By R. Garry. Shirts, Ph.D.

For the past 40 plus years, I’ve been designing simulations to help people learn how to work together productively, live together in harmony and resolve conflicts peacefully. I’ve designed simulations and other experiential learning activities for corporations, schools, government agencies, and churches.

Each simulation is like a mini-laboratory of human behavior. In this “laboratory” one sees the way people compete, allocate resources, respond under pressure and most important, how they relate to one another under different conditions. So if we assume there is some carryover from simulations to the real world, then what we learn from designing simulations ought to give us some insights and help in designing healthy, real-world organizations.

Today, my goal is to give you some suggestions for creating a new school culture in which staff members, teachers and students feel safe, feel valued and have the opportunity to be as productive and creative as each person wants to be.

I should point out that these criteria are based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which are as follows:

maslow's hierarchy of needs

His great insight was that one can’t address a higher need if the lower need is not satisfied. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the graphic.)

I also believe that it holds for communication as well. If one tries to talk to a student about achievement when he or she is worried about his or her safety, it’s going to be hard to communicate effectively with that student until the safety need is met. At least, it is important that one acknowledges one’s need for safety or any unmet need before moving up the needs ladder. But that is another topic related to the first mega goal, which I will define in a minute.

But why am I suggesting ways for creating a “new” school culture and why not just suggest way of improving the old one? There are five reasons:

  1. Trying to create something new increases the probability that we will be able to see the parts of the school that have become invisible to us by habituation.
  2. We’re more likely to think creatively if we are trying to create something new.
  3. We’re more likely to think of creative ways of taking advantage of the amazing technological revolution that’s influencing every part of our lives now and not just tack each new innovation onto the existing structure without thinking about how it affects the school culture. For example, how do we incorporate the tools that allow parents to monitor their son’s or daughter’s classroom behavior so that the use of those tools supports the culture we want to build and not distract from it? How do we use the ability to communicate with students, teachers and experts from around the globe to support our values and our culture? How do we create a process for reviewing and evaluating developments in technology so they support the culture we want to create and not detract from it?
  4. There are many intrinsic benefits of trying to create a new culture. The people who create it, become aware of the existing culture, are encouraged to learn about other cultures. And the act of creation can be enormously satisfying.
  5. It increases the probability of considering practices, values and topics that are normally overlooked, not considered important, or are taboo.

I should point out that I am not representing the diversity field, a particular discipline, or the views of the founders of this workshop. These are my thoughts from the point of view of a designer who has created several simulations that are widely used by people who are concerned with diversity, and not from the point of view of a diversity or cross-cultural expert who attempts to create simulations about diversity.

It seems to me there are two possible mega goals for those concerned with diversity, which are:

  1. Giving students the skills to successfully communicate and interact with people from different cultures, religions, races, genders and sexual persuasion.
  2. Creating a culture in which each person, regardless of religion, ethnicity, race, gender, age or sexual persuasion feels safe, valued, productive and creative.

The two goals overlap. But basically, I am going to focus on the second goal: Creating a school culture in which each staff member, teacher and student feels safe, valued, productive, and creative.

The term “culture” has many different meanings. For some people, it is referring to the arts; to others, it’s almost always to national culture or to native cultures. I’m defining culture very broadly to mean the shared goals, attitudes, values, and behaviors of a group, i.e., the way a group thinks about territoriality, decision-making, time, individual effort, authority, family, and gender. It includes both the implicit and explicit rules of behavior as well as its symbols, icons, rituals, and celebrations.

I’m assuming that each organization, school and church has its own culture and that the school cultures may be different from the larger culture in which they exist.

The idea of modifying the school culture seems like an obvious task that one might do. But for most people, the school culture just is. It’s like air to a bird or water to a fish. We don’t see it because we’re in it. It’s not a thing that most people think about changing. Most of the time, it’s similar to the school culture that everyone experienced growing up. It’s historically determined. The buildings, the lighting, the staffing arrangement, the school schedule, the seating in the classroom, the hall arrangement and many other characteristics that one normally takes for granted, tend to reinforce a traditional culture.

