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Establishing a Culture of Kindness Sets Students on the Path to Success

You and a stranger will receive some money from an unknown source, and you have to decide how much you will each get. If you know you will never see or meet the stranger, which option would you choose?

A.  You get $5 and the stranger gets $5

B.  You get $8 and the stranger gets $4

C.  You get $5 and the stranger gets $7

Adam Grant, a professor of organizational psychology at Wharton School of Business at Penn has an online test which includes this question and 14 others. The questions are designed to see whether you are a giver, a taker, or a matcher. You probably recognize these personality types, but here’s how Grant describes them. Givers never seem too busy to help. They share credit when they are successful; they take responsibility when they’re not. Givers value helping and they help with no strings attached. Takers, on the other hand, value independence and success. Everything is competitive so everything is about winning. Their goal is to play for keeps and come out ahead.  Matchers are different from givers and takers because matchers tend to hold back. They keep score. They’re very willing to give to others who help them but not to those who don’t. Matchers tend to value fairness and equality most of all. Most of us are matchers. 

So on this question on Grant’s test, people who choose A are matchers. Choice A makes things equal and fair. People who choose B are takers. Choice B lets the chooser win and keep more money. People who choose C are givers. They still get what they would have gotten under Choice A, but they are also glad to be able to do something nice for the stranger they’ll never meet.  

Here’s another example. You are driving on a freeway and a blinking sign says, “Right lane closed in one mile. Merge left.”  What do you do? Most people pretty quickly move to the left lane which soon grinds to a crawl. Some people, however, keep barreling down the road in the right lane, past the half mile warning, a few even past the quarter mile warning, and one or two past the 200 feet warning. They then flip on their left blinker and try to squeeze into the crawl of cars. If you had been inching along in the left lane for fifteen minutes, how would you respond to this taker trying to merge left? If you are like most Americans, you are reluctant to let the taker in. His behavior is not fair, and it annoys you. Most of us really are matchers.

What’s important about Grant’s work is the relationship of personality types—specifically givers, takers, and matchers—to success in America. Many of us might have guessed that givers are the least successful Americans, for as the old saying warns, “Nice guys finish last.” 

But who then are the most successful Americans? Givers are. Surprised?

To help us understand this, think about another game played online by four women. Everyone is given $30 to start. You can either keep $30 for yourself or return it to the game master who will give $20 to you and also to the other three players. In round one, three of the four people keep their money, but one returns her $30 and all four players then get another $20. The same thing happens in round two. In round three, however, a second player, no doubt a matcher, decides to follow the lead of the giver and return her $30 so all members of the group can do better. In the fourth and fifth rounds a third member of the group, another matcher, returns hers as well. Here’s the question:  Did the first giver end up with more money than she would have had if she and no one else had given at all? If you do the math carefully, had none of the players ever given, all four would have ended up with $150 after five rounds. So what did the giver who gave her money away every round end up with?  $200. 

Some of you may remember the Liberty Mutual television commercials. In these commercials, a stranger does a kindness for another person, a third person notices, and does something nice for yet another person, passing on the kindness. So a woman stops an oblivious pizza delivery guy from getting hit by a car as he is about to cross the street; a man watching from inside a restaurant notices and a few minutes later takes the time to help a young woman who is struggling to get her baby stroller off a bus; a man waiting for another bus notices and later helps a cook get down a large bowl from a tall shelf as another restaurant worker watches; and she later helps two boys she sees playing on her way home. 

The point is that givers can be the most successful if they are able to establish a culture of kindness and giving within their organization. Here’s why. 

Life is not a zero-sum game. 

While some people claim value like takers or trade value like matchers, givers add value. They expand the pie for all involved. Others appreciate what they do, and when givers need support, those who have been helped by the kindness of the givers—most often matchers— tend to step up.  Within this culture of kindness and giving, we work together better as a team because we’re cooperating, not competing.  We help each other and more work gets done. Productivity increases, and the pie gets bigger.  Everyone wins. 

