those negative conclusions, however, I think it’s important for all of us—on both sides of any given debate—to think long and hard about just what cooperative learning looks like, in order to better foster it.

For instance, say you have a person named X who makes a comment Y perceives as racist.  Before any constructive conversation can be had over this matter, Y must first understand and accept that X might not even realize that what X said was racist.  There are words and phrases in our culture that are overtly racist, such as the N-word that was used against African Americans hatefully for so long and is still used today by some racists.  There are, however, multiple other manifestations of racism that are far subtler.  An example from my own experience would be the phrase “We are all one race—the human race.”  I’ve said this many times in the past, in an effort to foster a sense of global cooperation and emphasize our common needs, desires, etc.  It wasn’t until recently that someone, not even addressing me in particular, publicly explained why that phrasing is racist: it seeks to ignore obvious differences in people’s struggles, experiences and access to privilege by pretending that race doesn’t exist.  It is a scapegoat commonly used amongst those who would rather not talk about race at all than engage in constructive dialogue about it.

I was embarrassed to learn that people perceived this statement that way, and thinking back on past instances of having used it, I wondered how many people walked away from those conversations thinking that –gasp!—I was racist!  I am grateful to have received that explanation. I learned something, and while I still believe that we all have a lot in common and should treat one another as one big happy Earth-inhabiting family, I now seek less offensive ways of expressing that belief—ways that neither deny nor suppress the experiences of others.

The reason I was able to learn this is that, when I asked what was offensive about the statement, I received a detailed yet polite response—a response that made me feel comfortable sticking around, asking more and learning more.  I was not vilified as an ignorant racist; if I had been, I probably would have fled in my embarrassment, and never learned precisely why anyone was calling me racist.  I would have been confused, hurt, and reluctant to engage with that same group of people again.

Unfortunately, my positive learning experience is seldom mirrored in various social justice communities. To an extent, people tend to be more polite and respectful in person, though not always; it is within Internet communities that I have witnessed especially poor treatment of individuals who, admittedly, did say something offensive.  They were chased away with insults and accusations; then, once others in a given discussion realized that the alleged racist/sexist/speciesist/heterosexist/etc. had left, inevitably one or more persons would say something to the effect of “See, they left; that person clearly did not want to learn. That person doesn’t really care about social justice. What a jerk!”

Valuable insights on this issue have been provided in two important articles.  The first is about “calling in”—the notion of inviting people into a community from which they have strayed, i.e. back into a racial justice group after having said something racist, rather than “calling out”—publically shaming someone and thus pushing that person further away from the community. The second is a more recent article specifically addressing politicized “call-out culture,” in which people “publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others.” While general “calling out” can be about anything at all, the call-out culture addressed in this article relates specifically to social justice communities and admits to the tendency of some social justice activists to see calling out as “an end in itself.” In other words, we sometimes use someone else’s poor choice of words or lack of understanding to highlight our own proper word choice and perfect understanding—rather than actually trying to inform or enlighten the other person.

The intention of such behavior is not cooperative learning but, rather, to emphasize one’s own purity.  It is an exercise in “one-upsmanship.” Another example, beyond merely criticizing one’s word choice or statement of opinion, is when we use our academic credentials and/or employment to shut someone else down— to convince them that they are simply incapable of having a relevant opinion about a given topic.  Yes, you may have a degree in economics; that does not mean your opinion on every single matter having to do with the field of economics is correct, or even that all of these opinions are naturally “more correct” than those of people who do not have an economics degree.  This simply means that, with respect to the specific subjects (countries, time periods, etc.) of which your curriculum was comprised, you have more knowledge than most people.  There are, undoubtedly, still gaps in your knowledge, and no matter how much knowledge you have, you are still limited by your own perspective and experience.

There is no magic formula for how to have a social justice conversation, and I highly doubt there ever will be.  There are, however, a few things that I think we should all keep in mind when having these conversations, no matter how upset we become or how obviously “wrong” that other person is:

  • When having a conversation with someone with whom you disagree, and that other person leaves, ask yourself, “Is there anything I could have said differently? Could I have expressed my point of view in a way that is more respectful of their perspective?” The answer might be No.  Maybe they really did just leave because they don’t want to learn, but we shouldn’t assume that to be the case.
  • When you sense yourself or the other person growing agitated, and the conversation is currently public, consider moving to a private space. People often become more agitated in public than in private because embarrassment plays a role; perhaps this person would feel more comfortable hearing you out, and be more willing to accept that they did something wrong, if they didn’t feel compelled to do so in front of a dozen—or a thousand—others.
  • Avoid one-upsmanship at all costs.  There’s no need for you to prove to anyone that you are more educated than they are, or that your brand of activism is more effective than theirs.  Stick to the subject at hand and avoid generalizations or resume-recitals that shift the focus from “Which opinion is more valid?” to “Who is a better/smarter/more progressive person?”

I don’t know if this is something I invented, or a quote I heard a long time ago, the source of which I’ve forgotten— but I am a firm believer in the statement that The best teachers are those who are also students.  We can all learn from each other, even those of us with the “right” opinion in any given situation.  We can learn how to better express that opinion and encourage people to rethink their values, rather than intimidating or embarrassing people such that they shut down or run away.  It is through cooperative learning that we can each strengthen the various communities of which we are a part.