Social Relationships and Math: A Researcher Looks Inside One Classroom

By Amanda Ulrich — June 03, 2014 2 min read
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There may be a link between girls’ social connections and their participation in mathematics classes, according to recent study.

University of Illinois at Chicago researcher Maisie Gholson, in a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Education, suggests that a student’s standing in the classroom social hierarchy can influence her learning opportunities there. Over the course of an academic year, Gholson observed and studied a class of 3rd grade girls in a predominantly African-American public school in Chicago. Her observations led her to conclude that the girls who were more socially connected participated in mathematics class more and were perceived as more competent in the subject.

Gholson focused her study on two high-achieving students in particular. Though both students did well in mathematics, the two had very different labels within their social setting; the first girl was described by her peers as a “model student,” while the other was called a “bully.”

Why were the girls given such drastically different labels, despite their similar levels of accomplishment in mathematics? And how did these labels in turn affect their academic performance? The answers could be due to issues of social identity, gender, and classroom structure, the author writes.

Notions about gender come into play in this scenario when considering what actions were socially acceptable on the girls’ playground. Gholson points out that it is more socially acceptable for females to engage in actions such as gossiping and other verbal taunts, but less acceptable to act in a physically aggressive manner. The girl who was considered the “model student” displayed forms of verbal bullying, but because this type of harassment was more socially acceptable, she was not deemed a “bully” by her teacher or her peers.

In this study Gholson states that the “model student” was part of the dominant social group. Because of this dominance, the student’s social power translated to prominence in the classroom. Comparatively, the “bully” was more isolated from the major social group and consequently participated in class less and was not cited by her peers as being one of the top math students.

One reason for the observed connection between social status and participation was the loose structure of the classroom. This structure allowed the members of the dominant social group to interact and support each other in an academic setting, further hindering the students who were not in this prominent group. Gholson acknowledges that a loosely structured classroom is not inherently bad, only that her particular study produced these findings. She goes on to say that the specific classroom she studied is not indicative of every elementary classroom, and that her results cannot be generalized.

Perhaps the implications of this study are best summed up by Gholson herself: “If we consider social relationships to be the requisite connections for all learning, this gives new meaning to children’s social networks and to mathematics learning.”

For a more in-depth look, you can read Gholson’s complete study here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.