This section is from the book "Principles Of Sociology With Educational Applications", by Frederick R. Clow. Also available from Amazon: Principles of sociology with educational applications.
The following account, written by a teacher, gives a careful analysis of the grouping of the children in a rural school:
In this school there were fourteen families represented, and at school the children formed seven play groups. At noon in winter when the children ate their lunches in the schoolhouse, it was an easy matter to pick out the different groups Only about half of the children belonged to decided groups. Sometimes they were grouped one way, and at another time some other way. Two little girls never belonged to any group. The same was true of one boy.
Of the seven distinct groups, one was a group of two boys, one fourteen years old, and one sixteen. These two boys were always together, and, if one happened to miss a day, which was seldom, the other seemed entirely lost, and did not want to take any part in the play with the rest. Another group was made up of four boys: one aged eleven; two, thirteen; and one, twelve. Three of these boys always formed a group, and the fourth was sometimes a part of the group and sometimes not. He was rather a quarrelsome boy. Another group was made up of two boys, each fourteen years old; another, of three boys, eleven and twelve years old, two of them being brothers.
Three girls, eleven, twelve, and thirteen, formed a group. Three girls, two twelve years old and one ten, formed another group. Two little girls who started to school the first year I was here, soon formed a group, and still keep together.
The two little girls who were not members of any group seemed to be different from the others. One was a member of the family which was rather looked down upon by the other families. The other was a strange child. She never seemed to be able to take things in the way they were intended. She wanted to look into the other girls' dinner pails, and would do it every chance she got, even though she knew it was wrong. She would try to sit down in a seat even when it was already crowded.
The boys' groups were the more permanent. The girls shifted around more. Sometimes the group would be made up of four and then again these four would make two groups.
It goes without saying that congenial groups are influential in a school. All that personality counts for applies with special force to the group of persons who meet with such close intimacy. The practical question is about the policy which the teacher should adopt toward them. The ordinary elementary school requires that a large proportion of the work done by pupils be their individual effort. While every pupil should be trained to work by himself, it must yet be recognized that the greater part of the world's work is done by groups of workers and that the majority of young people show a keener interest in group work than in individual work. Often work which the teacher assigns with the expectation that it will be prepared by each pupil independently is in fact worked out in groups, with more or less of concealment according to the teacher's attitude toward that practice. Accordingly some of the newer types of schools allow more space in the program for such cooperative enterprises as chorus and orchestral music, pageants, plays, games, dances, publishing a school paper, running a cafeteria, housekeeping, and large pieces of construction work. The joint effort involved in such activities will enlist congenial groups and, under supervision, will have a peculiar educative value. Testimony shows that the presence of congenial groups, even when their aims are not specially bad, has its drawbacks and even dangers. The first statement quoted is from a teacher of considerable experience and more than ordinary success:
I think a school that is broken up into "sets" and "cliques" is in a deplorable condition. A good teacher smooths away these barriers and brings the whole room into harmony. A teacher who would deliberately foster cliques in school I should think to be on a par with the teacher who has pets and shows favoritism. Cliques are all very nice for those who are inside, but how about those who are outside and see the group go off with arms about each other whispering secrets? Is it not the teacher's duty to see fair play - equal advantages to all?
I do not think that play groups should be openly recognized. The teacher can make use of them to some extent, but should endeavor to make the pupils of the school one group. Effort by the teacher to get into the groups may result in loss of prestige. The principal of the high school I attended never fraternized with the pupils, yet he was as good a teacher as I ever had and kept his position seven years.
When J. was in the sixth grade he was in a congenial group of boys and girls. The teacher favored this group so much as to arouse the antipathy of the remaining pupils. The next year J. and others of the group failed in their school work because they had forgotten how to study. He attributed his weakness in mathematics to the easy requirements of that sixth grade.
But the weight of testimony is decidedly in favor of recognizing the groups, provided it be done with care, especially avoiding favoritism. Congenial association is something no one can be altogether deprived of and retain a wholesome mind. To the child it is the breath of life; he must be immersed in it constantly as he is in the air; older persons can do without it longer because they have learned to draw mental nourishment by indirect communication.
Take the case of the new child in school who has no acquaintances there. He is enrolled, assigned to a seat, draws books, goes to recitation, and the like. These, of course, are what he comes for and may be all right in themselves, but they are not enough: they are formal. There must be companionship, the give and take in talk, smiles, laughter, play, and all the spontaneous things that come in informal communication between friends. If the hours pass by without these things the child has a feeling akin to suffocation; he bursts out crying without apparent cause, goes home with a lump in his throat, and hates school. On the other hand, if the child happens to meet a congenial companion or two before the school is called to order, is permitted to sit near them, and has occasional opportunities for informal intercourse with them, then friendly glances and smiles can be exchanged in the midst of the formal things, he breathes freely in the assurance that others who understand him are at hand, and goes home delighted with school.
All the children belonged to groups and the spirit of the school was wholesome. The group interests were in part interests in specialties. Four girls were musically inclined, three others were interested in needlework; the younger boys and girls played games together, while the two older boys were always together, playing ball or hunting or fishing. The teacher tried to get them to play together, but without success, and she finally admitted that "they all seem perfectly happy as they are."
The groups did not cause any trouble; the children were not so divided but that all could join in a game and play. They were all quite fair, even with the three children who were in no group. Groups are a help to the teacher. If a teacher recognizes them, things will work out harmoniously; otherwise it will be like bringing sharp edges together. Whenever there is any group work, those agreeable to each other should work together to get the best results. If the teacher would avoid trouble, she will not have two people sit together who cannot get along well. In this school there were no individual desks, and two children had to sit together. At first two boys who had sat together found fault constantly with one another; little things that would never have been noticed ordinarily were exaggerated. After their seats were changed the boys were both good in school, and neither found fault with his new seat-mate.
The Sister who had charge of the boys was interested in child-study and understood primary groups. She allowed members of groups to sit near each other and study together. In contests the groups were pitted against each other. The leaders of the groups were the monitors of the classes.
Four girls have been in the same classes for six years, and have been a congenial group throughout that time. They dress alike as far as possible. They strive to keep their grades above a certain mark. When one member is away the others write a group letter to her. It is rare that one of them says "I" in speaking of her plans or work; it is nearly always "we." But they are not entirely interested in themselves. On May Day they make it a point always to remember two old ladies with May baskets. On St. Valentine's Day their efforts are directed toward having everyone in the school receive at least one valentine. They set the standard of work in whatever class they are members. One boy, naturally bright, but lazy, makes special effort to keep up with the "Quartette." That group is always recognized by the teachers because of the good influence it has on the other children.
When I was about ten years old I attended a school which was divided into two groups, the North and the South. The teacher fostered these groups by letting the members of each group sit together, also by acting as the leader now of the one and now of the other. The rivalry between the groups was friendly. The next year the new teacher mixed the seating of the groups. There was constant disturbance such as throwing notes and whispering. The outcome was a war between the North and the South which was not a friendly rivalry but a real combat.