In schools, we want students to learn many topics: math, and history, and reading, and health, and robotics…
And, especially at the beginning of the year, we’d like them to make friends along the way.
Can we help?
One research team tried a reasonable approach. They wondered if students might form new friendships when they sit next to classmates they don’t yet know well.
Here’s the story:
Julia Rohrer and colleagues worked with 182 teachers in 40 schools in Hungary. Their study included 3rd through 8th graders — almost 3000 of them!
In these schools, students sat at “freestanding forward-facing 2-person desks.” (It sounds to me like Little House on the Prairie, but in rural Hungary.) Researchers assigned students to these paired desks randomly.
And, they tracked the friendships that formed.
So: what happened? Did students befriend their deskmates?
The Prediction & the Speculation
Unsurprisingly, we tend — on average — to form friendships with people who are like us. In schools, that means:
boys typically befriend boys, while girls befriend girls;
academic achievers connect with other achievers;
members of racial and ethnic groups often form friendships within those groups. (In this study, researchers kept track of Roma and non-Roma Hungarian identities.)
Researchers predicted that this pattern (called “homophily) would continue.
And they speculated that the new seating plans might shake things up a bit. That is: perhaps more friendships would form outside of those usual patterns.
So, what happened with these new seating plans?
First: Randomly seating students next to each other did modestly increase the likelihood of mutual friendships forming: from 15% to 22%.
Second: These new friendships did mostly fit the expected patterns. As homophily suggests, friendships largely formed within gender, achievement, and ethnic groups.
Third: Random seating DID foster new friendships across those divides as well — although to a smaller degree. That is: some girls did form mutual friendships with boys, and so forth.
In brief: researchers wondered if random seating patterns might expand friendship circles — and they do!
The Big Picture
We should, of course, remember that this study is just one study. We’ll need more research to be increasingly certain of these conclusions.
And, honestly, this seating plan didn’t make a huge difference.
At the same time: teachers know that every little bit counts. If we can help students form new friendships — and help them form friendships that might not otherwise have started — that’s a powerful way to start a new school year.
You will, of course, adapt this idea to your own teaching context. As you contemplate your routine at the beginning of a new year, this strategy might be a useful way to open new friendship vistas.