What about the takers? They do well in the beginning, just like the taker did in the online game, but as another old saying warns, “What goes around, comes around.”  As a culture of giving and kindness takes hold, in other words, the matchers turn against the takers. For the last fifty years, social psychologists have done an experiment known as the Ultimatum Game in which two strangers sit down; one is given ten one dollar bills to divide between them. The other player has the choice of accepting the offer or not. Only one offer can be made so it’s “take it or leave it,” and the game is only played one time. In other words, if the offer is declined, neither player will ever receive anything. If the offer is accepted, the money is split according to the agreed proposal.

Simple self-interest suggests that the first player would keep most of the money and give only a small amount to the other player who would accept it because otherwise he gets nothing. According to experiments involving the Ultimatum Game, however, 75% of the time first players offer to split the money equally with the second player. Why?  Because most people are matchers, and matchers value fairness.  What if a taker decides to keep $9 and give the other player $1, assuming the other player would rather have a dollar than nothing?  The vast majority of second players will reject any offer that gives 80% or more of the money to the first player. Gordon Gekko may have believed that “greed is good,” but in reality, people punish takers.  

Does it matter if the money increases from $10 to $100? Not significantly. The unfair offers of takers are still rejected a large percentage of the time. You can, of course, come up with a big enough number where most people would be willing to accept an unfair deal to gain an amount of money that would truly change their lives, and social psychologists have demonstrated this in poor, third world communities. But generally the principle holds; people are not nearly as driven by self-interest as most people think they are, and they will punish takers by rejecting significantly unfair offers.

A quarter of a century ago I became familiar with the ideas of Ted Sizer. Dr. Sizer had been an English teacher, head of an independent school, college professor, and department chair. His academic record was impeccable, but more important were his ideas about schools. A disciple of John Dewey, Sizer weaved a national network of hundreds of schools into an organization known as the Coalition of Essential Schools.  Westminster was the 100th school to be accepted into the Coalition when we joined in 1991. The Coalition was loosely organized around a set of common principles which still underlay Westminster’s values and philosophy decades later: “Use one’s mind well.” “Student as worker.” “Similar goals for diverse students.” “Demonstration of mastery.” 

These translate easily into what we say and do and expect from Westminster kids every day. 

  • “Use one’s mind well”—thinking critically, thinking creatively, thinking independently, standing up for what you believe. 
  • “Student as worker”— active learning, being engaged, grappling with difficult ideas, working hard, always trying to do your best. 
  • “Similar goals for diverse students”-- no tracking, having high expectations for all children, believing that all children can learn well. 
  • “Demonstration of mastery” – projects, simulations, feasts, essays, performances….asking children to show you what they’ve learned, not simply repeat back to you what you’ve told them. 

We’ve been using these ideas to guide what we do at Westminster School for many years, and they have certainly helped our graduates become the confident and connected kids that they are, kids who work hard, think well, and work well with others.

 But there was one of Sizer’s principles that had to be present in any Coalition school before any of the other principles could be implemented successfully, and it’s also the starting point for us at Westminster. That principle is “A tone of decency and trust.”  Sizer was a practical intellectual who believed that before kids could be expected to work hard or think well or work well with others, they had to know that they were part of a caring, learning community, a community that was founded on mutual respect and common purpose. It’s this “tone of decency and trust” that sets the stage for all the rest, that lets our kids know that we care so that they will care about what we know. It’s what makes learning possible, and this “tone of decency and trust” can only evolve out of a culture of kindness and giving.

Our faculty and parents understand this which is why the strategic plan we crafted in August 2012 listed as a top priority that we “continue to promote and model a culture that values kindness.”  The faculty and administration took that recommendation seriously and reflected on what we do to promote kindness and giving.  It begins in Primary and here is how the Primary teachers explained what they do in their most recent strategic plan response.

“Kindness is a lived experience in the daily school life of Primary children. The day begins with the teachers greeting each child and as the day progresses there are carefully planned lessons of grace and courtesy as well as more informal opportunities to practice respect and dignity. The children’s activity naturally places them in favorable circumstances to socialize as they begin to care for the animals, the materials, and one another in a slowed and relaxed environment. Mistakes are expected, even welcomed and are viewed as a crucial component to developing empathy. Character development is best taught as adults model courteous relations. Wait time is built into the structure of the day to practice patience.” 

