Social Relations and Classroom Activity

The end of "The Social Nature of Blog Comments", a post in which I applied Alan Fiske's social relational models to blog commenting, states that these relational models can also affect the learning that occurs in the classroom. Let's take a look at each of the relational models to see practically how they can operate in a class.

Communal Sharing (CS): Have you ever noticed that students tend to sit in the same seats throughout the semester that they occupied on the first day of class? When classes are "homogenous", it may be simply a matter of keeping one's initial territory staked out. In an ESL class, however, students quickly aggregate with members of their home countries. In one of my classes a few years back, such groupings stood out: five Chinese students (in pairs or triads) usually sat together, as did two Indonesians. The two Malaysians were usually within one seat of each other, and the lone Turkish student, a male, always sat with one of the other two males. The two Spanish speakers did not sit together, because on the first day, they had sat with others, and quickly grouping with others, did not break those groups, although they would speak together at the beginning of class and they did a collaborative paper together at the end of the semester, as did the three younger Chinese, and also four other women. Briefly, these students formed groups on the basis of nationality, gender, or initial seating position in the case of the two Spanish speakers.

None of this is particularly new. When teaching or working abroad, expatriates form groups. In the U.S., we often see students hanging out in the student union or dormitories with other students of their own background. It's normal to seek out people like yourself. In the classroom, however, forming groups on the basis of language encourages students to use their L1 instead of the L2. In an EFL setting, students may form groups with friends rather than on the basis of complementary abilities that may be more useful for learning. Most teachers know this. Still, having a theoretical understanding of how and why groups form, along with an understanding of student social expectations, can help in designing class activities involving group work.

Authority Ranking (AR): Generally speaking, authority ranking is the main social relational model governing interaction between students and instructor, but it is usually not so among students. There are exceptions. For instance, the social cue of age seems to delineate an AR model among Chinese students. In my classes, I've noticed that the eldest Chinese student seems to hold a position of authority, and with respect to those outside the group, acts as a representative or spokesperson for the group. In one of my classes, for instance, the eldest, a female, was usually the only one who would speak in whole class discussions, unless I called upon a younger Chinese student. Depending on whether one wants the students to participate equally in a conversation, it might be important to consider whether and how an AR model might be operating.

The AR model explains why students are averse to peer reviewing essays. Such a task is perceived as placing one student in a position of authority, a position that violates the Communal Sharing and Equality Matching models that students use in their social relations with one another. If a teacher wants students to engage in peer review, then it should be framed so it is not perceived as an action of authority but of collaboration in which students are helping one another as equals rather than directing as authorities.

An AR model may be permitted in one situation but not in another. In my other post, I noted that although students usually follow a teacher’s guidance, they may not in some contexts. Graduate ESL (English as a second language) students will accept grammatical corrections from their teachers but reject content changes if the paper is in their discipline, an area in which the student feels they have more authority than the teacher. I've also noticed that older students tend to disagree more, too. Age grants a certain amount of authority.

Authority Ranking is a legitimate, not a power, relationship when both teacher and students (or employer and employees, or supervisor and supervisees) agree on the parameters of authority. Only when one, either teacher or student, insists on a certain outcome and obtains it without the other's approval does it become a power relationship. Yes, the distinction can be a fine line.

Equality Matching (EM): EM and CS are the main social relational models operating among students with knowledge being a major resource shared. In one of my classes, two students sought help from the class mathematics major for help in their lower-division mathematics courses. Another student, writing a paper on the notion of jihad in Islam, queried many Muslims who resided in her dormitory. Other students consulted students who had previously taken the class. Without more information, it is difficult to differentiate between communal sharing and equality matching in these examples. That is, if no return of a favor was expected in these cases, then the knowledge was a communal resource available to all. If a potential favor was expected at some time in the future, then the social relational model would be an equality matching one. Even so, these students sought resources in groups of which they were members, whether ethnicity or dormitory, so that both communal sharing and equality matching relational models were likely influencing their social interactions.

Although not common, EM can also occur between student and teacher. One of my students agreed to do interviews for my research because it was “a good chance to practice speech.” In effect, we exchanged favors.

EM supports the use of cooperative learning, in which students have different tasks and must share their results with team members in order to complete their own project. Note that the students need to have different tasks rather than the same ones; otherwise, no real favor or resource is being exchanged.

Market Pricing (MP): Market pricing is not a relational model operating often among students and teachers. Still, students do have expectations concerning course work. ESL students may not consider group work to be beneficial. One told me, “I think I can learn more from the teacher than I just talk with students.” Another said she paid attention to my comments on her paper but not her classmates. And a third complained about "not getting some lectures." In other words, they were not getting a good enough deal for the tuition they were paying and the "education" they were expecting. In combination with the other three relational models, peer reviewing, and sometimes group work, can be a tough sell to students.

Violating Models: When social relational models are violated, discomfort and sanctions can occur. In one class, a student who was initially with a group of all women students intentionally formed her own group of four computer science majors (she was a CS major) because as she said,

Like they were talking about their country, but I didn't knew about what they were talking about, so it wasn't interesting to me, or whatever I'm talking, it wasn't interesting to them, and this was the problem.

In other words, she felt excluded from the group talking about their country, a violation of the CS model and pehaps EM model. Needing to form a communal social relationship, she created one in which they all had computer science in common (instead of gender), a social bond based on similar interests.

In a different case, four students working in a group found it difficult to continue to work together. Three students mentioned their difficulty in their observations, and the fourth student asked not to be assigned with the other three for the rest of the semester. He wrote:

Actually it’s really hard for me to work with a group. We always have different ideas. This is good, but we need to synthesize these ideas and produce a work which reflects everybody’s ideas. Sometimes we need to forego our ideas even though we believe that the ideas are right. Always there are trade-offs. But I think, I gain more than I lost by working with a group, if I can learn how to accept people’s ideas. In the beginning of the class, I was poorer on group study. Probably, I didn’t know how to do it. I cannot say that I totally learned how to cooperate on the same work, but I opened the locked door in this class and I will go in through very soon.

Apparently, this student was rather forceful in promoting his ideas and perceived by group members as inappropriately exercising authority in a context requiring communal sharing or equality matching. The violation of the expected social relational model(s) was sufficiently strong that the three excluded him from their group in future interactions and he asked not to be placed in that group again.

Note that not all saw him as exerting authority inappropriately. Some students considered him to be an important knowledge resource. Comments they made included:

He had his “own ideas,” which was “very important.”

"He’s a smart person, that’s why I always come up to him if I have any question, person-to-person."

So, although the psychological foundations of social relational models are biological, the expression of social relationships is dependent upon one's perception and sociocultural history. And perception and history changes over time. Because social relational models are instinctive, the student apparently felt a need to belong (CS) with those other three classmates and worked hard at accepting others’ ideas (EM rather than AR), an effort that seemed to have been recognized by them as they did collaborate on tasks later in the semester.

These social relational models, although always operating, are expressed differently by different cultures with different combinations of relational models being more prevalent in particular contexts. For the most part, however, students tend toward Communal Sharing and Equality Matching. Students, actually all of us, engage in activity as much for the social relationships engendered as for the goal of the activity. We are by nature social beings. Thus, activities that violate these models can create discomfort and resistance, as in the case of peer reviewing essays. Thus, to faciliate learning in the classroom, it's important to frame tasks and activities so that students perceive them as an expression of an appropriate social relational model.