Kids Are Not Born With Us Versus Them Mindsets
I taught a “brain camp” to 3-5th graders a few years ago as part of a STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) program. We were learning about gamma brainwaves, ‘aha moments’ and the effects of meditation on brain architecture. One of third graders, ‘Ray’, raised his hand to propose an idea on how to create technology that could amplify brainwaves for generating energy. Many of the kids started snickering and whispering or rolling their eyes.
In that moment, it was up to me – not the kids – to create a safe space for Ray and for the concept of idea-generation. I said to Ray, in a loud, bold voice: “Ray, I LOVE that you are willing to say your ideas out loud even if you’re not sure others will approve, even if people might laugh. That’s the kind of courage the world’s inventors and great thinkers all have in common. Let’s see if we can push your ideas further”. From that point until the end of the camp, no one laughed at any of his suggestions, and even added to what he said. Several students who had not been raising their hand began sharing their ideas. Idea-generation dies a quick death in a room full of nay-sayers. We can teach the kids to not become nay-sayers, but we need to battle the forces of ‘in-crowds’ and group-think.
Although our brains are primed for it, babies are not actually born with ‘in-group / out-group’ preferences:
Young children determine these preferences by observing what the systems and allegiances around them value and reward, and what is familiar. Once young children see that certain behaviors (and even superficial things like appearances, and even more random things like t-shirt color) are valued or devalued by the ‘system’, they begin to form allegiances, and increase their hostility towards ‘outsiders’. (Banaji, 2013).
In fact, studies show that when a group is made aware of ‘outsiders’ by an authority figure, their in-group oxytocin (bonding hormone) levels rise. Bonding increases… that can only be a good thing, right? Well, higher in-group oxytocin was also shown in those same studies to increase hostility and aggression to the out-group. (Lieberman, 2013)
In another study, a preschool teacher made it clear that the randomly assigned “Flurps” got special treatment compared to the randomly-assigned “Zazzes”. The preschoolers who were Flurps excluded Zazzes from activities and were more likely to justify mean behavior toward the Zazzes simply because they were a Zaz. When a teacher showed no preferential treatment to either group (even though the kids were wearing either red or blue shirts), the preschoolers showed no difference in their behavior according to which group they were in. (Banaji, 2013).
The factory-school model presents a ‘system’ that values conformity
– young children then form ‘in-groups’ based on the value of conforming, and they consider anyone who doesn’t fall in to the ‘norms’ as an outsider. Creating safety for outsiders within the factory-school model could influence the next generation to value uniqueness rather than conformity.
The “grown-ups” in the room can create safety for outsiders
by modeling what it looks like to embrace ideas or people who are different than what we’re familiar with. We can’t leave that for the kids to sort out – they look to authority to build up their ‘social grammar’ and worldviews of who’s an “us” and who’s a “them”.
Sources and Recommended Readings:
Banaji, M.R. and Gelman, S. A. (Eds.) Navigating the Social World: What Infants, Children, and Other Species Can Teach Us (Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience) 1st Edition.
Bejan, A. (2012) Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology and Social Organizations. (Bejan was Awarded the Benjamin Franklin Award 2018 for thermodynamics and “constructal theory, which predicts natural design and its evolution in engineering, scientific, and social systems.”)
Lieberman, M. D. (2013) Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.
Robinson, K. (2015) Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution that’s Transforming Education
Godin, Seth (2011). We Are All Weird