February 09, 2012

Studying Classrooms Sociologically

clip_image001By Janis Prince Inniss

After many years, I returned to teaching a couple years ago.clip_image002Some of my initial joys and highs in this job have been tempered by some intense frustrations. I have found some comfort in the fact that my colleagues have expressed similar frustrations. Ever the student and researcher, I have been attending training and reading about teaching to be better at my job. This has helped me to focus on what I can do to be a more effective teacher.

At the same time, I have been struck by the number of my colleagues who interpret the disconnect with their students as the responsibility of the students only; these are professors who reject the notion that they—the professors—might lack something that might produce better results in the classroom.

clip_image004As I think about these issues, I have been conducting some stealth observations around campus. Here is what has struck me so far. In just about every classroom, bright faculty members are standing at the front of classrooms and lecturing to students. I listen to snippets of these lectures and although I’m not an expert in their fields, I detect brilliance, hard-work, and scholarship.

Some of these lecturers so love talking that they just can't stop at session’s end and run two, three, even seven minutes over their time slots; I am reminded of the comment that some of us are in this profession because we like to listen to our own voices. They talk and talk and talk and talk. (And yes, I sometimes catch myself doing the same.) I listen outside for invitations to student comments and discussion but it does not come.

Today, however, I was in new territory sitting outside two natural science labs. One was filled with the sounds of student voices, with music as their backbeat. From neither was there a professor's roar. Instead, there was a steady hum of student interaction. In the room that I could see, students sat at small round tables exploring something, engaged and engaging with the subject. (I learned that one was a chemistry lab and the other a physics Lab).

The professor made his way around from table to table. Contrast this model with the one we’re familiar with: Professor in the front. Students staring ahead, some on cell phones, others on laptops—students completely disengaged as the professor delivers a fantastic talk on her area of expertise. What is the sociology course equivalent of the chemistry lab? (Please share your ideas and suggestions about this.)

clip_image006Consider the design of the classroom. Even smaller classrooms are just smaller versions of large ones and don’t seem to be designed to promote student engagement. They’re set up to have the sole expert (the teacher) at the front of the room. In order to facilitate small-group discussions or peer-to-peer teaching, I have to rearrange furniture. Actually, some faculty so despise this kind of set-up that they resent finding classrooms rearranged for student discussion.

One of the many frustrations for faculty is that students don’t read. As I think about the issue though, if you've read the same book that I've read, why would you want to sit quietly and listen to me talk about it for about an hour with little or no opportunity for input? Does this set-up imply that you’re incapable of comprehending what you read? Could this be why more students don’t read? Maybe if students were expected to comment on and discuss the material they read and not just be expected to sit and listen, they would be more likely to read. Put another way, if you complete reading assignments, why shouldn’t you be expected to have a decent command of the material? (Now that texts are widely available—even in electronic format—today’s lecturer is not reading from an original text, unlike medieval times.)

As you can tell, I’ve been contemplating ways to get and keep student attention. This is not an irrelevant issue in the classroom because as John Medina points out in Brain Rules, “if a teacher can’t hold a student’s interest, knowledge will not be richly encoded in the brain’s database.” (Go ahead and check out the website, even if you haven’t read Medina’s book, as it continues a lot of information about the way your brain works that can help you be a better student.)

How much of student passivity in today’s classroom is explained by long-standing ideas about the role of a student? It’s the norm for your professor to be in the role of expert and for you to tolerate a boring lecture for about 50 minutes in your role as (passive) student. (Any student who appears to interested and knowledgeable gets class disapproval for going against this norm, right?) What role, if any, do think sociologists should have in helping to shift this educational model? And what kinds of changes would you advocate? How would you make them work?


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Thanks for the article. I too walk around and look into classrooms and see the same thing. I make each class session a mixture including lecture, group activity, partner discussion, whole class discussion, video clips, article analysis, and guest speakers. My M.A. is in sociology but my B.A. is in elementary education where the constructivist approach to education was emphasized.

