Students as Social Beings

Amy M Olson & Mary McCaslin. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publication. 2008.

Increasingly, students’ social needs and interpersonal relationships are a focus of educational research and scholarship (e.g., Goodenow, 1992). School reform initiatives (e.g., No Child Left Behind Act of 2001) also recognize social aspects of being a student, although this recognition is typically in the form of group membership (e.g., ethnicity, social class). In the first instance, one goal of recognizing students as social beings may be to celebrate the social nature of students for its own sake; another might be to recognize student social relationships as a potential vehicle for the improvement of student achievement (e.g., small group learning in mathematics). In the case of school reform initiatives, however, one goal of representing students’ group membership is to eradicate differences on mandated tests that are associated with that membership (e.g., relative achievement, English language proficiency). The social policy emphasis is on minimizing social group differences rather than exploring what it means for students to be social.

The position we endorse in this paper differs from both of these perspectives. We propose that, by their very nature, students are social beings. We are hardwired and socialized to participate in social settings. It is not simply a matter of being more or less sociable or friendly, nor is it a matter of identification with a particular group. Humans have evolved as social beings. Viewing social participation as an individual or group difference variable obscures the fundamental social needs associated with being human. Part of our biological preparedness includes sets of adaptive strategies to recognize and respond to social supports and threats. This preparation affords learning just what rules and roles are associated with social and cultural supports and sanctions. Our social nature, then, is both a result of and a contributor to changing biological, social, and cultural conditions.

What does all this have to do with students? First, we believe that deliberate recognition of the dynamics inherent among personal preparation and potential, cultural regulations and expectations, and social opportunities and relationships may allow an integration of modern research and policy perspectives on students as social beings that will better support student learning and achievement. Second, our goal is to promote understanding of some implications of these dynamics in classrooms in which students who are social beings cope with and adapt to the demands placed upon them. This is the focus of the remainder of this chapter. To help the reader focus attention on the social-as-essential in student negotiation of classrooms, we confine our discussion to students who are not primarily known by their achievements, be they notably high or lacking. We focus instead on middle-achieving students who tend to receive scant attention in educational research and social policy. In addition, we target middle school to highlight the notions of changing self and conditions as adaptation.

Our argument is one part of a “co-regulation” perspective. The co-regulation argument suggests that humans’ adaptive learning is best supported when their environments afford certain opportunities, among which are transparent links between actions and outcomes, challenges that allow for both success and failure, and supportive social relationships in which people can learn to be responsible for their actions (and the repercussions of their actions) in a complex, social world (McCaslin, in press). Challenging opportunities are especially important for adaptive learning. In education, we typically think of challenge as task difficulty, time limits, or social comparison. This conception of challenge also has a place in a co-regulation model; however, we include as well the daily hassles (e.g., “I hate my hair”) and hurdles (“I missed the bus”) that are part of being a student for most students, and the obstacles (“I can’t afford to go on the club trip”) and barriers (“I did not make the team”) that are confronted by some. How a student confronts and resolves these challenges informs identity. Being good, conforming with valued others, or complying with norms is not essential. Both evolutionary and social perspectives show us that variation is necessary. Seeing students as social beings emphasizes that variation is important in more than physical adaptations. Students (or anyone else) are not best served (best adapted) by focusing all their energy into one domain of behavior. A concentrated focus on one area might lead to increased competence or even mastery, but we believe a balance of “small wins” (Weick, 1984) and losses across domains is healthier than extreme wins or extreme losses (cf. Rohrkemper & Corno, 1988)—a lesson middle achievers know well.

Life in the Middle

Middle Achievers

First and foremost, middle achievers are the majority of students. Depending on which definition is used, at least 36 million of the 54 million students in K-12 schools are included in this group. These students are not only the majority in schools, but they are also the bulk of the future workforce and cultural participants. Although they grow up to be “Middle America” and a focus for the media and economists, they are rather underrepresented in the educational literature.

“Average achievers” is a more appropriate descriptor of students of average ability and achievement. However, we deliberately use the term middle achiever to stress how little is known about these students’ achievement needs. In the last 50 years, limited educational research and few policy initiatives have focused on the typical learner. These students are truly “in between” those who garner considerable research interest and public attention: students with notably high and low readiness, aptitude, or motivation for school learning. In a sense, the majority of students in the public school are doing well enough to not be noticed by policy makers, curriculum specialists, or motivational managers.