My main thesis is that each staff member, teacher and student of a school needs to be bi-cultural,. That is, each person is a member of his or her home culture as well as the school culture. More important, if we are aware of the many elements of the school culture and the way the culture elements affect the behavior of the stakeholders within the school, we can make the school culture better meet the needs of the people who belong to it.

Sometimes when we design a simulation, we first create conflict. Next, we challenge those participating in the simulation to correct it by attempting to change the tone, values, goals and procedures in order to create a healthy organization or team.

If we examine the way conflict is created in the simulations, I think we can use that knowledge to help us learn how to overcome conflicts that often hurt our efforts to create a school culture in which staff members, teachers and students feel safe, valued, productive and creative.

First, let’s look at the following tried and true ways of creating conflict in a simulated culture:

  • Creating scarce resources.
  • Creating win/lose competition between individuals and groups as the primary way of allocating scarce resources.
  • Creating an asymmetric distribution of power and resources.
  • Encouraging subgroups to develop a strong subgroup identity while at the same time discouraging the larger group from forming a strong total group identity.
  • Avoiding prescribing desirable ways of behaving.
  • Restricting communication and contact among groups and individuals.
  • Encouraging individual effort through rewards and recognition and discouraging group effort.
  • Putting people under enough stress to cause them to begin thinking with the primitive part of their brains.

On the other hand, if one wants to create a culture in which there is a minimum amount of unproductive conflict, then consider doing the following:

  • Establish superordinate goals.
  • Help each person understand that everyone is bi-cultural. That is, each person belongs to his or her own culture as well as the school culture.
  • Ensure that all phases of curriculum activities help students to understand the role of culture, to understand other cultures and most important, give them the tools to interact and communicate successfully with people from other cultures, different religions, genders and sexual persuasions.
  • Encourage the development of a strong school identity. Ensure that subgroups support the goals of the school culture and that membership in all groups is open to all. Discourage groups from forming based on physical appearance, gender, ethnicity, culture, age, religion or national origin.
  • Encourage students to work, play, study and create in groups.
  • Establish physical, social and organizational practices that encourage both formal and serendipitous communication among all members of the school population.
  • Emphasize win/win, personal best, and person against nature competition. Avoid person-to-person, group-to-person, and group-to-group competition whenever possible.
  • Focus on using the group’s creativity to produce additional scarce resources. Include in one’s definition of scarce resources such intangibles as the degree to which staff members, teachers and students feel safe, valued, productive and creative.
  • Ensure that leaders and influential members of the culture understand the way that asymmetric power and resources can negatively impact members of the culture and work to mitigate that impact.
  • Create and support explicit rules governing behavior.
  • Make the implicit rules of behavior explicit.
  • Create symbols, ceremonies, events, special days, and ways of behaving that support the superordinate goals.
  • Measure the degree to which the organization is meeting its cultural goals.
  • Establish leadership and procedures to implement and monitor the new culture.

Let’s explore these suggestions further.

Establish superordinate goals.

In one of our team-building simulations, three teams compete for limited resources. As the competition becomes more heated, they sometimes sabotage one another’s projects, demonize the other team, and make ugly jokes about other teams’ behavior. However, the three teams will quickly turn to cooperation when a common purpose is defined and accepted or two teams will cooperate if the third team is seen as a threat.

Muzafer Sherif, a famous social psychologist, in a classic experiment, took a group of students to a camp at Robber’s Cave National Park in Oklahoma. He divided them into two groups: the Eagles and the Rattlers. He then encouraged them to identify with their group through shared activities and win/lose competitions. Soon the two groups disliked each other so much they wouldn’t sleep in the same room, eat at the same table or speak to one another.

Next, he created a superordinate goal. He went into the mountains and punched a hole in the pipe that brought water to the camp. He told both groups that they would have to go home if they were unsuccessful in finding and fixing the leak. Groups made up of both Rattlers and Eagles walked the length of the pipe in search of the leak. During their search, they experienced several other interventions that required them to work together to solve a problem. They eventually found the leak and repaired it. When they returned to camp, he planned other activities that required the two groups to work and play together. Soon they were eating together and playing games together and the former hostility between the groups had vanished.

