Is Socializing Productive?

Posted on November 4, 2013


Having spent a few days at Diablo Valley School I’ve begun to settle on one description of what I observed students primarily doing during their day:

Socializing (a.k.a. spending time with and interacting with other people)

Different students socialized in different ways and to different degrees and they weren’t always socializing (although some of the teenagers probably came close), but it was clear that on average this was the most important activity.

So the question is, is this ok? Is socializing a productive way for students to spend their time?

Note: It feels obnoxious to even pose this question. Imagine if someone was constantly asking this question about how you spent your time, micro-managing your life to ensure that you were always engaged in “productive” activities. Well that’s the world most kids live in.

Obnoxiousness aside, it’s still an interesting question. Here’s one thing to consider:

The vast majority of jobs are social in nature. They require us to understand the wants and needs of people around us and to be able to satisfy those wants and needs. Frequently doing a good job in this regard requires us to interact with people, both colleagues and customers, in a way that takes in to account the thoughts and emotions of those people.

Think about a job and then ask, “would this job exist if I was the last person on the earth?”. It sounds like a stupid question, but it makes it very obvious that most jobs, in fact most activities that humans engage in, are fundamentally based in our social environment. Yes, there are activities that we do purely for ourselves, but a great deal of what we choose to do with our time, both personally and professionally, is highly dependent on our understanding the social patterns that exist around us.

You wouldn’t be a very good realtor if you walked up to every client and poured coffee on them. Again this sounds like a stupid example, but that’s the nature of this observation. We’re so completely wrapped up in our social environment that we can’t even conceive of reasonable people disobeying social norms.

So is it productive to socialize, to spend time working with people, empathizing with people, trying to make people laugh, trying to help people, etc?

I can’t help but think that socializing may be one of the most important things we can practice.

Here’s another observation from Matthew Lieberman in “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect“:

“Think about how amazing the brain is, and then consider that a huge portion of that amazing brain focuses on making us social. Yet, for a large part of our day, whether we are at work or at school, this extraordinary social machinery in our heads is viewed as a distraction, something that can only get us into trouble and take us away from focusing effectively on the ‘real’ task at hand. We are built to turn our attention to the social world because in our evolutionary past, the better we understood the social environment, the better our lives became. Although the brain is built for focusing on the social world, classrooms are built for focusing on nearly everything but. It isn’t the students’ fault for being distracted by the social world. They desperately want to learn, but what they want to learn about is their social world—how it works and how they can secure a place in it that will maximize their social rewards and minimize the social pain they feel. Evolutionarily, the social interest of adolescents is no distraction. Rather, it is the most important thing they can learn well. How do our schools respond to these powerful social motivations? Schools take the position that our social urges ought to be left at the door, outside of the classroom: Please turn off your social brain when you enter the classroom; we have learning to do! It’s like telling someone who hasn’t eaten to turn off the desire to eat. Our social hunger must also be satisfied, or it will continue to be a distraction precisely because our bodies know it is critical to our survival. What then is the solution? Giving students a five-minute break during class to socialize? Letting them send text messages as they please? I believe the real solution is to stop making the social brain the enemy during class time and figure out how to engage the social brain as part of the learning process.”

I have two issues with this passage. One, it suggests that our social world was value in the past, but not now. I think our social world continues to be just as valuable now as it was in our past. It also suggests that we engage the social brain as part of the learning process, but I’m not sure they can be separated. The fact that every student in a Sudbury Valley school learns how to read without any help from the school suggests that a healthy and safe social world may already provide a learning environment that handles the fundamentals very effectively.

All of this leads me to believe that the environment that democratic schools such as Diablo Valley offer, may be on the right track. They not only allow students to socialize as much as they want, but they’ve created an self-policing environment where students can handle the inevitable disciplinary issues themselves; an environment where everyone is equal, where everyone can feel safe to be themselves and socialize as they see fit.

We all know that the socialization that happens in a traditional school looks nothing like the real world. The intimacy of the school environment (everyone knows everyone else) coupled with a lack of autonomy (you don’t have a whole lot of freedom to do what you want to do) and the constant judgement that takes place (grades, athletics, popularity) makes for an intense social environment. The real world is far less intense in comparison.

Anyways, just food for thought. I know we’re a long way, as a society, from viewing socializing as a productive and important way for students to spend their time, but we may be causing more harm than good by trying to fight this natural inclination…