What we consider a missed opportunity from an educational policy perspective, however, is not necessarily always a loss from the student perspective. In classrooms, anonymity is not always a negative (cf. Jackson, 1968). In fact, anonymity can be the basis for security. Since middle achievers are never the best or the worst at what they are asked to accomplish, they are not singled out (e.g., asked to skip grades or held back for poor performance). They serve as the audience for others’ accomplishments and failures, but we assert this does not mean they are without power. Their power lies in their stability, both within the classroom and across domains. Because they maintain competence and social relationships in more than one domain, they may be less fragile when confronted with real or perceived failure. In short, without a spotlight on particular performance arenas, middle achievers likely learn early to maintain a balance between self and other and to distribute their personal resources across multiple domains.

Middle Schools

A considerable body of research documents how stressful the “middle school transition” can be on students. This is unfortunate, because middle schools were designed in ways believed to soften the loss of teacher-student relationships typical of contained elementary school classrooms in which teachers are the caring and knowing adults. Middle schools introduce structural distance into the teacher-student relationship through reduced time and shared space within a large place, even when the relationships remain warm and caring. The burden of forming warm and close relationships with teachers is now assigned more fully to students. Middle school students are expected to seek out attention from teachers who share their interests and academic strengths. Thus, the cultural press of middle schools gradually modifies students’ beliefs about being a “good” student away from incremental learning and toward the identification of personal strengths in which to “get ahead.” Middle-years youth, however, are more concerned with “getting along.” Getting along and getting ahead are considered by some evolutionary psychologists as the essential human dilemma (Wolfe, Lemox, & Cutler, 1986); our analysis suggests that sociocultural institutions may play a role as well.

Middle-Years Youth

Finally, we would be remiss were we not to mention that middle schools are attended by middle-years youth, typically defined as children ages 10–14. These are the youth who are no longer treated as children (e.g., they may have child care responsibilities for younger siblings) but have not yet earned the privileges of adolescents (e.g., they do not drive). Social and cultural conceptions of youth in the middle years include puberty and puberty-related behaviors (e.g., mood swings, sexual interests), which unfortunately can negatively bias adult perceptions of them. The middle years have become a time of exploration and experimentation that used to occur in adolescence. Notably, this also occurs at a time in which students no longer attend school with their friends from elementary or when friends from elementary are diluted through a larger social body and restratified through group membership (e.g., achievement tracking, cliques). Thus, at the same time that middle-years youth are immersed in an educational structure that deemphasizes the primacy of teacher-student relationships, they also negotiate a more extensive and complex peer (e.g., older siblings of new peers) network. It is a lot for middle-years youth, parents, and teachers to sort out.

Theoretical Approaches to Social Participation

There is a saying that there is nothing as practical as a good theory and in this section we put that belief to the test. We first present the basic premises of two approaches to understanding social participation. Second, we examine their usefulness in understanding the experiences of two middle-years youth on a typical school day. Specifically, we present attribution theory (Weiner, 2005), a perspective in social psychological approaches to motivation that focuses on individuals’ negotiation of situations and events, and social attention holding power/potential theory, a perspective in evolutionary psychology that focuses on biological adaptation to changing conditions (Gilbert, 1989). Each perspective is used to generate hypotheses about how and why two sixth-grade middle-achieving students, Jane and John, navigate a typical day and what that might mean for a student-as-social-being perspective.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory, as presented by Bernard Weiner (1986, 2005), is a theory about why people believe things happen and how those beliefs, or “attributions,” inform emotion and, through emotion, fuel behavior. Perception—by self and others—is the key to attribution theory. This is not a theory of what “really” happened; it is about what people believe about what happened. These beliefs inform what actions a person might engage in response to the initial event. In this view, events do not “trigger” behavior; rather, they invite attempts to understand (especially if they are important, negative, or unexpected) and that understanding informs what we do. Attribution “theory” is actually two theories. One is about understanding ourselves, or intrapersonal, motivation. The other is about understanding others, or interpersonal motivation. These theories are mutually informative; however, we will begin with the intrapersonal theory, as this work is better known in education. Our plan is to use the achievement domain to teach intrapersonal attribution theory and the affiliation domain to test its usefulness in understanding middle-years youth.