We don’t have to punch a hole in the water pipe to create superordinate goals for the schools. Most schools have clear academic goals that can serve to unify the school, but I believe we have to do more than establish educational goals. I’m suggesting that it is necessary to also establish cultural goals if we’re going to create a school in which each person feels safe, valued, and able to be productive and creative.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t pay attention to the academic goals, it’s just that the academic goals tend to take precedent over all other goals. They are easier to measure than those related to establishing a healthy, diverse culture. Moreover, they are more easily understood and accepted than cultural goals.

But academic goals alone will not create a healthy, diverse school. Goals related to establishing a healthy culture are necessary to create a set of superordinate goals that will unite the school and create the kinds of energy and focus that I think are necessary to create a school in which each member of the culture feels valued.

Help each person to understand that everyone is bi-cultural. That is, each person belongs to his or her own culture as well as the school culture.

A few years ago, a corporation that participated in the Bafa’ Bafa’ simulation asked me to come and look at its diversity program. The corporation felt as though it had done everything right. It formed a Black Employees group, a Hispanic group, an Asian group, a senior group and a couple of other groups based on race or gender. Each group was supposed to meet and recommend ways in which the corporation could meet their group’s needs. Each group was assigned or given a name. One group even developed a logo and wore their logo shirts every Friday, which was designated as “culture day.” On that day, each group also recommended a cultural food to be served in the cafeteria.

The net result of their good intentions was lower moral, increased friction among groups, increased stereotyping, and increased social distance among groups. In other words, the effort was a disaster. It created just the opposite effect from what they wanted.

I suggested they change the emphasis of the work culture to one of encouraging people to work together on mixed teams and to focus on the corporation’s human and financial goals. In other words, I encouraged them to focus on creating a work culture in which everyone could be productive and valued by participating fully in the work culture while at work and living in their own cultures when they weren’t at work.

This is contrary to the advice often times given by advisers and leaders. We’re not a melting pot, they say, but more like a tossed salad. I believe we should be both. Our public institutions, in my opinion, should be melting pots where everyone works toward a set of common goals and in our private lives, we should have the freedom to be more like a tossed salad, but that should be up to the individual. It’s presumptuous of a public institution to think they should organize a particular group as though they know what’s best for that group. Most efforts at setting up such groups will not only seem condescending but will likely create unproductive conflict. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t have subgroups in an organization, but such subgroups should be related to the goals of an institution and not be based on ethnicity, race, size, color, age, or any other physical attribute. Every subgroup should be open to all who qualify. Qualification standards need to be examined to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity at attempting to meet those standards.

As stated earlier, it is my opinion that everyone should be bi-cultural. Each person belongs to his or her home culture as well as the school culture. The school culture should be shaped, monitored, changed, designed and created by the stakeholders. It will be different than their home culture and different than the dominant culture of the area because it has a different purpose.

Ensure that all phases of curriculum activities help students to understand the role of culture, to understand other cultures and most important, give them the tools to interact and communicate successfully with people from other cultures, different religions, genders and sexual persuasions.

This goal is related to the first mega goal mentioned earlier. I’m not going to emphasize it here, but both mega goals are necessary to create the kind of school culture that supports diversity.

Encourage the development of a strong school identity. Ensure that subgroups support the goals of the school culture and that membership to all groups is open to all. Discourage groups from forming based on physical appearance, gender, ethnicity, culture, age, religion or national origin.

The National Council of Social Studies asked me to develop a simulation about racism. This was in the late 60’s when racial tension was probably at its highest during the century. I started by creating a simulation around a racial confrontation in a school that became deadly. The participants in the simulation were supposed to assume various roles in their relative groups, such as the black power group, the moderate black group, the conservative group, etc. The first run of the game was a great success from the participants’ point of view, who were faculty members of a local college. However, from my point of view, the trial run was a disaster. Instead of helping people understand racism, it reinforced stereotypes. Instead of encouraging dialogue at the end of the simulation, it polarized the group. Instead of helping them understand the benefits of working together, it emphasized working alone.

