Birds of a feather, flock together. You are who your friends are. Two peas in a pod. Cut from the same cloth. If everyone jumped off the bridge would you, too? These sayings we all have heard to essentially imply that who you spend time with is a reflection of who you are and the decisions you make. Most of us hear these comments during adolescence and usually in response to being corrected, disciplined, or lectured.
I remember my own mother asking me why I wanted to be friends with those who were “up to no good”? I remember struggling with my answer because, in my mind, they were “cool” or funny or something my mother just wouldn’t understand.
I’ve made these comments to my own children. I want them to think about what they are doing instead of the attention they may or may not receive from their peers. When my daughter talked her friend into climbing out of her window so they could sit on the roof at her friend’s house, I asked her why she thought that was a good idea. Her response was that her friend would only do it if my daughter did it first. Hence, that was a good enough reason for her to make a potentially dangerous decision.
Sometimes, the context of these sayings occur when we talk with students about their decisions. At the middle school age, students make choices to impress others, gain peer attention (positive or negative). Many times they do this without thinking of the repercussions. Recently, I discussed with two students their decision to run down the hallway and slide into lockers. As they tried to explain their actions, it was apparent that the strongest pull to engage in this potentially harmful behavior, was the approval and attention from their friends.
As I was thinking about this, I wondered – how different are we as adults? Granted, most of us understand and refrain from climbing out on our roofs without good cause or sliding down hallways (maybe due to the physical limitations). But the power of peer recognition and attention still drives adult decisions. According to an article in Psychology Today, “Beliefs we hold are strengthened when we are around others who share our own beliefs.”
I know I’m a reflection of the world around me. From the clothes I wear, to the vacations I plan, to the books I read – all are influenced and driven by society. This past week I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Saint Louis and attend the 50th Learning Forward Annual Conference. At times, I felt like a teenager going to a concert and getting the chance to meet the performers backstage. I met current practitioners in the field of education whose work has and continues to inspire me. I learned with other educators from across the country who are doing and leading initiatives that are changing the face of education in our nation. Each night after a full day of learning I was exhausted.
Many students seldom stray from their school community which provides their social comfort zones. One key component that is unique to a situation like attending a conference is that we are forced out of our normal routines and are able to gain new perspectives. We are not hearing the same messages we hear during our normal day-to-day lives. Students often lack a frame of reference beyond their social reality. They have not spent much time in other regions of the country or world interacting with students who may have different ideas or perspectives. Students fully rely on their parents/guardians and teachers to expose them to societies different from their own.
Research abounds connecting peer pressure and its influence on decisions for all ages. Two professors from the University of Pennsylvania published an article titled Social Pressure Can Change Minds, Even on Divisive Issues. The authors argue that according to their research the technique needed to change minds is to present the facts and “exert intense peer pressure.”
Robert Cialdini, author of the best selling book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion notes how advertisers lean on terms like “fastest-growing” or “best-selling” to imply popular. According to his research, popular sells because following the crowd allows people to function in a complicated environment.
Do we actually learn anything new when those around us think the same way we think, look the same way we look, and act the same way we act? Many of the sessions I attended in Saint Louis pushed me out of my comfort zone. Why? Because I learned from those who looked different, lived in different parts of the country, and whose experience in education and life contrasts mine. I was insecure; I was doubtful of my own ideas. At one point in my life, I may have left the conversation because I didn’t know my place in the discussion. But this time I didn’t. I stayed. I let myself be uncomfortable and unsure. I asked questions and recognized that the only way to learn was to struggle with new perspectives.
“Remembrance is about the past. Witnessing has to do with the present. Action is movement into the future. Action is the way we live into a new reality, and when we act out of authenticity of who we are as people, as leaders, as human beings, we help create that new reality,” wrote Mary Douglas Glasspool. Maybe looking into the uncomfortable parts of who we are is the key to better understanding our potential and our direction. Maybe when we don’t run away, we learn through listening. Thus, I am better equipped to serve and to lead.
Join me next week as I look closer at diversity, equity, and inclusion and our role in education in promoting a deeper understanding of supporting our ever-changing demographics.