Attribution theory begins with an event, so let’s take one that most of us have worried about at one time or another: (unwanted) failure. Imagine you have received a failing grade on an exam that determines your final grade in an important class. The first question attribution theory predicts you ask yourself is why? You want to understand why you failed even though that knowledge might be painful. Perhaps you think you have low ability, or the test was unfair, or you should have studied rather than partied, or maybe you couldn’t study because you had to work. What is important about your beliefs or “causal ascriptions” is their underlying characteristics or “causal dimensions.”

Causal dimensions are the “very heart and soul” of Weiner’s attributional approach to motivation (Weiner, 2005, p. 76). The primary causal dimensions are locus, stability, and controllability. Each is understood in terms of dichotomies. Locus concerns the believed causal source, either internal or external, to the person. Stability addresses persistence over time. A stable cause suggests that this event is going to happen again (and again). An unstable cause suggests it likely will not. Controllability refers to how much the individual can take charge of the situation and is willing to avoid or change it. Application of these causal dimensions reveals just how differently beliefs affect emotion and subsequent behavior. Beliefs that failure is due to low ability can thwart motivation to learn because they locate the reasons for the failure internal to the person, predict stability over time, and are not open to control: you can expect to fail again. Individuals with these beliefs likely feel sad and rather hopeless about learning. What if you believe you failed because you went to a party and didn’t study? This belief sets in motion a pattern of causal dimensions that ultimately fuels renewed commitment: you are the source of your problem (internal locus), you did not prioritize studying (unstable cause), and you can change your ways (controllability). Controllable failure is a source of guilt, which is part of the redemptive fuel to get back on track. If you are a teacher reading this, you likely feel sorry for the person with low ability beliefs and annoyed with the slacker. But what if the lack of studying was believed due to illness or work? Would you be annoyed with those students? This leads us to the second attribution theory: interpersonal motivation.

The interpersonal attribution theory continues the theme of “after-the-fact” explanations about why events happened. In the interpersonal situation, however, the initial focus is on others—why did she do that?—and the answer to that question informs how the observer feels and acts toward them. The same three primary causal dimensions apply: locus, stability, and controllability. In interpersonal situations, beliefs about controllability are especially important because they form the basis of judgments about responsibility and consequences that are considered just. Imagine, for example, that you are a teacher and two students have failed an important exam. The first student struggles to learn and can often be undone by beliefs that she “will never get it.” The second student is quite capable but not particularly invested in school. Each has asked for “extra credit” work to help compensate for their exam performance. First, review the students’ likely intrapersonal attributional self-knowledge. Second, as a teacher, how would you likely respond? Why?

Research on these situations in elementary school classrooms has found that teachers differentiate their responses to students like these (Brophy & Rohrkemper, 1981) and, if teachers explain their reasoning, even young students understand and agree why different treatment of student failure is fair (McCaslin, 2004). The key to fair differential treatment is perceptions of controllability in general and intentionality in the particular instance. Teachers feel sympathy toward and want to help students whose failure is beyond personal control. In contrast, teachers feel anger toward students who fail when they could have done otherwise and do not help them.

These dynamics occur among peers as well. Consider the situation of a friend who wants to borrow your class notes. Does it matter why she missed class?

Consider how useful a theory of interpersonal attribution might be for understanding students working in small groups. This is a popular instructional format; however, we suspect teachers underestimate how complex the exchanges among students can be. Some requests for help are warranted; others are not. Attribution theory can predict after-the-fact interpretation, affect, and response to events and behavior. Although it is hard for teachers to be in on a small-group event when it occurs (McCaslin & Good, 1996); they can decipher what may have occurred through students’ subsequent responses. Peers also learn a lot about each other in small groups. Excuses can be pretty revealing in this perspective. Consider, for example, the case of the high-achieving student who needs little effort to learn, but does not want to appear arrogant about her talents to her friends. What self-presentation strategies might she engage to maintain peer relations? We predict she would exaggerate her efforts or her teacher’s expertise: she is getting along and just a little ahead.

Social Attention Holding Power/Potential Theory

Although often viewed at odds, the language of adaptation permeates both psychological and biological perspectives of human behavior. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, adaptations are framed as solutions to problems that our ancestors faced (e.g., finding a mate, cooperative hunting and gathering). The key to both examples is that human beings are social animals, and as such, our environments are social in nature. One result of our social nature is that an optimal solution for an individual may not be optimal for her group. This can be a problem because individuals must live, work, and learn to view themselves through participation in a social environment. Humans have evolved capacities for group living. One capacity is to understand yourself from the perspective of your social group. Another is to be alert to and process feedback from groups (e.g., family, friends, and community).