I abandoned that approach and decided that the core issue was the abuse of power. I eventually developed a simulation called StarPower that’s been used throughout the world for many different purposes including helping people understand the issues related to diversity.

The first StarPower simulation used plastic Fisher Price toys to designate group identity. The top group wore plastic squares around their necks, the middle group wore circles and the lowest group in the simulation wore triangles. Accordingly, the groups were called Squares, Circles and Triangles. One of my concerns in developing the simulation was that the participants wouldn’t be able to identify with such abstract, kindergarten symbols.

After a few rounds of the simulation, the people who had earned the most points were given the power to make the rules for the simulation. As it turned out, I knew I didn’t have to worry about the symbols when I saw a member of Square shaking his Fisher Price toy in the face of a member of Circle and asking rhetorically in a loud voice, “Why do you have to give me your chips? Because I’m a Square, that’s why!”

That episode suggested to me the power of symbols, but more important, the power of identity.

Since creating StarPower, I’ve formed groups in many different other simulations. I’ve learned how quickly people form an identity and how powerful that identity can become. If the group is competing against other groups or forces, the bond among group members can become extremely strong. There are a host of activities that will make the group identity even stronger such as: making a group flag; naming the group; participating in group activities such as singing, working together, and performing ceremonies; and most important of all, competing against other groups for scarce resources.

Group identity can be a force that helps people within the group work more productively, gives them purpose, and helps them feel safe and valued.

It can also be a force for reinforcing stereotypes and creating hate and misunderstanding between groups. Leaders who understand the power of group identity, often use identity to manipulate the members of their group to do most anything the leader wants. It’s a dangerous tool whose power is underestimated by almost everyone.

The question is how do we design systems within institutions that encourage the positive effects of identity rather than the negative effect?

Encourage students to work, play, study and create in groups.

It’s difficult to understand or view our own culture. Even when we travel, we often travel in a bubble of our own culture. Often, it’s only when we live and interact with a different culture that we begin to see our own. And even then, it’s hard.

One of the most important characteristics of the U.S. culture, and one that sets us apart from many other cultures, is the tremendous value we put on the individual. Frank Sinatra’s song, “I Did It My Way,” could be our national anthem. We celebrate Thoreau’s going into the wilderness by himself. Many of our ads make getting away by oneself as the only way to have a vacation. The ads show photos of a beautiful island with only two people on the beach. Our movies make heroes of men who distinguish themselves by grabbing a gun and charging after an entire army by themselves. The west is glorified by images of a lone cowboy riding in the wilderness.

Until recently our schools did not encourage students to work in groups. Working in groups, when I was growing up, was considered cheating. It’s still not widely accepted or integrated fully into most school cultures. We tend to encourage group work in elementary school and then emphasize individual work and effort from middle school on.

If we think of a continuum of cultures, from very individualistic to collectivistic, we’d definitely be on the individualistic end. It’s so in-grained that we don’t see it.

Japanese students are rewarded for being good group members. They form in groups to greet the teacher in the morning. Most of their schoolwork is done in groups. Rather than separating the brighter students into a separate group, they would expect the brighter students to teach the other students within the group. The differences in abilities serve as an opportunity to demonstrate how groups work. They wouldn’t put individual names on a chart with stars by the names of the high performers as we sometimes do.

It seems curious to us when we see Japanese tourists moving in groups but we don’t think our traveling alone is unusual. My son, who lives in Brazil, points out that when boat owners in the United States go out in their boats, they go to some remote spot to fish or cruise around by themselves. When Brazilians get in their boats, they go a few hundred yards offshore, maneuver their boats so they’re all side-by-side, play music, and have a party.

When my Brazilian grandson visited us, he noticed that when the workers on a project down the street stopped for lunch, they all went to their trucks, got out their lunch boxes and ate alone. That would not happen in Brazil. They would all sit together in a circle and wouldn’t finish their lunch in 20 minutes.

My middle son is married to a Taiwanese woman. The degree to which her family shares resources would not happen in most U.S. families.

There are many benefits to working and playing in groups. Learning math and science is extremely important but learning how to work, play and participate in groups is equally important, not only to be successful in the work place, but also to be successful as a human being.

