Many of our world’s most pressing challenges arise between groups who perceive the chasm between their opposing views as too vast to bridge.
Conversely, discovering shared preferences, personality traits and common values serves as a powerful social glue. Unfortunately, people either share certain qualities with others or they do not.
So, the question becomes, how can we leverage similarities to bring together people with opposing views?
In a recent study, my colleagues and I applied the power of similarities to the challenge of improving teacher-student relationships.
As we had hoped, when teachers and students are encouraged to see their similarities, it helps improve classroom relationships. But what’s more, it also leads to a large reduction in the achievement gap between white and Asian versus black and Latino students.
Shifting focus towards commonalities
As a prelude to our study, it is worth underscoring the power of similarities to improve relationships.
Even when the similarities are surprisingly trivial – like having a birthday in common with someone else or having a preference for paintings by Klee versus Kandinsky - the consequences on relationships are typically substantial.
A study that compared how closely participants’ speech patterns and diction mirrored their partner’s in a speed-dating setting found that those who conversed via more similar styles went on more second dates together. They also dated for longer.
Focusing on work settings, other scholars found that group members who share initials produce higher-quality group work. Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that the similarity of the authors’ names - Polman, Pollmann and Poehlman - led to this study’s success!
Based on these studies, our research group was excited by the potential of similarity to enhance teacher-student relationships. We hoped it might lead to other downstream benefits.
Yet, we remained stymied by how to make teachers and students more similar to each other. We could not tell teachers to listen to different music or make students appreciate biology more deeply.
Eventually, we realized that, like beauty, similarities might lie in the eye of the beholder.
In other words, any two people have certain commonalities and certain dissimilar qualities. Rather than trying to change what teachers and students had in common, we could nudge their attention toward those qualities, beliefs and values that they happened to share.
In this way, we might alter their perceptions of how much they had in common.
Effects of perceived similarities
To shift perceptions, we designed a get-to-know-you survey that both teachers and students completed. In the survey, participants responded to 28 questions about personal characteristics, learning preferences and values.
We asked a wide variety of questions. For instance, one item asked: “The most important quality in a friend is: a) Being there when you need him/her, b) Listens to you and understands you, c) Always has your back.” Another question focused on shared values: “If you could have one thing in common with your teacher, which of the following would it be: a) Sense of humor, b) Interest in the same subject matter, c) Mutual respect, d) Similar personality.”
For every teacher-student pair, we identified five responses that matched.
This set the stage for our intervention, in which we directed teachers’ and students’ attention toward similarities through feedback sheets. This feedback was presented differently for each of our four treatment groups:
Group 1: In our control group, neither students nor teachers received feedback on what they had in common.
Group 2: Only students learned five things they had in common with their teacher.
Group 3: Only teachers learned five things they had in common with their students.
Group 4: Both students and teachers learned of five things they had in common.
After conducting a follow-up survey and collecting students’ grades, we found the following by the end of the grading period: Teachers and students who learned that they shared commonalities with their counterpart perceived greater degrees of similarity.
Teachers who learned that they shared commonalities with their students perceived more positive relationships. (By contrast, the intervention did not significantly affect students’ perceptions of their relationship with their teachers.)
Finally, students earned higher grades when teachers learned about their similarities to those students.
Improving achievement of underserved students
Our initial analyses also led to another intriguing finding. We examined white and Asian students separately from students who have been historically underserved – primarily black and Latino students. Our findings suggested the intervention was most effective in improving teachers’ relationships with these historically underserved students.
We found that the intervention closed the achievement gap between these student groups by over 60%. Specifically, the grades of underserved students, which were typically less than a B-, went up to about an average of a B. The white and Asian students averaged just less than a B+.
It seems possible that redirecting attention toward those things teachers have in common with their students helped teachers see similarities with their students who appeared most dissimilar.
In other words, teachers may assume substantial differences with a particular student upon initially meeting him or her in class. But when it is revealed that the student enjoys museums, values honesty and spends time at the YMCA - just like the teacher does - the teacher may see the student in a new light.
Furthermore, these similarities may give teachers a new way to generate conversations with students or ways to begin connecting content to students’ interests.
Our study raises many questions. As we attempt to replicate our findings within education, we hope to learn whether some types of similarities work better than others; or why teachers benefited more from the intervention than students and whether the effects are different in other settings.
However, we remain excited by the prospect that by shifting people’s perceptions of similarities, we might gain new insights into other vexing social problems beyond education.
Perhaps, groups negotiating over environmental issues can begin meetings by noting all the common actions they both take toward mitigating climate change. Perhaps those living in regions with ethnic tensions can learn about traditions that permeate both cultures.
To be sure, nudging people’s focus of attention away from differences and toward commonalities will not singlehandedly solve the climate crisis or bring peace to warring factions.
But big changes often start with small steps, and shifting people’s focus toward the common elements of their humanity seems like a promising starting place.