Watch any teen movie and the common perception is that teens choose their friends depending on what clique they belong to — jocks, geeks, goths or what have you. But a new study shows that it’s actually the classes teens take while in school that determines their friendships.
“People generally want to think that kids are choosing their friends from the well-known categories like jocks and nerds — that it’s like ‘The Breakfast Club’ and the same at every school,” said Dr. Kenneth Frank, a professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University.
“But our argument is that the opportunities an adolescent has to choose friends are guided by the courses the adolescent takes and the other students who take the courses with them. Moreover, the pattern of opportunities differs from school to school.”
Published in the American Journal of Sociology, the study found that patterns of course-taking are distinctive to each high school.
In one school, for example, friendships may form among students taking wood shop, Spanish and European history, while in another it may be among students taking agricultural business management, advanced accounting and calculus.
For the study, Frank and colleagues analyzed survey data and academic transcripts from approximately 3,000 students at 78 high schools across the United States. The researchers developed a computer algorithm and software to identify the unique sets of students and courses from the transcripts in each school.
They found that students were more likely to make friends in small classes, often electives, which set them off from the general student population. For example, friendships were more likely to be created in Latin 4 and woodshop, than in a large physical education class that everyone is required to take.
The researchers found that students who take the same set of courses tend to get to know each other very well. This leads them to focus less on social status, such as how “cool” someone is.
They’re also less likely to judge classmates on visible characteristics, such as race and gender, the researchers report.
Frank added that girls are more likely to take more demanding math classes if other girls in their shared sets of courses took advanced math.
“In other words, the peer groups that formed around shared courses had implications for students’ academic effort, as well as their social world,” he said.
The findings have implications for school administrators, as well, he noted. Schools that offer classes without mixing up high- and low-achieving students run the risk of driving them apart socially and academically, Frank said.
To combat this, he suggests schools group students together in ninth grade so that low-achievers potentially have high-achievers in their classes throughout high school.
“This would give the students in the lower group a ‘beacon’ of sorts — or others who could be there as a marker to help them move along,” he concluded.
Source: Michigan State University