Group work, in my opinion, should be a dominant part of the curriculum, not only in elementary school, but at all levels as well. It helps build good citizens, it contributes to the mental health of people, and it can help people maximize their intellectual creative and productive potential.

With the advance of technology, students will have fewer and fewer high touch experiences. It will be possible for them to associate electronically with a select group of friends who are similar to them in every way. The school may be the only place where students will come in regular face-to-face contact with persons who are different than them. Working in groups increases the probability that the face-to-face contact will increase their understanding of other people.

The individualism-collectivism continuum is but one example of a cultural dimension that should be examined. In creating the new culture, many other cultural traits should be considered. Such as: How does one treat people in authority? How do people greet one another? What foods are served in the cafeteria? What manners should be followed when eating in the cafeteria? Are people encouraged to touch one another? How much personal space does one need in this new culture? How should people regard time? To what degree are social contracts honored? How much does the context count in rewarding or punishing members of the culture? How should members be rewarded and punished? Should there be any rewards and punishments? If so, who has the authority to punish? Reward? What hygiene rules are acceptable? What rules should be followed when walking in the hallways? How much privacy should students and staff have? What roles should parents play in the school?

Establish physical, social and organizational practices that encourage both formal and serendipitous communication among all members of the school population.

In one of our simulations, a board separates three groups of people. The participants have the task of allocating a pile of resources among the three groups. At the beginning of the simulation, the only way they can communicate is by passing notes through a small hole in the board. There’s also a large hole in the board that has a cover over it. Each group is also restricted to a certain area so communication is limited.

As the simulation progresses, the participants have the opportunity to change the rules of the simulation. The groups that end up earning the most points and maximizing their potential are those teams that make a rule allowing the cover to be removed in order to have face-to-face communication. Those who eliminate the barriers to allow movement among groups to communicate freely, do even better.

The teams that don’t remove the cover and continue to communicate by passing notes through the small hole have a hard time getting much done.

In other simulations, we restrict communication, movement and contact. This creates misunderstanding and conflict, which often make simple disagreements impossible to resolve. When challenged to resolve a conflict, it’s rare that a group will change the rules affecting movement, communication and contact. But once they do, they can often resolve their difficulties in a mutually satisfying manner.

It seems obvious that one should encourage people to communicate, but now, with cell phones, text messaging, and computers, how can there be any barriers to communication? The same tools that have the potential for connecting us, can also isolate us. I may choose to visit only those websites that agree with me, restrict my phone to select callers, and send text message only to my closest friends. The tools that have such promise for improving communication may make it possible for us to live in greater isolation than ever before.

It is important that the school culture create formal and informal ways of encouraging contact and communication among all members of the school. The challenge is to step back and think creatively about ways of creating contact and communication among all the students. Not only by looking at the obvious ways of communicating and ensuring contact, but also considering how more subtle elements such as the design of the building, traffic patterns, and other not so obvious structural, procedural and unconscious ways of doing things can affect communication and contact.

Emphasize win/win, personal best and person against nature or machine competition. Avoid person-to-person, group-to-person competition whenever possible and use group-to-group competition wisely.

If we want to create conflict in a simulation, one of the easiest ways is to encourage individuals and groups to compete. We often think of competition as simply competition, however, there are four types of competition that create very different reactions among the competitors.

The four basic types of competition are:

1. Person

Person against person

Group against group

Person against group

2. Self

Person against self

Group against self

3. Nature

Person against nature

Group against nature

4. Machine

Person against machine

Group against machine

Competition between persons or groups is by far the easiest way to create conflict.

As a culture, participants in the United States are ready to race. We’ve got our feet in the starting blocks ready for the starting gun at almost any time. All you have to do as a simulation designer is fire the gun. In fact, you don’t even need to fire the gun. Say “bang” and everyone will take off down the track. We love competition. We can’t get enough of it. It invigorates us–makes us feel alive. I’m sure they’ll find that pheromones are created when we compete. It’s the American way.

Competition, like identity, is a two-edged sword. It can motivate people to accomplish physical and mental feats beyond their normal ability; but it can also be destructive–pitting individuals and groups against one another–creating dangerous and unproductive conflict.