Social participation is part of the fundamental nature of being human. Humans engage in social relations for both “linking” and “spacing” (Gardner, 1988, as cited in Gilbert, 1989). Linking involves cooperation. Cooperation may be seen as indicative of social exchange, altruism, social intelligence, or supportive learning environments. One result of cooperation is the formation of social bonds between individuals and groups, creating a feeling of family, friendship, community, or culture.

Not all social interaction is cooperative. Another part of the human social package is “spacing.” This concept is seen in territorial animals like household pets. Territorial animals are competitive and have adaptations to demonstrate resource-holding potential (RHP; cf. Parker, 1974). RHP is a self-evaluation of ability to gain and hold on to things that provide evolutionary advantages (for survival and reproduction) in a competitive, social environment. For territorial animals, adaptive strategies might include marking and protecting territory as a way to demonstrate RHP to allies and rivals. RHP aids the decision your dog makes in deciding to attack, submit, or flee from another dog.

It may seem that because human culture is so extensive human beings are primarily cooperative, but for social beings, access to relationships is also a resource. Human beings space in ways that play out the tension between maintaining sole access to social resources and sharing. In animal literature, this spacing is often referred to as dominance and hierarchy. While these terms can also be applied to human beings, they may lead to the incorrect assumption that one always wants to be the “top dog,” at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. For humans, the ability to balance the tension between self and other is needed when participation in social relationships is considered a resource. Winning has its own costs: Just as a high-achieving student might be predicted to play up effort rather than flaunt the ease of an exam, a popular student might cultivate modesty in order to maintain peer relations and avoid being labeled as arrogant. Recall Weiner (2005) would make a similar prediction.

Social attention holding power/potential (S AHP) theory (Gilbert, 1989) is an evolutionary model explaining the importance of this tension for human social adaptations. Humans behave in ways that facilitate linking and spacing, engaging in both cooperative and competitive strategies. The tension between competitiveness and cooperation is part of being human; we are both hardwired and socialized to seek attention and status from others.

SAHP theory suggests that positive attention is a resource, managed in much the same way as other individual resources to maximize personal benefit (e.g., strength offers an advantage in hunting societies). SAHP, however, requires more complex cognitive capacities to monitor and compare relative spacings than do adaptations associated with demonstrations of physical RHP like strength. This is partly due to the complexity of our social groupings: RHP competition is often dyadic, resulting from a comparison between the self and a particular other who one must decide whether to challenge, submit, or avoid. Due to the nature of attention, SAHP comparisons involve the self and a wider audience or even a group (Gilbert, Price, & Allan, 1995). Adaptive use of these capacities results in gathering information about the self and the social opportunities available in one’s environment. Positive self-information may indicate the existence of opportunities for caregiving/care receiving and status enhancement, while negative information might indicate the need to protect against isolation and loss of status (Gilbert, 1989).

Humans, like other social animals, wish to be valued. SAHP theory suggests that humans are inherently motivated “to compete to be liked” (Gilbert, 2003, p. 1210). However, being liked is not straightforward. We want to be valued for our social roles within a group. Yet too much liking increases our social status, thus potentially isolating us from our peers and opportunities to engage in group roles. In other words, we lose out on opportunities for cooperative relations because status hierarchies are inherently competitive. Gilbert (1989) shares the story of a pop star, whose motivation to perform began with his desire to share himself with his audience through his music. He wanted to belong and be accepted. His popularity certainly ensured that he was valued by his audience, but his success led him to be isolated from the very people from whom he was seeking attention and belonging.

This example is simple but powerful in helping us understand how balance is needed in pursuing SAHP from particular individuals or groups. Consider its implications for normal situations in which individuals participate in multiple groups (e.g., students in a school situation). Imagine a student who gains positive attention from teachers and family through moderate academic achievement. The student is trying really hard to maintain success by asking the teacher questions and studying at home (engaging in competitive behavior) and enjoys the positive attention she gains in family and classroom groups. Knowing the material also creates opportunities for the student to help her friends (engage in cooperative behavior). What happens if/when the balance tips? In the words of Gardner (1988) and Gilbert (1989), too much status, even status garnered through SAHP, results in spacing rather than linking. For example, suppose the student gains too much positive attention from family and teachers for her academic ability, and those interested and caring adults suggest placement in a gifted program. Through gaining too much attention (status) in one group (her class), the student jeopardizes the potential to engage in valued activities with classmates.

