Teaching in a classroom involves all of the emotions. At least it did for me when I was doing it regularly. Frustration and nerves. Elation and pride. Curiosity and laughter. There were many times I would have to remind myself to ‘be the adult’ and keep my cool…. but when a student understood or discovered something for the first time, or had achieved something on their own terms…well…that was a hard moment to beat, and one I still miss in my current job.
We are a social species and school is an incredible time to hone those social skills. I’m a massive advocate of getting kids into childcare situations as early as you can to learn and practise those new skills. And to encourage children to have a range of hobbies and interests, to give them a good overall foundation and many options to choose from later in life. Once they get to the teenage years, however, it inevitably gets trickier to maintain the well-rounded/keep-a-bit-of-all-the-skills approach, with young people focusing more on the social connections and placing more importance on their currency.
Homophily is the tendency for individuals with similar traits to form friendships and hang out more often. It happens at all ages and stages of life, and is seen in many different situations. There are two major ways it plays out – 1) we adjust our interests, traits and essentially part of ourselves to be more and more like those we spend time with; and 2) we choose our friends based on traits we have. Turns out, opposites often do not attract, and many of us have a tendency to stick with those who are more like us. Homophily is just one of many factors that contribute to social inequality and cycles of disadvantage, because it can keep us separated from those who feel different to us. We stick to our tribe – however we define it.
A recent study in Russia demonstrated how this plays out when you look at a trait like academic performance – both in teenagers at high school, and undergraduate students at university (Smirnov and Thurner, 2017). The researchers found that in both academic settings students tended to have friendships with students who had a similar academic performance to themselves. They wanted to look into this more, to try to determine whether this homophily was occurring moreso because of who we chose (consciously or otherwise) to hang out with or because they were adjusting their behaviours and efforts and therefore adjusting their academic performance as a result. To put it bluntly, did hanging around with the high-achievers lead lower-achieving students to get better grades?
The findings were a bit depressing, but should not be ignored.
They found that the significant contributor in these two samples was who they were choosing to hang out with, rather than changing their own academic performance. Over time, the student friendships adjusted and assimilated according to their academic grades, but not because they were studying more or less based on those around them. For students already doing well academically, they continued to surround themselves with others doing well. For students who were not, their friendship circles also reflected this trait.
It is important to pay attention to this finding, because a lot of hope gets placed in the school and education system, particularly for students and young people who have experienced large amounts of disadvantage. Going to school and receiving an education can be an enormously powerful and positive influence for all young people, but for those kids who are already experiencing more than their fair share of difficulties, it isn’t a simple silver bullet. This homophily effect needs to be considered when looking at how to help them succeed in education, because just surrounding them with students who are achieving higher grades won’t necessarily result in them doing the same. Access does not automatically lead to equity. The tendency will be that they instead choose to form friendships and connections with those most like them. Not dissimilar to the confirmation biases we see in other studies where we look to find evidence and support for our current beliefs and way of life. Homophily is another way this manifests.
This study instead confirmed for me that those who support these students (at home, at school, in their community) still have a critical role in helping them both access, and take up, the opportunities they are presented with. But to be mindful of this homophily effect, and this tendency to migrate to those most similar to ourselves. It is likely to therefore be challenging for young people to kick-start and maintain friendships with students whose academic performance feels noticeably different. As with any wicked problem, like trying to break a cycle of disadvantage, a systems approach is needed. Providing the opportunities is only part of the answer.
Citation: Smirnov I, Thurner S (2017) Formation of homophily in academic performance: Students change their friends rather than performance. PLoS ONE 12(8): e0183473. https://doi.org/10.1371/ journal.pone.0183473