Understanding Status

NOTE: This is the second in a series of posts about Complex Instruction

In her 2012 book, Strength in Numbers: Collaborative Learning in Secondary Mathematics, Lani Horn gives the following definition:

Status is the perception of students’ academic capability and social desirability.

Some aspects of status are obvious:

  • Social status
    • attractiveness
    • athletic ability

I remember being in middle school and high school. The cheerleaders, football players, and basketball players are at the top of the totem pole. Below them are baseball players and members of the track team. Approximately eleven billion layers below them (buried well into the Earth’s core) are members of the marching band and the Mu Alpha Theta math honor society.

The eighth person I asked to prom said yes–I knew where I stood in the pecking order.

Status affects every interaction between humans, whether that interaction is between two students or a student and a teacher. When things are said in a classroom, all listeners filter what is said depending on who said it. Elizabeth Cohen, the original architect of Complex Instruction (CI), wrote the following about status in her 1994 book, Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom:

Small groups tend to develop hierarchies where some members are more active and influential than others. This is a status ordering. Group members who have high status are seen to be more competent and as having done more to guide and lead the group.

However, status extends beyond attractiveness and athletic ability:

  • Academic status
    • reading
    • math

Imagine that there are four students working together in a group. In the work, there is a debate about how to proceed with the task. A student that is perceived as being good at math is more likely to have their ideas accepted by the group than a student with low math status. That seems obvious. Before learning about Complex Instruction, however, I had never considered how much other aspects of status affect the debate about how to proceed with the tasks. If the disagreement is between two students with different reading abilities, the student who reads better is more likely to have her ideas accepted–regardless of the merit of those ideas–just because she reads better. When I first learned that, I was floored. How had I not considered that before?  What else had I not considered?

As a white male–privilege alert!–there was a lot:

  • Demographic status
    • racial/ethnic
    • class
    • gender
    • language
    • abled/disabled

I had never realized that a student who doesn’t speak English as her first (or second!) language is less likely to have her ideas accepted. That seems so obvious to me now, but at the time I first learned about status, I remember being floored–I had never considered such a thing. So when I was told by Southeast Asians that other Asians viewed them as having less status, I realized that the affects of status on a classroom are wide-reaching.

I remember reading one research article (I can’t remember where I found it, so if anyone has a link, please share) stating that there was a talkativeness status. That is, after reading a task, the first person to talk is more likely to have her ideas accepted–regardless of the merits of her ideas–just because she is the first person in the group to speak. That’s crazy. Moreover, as a talker, I realize that that’s one of the reasons why I often dominate conversations–because I want people to give my ideas priority.

When I share this with my students, I think it is as hard for them to process as it was for me. I notice that in tasks right after I share this bit about talkativeness status, the room gets quiet. Nobody wants to talk. Later in the week/month/semester/year, the students have forgotten, so I try to bring it up every couple of months.

I now think about status constantly–even when I’m not at school. When I coach my daughter’s soccer team and another dad mentions that he coached the previous season, I’ll respond by saying that I coached high school soccer for 4 years. When I’m discussing Game of Thrones with someone I’ve just met and I feel they don’t give enough weight to my theory or opinion, I’ll mention that I’ve read the books (if they have as well, I’ll ask if they’ve read the novellas and The World of Ice and Fire to see if I can get a slight status boost). I don’t like it when I do things like this because it makes me feel like my initial ideas weren’t good enough without the external support. I feel ashamed. I think feeling shame is a good thing, though. It makes me a) more aware of status in the classroom and b) want to improve my reasoning without needing to use status-aided supports.




One thought on “Understanding Status

  1. Woah, this is heavy. I’ve never thought about status in quite this way. I think I’m pretty blind to it being white and coming from an upper middle class family and being a talker to boot. Plus I tend to have decent ideas. I think I’ve grown used to having my ideas embraced by groups on some level. I’ve never really considered the full range of dynamics that play into that.


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