Group behavior


Group behavior – Would you like to go to the washroom together?

When I was studying in my primary school in Shanghai, it was very normal for some girl to invite me go to washroom together. Actually it was so normal that if a girl was not invited, it means she was not popular. We went to washroom together not because it was dangerous to go alone, but because it was ‘normal’ to go together. (I cannot speak for boys).

It is normal to be in a group. It is not normal to not to belong to one.

So it is normal to travel in groups and to have wedding in groups. These groups are informal. Mostly in each group, there is a leader who is not necessarily the most capable but usually who is the most considerate and connects well with everyone. Democracy exists in these groups. People discuss and agree upon things, then act collectively.


Group behavior in social media

The group behavior also demonstrates itself significantly in the world of social media. A combination of Facebook, Instagram, Paypal and Twitter, Wechat is the biggest social media in China. I use Facebook to connect with my friends outside China and Wechat with my friends in China.

On Facebook most my messages are based on a one-to-one relationship. The conversation happens between two persons – the counterpart and me. Meanwhile half of my Wechat messages are take place in groups. I have groups with people from my school, family and work community.

redpocketIn cater to this group phenomenon, Wechat developed many useful features to including ‘Wechat Red Pocket’ . It is based on the tradition of red pocket for Chinese New Year, when money is wrapped in red envelop given to family and friends as a gift. ‘Wechat Red Pocket’ offers users the ability to send out virtual Wechat credit (linked to real money). The ‘grouped’ red pocket can be posted to a group chat and group members can click to get the credit (first come, first serve).

Root of group behavior explained

Chinese society has been fundamentally agriculture based. In south part of China, migrants arrived centuries earlier and settled in places with enough land to cultivate. That means many descendants could remain in the vicinity, making for a critical mass of nearby kinsmen. (Ebrey P., Cambridge Illustrated History China, 2010). During 16th century, lineages were already introducing elaborate systems to control, support and discipline members. Over time the institution of lineages weakened but its concept rooted in Chinese people’s minds. The natural concept of belong to a group (although it is not necessary to be based on kinship) becomes the soil of the tree to guide individual’s actions and thoughts.

The notion of lineages is not uncommon in western cultures. For example, in the TV show ‘Madman’ we saw the Campbell Macdonald fight. These two men got into a flight from their loyalty to their ancestral Scottish clans, defined by family names.


However two revolutions in Western history diluted the role of groups in people’s life. The Industrial Revolution stimulated trading and thus reduced the economic benefits to stay together. The Culture Revolution in 1960’s UK and US created youth culture and strengthened the culture of individualism.

Take a look at our classrooms!

classroom-chinaBut culture is too complicated to view using only one lens. The photo on the left shows how a typical class looks like in China.  When we observe so much group behavior in social life and on social media, it is much less so in the classroom. In another word, the notion of group behavior, while permeating the social life and social media, has made little influence in the formal education system. Why?

For a long time in China’s ancient history the only way to achieve social mobility was to excel in the civil exam. To excel in the exam, one needed to recite accurately some most obscure paragraphs in selected books. Success of life hugely depended on a high stake exam. The exam required learning more through interheadaction with texts than through social emotion interaction with others. A famous student role model is a man who tired his hair on house beam so whenever he fell asleep while reading at midnight; the hair attached to the beam dragged his head up and woke him up. Key message – learning is lonely and hard.

In the Western research society of education, Lev Vygotsky’s ZPD theory gained its influence. People recognized learning and development through social and emotion interaction with others. The notion of learning with others and from others constituted the foundation of group learning.

Group behavior in online learning

We examined group behavior in social life and in classroom. How about group behavior in online learning? How about MOOCs when the division of formal and informal learning started to blur? How does group form, establish its power structure and culture? Are certain benefits of collaborative learning get lost or strengthened? I hope to address these questions in the following essays.

Sources of photos:

  4. Youtube






Just coming back from Edinburgh Cultural Festival I dived quickly into the academic discussion about the notion of culture. The Edinburgh festivals is a kaleidoscope demonstration of how people express themselves, the world by constructing stories in artistic forms. The notion of culture discussed in academic settings covers a wider range of situation: how people address uncertainty, power hierarchies, opposite gender etc. An art form of culture is an intense, staged version of daily culture.