Though the pace speeds up in lower and middle school, this culture of kindness and giving continues to be nurtured through lower school class meetings and into middle school with traditions such as NOSA (no one sits alone) and no cut, equally balanced athletic teams.

It seems to me that a culture of giving and kindness generally requires three things.  First it requires equity and inclusion. It cannot thrive when the environment is divided between teachers and students or when students themselves are divided between winners and losers or ins and outs. Everyone has to be included if a tone of decency and trust is to exist. So in the middle school we have home groups where everyone has a place. We don’t do class rankings or publish g.p.a.’s. We don’t have class officers or class favorites. We don’t keep p.p.g.’s or choose m.v.p.’s. We celebrate the group and what the group accomplishes, not the accomplishment of individuals within the group.  Just as a culture of kindness and giving demands inclusion, it is incompatible with the buying of privilege. So we don’t name buildings after individuals and we don’t list gift categories, not because we don’t appreciate the incredible generosity of many of our families, but because we and they agree that such practices are incompatible with our culture. We don’t sell parking spaces or seats at graduation and the only named street on our campus is “”

Second, a culture of kindness and giving requires that we truly believe that people want to learn and improve. Since we assume that people want to do well and want to do what is right, we are therefore more accepting of their mistakes. 

In fact, mistakes are seen as opportunities for us to learn and improve our work to benefit the group. A culture of giving and kindness believes in what psychologists call “psychological safety” – the belief that you can take a risk without being penalized or punished if you fail. 

Psychological safety is important even in situations where mistakes can be extremely harmful. In a study of hospitals, for example, researchers sought to measure whether tolerating errors led to complacency and ultimately more errors. What the researchers discovered is that more errors were in fact reported in hospital units where psychological safety was practiced. But the researchers also found that the overall safety of these hospitals improved. They concluded that the number of errors initially went up because people felt they could be more honest and report their mistakes.  Then they were given additional training so that they actually learned how to avoid those mistakes. The result was that errors in the hospital ultimately declined….and patients received better care. The pie got bigger.

Finally, a culture of giving and kindness requires adult role models. How do we teach people, especially children, to be kind and giving?  In an experiment, children watched their teacher play a game in which she could win tokens. After she played the game, she could either keep the tokens for herself or give them to people who were less fortunate. The teacher was instructed by the experimenter to play the game either selfishly (keeping her tokens) or generously (giving away her tokens). Sometimes she was instructed to speak about the importance of generosity; other times she was told not to. Then the kids played the game and the researchers looked to see if they played it selfishly or generously. What do you think was most important influence on how the kids played? 

What mattered the most was what the teacher did

If the teacher gave away tokens, no matter what the teacher said or didn’t say about generosity, the kids gave away nearly twice as many tokens as the norm. If the teacher did not give away tokens, no matter what the teacher said about generosity, the kids did not give away tokens. The conclusion was that kids, at least in the short term, learn generosity not by what they are told but by what they observe happening. 

But what about the longer term? The games were played again two months later by the kids who had witnessed the teacher play the game generously AND who had then also played the game generously. In other words, the game was played by the children who had watched and then been the most giving. What did they do this time when they played? The giving kids who had not been told anything by the teacher about being generous were 31% more generous than the giving kids who had been told to be generous. What seems clear is that what matters is what the adults around children do, and generally the less said the better. Think back for a moment to the Liberty Mutual commercial. It’s a feel good commercial to be sure, but it also drives home this point:  it’s not what we say that matters; it’s what we do that gets others to give. 

If this holds true for your children’s teachers, think how much truer it is for you, their parents. What you tell your children about kindness and sharing doesn’t matter nearly as much as how they see you acting. What you tell your children about the importance of accepting others and treating everyone with respect doesn’t matter if they hear or see you not doing it. You are the most important role model in your children’s lives. I hope you wield this incredibly important power thoughtfully and raise your children in a culture based on kindness and giving….a culture that will ultimately provide them with more success. As a postscript, Ted Sizer died five years ago, but I recently reread his last book. He clearly still believed in the power and necessity of “a tone of decency and trust,” for he titled his book, The Students Are Watching. Indeed they are.