Now imagine the realistic situation that this same balance is required in every domain and group in which the student participates, in every social interaction in which the student must consider self and important others. The outcome is that individuals are constantly engaged in a balancing act, in which they must monitor their social attractiveness to individual others and groups. One adaptation for doing so is the experience of emotions (Gilbert, 2003). In evolutionary approaches, emotions are functional (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). They are warning signs rather than specific and informational like in attribution theory. Emotions tell us how well our cooperative strategies are succeeding. Emotions also make some memories salient and thus more likely that we will remember and internalize what valued others liked or disliked. Humans still consider the consequences of an event, but the emotional response is immediate and signals the need for adaptation of one’s strategies.

In sum, in SAHP attention is a resource, and humans have evolved cognitive capacities to attend to and evaluate self and other in terms of group roles, status, and positive/negative attention received. Positive attention results in an increase in status within a group, while negative attention results in a decrease in status. Loss of status is to be avoided, but too many increases in status can result in spacing rather than linking. When we view students (or anyone else) as social beings, we must be aware of the efforts they take to maintain a balance between competitive (getting ahead) and cooperative (getting along) strategies.

Theory in Practice

So what use are these theories in understanding students as social beings? We present below a typical day in the lives of two sixth-grade students, John and Jane. Both are middle achievers who, like other students, participate in multiple groups and social interactions in any given day. We challenge the reader to enter the scenario like an educational researcher. What do you see? What do you want to know more about? With your knowledge of attribution and SAHP theories, formulate research questions and hypothesize why events occurred. We will help you get started.

Segment One: Introduction to a New Concept in Math

It’s mid-Tuesday morning, and Mrs. Smith is teaching her sixth-grade math class. Over the course of the day, the sixth graders will spend most of their time engaged in this kind of “whole-class active teaching,” when teachers teach new material, ask students questions, and help them learn. Mrs. Smith also likes to give her students some opportunities to work on their own, both individually and in small groups. Today, after Mrs. Smith finishes her lesson, she asks students to work in groups to solve a few problems using what they have just learned. The class moves desks around to make their assigned groups of four while Mrs. Smith instructs, “Now, I expect you to try to solve these problems before you ask for help.” John and Jane are average students in math. They work together in a group with two other students, who also are average in math. No one in their group raises their hands when Mrs. Smith asks questions during her lessons, but if she calls on them, they always try and often get the answer right. While students are working in their groups, Mrs. Smith stops by one group to answer the question of a gifted student and assists another group having difficulties with either the material or the social skills of working together—it is hard to tell. Mrs. Smith knows that John and Jane’s group usually do not need extra challenge or assistance. There appears to be no time and no need to check on their group.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory begins with an event that an individual wants to understand. From John and Jane’s perspectives, there are no events in this segment that would lead either to ask “why” it happened. From the teacher perspective, however, the talented student’s question appears the result of effortful learning (internal, stable, controllable); thus, she offers her attention. The student group that is having difficulty is of more attributional interest. Mrs. Smith does not appear annoyed with these students. This suggests that Mrs. Smith’s answer to “why are they having a problem doing this together?” is that the students are frustrated with task difficulty—the math and/or the group dynamics—and are not in control of their situation or intentionally undermining their learning. Result: Mrs. Smith helps. What does attribution theory suggest could happen next?

SAHP Theory

What do we see when we take a SAHP perspective? What seems odd or unexpected? We have argued that attention is a resource, and that as social beings, we are inherently motivated to seek attention and to feel valued by our groups. Why do John and Jane (and the other members of their group) not seek attention from Mrs. Smith? We would hypothesize that John and Jane, as middle achievers, are demonstrating a balance in the attention they do seek. Note which students do receive attention: high achievers seeking additional challenge and low achievers seeking assistance. In this social situation, seeking attention results in a sort of risky spacing. If they attempt to seek attention for being smart, they may fail. After all, their achievements are modest. If they do succeed, they will have gained status from the teacher for their achievement, but they may lose opportunities to participate with their peers. They may become isolated in the spotlight rather than spending time in the audience. The outcomes for seeking attention by asking for help are similar: they either genuinely need help (which does not appear to be the case) and thus lose status for not being able to keep up to the academic expectations of the classroom, or their ploy for attention is false, and may take the resource away from someone who needs it. Competitive bids for unneeded attention disadvantage other members of their peer group, who may actually need assistance. If Mrs. Smith sees through their deception, she may be frustrated or angry at the abuse of her time. We suggest that John and Jane do not actively participate because they are choosing to get along. In doing so, they forfeit opportunities to get ahead, but the strategy is less risky. We see here choices that result in small wins—John and Jane maintain both peer and teacher relations.

