Smaller school environments are less "cliquey" and potentially more tolerant, according to a new study published in the American Sociological Review.
The study examined the pattern of social relationships in two different high schools using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, but also highlights the role that "network ecology" can play in shaping the social structure of all communities.
The analysis found that students in larger schools were more likely to find a bond with people who they had things in common with, a tendency that is called "homophily."
Researchers say larger schools become more socially stratified because students have more freedom to choose different academic paths, groups of friends, and even where they sit in class. The result, they argue, is more divisions based on race, gender, and social status.
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Daniel McFarland, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education who led the study, says "educators often suspect that the social world of adolescents is beyond their reach and out of their control," but in reality they have some control over the context that shapes those relationships.
Counterintuitively, the analysis suggests that having a smaller, more tightly controlled learning environment can promote "open-mindedness," according to Rick Nauert, writing for PsychCentral.
However, McFarland also cautions that more controlled environments may not be right for every student. "The truth is that we are not sure which kind of adolescent society is best for youth social development, let alone what position in them is best. There likely isn't a simple answer," he says (Wassell, Education News, 11/13; Nauert, PsychCentral; Rabinovitz-Stanford, Futurity, 11/10).
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