I many times think of our world as a garden or a safari or a juggle, an ecosystem in which all kinds of live beings play a certain role. Just as we are amazed by the diversification our nature offers, we shall embrace how each genre of plant or animal plays a unique role in the world naturally. In the desert plants with thin leaves survive by reducing water evaporation. In the tropical regions, plants with opposite features thrive. The soil, the weather, the microenvironment and the food chain structure shaped the habit and the look of a particular plant or an animal.

In terms of human culture, things are even more complicated because we can change our environment. Our local environment shapes us (our local culture) but we shape our environment too. By environment, I not only meant natural environment also include the concept of institution, legal structure, etc. In certain cultures, rules matter more than in others. For example, right now I am preparing my driving theory test in UK. Part of it is to memorize hundreds of traffic signals. There are more than 300 articles to cover every situation for every type of drivers. It was not the case when I was preparing my driving theory test in Hong Kong. When I was negotiation contract with Chinese universities for my work, they usually complain how long UK contracts are compared to US contract. This is a reflection of culture. It is a result of intertwining of history, institution, constitution, geography and even weather. Accumulation of culture goes back long way and it is rooted much deeper than it looks.

In the wildness, it is possible to reach equilibrium over time. Without dramatic external change, number of each species stabilizes. However our civilization has a less peaceful record. We had wars and battles between nations and continents, many times due to clashes of religions and identities. As the concept of religion and identity forms our culture, I can therefore say, we had wars and batters, many times resulting from our incapability in resolving cultural differences.

Luckily we are increasingly aware of culture, thanks to modern technology and resulting cross cultural communication. The ultimate purpose  of knowing is not to know every possible stereotype. The significance of the study for me is to be aware someone’s way of thinking and being can be completely different from mine, or even from my imagination. And that demonstration of behavior is determined by value. That value is deeply rooted under the influence of history, social, anthropology factors. A certain value combined with certain behavior created the notion of certain ‘stereotype’. That stereotype can be even more deeply entrenched in our minds.

Zootopia is a movie about ecosystem. ‘From the largest elephant to the smallest shrew, the city of Zootopia is a mammal metropolis where various animals live and thrive. When Judy Hopps becomes the first rabbit to join the police force, she quickly learns how tough it is to enforce the law. Determined to prove herself, Judy jumps at the opportunity to solve a mysterious case. ‘


We want to create a zootopia for an online learning community. It takes institution and many brave individuals like Judy Hopps.

Appendix: photo source –


Run faster, eat bitter for the better


One of my cousins works for a bank in Beijing. During her recent visit, she shared with me some stories of her colleagues from China’s second and third tier cities. These stories are history of struggles with happy endings. People worked really hard in school to move to the first tier city and get a better paid job. They continued to work really hard at work and save every penny they can. A standard formula for a happy ending:  with all these struggles, he/she bought a flat.

Work really hard and get a flat. That is success for you, in reality. Chinese young people shall not feel lonely. On the west side of the Eurasia continent, in London house prices are also crushing the hopes of a young generation.

However there are extra layers of complexity on the China map.

Contrast – There is huge inequality between first tier cities and the rest, between urban areas and rural areas. Each province has its relative independent ecosystem, with its own infrastructure, governing team, subcultural, career opportunities. What people aim for is to move to a better system, better pay, more efficient administrative system, more job opportunities.

Mobility – But mobility is difficult due to the home registry system (户籍), a ‘sub visa’ scheme operating within the country. Each person’s home registration is attached to a local province, with gives him/her the title to study, work and receive welfare only within that province. It is a lottery where you were born. (Isn’t it universally true?). The usual channel to achieve upward mobility is to go to a university in first tier city which improves your chance to find a job in that city and settle down there significantly.

tom and jerry runningThe channel is narrow but achievable, for someone from a less privileged family. One needs to eat bitter (吃苦). Eat Bitter is a concept meaning making huge sacrifices usually to obtain certain goal. In this context, it means studying extremely hard so that one can score higher than 1000, 10,0000 peers in the university entrance exam. It means try every possible way to get a better pay job and stay in the best city possible. It means work non step, count every penny you pay for living because the next thing on the checklist is to save enough money for a flat downpayment.

This has brought an interesting context for education – what is the purpose of you going through an official education system? To compete and win so you can beat the 1000 others and get to the next level?

What if you have a happy ending here? When everything that has been driving you is achieved, what is next? Run faster towards which goal? Eat bitter for what? For the better measured by what? Who are you? A winner at life but what is your cause?