A class ought to feel like a community. (Mathematically speaking, that’s what make it a class, rather than a set. Yes, it’s a slightly different meaning of the word “class,” but the resemblance is not a coincidence.) We’ve all been in a class that had the coherence and mutual support that made it a community, and we’ve all been in many classes that were merely a group of students with a teacher. This post is not an analysis of how to turn the latter into the former — entire books have been written on the subject — but is merely a reflection of one small aspect of the issue: why is it so much easier to develop a community feel in an honors class than in a “regular” class? (In Weston the “regular” classes are called “college-prep,” so that’s how I’ll refer to them here.)
Actually, the presupposition behind my question might not be correct. I know from talking with my colleagues that it may depend on the subject, the specific course, and/or the teacher. But it’s definitely true in my experience as a math teacher for 37 years.
It would be easy to predict exactly the opposite generalization. Students in an honors math class — especially at Weston High School or similar schools — tend to be very competitive. Many suffer from academic stress and anxiety. They want to get into the same top-tier colleges, for which there are far more applicants than acceptances. Some of them (but remarkably few, actually) have trouble with social skills. All of these factors add up to a prediction that they wouldn’t function well as a community. And yet they usually do. Why is this?
My guess is that the factors in the previous paragraph may actually create a common bond among the students in an honors math class. They are a self-selected group who are all striving for the same thing. Most of them (certainly not all, but usually enough to create a critical mass) are in the course because they’re interested in mathematics and want to do well. The majority of them have done well in school and find many rewards there. They tend to feel a sense of communality with each other and even with the teacher. If they don’t feel that they belong, there’s a place to go: they can always switch to a college-prep class (even as late as Thanksgiving, at least at Weston).
College-prep math classes, in contrast, contain an enormous variety of students. By their very nature they are heterogeneous, ranging from those who could perfectly well be in honors (but chose not to be) all the way to those who are hanging on by their fingertips. Many students in a college-prep class have just as much stress as their classmates in honors classes, but many of them are overly relaxed. Some have given up. Many haven’t given up at all and do their work diligently. Some care. Some do not. Many are taking math just because it’s required (either an explicit requirement for high-school graduation or an implicit one for acceptance at college). Consider what happens to group work as a result: in an honors class, the large majority of students will accept randomly assigned groups and will work cooperatively with those in the group, but in a college-prep class only a minority will do so.
That, at least, is my analysis of what’s going on. There’s still the puzzling question of why it is different in some other disciplines (assuming that it really is).