Segment Two: John and Jane’s Small-Group Learning

Boy: So we’re s’posed to figure out what n is?
Jane: Yeah, like last time but this time n can be a fraction.
Boy: We should take turns figuring it out. Go in alphabetical order.
Girl: Then I’d be first. Wait, what’s your last name?
Boy: Girls are always last….
Girl: Shut up! Me and Jane’ll do this just us. We don’t need you.
Jane: Stop acting like children, children. We gotta get this done.
Boy: Shut up.
Jane: You.
John: It’s like I don’t even have a group.
Boy: Not like you’re working with us. You’re just doing it by yourself.
Girl: We’re waiting for you to answer this question.
John: All right, this is how I did it…. Come on, you guys can do it, too.
Boy: Just take the paper. You think you’re so smart.
John: Fine. You do it.
Girl: Where’s my pencil? Okay … I got n is %. What did you guys get? What did that group get?
Jane: We’re supposed to do this just us. But I got %, too. Did you all get %?
Boy: It’s my turn. You’ve been doing them all. We’re s’posed to be a group.
Teacher: Okay, about another 2 minutes.
John: We’re never gonna finish.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory begins with an event in need of understanding. From our perspective, there seem to be several events in this small-group exchange in need of understanding! This is likely not the case from the students’ perspective, however. Life in small groups is seldom easy; and today both Jane and John are rejected for their attempts to keep the group on track (Jane) and get the work right (John). Of the two students, John appears the more likely to ask “why” the group is mad at him. First they are annoyed that he doesn’t participate and then they are mad at him when he does. From John’s perspective, he made sure he could do the problem and then offered help, showing his group mates how to do the work and reassuring them of their ability to do the task. Rather than the gratitude he expected, however, group mates responded with resentment. Why? What do you make of the boy in the group? What might he be thinking about his ability to do this work? Consider how small group learning can change the learning and motivational conditions of middle-achieving students. Anonymity is hard to come by in small groups and average students may confront unexpected or unpleasant events to which they are not accustomed yet need to understand.

SAHP Theory

What do we see here? First, the students do not remain entirely on task, but this is not unexpected. What may be surprising is the complexity of the exchanges that occur in small groups. These exchanges hint at the complexity of the social roles students take on in their classrooms. Jane adopts the role of a caregiver (perhaps even parent). Her interactions clearly demonstrate a balance between getting along and getting ahead. She refocuses her group members to the task at the beginning, stops a brewing fight between her peers, and supports academic work when she can. At the same time, she takes on leadership by acting as if she is more adult (“Stop acting like children, children”), and maintains the rules and expectations for Mrs. Smith while the teacher is busy with other groups (“We’re supposed to do this just us”). Unlike our attributional analysis, here we argue that Jane probably feels pretty good about herself and her role in the group.

John, on the other hand, may not feel as pleased with the outcome of his balance. When the group first begins to work, John is absent from the exchanges. He has chosen to get ahead by rushing through the assignment on his own. His frustration with the group is evident when he snaps at the other members for arguing instead of working on the assignment. He does, however, help the group when asked. Unfortunately, his demonstration of cooperation and competence is not well received. The result is an unintentional spacing, resulting in negative and competitive attention rather than positive and cooperative group feeling. If we agree that individuals seek balance, it is hardly surprising then that he stops assisting the group.

Segment Three: John and Jane’s Small-Group Practice

After 15 minutes of group work, Mrs. Smith hands out individual assignments, instructing students to try to finish them up before the end of math period. Each student is expected to hand in his/her own worksheet, but because they’re still seated in their groups, the students know they can complete the first few together and then help each other if they get stuck. John is more confident in his grasp of the material than the others in his group, but Jane is the most likely to help out fellow group members. As they begin reading the directions, Mrs. Smith announces that students who complete the assignment can choose to start on other homework, read quietly, or try one of the activity boxes lining the back shelf. Homework has already been assigned in English and social studies for tonight; John and Jane both try to rush through the assignment.