I think the lab equivalent of sociology is field work. Taking an issue a student can experience with his/her senses and putting it through the analysis. I think higher education needs more practical application. We can write papers and dissect texts until the cows come home, but until it matters to my life, it's going to be passive learning. I think every sociology degree should require a practical application class where students are introduced to scenario after scenario where they have to use their skills in order to find a solution.

Also, I think professors need to restructure their participation expectations for classrooms. I don't think attendance should be part of one's grade - that way, you get students attending class who actually want to be there to participate. (If a student can pass a class without attending, the prof needs to rethink the class!) The participation points should be for participating, not just showing up because a class full of students who don't talk is frustrating for both the professor and the students who are actually there to have a conversation.

As said, an issue is smaller classes are not being tailored to maximize the benefits of small classes. We need to make the best of what we have.

You're talking college. Can you look to a gradeschool for a model...a rather rare one? I did grade one through 6 in classrooms grade one through 6 in 2 rooms, 3 grades per room...3-6 children per grade level. Since I and all of my classmates were getting going to a larger school district for grade 7-12 I was able to do a basic research project using high school academic achievment levels of my classmates vs those educated entirely in the larger district, class size 20-30. This was of interest to me because my family moved yearly between districts and I experience both.
Question: was my class typical? Of the top 4 graduating with me at the top of my class 2 were classmates of mine from the smaller school, one, the valdictorian, to give her credit due, was my classmate only while I attended the larger school. I researched if this was "typical."
It was.
Rev. Mark W. Clark, AuSable Forks, NY, formerly, during
my formative years..Inlet, NY.

Another thing. It seemed to me there was much less
TIME PRESSURE in that little school in Inlet? CASE IN POINT...My sorry performence in proofreading the previous blog entry. Explanation. I'm in a public library. A pretty busy one. People waiting to get on line...??
whether there is enough time or not, it always feels like there isn't.
I admit. A school like Inlet may only be possible in the Adirondacks...circa 1959, or is it? Look around. Let's see what it IS that makes the difference. I'll tell you one.
I NEVER EVER had to line up single file to go anywhere in
Inlet Public School. It seemed at the larger school that's all we did all day long. At least that's my memory of it.
And it was the whole school that went on nature walks at Inlet, down what today is a snowmobile trail next door.
Look around. Find a model that works. Try it out. mc

I liked that you were trying to come up with ways to keep students engaged by observing what students do when learning on their own. If i could offer suggestions i would say first ask them what kinds of things keep them engaged when they think it keeps them engaged. Now you are going to definatley get anwers like lets watch movies etc? But i think you will get more like kids who want to do group work and more projects rather than listening to lectures and doing essays.

I am privileged to attend a small women's college. Here, reading is a MUST because attendance is mandatory and class discussion is the backbone of our courses. We arrange our desks in a large circle (at least in the Soc dept.), so the students cannot hide from the professor's questions. While it may seem difficult at first for those of us who are shy, a feeling of trust develops within the class and we start to use our voices. =)

I am currently one class away from receiving my M.S. in Applied Sociology and I must say that I have been exceedingly disappointed in the amount of classroom facilitated discussion which the professors engaged the students in.

My undergraduate degree (also in Sociology) was much more enjoyable and spurred me on continually to be a deep thinker. My masters degree merely taught me how to regurgitate information. Great article!

I like how there were different ways being portrayed on how to keep students into what they are doing by watching how they act when learning by themselves. Instead of keeping a class the same every single day. A lecture day after day gets boring and is hard to keep the students attention. By mixing things up like hands on one day project the next then a lecture it creates more excitement towards the topic being taught. I personally believe that people like to work in groups more then they do alone.

This is a great post, as a student myself I cannot stand when teachers blame students for not wanting to learn. Teachers get paid healthy salaries to teach us, but unfortunately we are falling behind with the rest of the world. Your view on teaching not only works for me, but it is a refreshing view on American classrooms. As far as your point on reading assignments, I think (if possible) that you should assign reading assignments and have each student personally respond to a prompt or reading question. The fear of looking stupid or clueless because they didnt read may just encourage them to read the section. Otherwise, I am glad to see a teacher taking initiative to improve themselves rather than blaming students.

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