social

Parents want social interaction for their kids, but schools don’t do that well even in normal times

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Aug 27, 2020

As parents scramble to figure out schooling and childcare arrangements for the fall, one of the central themes arising in my conversations with families across the country is that making sure their children have social interactions is paramount.

I’m in agreement that’s an important consideration. But what’s haunting for those that think traditional schools will provide good socialization opportunities—or have always provided that—is how far off their perceptions are.

The student perspective

Children, it turns out, also want to have fun with their friends. When Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson, and I revised Disrupting Class, one of our core arguments was that having fun with friends is one of the most important priorities in students’ lives.

But traditional schools tend not to perform this function well.

At the extreme end, roughly 20% of students age 12–18 report being bullied in school. Among parents with children in K–12 grades, over a third believe that bullying is a problem at their child’s school, according to a Harris poll.

Although not all students experience negative relationships like this, the question arises: are traditional classrooms optimized to help students form positive relationships?

Teachers are responsible for instructing large batches of diverse students, and they have limited time to connect with each student one-on-one. Whole-group lecture offers little opportunity for students to form relationships with each other or with the teacher during that time.

Schools themselves are stretched to provide a full suite of academic, extracurricular, and social services. The elimination of bullying and the assurance of a safe, positive environment can fall through the cracks.

Even more to the point, as Diane Tavenner, founder of Summit Public Schools, said to me on our “Class Disrupted” podcast, “We all believe that school should be a social experience, that it should be joyful, that our kids should like it, and that they should actually be learning. … But what parents are thinking of as social learning actually isn’t.”

If you take a step back and remember some of your own schooling experience, you can likely see her point. If a student seeks to be social during class, that student typically gets in trouble in a traditional school.

Just remember the fate of the class clown. Or, in my case, why many of my middle school teachers likely thought I had written an autobiography when Disrupting Class was first published. Or how students who ask a friend for help in understanding something get in trouble for doing so in the middle of class.

It is of course true that school does afford some opportunities for social interaction—during recess or extracurricular activities or in the hallway before, between, and after class. But the fact that these are all outside of the classroom as opposed to woven into the fabric of schooling itself shows just how much better and joyful—and more social—schools could and should be.

A better way forward

What would social opportunities look like in the context of the learning itself?

Think about schools in which students work in teams and tackle meaningful projects that explicitly require them to master core knowledge, skills, and habits of success—like learning how to work together—in the context of challenging problems. Think about schools that intentionally build time and allow for mentorship and peer-to-peer learning. Think about schools that don’t arbitrarily cut learning off after 45 minutes before students really have the time to dig in together and tackle challenging work. Think about schools that purposely use physical activity not just as “recess” but as a core part of helping students be physically ready to learn.

These types of experiences embed the opportunity for students to have fun with their friends every day.

What’s in store for 2020–21

The problem of course is that switching to learning experiences like these in ordinary times would be challenging for many schools. Doing it in the midst of a pandemic is even harder.

And that’s before considering that in-person schooling will be less social this year even when it is inside a classroom given that students will be wearing masks—so it’ll be hard to pick up on physical cues and read faces, staying at least three to six feet apart and experiencing a lot of “student shaming” by the adults when students violate safety protocol.

I suspect when you add this all up, this won’t be the “social experience” that parents are hoping their children experience this year.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a senior strategist at Guild Education.