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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Processing the Impact of Group Identity in Central Park


I am just one day into the Learning and the Brain conference in NYC and my brain is already spinning. If you have never attended one of their conferences, I highly recommend it. The keynotes this afternoon both spoke on the theme of society and social harmony.

Dr. Nicholas Christakis began by sharing about the evolutionary origins of a good society and how social networks have remained unchanged over 10,000 years, even in the face of rapid technological change. Our patterns of connections determine the nature of our social groups. Interactions matter, as seen in the fact that cooperative people, on the whole, do better because they work together beneficially in society.

Next, Dr. Jay Van Bavel spoke about the power of us, how our sense of self is often identified by the groups we belong to. Orienting toward a social identity can help even selfish people behave in selfless ways. The brain's reward system is activated not only when we receive a reward ourselves but also when others in our in group receive a reward. In other words, we can bask in reflective glory. Also, studies have shown that when students' brain waves are in sync with others, and even more when in sync with the teacher, classroom learning improves.

As much as I greatly enjoy listening to really smart people use technical terms to explain their research (not sarcastic: I really do enjoy it!), I'm also a career educator. If it's not practical in the classroom, it remains outside of the reach of most of my colleagues and ultimately doesn't help students thrive. After the day's learning was complete, I walked the short distance to Central Park and meandered through the sprawling complex.

To put it in context, it was a Friday afternoon, about 5:30 p.m. The weather was in the upper 60s and the blue sky was begging to be enjoyed. As is natural, the indigenous species (read: New Yorker) was making full use of its environment. As I walked, I started to notice certain commonalities. While many people spent time alone, there were a wide range of group activities occurring, from roller skating/blading to frisbee.

This seems obvious. When the weather is nice, people like to go outside and enjoy it. Even more, they like to spend time with others that also like to do the same thing. They play softball, ride bikes, and do a whole host of activities together. It's natural.

As Dr. Van Bavel made clear, our sense of self is often identified by the groups we belong to. If we identify as hula dancers (another group I saw but didn't photo), we like to congregate with other hula dancers. A sense of belonging is a hard-wired need that we all seek to meet day after day, whether it be through recreational activities, families and loved ones, or religious groups.

That's when it hit me. It is natural! Everyone wants to belong, including students. While most belong to families that love and care for them, they also spend a lot of waking time with us in our classrooms. Are our classrooms viewed as distinct, positive groups that students want to belong to? Are they cold, passionless programs they are assigned to? In other words, do our classrooms generate belonging?

If educators want students to be more kind to each other, to think we over me, and to thrive both academically and emotionally, their classrooms must generate a sense of belonging. Our biology drives us to connect with others of similar interests, to belong to groups like the native New Yorkers demonstrated in Central Park this afternoon.

Educators that recognize this core need that drives human nature, and position their instruction and activities to leverage it, are lightyears ahead of those that don't. Too many times, when trying to diagnose why a classroom is struggling, administrators and other education specialists will focus on the curriculum, the instructional techniques, and even the experience and temperament of the teacher. While those do play a role, the bigger question is this: Do students feel like they belong?

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