One in a Crowd: Group Culture vs. Individualism


            I remember the first time my kids had a big group of school friends over to our house in Buenos Aires – they were in 4th grade. There were about 10 kids sitting in a circle on our rooftop terrace mulling over what to play. I stood and spied at the door, amazed at how civil they were about their negotiations, how seriously they took it! And from what I knew so far about their new school, I thought ‘How wonderful that they should foster such a spirit of cooperation.’ I sensed I was seeing the effects of their new school culture playing out directly in their social lives.  I left them alone to play and came back to check on them about 20 minutes later. To my surprise, they were still seated in the same circle, but there was some arguing going on by then about what they were going to play: jump rope, la mancha, twister, etc. So I stepped in to mediate and pointed out that there were enough of them to break into smaller groups so everyone could play what they liked. They all looked up at me with perplexed faces until one spoke up: “What’s the point of getting together if we’re not going to all play the same thing?” Hard to know what to say to that.

Then again, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised if I think about how groups of Argentine adults socialize. Have you ever been at a party where Argentines predominate and somehow you find yourself in a circle in which all present participate in the same conversation, whether there are 5 or 25 of them? You really have to be assertive – not always easy to maneuver linguistically, regardless of how well you might speak Spanish. In terms of discourse, English-speakers tend to have two-way or very small groups conversations, which ensures that all present can make their individual points – stand out and make themselves heard, so to speak. But in the multi-player Argentine version, the numbers have a dimming effect on most of the speakers who don’t happen to be “big” personality types, so it’s kind of hard for all 25 to shine. I often find myself really wishing people would mingle more at social gatherings here instead of “the big circle”…

And just one more example of what I’m getting at, for any of you on school parent e-mail lists here, you know how annoying all those endless email responses like ‘sí; ok; de acuerdo; listo; también; etc.’ in your inbox can be? Recently, when one parent suggested we make a Yahoo group so as to only have to receive the one daily summary, with very few exceptions, the rest overwhelmingly e-voted the motion down, saying that they preferred to ‘see the ongoing exchange because it gave them a better sense of the group dynamic.’ Down with efficiency in the name of togetherness.

Anyway, back to the kids, unlike my school years, where class groups were shuffled with every passing year so we had to annually adapt to a new group, here in Argentina classes are kept together sometimes from as early on as preschool throughout elementary school, and even on through high school. In fact, at the first parent meeting at our kids’ new high school, several parents lamented how their children were struggling with having to leave their childhood class behind. The sentiment in our house is very different – we’re all celebrating the expanding social horizons high school has opened up to the kids. Mainly, we hope the new environment will allow them to more deeply explore their unique abilities and interests and excel as individuals, because elementary school seemed to be a lot more about fostering group interests, both socially and academically.

Like other foreign parents I have talked to, I found the lack of individual assessment from my children’s teachers disconcerting throughout elementary school; grade reports were mostly in the context of the child’s performance as part of the group. The two annual individual reports were formulaic and showed little knowledge of my kids’ academic strengths or weaknesses. Even though it is just as important to me as the next parent that my kids feel socially accepted and respect the group dynamic, it was strange to see how this played out  academically, as if individual achievement and group role were somehow at cross purposes. Just like the kids refusing to play until everyone agreed on the game up on the rooftop, I sensed a real premium placed on the group advancing “as one” with their coursework – let no child be left behind. The fact is faster learners were indeed left behind:  to boredom, or its constant companion – mischief, as they continued working on the same concepts until everyone caught up; not until then could everyone move on.

This idea of the whole class as part of a common project in unity is particularly at odds with the notion of differentiated work for individual students, whether they happen to be gifted in math or speak English as their native language. When it comes to proposals to allow native-English speakers to opt out of mandatory EFL classes, the central argument from school authorities is the disruption of group unity; they see this as potentially damaging to the child’s social acceptance and the overall group dynamic. This also applies to suggestions of differentiated, level-appropriate work for English natives, the argument again being that setting them apart may somehow break down the fabric of the class. It just seems to me that this pretty much disregards the academic needs of individual students in favor of the group.