What seems like too short a time later, Mrs. Smith suggests that students who have not yet completed the assignment sheet should continue to “practice” the new concepts at home. More homework! Both John and Jane sigh as they put away their work. John glances around, rolling his eyes because most students are done and won’t have math homework tonight. Jane is already away from the group, whispering and giggling to her friends as they line up. John grabs his bag and saunters to the front of the room. He won’t be first in line and he won’t be last. John will be among the stragglers the teacher has to tell to hurry up so they won’t be late. Mrs. Smith calls to John, who smiles to himself on his way out. So does Mrs. Smith.

Attribution Theory

Jane has moved on to being with friends, and attribution theory has little to offer in understanding this transition, except perhaps to note that homework is not particularly aversive or unexpected to her. John, however, is focused on those who will not have homework. Attribution theory predicts he will blame his group members for his predicament (external, unstable [earlier John said it was like he doesn’t have a group, suggesting he has had some good group experiences], uncontrollable). It is his turn to be angry. John’s delayed lining up is an example of “passive-aggressive” behavior not uncommon in classrooms. How might attribution theory explain that, rather than being angry with John, Mrs. Smith smiles at him? What is her perception of the event?

SAHP Theory

We notice at once that John is aware of and evaluating others in his environment. Because most students completed the assignment, John might be expected to feel guilty that his group did not meet the standards his teacher expected and shame that so many students did better than him. John has small losses in both cooperative and competitive goals. Rolling his eyes might then be interpreted as an attempt to deal with shame by denigrating the success of others. Another attempt to regain balance occurs when John draws attention to himself by being one of the last students to line up. We would argue this is a small win: John briefly becomes the focus of attention, but without risk of losing status in the eyes of his teacher or his peers. In fact, Mrs. Smith smiles at him and we see no evidence that his peers react negatively.

Segment Four: Lunch

By the time lunch rolls around, John and Jane are both more than ready for a break. John’s parents give him lunch money. He makes his way quickly to the “owl cart” (à la carte) line, planning on his usual pizza and fries. Jane’s on the federal program for reduced lunch. She needs to get in the regular lunch line. Jane has learned to time it perfectly: First, you tie your shoes or go to the bathroom or head back to the classroom because you forgot your bag or something. This lets you get in line late enough that your friends won’t see the lunch lady punch your ticket, but early enough that you still have a shot at getting a chocolate milk. Jane is in luck today.

Attribution Theory

John is back on an even keel and attribution theory would predict that he is only thinking about what kind of pizza and whether to have ketchup with those fries. Jane’s behavior suggests that she is avoiding peer knowledge of her reduced lunch status. Why might this be? Jane may feel that being poor is not her fault (external), but she knows that she has always been poor (stable), and believes that there is nothing she can do about it (uncontrollable). Attribution theory predicts that Jane feels sad and possibly ashamed, and that is why she is hiding her poverty from friends. What if you knew this? Would you offer money or share your lunch with Jane? How might she interpret your behavior? What cautions might attribution theory suggest?

SAHP Theory

Here, we see the power of a social institution to determine what characteristics are valued. Adaptations to monitor and evaluate self and other financial standings would make sense because access to money is a cue for access to other resources in the modern world (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Is she worried about finances or social stigma? We would argue that there is simply very little chance she can garner positive attention and an increase in status by letting her friends know about her family’s finances. By avoiding this outcome (and still getting the chocolate milk), Jane has managed a small win.

Segment Five: Afterschool Program

Two classes later, Jane is watching the clock while John doodles in his notebook. Only a few minutes left before the end of school. It’s nowhere near the end of the day, though; both students are enrolled in an afterschool intramurals program. Their parents like the program because it “gets the kids active” and also is less expensive than a club or lessons. And if John and Jane agree on one thing, it’s that they’re too old for a babysitter. They make their way out to the field where they find out today’s sport is kickball and that the vice principal will be coaching this afternoon. It’s not Jane’s favorite and she doesn’t care too much about winning. Last year, or the year before, Jane would’ve been more competitive, but she’s lost interest since starting middle school. The vice principal names the team captains and they are taking turns picking their teams. Jane is checking her text messages. She’s surprised to see a message from another girl in her class: “ik suml who <3s u.” Any interest Jane may have had in team picking disappears as her friends debate who the mysterious “suml” might be, but John is excited. He knows he’s pretty good at kickball, not the best, but certainly in the top five. He listens for his name. A relieved smile flickers across his face when he hears it called.

