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Bright kids can be popular if the class is academically motivated

An aggressive low-achiever can be the most popular kid even in a class that’s highly motivated simply because teenagers admire his rugged machismo, while top-of-the-class pupils tend to be popular when their classmates study hard too. Daniil Alexandrov, Head of the Research Laboratory for Sociology in Education and Science at HSE St Petersburg and his colleagues, Chief Research Fellow Valeriya Ivanyushina and Junior Research Fellow Vera Titkova found this and more in their research

For girls, popularity among peers depends a lot on getting good grades. The researchers found that this was true in all classes regardless of the levels of motivation, where as for boys it’s more complicated. As the authors explain in their article “Popularity in class and the school educational environment”, published in the latest issue of the academic quarterly ‘Voprosi Obrzovaniya’ [Education Issues], boys feel ambiguous about aggression. Qualities they don’t associate with masculinity, like good grades, reduce the ‘coolness’ of high-achievers in the eyes of their classmates. In classes with poor academic motivation, kids who are top-of-the-class tend to be social outcasts.

The degree to which bright kids are popular is a good indicator of how well the school’s declared academic ambitions are realised in the learning environment and absorbed by pupils. In classes where teenage values and school values are in conflict, academic kids have low social status. Creating a pro-school culture in these kinds of troubled groups requires serious effort.

The data for this research was gathered from a survey of 5,904 school children aged 14-16 in 101 different schools in St Petersburg in 2010.

Being popular is not the same as being friends

Daniil Alexandrov, Valeria Ivanyushina and Vera Titkova found that attitudes to academic kids depend a great deal on the school and the class. In some, bright pupils are marginalised because their classmates don’t see the sense in learning, in others children turn to them for help and academic achievements boost their social status in the class. Two indexes help to determine the status of schoolchildren in the network of relationships of their peers; perceived popularity (a measure based on the judgment of classmates according to social visibility) and socio-metric popularity when schoolchildren are asked to name their friends.

The researchers noticed that schoolchildren perceived widely to be popular – leaders – are not always ‘characterised by strong social engagement’. Socio-metric popularity tells us more about a child’s social connections because it shows their ‘position in a friendship network’.

Schoolchildren with high socio-metric popularity are often good at making friends – they help others, are not aggressive, have fewer behaviour issues and a lower risk of social exclusion. Pupils perceived to be popular are sometimes truculent and find studying difficult.

Attitudes towards bright kids depend on attitudes to learning

We have seen examples of how academic levels in class moderate the connection between a pupil’s status and his/her grades in other countries. Within the stratified education systems of Holland and Germany the relationship between the average grades of a pupil and his socio-metric popularity is determined by the academic context of his class and aspirations of the school; whether it aims to get pupils into higher education or to send them straight to work. In the latter case good grades are not considered important among the pupils and so don’t guarantee high status in peer groups. But in schools where going to university is encouraged, being good at studying has social credit.

The academic achievement of the class as a whole – the average success of pupils – determines attitudes to aggressive children. In classes with high average grades aggressive pupils have lower socio-metric popularity but, the authors point out, their perceived popularity is not always lower.

They value talent but not grade-grubbers

A gift for friendship – social intelligence – matters to both boys and girls.

Alexanderov, Ivanyushina and Titkov write that Empirical evidence shows school children with high socio-metric popularity ratings often do well academically. But boys and girls have different ideals, there are gender specific factors in what makes someone popular, which brings us back to the point that good grades are key if you want to be popular among girls. For boys it’s more important to be good at sport, to see themselves as strong and ‘tough’. So the aggressive, antisocial stance of some teenagers doesn’t stop them being popular among their classmates. Being good at schoolwork on the other hand is often seen by boys as ‘unmanly’ or ‘girly’. This leads to pupils with good grades being mocked and having low perceived popularity.

In classes with an anti-school atmosphere – with low academic motivation – the higher a boys grades are, the less popular he’ll be. In these kinds of classes, bright pupils are effectively socially excluded.

Fortunately however, there aren’t many classes like that (only 7% in the selection)

But, according to the researchers, findings in other countries show that, ‘classmates do sometimes rate academic success if it’s achieved with little apparent effort or swotting up’.

Pretending for popularity’s sake

The researchers also consider the strategies used by schoolchildren to deal with their circumstances. They noticed how good students, try to hide their love of learning to find a balance between popularity and achievement and avoid being cast out socially.

They give examples of when the most popular kids in the class were girls with low marks who mocked their classmates. Paradoxically their behaviour did not lead to them being excluded. Two things can explain this; firstly their classmates saw them as ‘cool’ as they were cheeky to the teacher, and secondly those teenagers ‘know how to adjust their behaviour to suit their intentions, either to behave in socially acceptable ways or to frighten their classmates’. The unpopularity of girls is connected to two things; if they are top of the class they can be considered boring and if they get bad marks they often have behavior problems (fights, teasing, threatened with exclusion from school).

Boys are more popular

The researchers introduced 10 assertions to measure the level of academic motivation among schoolchildren in the survey. They ranged from ‘I like school’ to ‘school is a waste of time’, (the kids chose the phrase that described their feelings best). A socio-metric index measured the number of times a child was named a friend by their classmates. Academic success levels are the average mark totaled from grades in five subjects (Russian language, algebra, biology and others). The results showed that boys tend to be more popular than girls.  

Teenage boys prefer to be friends with boys and teenage girls with girls. At the same time, girls name boys as their friends more often than boys name girls. But the researchers say girls get better grades and are more motivated to do well at school.

Bright kids are more tolerant than low-achievers

The fact that low-achievers are more popular even in classes where most kids are getting good or above average grades is not just because of their leadership qualities (ormasculinity’). It is possible that teenagers who like school and learning are simply more tolerant towards those who are different.

The researchers advise that in each instance of unusual popularity it is worth asking the teacher what they think. They are usually good at following the social dynamics among their pupils.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, February 13, 2014