Argentines are actually very self-critical about their own individualistic tendencies. You will often hear people lament how individualism has taken hold of the country, everyone only out for themselves, no concern for the common good, this of course being at the root of all the crime and corruption. Perhaps. But at least in terms of social education, what I see my kids absorbing is much more about going along with the group and putting their individual differences on a lower plain, both socially and academically. This surely promotes tolerance, solidarity and cooperation, but I have also witnessed how it teaches them to be careful not to shine too brightly.

All this has made me reflect on what I really believe in. If asked whether I favor a school environment that fosters group harmony and tolerance, of course the answer is yes; but it never would have occurred to me that such an environment might also downplay the importance of individual achievement in the same classroom because I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. So this has led me to wonder about the notion of individualism in Argentina, which I sense is equated with selfishness, whereas I see it as  more related to each individual attaining his or her unique potential. In fact, the different angles the two languages take are illustrated in standard dictionary definitions of individualism. The English is from the American Heritage Dictionary, the Spanish from the Real Academia:

English

1. n. Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.

Spanish

1. m. Tendencia a pensar y obrar con independencia de los demás, o sin sujetarse a normas generales. (Tendency to think or operate independently of others or without abiding by general rules.)

Just in these definitions alone, you can see the contrasting values associated with the term. I suppose this would explain why, by the end of elementary school, I was feeling like my personal value system was slightly under assault. If nothing else, it has given me a lot to reflect on in terms of why these things bother me, and how much the cultural ethos we grow up in shapes our beliefs.

Then again, the slate has been wiped clean now that my kids have moved up to high school. And I am hopeful that we may see a different atmosphere of encouragement when it comes to their unique qualities, given that they certainly had to stand out in the crowd to get in in the first place. Ideally, this will provide some sense of balance in which they feel more confident to express themselves as individuals but remain sensitive to the larger group around them.

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12 comments on “One in a Crowd: Group Culture vs. Individualism

  1. Marci says:

    The dictionary definitions provide rich food for thought, thank you!

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  2. Beth says:

    Thank you, Sarah. It was very nice to read your take on the social aspect of the educational system here. I have so often struggled with this very attitude you bring up in your article. I had to change my daughters to a different and half d…ay school a few years ago because I was so tired of hearing that teaching to their level or taking them out of the afternoon English classes would make them different. I asked the school “and what is wrong with the children being different, obviously mine already are as English is their mother tongue?” It’s crazy!!!

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  3. Great post Sarah! I have also ran across the argument of seeing the group suffer and therefore your kid will suffer too…

    But, I do feel that we were able to get through to our school and I actually take my kids out of school to take them to English (well one of them anyway, the other one goes after school).

    I am actually pretty happy with how much they actually know my kids. The parent teacher conferences have been surprisingly full of details as to my own kid´s personality in school and their individual accomplishments.

    However, I am really enjoying reading about your experiences with your kids. I feel like you are actually scouting things out and I have even more information to digest come the time they have to go to middle school.

    Thanks!

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    • otherfence65 says:

      Thanks, Frank; it’s great to hear that you’re having a positive experience with school here and that they seem to be sensitive to your family’s needs. With all the schools in Buenos Aires, I am really hoping that more people like you will share their thoughts so we can all have a broader perspective on the options out there.

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  4. Richard says:

    Fascinating post. Just found your blog through Frank Almeida!

    We just returned from six months in the States, and it is now clear that my eight year old – a very shy and reserved person – prefers the structure and style of education in the States. She is very much into intimate relationships rather than groups, and gets bored with the large group structure at school in Buenos Aires as she is a very fast learner.

