Beyond on going observation and the practical knowledge, formal data collection of classroom relationships can help teachers create a positive classroom culture. Sociograms (see diagram below) do this. They are a teacher-made and teacher friendly way of gaining rich data about the class’s social relationships.
To construct a class sociogram, ask each pupil to confidentially list two students to work with on an activity. The topic does not matter; in most cases the social relationships will be relatively constant regardless of the activity. Make sure they put their own name on the top of the paper.
Write up this data as a chart. Different-sized circles, as in the diagram, give visual impact to these relationships and make it easy to discern the various degrees of popularity. This can be done either on a computer, or by hand tracing. Arrows indicate who is choosing who.
One of the alerts a teacher gets from this is that there are both boys and girls – the isolates – who no one has chosen or who have only been chosen by another isolate. While it is wise to have a certain degree of philosophical scepticism in making initial assumptions about isolates, they are a cause for concern.
Isolates can lack the social skills to make friendly overtures to their peers, and because of this inability, they will tend to be unhappy. This unhappiness will not just shut down academic learning, which is serious enough, it could also lead disruptive behaviour or, in a worse-case scenario to self harm or suicide. Thus when the sociogram establishes isolates, it is the teacher’s responsibility to react.
One uncomplicated solution is to attempt to integrate isolates into a group that they have shown interest in. In the girls’ group, top right, an attempt could be made to integrate either Lill or Livie or both in this way. However, such integration requires more than just arbitrarily inserting the islolate in a group. Teacher initiative will be crucial. Perhaps if an isolate is quiet and writes well she could be given the task of being the group’s scribe. This not only gives the girl a purpose, and through that some confidence, it also frees group members from having to take on what they may see as an onerous task and may give them some sense of gratitude to the scribe.
Another way would be to provide for small group activities and set the group number at four and arbitrarily mix in the isolates. Provided the teacher has set the group dynamics up in such a way that team work is required integration has a real chance of success.
However, the isolate may need careful instruction in social skills – the skills of emotional intelligence.
Girls and boys separation
Another alert is the clear division between the boys and the girls. Is this is what is wanted? Obviously it is a co-ed school so what does that imply? Is it an example of what Chris Argyris calls the gap between the espoused theory and the theory in action? Is the espoused theory that boys and girls are better off in a school where the genders are mixed? If so this shows that the theory in practice is not so.
If the genders are to be mixed, serious teacher reflection is needed before taking any action. If an instruction was given simply to choose a boy and a girl to work with a worse situation could arise if the decisions were made on a boyfriend/girlfriend basis. Reflection may suggest that in this case the gap between espoused theory and theory in practice is best left as it is, and gender issues and compatibility be addressed somewhere else.
Check out the group dynamics
There are several quite tight groups which may well merit some degree of philosophical scepticism.
Are these groups “cliques” only interested in being exclusive, maintaining boundaries to keep their exclusivity, or worse still being antagonistic toward others?
Who is the go to girl in the classroom? In a sociogram she would have by far the greatest number of arrows seeking her out. Yet beneath the radar her influence could be self serving, her ability to put down others sophisticated.
Graham Nuttal’s research, noted in his The Hidden Lives of Learners book, records the action of such a girl. A boy is having trouble spelling the word Sahara. He asks for her help. She carefully spells the word that subtlety reinforces her elite status. If that is not bad enough once he has the word she turns on the pressure by saying, “Why couldn’t you have copied it yourself? It’s on the White Board dumb ass!”
Sadly, Nuttal notes, the classroom teacher was unaware of all this.
For this girl it’s all about power, personal power, rather the empathy that holds a classroom together.
On the other hand those who are popular may well be part of a positive group fully integrated into the classroom culture, a catalyst for good. Both inside and outside their group, such individuals would be intent on “making the day” for both themselves and others. This is not dramatic stuff. Making their day starts with a cheerful “hello” or “good morning” together with a friendly welcoming smile. Likewise being there for them is more about simple, everyday things than dramatic happenings, for example, providing a pen or pencil when someone has forgotten theirs or the lead has broken.
Teachers should look for these positive behaviours, too, and reinforce them. In a general way a poster on the wall about making their day or being there for them would be a good backup.
Link to Habits of Mind
Teacher monitoring of the verbal interaction between the group, and the body language accompanying it, should occur outside the classroom as well. If there is no smoke, no harm has been done.
If there is the teacher is alerted early to the jockeying for dominance and power that will be the antitheses of being kind and helpful. Then the teacher might give special attention to Habits of Mind such as listening with understanding and empathy, and thinking interdependently to have the students valuing each other, and working in a collegially mutual interdependent way.
A teacher’s job does not start and end with the curriculum. The social side of the classroom is perhaps equally important. The school is the sea. The students are the fish. If the sea is not kept at the right temperature the fish will die! Sociograms won’t necessarily give the teacher the answer, but they will certainly show where to look.
Alan Cooper BEd. BA. Dip Tchg. ANZIM, is a formed teacher and principal, now education consultant specializing in Thinking Skills, Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, Habits of Mind, Emotional Learning, Professional Development Portfolios, Organisational Culture. He is based in New Zealand.