Anyone who has attended a traditional school within the past few decades is familiar with the phrase, “you’re not here to socialize.” You’ve probably heard it a million times. I can recall teachers trotting out this phrase during my days in school to get kids to stop talking and start focusing on their schoolwork. I can’t blame them. Teachers have an incredibly difficult job. They are dealing with student needs ranging from hunger and trauma to interpersonal conflict and boredom. They have to deal with administrators and parents. On top of all of that, they are expected to teach – these days under the threat of school shutdown if the scores on standardized tests are too low. What’s a teacher to do?
While schools are busy cracking down on socializing to focus on learning, experts are beginning to recognize that separating the two is neither healthy nor beneficial.
Humans are a social species
A great deal of evidence now shows that social integration is the key to health and happiness. Most people are aware that having close relationships with people in your inner circle (or strong ties) is beneficial. We all need the social support that comes from having someone to share life’s joys and sorrows with. Less widely recognized is the fact that our interactions with acquaintances (or weak ties) are also linked to happiness and even longevity. One study found that college students “felt a greater sense of happiness and belonging on days when they interacted with more classmates, even if those classmates were all weak ties.” The same was true when the authors looked at non-students. Interactions with your barista, that woman you see occasionally at yoga, or that guy who is often out walking his dog, all increase your happiness and wellbeing.
These social connections are not only important for happiness, but also for health and longevity. More than 40 years ago, the first population study was published showing that social connections are linked to longer and healthier lives. Across every age and sex category, people who reported having many friends and relatives and seeing them frequently were less likely to die, even after accounting for health status.
The research is clear that humans need plenty of interactions with both friends and acquaintances for optimal health and wellbeing. In the happiest places on earth, people spend six hours each day socializing face to face. This social nature is our chief strength as humans. We can accomplish great feats by working together. If our institutions are going to bring out the best in us, they need to celebrate this feature of humanity, not squash it.
What does this mean for schools?
Institutions work best when they are designed in a way that works with human needs and desires, not against them. Kids, like people of all ages, need hours each day of social interaction to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled. For many kids, if not most, the highlight of going to school is the community they find there – they get to see their friends. Kids recognize and insist on their need for social interactions even when schools are busy trying to extinguish it in favor of “learning goals.”
So what does it take to meet learning goals? I believe there is a place for buckling down and working hard even when it isn’t the most pleasant option on the table. It’s good for kids to see that practice brings progress and improvement. Kids should have the opportunity to experience the satisfaction of setting a goal and meeting it; the thrill of taking on a challenge and crushing it. Sometimes that means doing your work instead of talking with your classmates.
I also believe that doing your work and talking with your classmates are far from mutually exclusive endeavors, even though most schools today treat them as such. Schools today typically operate under a factory model of education in which individual is a widget to be churned out by filling with the requisite set of knowledge. In this factory model, interaction between widgets is not helpful. It just clogs the pipeline. The problem is that the widget model of education was designed to meet the needs of an industrial economy, not a post-industrial one. This factory model of education fails to recognize the changing needs of the world and the workforce, in which collaboration plays an increasingly important role.
Collaboration is the future
As Sir Ken Robinson points out in an interview with Educational Leadership Magazine, “Most original thinking comes through collaboration and through the stimulation of other people’s ideas… The greatest scientific breakthroughs have almost always come from some form of fierce collaboration among people with common interests but with very different ways of thinking.” In other words, human ingenuity rarely happens in isolation.
Although children may not be responsible for the next scientific breakthrough until they grow up, they can and should work in groups today to come up with ideas and problem-solve together. Working together toward a common goal builds a sense of community and helps children build greater empathy toward different ways of thinking and looking at the world. Learning to socialize with people of different ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, and brain patterns is more important than ever. Social interactions geared toward a common goal also help kids work on their communication skills as they practice listening to others and explaining their own ideas. As Clarion School in Dubai puts it, “Learning to communicate in a group, even if it takes a great deal of scaffolding in the early years, means that children can grow to be thoughtful, flexible, confident collaborators.” This is what the new century needs as technology pushes us forward and the world becomes more interconnected. As it turns out, we are here to socialize.