    She just started at a very good public school in Capital, but we spent the past few years at a private school that had a crisis. It was interesting in terms of your post because the school has a GREAT nursery program and we felt that the children were very “contenidas” and made wonderful friendships, but once the elder one started grade school we started to see the weakness of the program. In our case, and it was an extreme case, the entire group was “pulled down” by a few children who were having a difficult time and two teachers who could not handle the situation (plus the administration). We ended up having a few large parents meetings to discuss the situation, very much those kind of typical long meetings with EVERYONE voicing their opinion. In the end, 16 of 20 of us ended up leaving the school and opting for other institutions.

    The interesting thing was that we all wanted this school because of its emphasis on community and solidarity, but it was precisely the school’s inability to implement that without sacrificing the individual needs of the children that was its undoing.

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  5. Frances Pitchon says:

    Hi Sarah –

    Thank you for the post.

    Your experience was insightful but in some ways very different from mine. My son was moved ahead in Math at the local Argentine school (St. Georges, in Quilmes) and the school also awarded children for academic achievement based on ability at the end of each year. In addition, I was frustrated with the move to we made to Lincoln (the American school in BA) because my son was no longer being moved ahead in math as he had been at the Argentine school. In fact Lincoln does not sort kids by ability until the 7th grade. Kids that are ahead are used to peer tutor those that are behind. Not a bad way to keep kids out of mischief and learn to interact (social intelligence), but also meant that they were not as far along as they could have been when they hit middle school.

    What also struck me was how similar your comments sound to a friend who lived 8 years in Japan. She said that in Japan the group was always considered over the individual in school and seems to keep many of the top students from excelling. And yet culturally Japan and Argentina seem polar opposites.

    Lastly, Argentines are doing very well in the creative fields. I’m thinking advertising but know it’s not limited to that. I’ve always thought that creativity is brought on by individualism. But it could also be a product of the problems solving skills so essencial with daily life in Argentina due to inefficiencies and lack of cooperation. Just think of a buffet table at a wedding or the line getting on an airplane at EZE. Little if any group cooperation there, but this is changing.

    I do agree that Argentines are not good listeners. Especially professionals hate to hear outsiders suggest how they could improve, state that they missed something, or that they are wrong. It’s always “no” first and then over the years a slow change toward the suggestion. So your suggestion of change at your children’s school is as likely a result of their seeing you as an interloper (who are you to say what is best! I’m a trained professional!) as it is of group-think.

    Thanks for the thought provoking read and keep posting.

    Hugs,
    Frances

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  6. […] I asked Mr. Devetac about this, given the comments from many expat parents here on the issue of group vs. individual work. He assured me that ILSE takes a balanced approach to the two, and that as of second year, students […]

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  7. Laura S. says:

    I am Argentine expat living in Hawaii since 1999. I spent my senior year of high school in California. I loved the experience. I was blessed with two wonderful host families and I have priceless memories from my time there. However, I felt very lonely, especially after school. I lived in the suburbs, my host parents worked, so I stayed home alone. I had nowhere to go. I was used to biking or walking to my friends’ houses after school, and in CA, the distances were too big. There was no public transportation, and I had nowhere to go. My classmates had jobs (something unheard of in Argentina), they didn’t get together. I missed my childhood friends. We were a group of 9 close friends, and we did everything together, everyday, before, during, and after school. I still miss those days sometimes. I still feel lonely in Hawaii sometimes, and wish I could live in ARG again …

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    • otherfence65 says:

      Hi Laura,
      Thanks for sharing your comments about your social life Argentina. Now that my kids have finished their first year of high school here, I agree with you that they have a social life that any kid from the US would envy and a much wider network of friends due to the group culture aspect of life here. I do also think that the kind of lifestyle you described in BA is a product of life in a big, well-connected city with public transportation, like you mentioned. Lack of public transportation, especially in suburban areas, in the US is a major culprit in quality of life issues there. I’m very thankful that my kids have earned physical independence by learning their way around the city, as well as the freedom to get together with all of their friends and not have to depend on their parents to drive them everywhere!

      All the best,
      Sarah

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  8. […] One in a Crowd: Group Culture vs. Individualism, which is a very interesting post that explores the social dynamics that your child will experience […]

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