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Don’t discount the power of students’ acquaintances to expand supports and horizons

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Feb 19, 2020

Ask people who helped them get where they are today, and oftentimes they will point to deep, caring relationships with family members and mentors who unleashed their potential. But ask those same people how they got their most recent job and you might get a very different response: a friend of a friend, a colleague of a colleague, or a distant alumni connection from their alma mater may have offered them an “in.”

For decades, sociology research has shown that so-called “weak ties,” or those with whom we interact less frequently, can offer real value in our lives. And that, in fact, those people whom we don’t know as well may actually offer something that deep, enduring relationships can’t: access to new information, supports, and opportunities that our stronger-tie networks lack.

What does this mean for education systems paving pathways aimed at furnishing students with the relationships that will help them succeed? Stronger is not always better. Schools should certainly honor the critical role that strong, caring ties play in healthy development. But as I’ve studied how schools work to build relationships on behalf of students, I worry that the education establishment doesn’t always appreciate the fact that an acquaintance can be an asset. In fact, weak ties may be the most promising starting point for innovative approaches aimed at disrupting the inevitable limits on students’ inherited networks. And the often-hidden strength of weak ties to provide new access to opportunity offers an important upside in the process.

Here are four ways that emerging research and practice suggest weak ties are critical conduits of opportunity and support for students:

1. Expanding horizons and opportunities

Sociologist Mark Granovetter first coined the term ‘strength of weak ties’ in the 1970s when he set out to research how people get jobs. Bucking conventional wisdom at the time, he discovered that the cohort of men he surveyed were more likely to have discovered job information and opportunities through acquaintances with whom they had only occasional contact—not their close friends or family members.

What might these findings mean for today’s students? Although job-hunting may be down the line, career exposure can start early and through looser connections. For example, an evaluation by London-based research and advocacy group Education and Employers, found increases in motivation and engagement through career talks between students and professionals, particularly among previously less engaged, lower-performing students. The research team found that “just three 20- to 30-minute career talks delivered by volunteers from the world of work in a variety of sectors made a real difference.” In other words, even a brief encounter with a professional can have a measurable impact.

2. Offering welcome encouragement

Additional research suggests that beyond expanding their professional horizons, weak ties offering students encouragement—even in small, online doses—can have a big impact on academic outcomes. This is a critical finding underpinning affordable methods of delivering support and encouragement in circumstances where that encouragement is difficult or outright impossible to offer in the context of a strong tie. One clear example? Granny Cloud. This network of online supports is the brainchild of researcher Sugata Mitra, who discovered the power of a brief, supportive relationship in the context of informal learning in India. By combining online, autonomous learning with the human touch of a “granny”—designed to encourage and motivate the students, not to ‘teach’ or deliver any actual content—Mitra discovered that children’s learning outcomes increased dramatically.

Granny Cloud is now part of Mitra’s latest effort, Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs). In these environments—some of which resemble brick and mortar schools and others of which look far more informal like his initial work in the poor neighborhoods in India—volunteer “grannies” Skype in for just an hour a week to offer children a welcome dose of unconditional encouragement and ask them questions about what they’re learning. These virtual grannies (who are no longer exclusively older women) hail from far-flung geographies and may never meet the students they support face-to-face. Still, they’re proving the power of offering a source of academic encouragement—even from afar—to help learners persist.

3. Having someone to talk to

Other researchers are likewise showing that the strength of a tie and the degree of support it can offer are not always one and the same. Although most of us may think that a supportive relationship is a close one, Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small found the opposite when he set out to study whom graduate students turned to when coping with life’s twists and turns. In his recent book Someone to Talk To, Small found that people don’t always want to confide in their allegedly closest confidants. Instead, he discovered that, contrary to popular belief, graduate students were more likely to confide in weak ties whom they barely knew rather than turning to their closest, strong ties. In some cases, this marked a spontaneous moment of confiding in whoever was there. In other cases, subjects were going through things that nobody in their closest-knit networks had gone through. Seeking out weak ties marked an effort to find empathy for their circumstances. In still other cases, the risk of divulging a struggle or misstep felt much higher with a close friend or family member than with a near stranger. In other words, a weaker tie (as measured by time spent together) can sometimes provide a welcome outlet.

4. Practicing relationship skills 

Weak ties can also provide low-stakes opportunities for students to work on refining networking skills. For example, e-mentoring platform iCouldBe has seen promising relationship-building behaviors emerging offline in light on the online connections students forge on the platform. The iCouldBe curriculum includes a number of activities that help students work with their online mentor to become aware of, and practice, networking skills. iCouldBe activities then prompt mentees to practice these skills with teachers and other adults who can help them reach their educational and career goals, and to report back to their online mentors on their progress. In the most recent analysis of mentee pre-and post-surveys from the 2016-2017 academic year, iCouldBe mentees report that prior to the program 63% had natural mentors (in their offline lives) while after the program, that percentage grew to 81%. In other words, a somewhat distant online weak-tie connection offers a promising context for students to learn about and practice promising offline habits towards forging weak and strong ties alike.

Relationships are a critical asset to helping students get by and get ahead. These relationships need not all be long-running, strong ties to offer meaningful value. Emerging research and designs are proving that relationships with less intimacy, time, and familiarity—even those forged online—can provide crucial, plentiful sources of new information, opportunities, and supports otherwise inaccessible through our immediate networks.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.