Monday, December 1, 2014

Cliques in High School and What We Can Do About Them

When most of us were high school students, we often encountered the cliques, the pecking orders, and groups we had to navigate around and through during our high school experiences. Many times these experiences left us with unforgettable memories and even scars as we were struggling to fit in. It turns out that we as educators might be able to do something about “teen cliquishness” after all.

Sociology researchers Daniel McFarland, James Moody, David Diehl, Jeffrey Smith, and Reuben Thomas recently published their findings regarding “Network Ecology and Adolescent Social Structure” in the American Sociological Review. Without getting too deep in the details of this study, or getting tangled in their terminology, it turns out that there might be things about our schools that contribute to the development of these cliques. (See Edmund Andrews excellent summary of this study’s findings “Stanford Research Explores Why Cliques Thrive in Some High Schools More Than Others."

First of all, it turns out the organizational setting, or “network ecology” of a school has a great deal to do with how cliquish that school is or becomes. "Schools that offer students more choices——more elective courses, more ways to complete requirements, bigger range of potential friends, more freedom to select seats in classrooms——are more likely to be rank-ordered, cliquish, and segregated by race, age, gender, and social status.” These “pecking orders, cliques, and self-segration are less prevalent in schools and classrooms that limit social choices and prescribe formats of interaction.”

According to McFarland et al., “Smaller schools inherently offer smaller choice of potential friends, so the ‘cost’ of excluding people from a social group is higher.” In addition, the structured classroom offers more guidance on student interactions with “prescribed routes” and an “encouragement to interact on the basis of schoolwork rather than on the basis of their external social lives."

Some of the other interesting findings of this study include:

  • Large schools tend to "accentuate teens finding friends more similar to themselves."
  • Larger schools offer a broader range of potential friends, as well as greater exposure to people who are different, but the "freedom and uncertainty spurs students to cluster by race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status."
  • A school’s openness to choice spurs cliques and social-status hierarchies.
  • "Schools with a strong focus on academics, where teachers have a hand in setting the pace and controlling classroom interactions, teenagers are less likely to form friendships based on social attitudes imported from outside the school. Friendships are more likely to develop out of shared school activities and similar intellectual interests."

McFarland does caution against the idea that students are better off in smaller schools with less choice. There is still more to learn on this issue. Still, as we ponder our school’s climate, we might want to think about the ways our schools are helping facilitate the division and cliquishness often found in high schools. For the first time, we may not be able to do away with cliques, but there might be some ways to foster a more inclusive culture of acceptance in your school.

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