There are three ways to mitigate the negative effects of competition. One way is to encourage individuals to compete against themselves, compete against nature or compete against machines. The FIRST program in which students create robots and the robots compete against each other is an outstanding example of the kinds of competition that can create esprit de corps in the school and meet the educational goals of the school as well.

In the No Child Left Behind program, school competes against school; classroom scores against classroom scores and sometimes student against student. This is the kind of competition that creates conflict and bad feelings. It makes it so that almost no one can feel good about what they’ve done. It encourages the staff members, teachers and students to compare themselves to other staff members, teachers and students.

I think it would be so much better if the competition were changed to person against self. In other words, measure individual progress instead of group progress. Encourage students to compete against his or her self. This would allow and encourage students and teachers to take pride in his or her accomplishments and encourage one to do his or her personal best.

I’m not against all types of person against person competition, when approached thoughtfully, as there are can have beneficial effects. Chess, for example, is the prototypic person against person competition. But Maurice Ashley,teaches chess in a way that helps students learn that losing a game is an opportunity to improve, and not a cause for shame. He uses the chess experience to teach other valuable lessons as well. He’s very careful and aware of what he is teaching with Chess,. So it’s not the person to person competition per se that I believe creates conflict and division even though I believe that more often than not they do not help students feel safe, valued, productive and creative. But I think it would be good if we were thoughtful about the type of competition we’re encouraging. Most of the benefits of competition can be achieved with person against self, nature or machines.

A second way to mitigate the potential negative effects of competition is to avoid focusing on the scarcity of the resource and focus on creating more resources. Just trying to create more resources instead of worrying about ways of distributing them, changes the way one looks at the problem and increases the chance of creating a unique solution, and reduces the conflict. I’ll talk more about this later.

A third way to mitigate the destructive effects of unhealthy competition is to create win/win outcomes rather than win/lose outcomes. As with creating abundance, just trying to create win/win outcomes has salutary effects. It often frees people to create new resources, to see the person they are negotiating with as a partner in solving a problem rather than a competitor, and reduces threat and interpersonal conflict.

In a negotiating simulation I designed, teams of people in the simulation were asked to negotiate the purchase of a piece of land for a new manufacturing plant. One set of teams was given historical information that encouraged them to see the people they were negotiating with as open to seeking a win/win resolution. Another set of teams was given historical information that encouraged the negotiating team to see the people they were negotiating with as tough win/lose competitors.

The people who owned the land had the option of negotiating for money or for other less tangible goals that were just as important to them, i.e., naming a street after an ancestor who originally owned the land.

The difference in results was dramatic. Those with a win/win approach ended up buying the land for virtually no money and the owners ended up with their needs met as well. Those teams that negotiated with a win/lose approach, ended up paying top dollar for the land and the land owners didn’t get any of their non-financial needs met.

Although this was a simulation, it’s been my experience in the real world as well that reaching for a win/win outcome can not only greatly reduce the probability of conflict, it can create positive effects for all parties.

By the way, I know win/win has become a cliché, but the reason clichés develop is because they represent an important idea and they’re repeated ad nauseam. In fact, if you list the things that people say they learned from the BaFa’ BaFa’ simulation, most of those things would be considered clichés. The difference is, they have experience and meaning behind them and they are no longer clichés to the person who says them. When someone with good intentions is thrown out of one of the cultures because he or she violated a cultural taboo, the person might list one of the lessons learned as “You can cause bad feeling even when you are well intentioned.” That’s a cliché. But it has new meaning for the person who says it because it’s backed up with experience. In fact, what we’re really doing with many of the simulations I design is restoring the meaning to clichés.

I think it’s important to reexamine and reinstitute certain clichés. When something important becomes a cliché, we don’t hear it, we often don’t really understand it, we can’t analyze it, and we don’t take the cliché seriously. One of the great things that some movies, books, poems, paintings and simulations do is to help us reexamine clichés.

Focus on using the group’s creativity to produce additional scarce resources. Include in one’s definition of scarce resources such intangibles as the degree to which staff members, teachers and students feel safe, valued, productive and creative.

I’m not na