Identifying the proximate and ultimate mechanisms of social behavior remains a major goal of behavioral biology. In particular, the complex social interactions mediating schooling behavior have long fascinated biologists, leading to theoretical and empirical investigations that have focused on schooling as a group-level phenomenon. However, methods to examine the behavior of individual fish within a school are needed in order to investigate the mechanisms that underlie both the performance and the evolution of schooling behavior. We have developed a technique to quantify the schooling behavior of an individual in standardized but easily manipulated social circumstances. Using our model school assay, we show that threespine sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) from alternative habitats differ in behavior when tested in identical social circumstances. Not only do marine sticklebacks show increased association with the model school relative to freshwater benthic sticklebacks, they also display a greater degree of parallel swimming with the models. Taken together, these data indicate that marine sticklebacks exhibit a stronger tendency to school than benthic sticklebacks. We demonstrate that these population-level differences in schooling tendency are heritable and are shared by individuals within a population even when they have experienced mixed-population housing conditions. Finally, we begin to explore the stimuli that elicit schooling behavior in these populations. Our data suggest that the difference in schooling tendency between marine and benthic sticklebacks is accompanied by differential preferences for social vs. non-social and moving vs. stationary shelter options. Our study thus provides novel insights into the evolution of schooling behavior, as well as a new experimental approach to investigate the genetic and neural mechanisms that underlie this complex social behavior.