What is Indirect Contact? A summary for Schools Linking Teachers.

Contact Theory is an area of psychological research that focuses on prejudice reduction, through the use of inter-group contact. Originally this research looked at direct face-to face contact and addressed the fact that merely bringing together children from different backgrounds is not enough to generate meaningful interactions across group lines.

Allport (1954) identified key conditions that are essential for optimal intergroup contact:

  1. equal status of the groups involved,
  2. support from authority figures,
  3. the contact situations should involve activities that promote cooperation and a common goal,
  4. and there should be opportunities for individuals to have fun and engage in informal interaction where they can get to know one another.

Schools Linking drew on this research and theory in the design of its programme, to ensure that the project is characterised by meaningful, positive social contact.

Equal status: Schools Linking embeds this principle in their practice in several ways. Firstly, both groups practice games and tasks ahead of time to ensure equality in knowledge and expertise. Secondly, the linking occurs (pre-Covid) at a neutral venue so both groups are guests. Thirdly, teachers meet ahead of time to share information and plan activities so teachers in both groups also have equal status.

Structured & supported interactions: Schools Linking provides support for teachers in running the first meetings via facilitators, who help run the day, and prepare the activities. This is essential. When schools come together it is essential that teachers are allowed to focus on supporting their pupils and facilitating positive and meaningful interactions.

Co-operation and Common Goals: Design is crucial and as teachers we are always looking for curriculum activities to embed into linking that foster co-operation and provide common goals. Joint involvement in Social Action where children from both classes work to improve something is an illustration of a common goal- this might be environmental or actions that foster community connection.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led TLN to redesign the project for 2020-21 – with no face-to face direct contact and a focus wholly on indirect forms of contact.

Dr Lindsay Cameron, Researcher-in-Residence at TLN, looked into the use of indirect forms of contact so that as a network we could build in the most effective elements and ensure maximum impact on the attitudes and behaviours of the children and young people who take part in Virtual Schools Linking. The existing Schools Linking model already used a significant amount of indirect contact in the preparation and exchange stages of the process and TLN has developed this further, to meet Covid-19 physical distancing requirements.

Interacting with someone from a different background can induce anxiety particularly for children in low diversity settings with little experience of diversity. So, to reduce this negative feeling, a state of readiness for positive contact can be developed through learning about the other group in a safe space, so increasing knowledge of the other group and building a perception of similarity. This “confidence in contact” is created by providing children with the necessary confidence, skills, beliefs and experience for successful, positive, meaningful intergroup contact. Indirect contact can give more time for thinking and composing thoughts.

What are the different forms of Indirect Contact?

Vicarious- When children are exposed to cross-group friendships in books/films the idea becomes familiar, the prospect of they themselves having such contact, creates less anxiety as they have evidence of successful friendships in these stories. This validates the inclusion of books into the curriculum that include diversity in families or friendships.

Para social- When children watch films or read books about children from another group and identify with that character- this is why the books and content used in the curriculum needs to be representative of wider society so as to expose children to these para social relationships.

Imagined- When children imagine themselves having contact with a child from another group eg imagine a new child arrives in school / new neighbour moves in – this could be used as a way to assess learning eg  at the end of an RE unit on a particular faith. Or it could be after learning about refugees or WW2 & evacuees or to confront prejudices after a local/national/international news story that children have been affected by, or just about imagining meeting their link partners.

E-Contact – When children communicate using technology – this can be email, exchanging photos, messages and work and even live video chats as a class to class event.

The key conditions listed above for successful direct contact MUST also apply in Virtual Schools Linking.

That is:

  1. Collaborative/ shared goal – exchange ideas and information throughout all activities, focus on something to be achieved together eg a story/quiz, parallel work on shared learning adventures e.g. theatre workshop and shared social action
  2. Support of authority figures – eg’s teachers receive training from TLN, access to family learning activities involves parents, teachers model positive cross group contact, adults facilitate chat/video calls
  3. Both parties can contribute equally to the task – this is why joint planning by both linked teachers at CPD is so important, as it ensures both classes have equal status in any activities chosen.
  4. Space for informal contact to allow personal contact– built in through the exchange of children’s work eg thoughtful identity work and curiosity questions.

Therefore, Virtual Schools Linking 2020-21 has been created in such a way as to be as effective as possible despite having no face-to-face contact because built into every aspect of the project are these four key conditions required for powerful, positive, meaningful interaction.