Secondary Secondary Sociology

Sociology: Bringing some life to teaching methods

For many Sociology teachers, the topic of research methods can be the dullest, often described as dry and certainly an area that has many students groaning or yawning on a Monday morning. While some students grasp the basics really quickly (possibly those who also study a science or psychology), there are other students who continue to muddle up validity and reliability even at the 100th explanation.

However, there are a few ways to liven up the topic, certain studies always capture the imagination more than others and by far the most effective way of teaching research methods seems to come from ´doing´ rather than simply ´learning’. This of course was easy in the days of coursework but now a few more innovative ideas need to be incorporated to get the knowledge across.

Representative – one of the most common ways to teach this is with a cake or a pizza. It is the way my Sociology teacher taught me over 20 years ago and it still sticks in my head. The question to the students of course is how much of the pizza or cake needs to be consumed in order to get a representative measure of how good it is. I always start by giving them a tiny crumb to demonstrate under-representative data.

Validity – If there is one way to get A-level students interested then any studies about sex seems to do the trick. The famous 1950s study on sex and sexuality by Kinsey is a really interesting way to discuss validity as it opens up questions about whether people really answer honestly in topics of a sensitive sexual nature. In the study it is estimated that more females admit to same sex feelings than males, this drives an excellent debate about whether it is simply the case that it is more socially acceptable for females to admit compared to males and therefore whether we can trust the findings or not.

Reliability – At the risk of gender stereotyping, there seems to be both a masculine and feminine way of getting the students to remember the term of reliability. One is to pose the question of ´What is a reliable car?’ Of course, the answer we are looking for is a car that starts each time, every morning on a consistent, regular basis. My A-level female students often remember the term by comparing it to the contraceptive pill. In other words, it is only reliable if it works every time it is taken!

In terms of teaching the methods then it obviously makes sense for students to actually carry out the method as much as possible rather than simply reading from a textbook. I am sure most teachers, for example, have their students make their own questionnaires and then go and try these on other students or with the general public. Students soon realise that making a questionnaire with clear questions that cannot be misinterpreted is more difficult than it sounds.

To teach interviews I ask students to construct three stories, two of them are true and one is false. Students then interview each other to see if they can detect the lie. This is really useful for students to learn how sociologists need to be trained and skilled interviewers, that questions are often leading, that the interviewer has a direct effect on the interviewee, and that detecting validity can be quite an art form. Certainly the skill of reading body language is often a real area of interest to students too.

Teaching observations is a favourite lesson too. I take my students out to a part of the school where other students are (a playground, common room or refectory). We pretend that we are carrying out a normal lesson but of course we are watching the behaviour of those around us, and the sociology students write nothing down during the observation. Once we return to class they have 10 minutes to write up their observations and findings. This technique is excellent once again for teaching reliability as once you ask students to read out their findings it is noticeable that there is very little consistency whatsoever. Many students love the covert nature and I think take themselves quite seriously as potential private investigators.

There are of course many famous sociological studies that also seem to stick in the mind more than others. The more controversial in nature, the better.

Here is a list of some of the studies that you may already use but are often excellent points of reference:

Diaries – Valerie Hey ´The company she keeps´

Observations – Humphries ´The tea room trade´

Experiment (also uses questions/interview technique) – Clark ´The Clark doll experiment´

Ethnographic research – Venkatesh ´Gang leader for a day´

Ethnographic research – Sharpe ´Red light, blue light´

So, I am sure many of these ideas you use in class already but if not, I hope there is at least one or two tips that you can incorporate to liven up those Monday morning research methods classes and if all else fails, find a controversial study to raise a few eyebrows!


Matthew Wilkin

Matthew has been teaching Sociology for 14 years and has taught in the UK, Kenya and is currently in an international school in Madrid. Matthew runs the website and the Socio-Zone iphone app.

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