How a fixed classroom structure can help children navigate the social jungle that is school

Juli Min says schools could benefit from adopting a hybrid system that encourages young students, particularly the less confident ones, to build lasting bonds with their peers and teachers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 12:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 8:19pm

I remember my first day in a New Jersey middle school. I was an introverted 11-year-old, and my new school had five times more students than my primary school. That first day, I lost my way several times moving from class to class and, as I looked out into the sea of faces in the hallway, I despaired at the sheer number of strangers. How would I ever find friends?

American educators tout the benefits of moving students between classes, including regular exercise, flexible scheduling and the ability for a teacher to personalise a classroom. But, clearly, such a system rewards extroverted and confident students. For students who don’t have the social skills to navigate the maze of social hierarchies, the system can cause unnecessary stress.

In most East Asian public schools, teachers – not students – are the ones who move in and out of classrooms. Students stay put, in fixed seats with fixed classmates. Despite some shortcomings, such a system has at least one big advantage: fixed classes provide default social groups in which students forge deep bonds and that serve as psychological anchors.

Although a fixed classroom exposes students to a fewer number of schoolmates, the bonds they create may be more lasting.

Fixed classes provide default social groups in which students forge deep bonds

Though it is important to learn to meet friends independently, based on interests and activities, releasing 11- and 12-year-olds who hardly know themselves into a mass of 1,000 or more peers can create an environment of cliques, segregation and even dangerous alienation.

My husband, who attended a Shanghai high school before studying in the US, still counts his classmates as among his best friends. Everyone in the group has a nickname. Everyone knows everyone else’s parents’ names. Teacher to student, student to student, parent to parent, all bonds are incredibly close. With a default group of friends provided for, the anxiety students might feel finding and maintaining the “right” social group becomes energy that can be refocused on academics.

Of course, the deep bond that the fixed classroom creates can backfire. As Eric Choe, the director of college counselling at Daewon Foreign Language High School in Seoul, puts it: “The downside is that you’re stuck with the same group of students who know everything about you – warts and all. It also makes it difficult for someone to start fresh with a clean slate when things go bad.”

Handbell ringers show how teamwork and music can lift up Hong Kong’s young people

Generally, a student who lucks out with a good group and good teachers tends to treasure the continuity. Jihoon Park, a former student at Daewon who now studies in the US, remembers of his class: “We had some kind of comradeship ... we were always in the same boat, taking the same classes every day.”

In America, having fixed classrooms could help to reduce alienation in schools, reduce bullying in the hallways and create safe spaces for at-risk students. Ultimately, schools should pick the system that best suits them, said Peter Merrill, who heads the world languages division at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. “Schools should figure out what the students’ needs are and mix styles to that aim. Everything is context-sensitive. There is not one right style that is best for every student.”

Schools in both America and East Asia would do well to think about incorporating a hybrid educational method. For example, schools could have fixed groups for core subjects like English language and maths in the morning. In the afternoon, students could be split into different groups for science, humanities and other electives. In this way, schools would maintain the benefits of a bonding group as well as include some flexibility and class rotation.

The fixed structure could fill up most of a student’s day in the first year and then shift into total flexibility over the course of middle or high school. That way, young students would not be isolated when suddenly dropped into a social jungle, but rather inclusively and gently pushed – indeed, taught, as is a school’s charge – to master a more independent social style.

Juli Min is a writer, former teacher at Daewon Foreign Language High School, and founder of Boutique Education Consulting. She lives in Shanghai