Attribution Theory

Jane’s secret admirer is unexpected and she is happy! Attribution theory predicts that Jane may risk it all and ask “why” someone <3s me. Ouch! Attribution theory asserts our need to understand unexpected events. What do you think? Would you want to know why? What about John? He is relieved to be picked for the game early in the lineup: Early is good enough. Attainment of good-enough goals is not the grist of attribution theory, but what if John had been picked first? Last? How would attribution theory predict John will respond? Why?

SAHP Theory

Jane is more interested in the mysterious person who may like her than in the game. However, if we accept that attention is a resource and that human beings “compete to be liked” (Gilbert, 2003, p. 1210), Jane is still competing. Jane has won an increase in attention from her mysterious admirer and the friends who know. Even if the text message turns out to be a joke, she has attention from her friends at this moment. In experiencing herself through their perspectives, she sees herself as valued and attractive.

In contrast, we see that John’s excitement revolves around the game. He is not “top dog,” and he does not really wish to be. By being one of the better players but not the best, John has the ability to balance the cooperative relations with the team and also gain competitive status when he scores. In a domain in which he is comfortable, John can find himself at what might be described as near the top of the middle, a totally balanced position of getting along and getting ahead. The group values him without depending entirely on him for success. Attainment of good enough is easily understood in SAHP. But what if John had been picked first? Last? Would SAHP predictions differ from attribution theory?

Segment Six: Home

It’s 5:30 by the time John’s and Jane’s parents pick them up from intramurals. The drive home is the usual conversation: “What did you do at school today?” “Got three runs in kickball,” reports John. “Got most of my homework done,” says Jane. After dinner, the two get barely a glance at the homework pile before they’re drafted into family obligations. John’s mom asks him to take a look at the computer because “the Internet is broken.” John smirks at his mom’s computer naïveté, but goes to reset the modem anyway. Meanwhile, Jane reads a bedtime story to her youngest sister, a favorite evening ritual for both girls. Finally, at 7:30, John retreats to his room to “start his homework,” and Jane sets her books out at the kitchen table. An hour later, John’s mom will stick her head into his room to ask if he needs help with anything. Jane’s parents will wait and see if she comes to them with a question.


We would like to take a moment to feel exhausted for the many social demands placed on these students in addition to their academic work in a typical day. When taking a perspective of students as social beings, being a student becomes exceedingly more complicated! At home, John and Jane appear immersed in familiar and comfortable rituals with little need or opportunity for attributional exploration. They feel valued in their family groups. Their day ends optimistically.

As a challenge to readers: What would the two theories we have discussed say about Mrs. Smith’s help-seeking message (“Now I expect you to try to solve these problems before you ask for help”) versus the parents’ messages? How would each theory interpret John’s and Jane’s reports of school today? What have the two students learned about themselves? What does each theory bring to understanding students as social beings?


We have shown that viewing students as social beings can (and we think should) extend beyond looking at differences in individual characteristics and group membership. Participation in social relationships is a cornerstone of human life. We are biologically and cognitively adapted for life amongst others, and our need for (ri) participation, as McCaslin (in press) suggests after Atkinson (1958), is at the very nature of ourselves and our world.

We deliberately chose two theories that at first glance do not seem to speak to each other. Yet, we consider them both powerful in their assertion that what we gain in our social relationships is what makes our lives and ourselves meaningful. Attribution theory provides us with an understanding of how we interpret the events in our lives. Our interpretations provide information that we use to understand ourselves, others, and how others understand us. Cognitive interpretation of life events is as much a part of us as is breathing or sleeping. We argue that our tendencies to engage in social cognition, like our more physiological needs, arise from our evolutionary heritage. SAHP theory shows us that our species is equipped with sets of strategies that support our social interactions. We balance cooperation and competition in our social groupings because we learn about ourselves both in terms of our relative spacings from others and in the values assigned our roles and actions in cooperative groups (linkings). We are predisposed to internalize the judgments of others and to experience ourselves in terms of our groups. Both attribution and SAHP theories allow us to see that we are social in our very nature. We search for meaning, and our social participation is what makes our lives meaningful.