Sociology AS/ A2 Teaching Analysis

My Preferred Approach

Files in the Thinking About Teaching and Lecturing menu at Sociology and Related consist of actually used Sociology resources made by me and used for Advanced Subsidiary and Advanced Level.
My approach is to reject a teaching method that relies on factual knowledge and revision to the exclusion of methods of analysis and developing abstract learning. An example of overbearing factual knowledge would be writing factual bits of text from textbooks (say) into a list of paragraphs and revising these to bolt into into essays and exams. Sociology is not like this. It is not unlike Religious Education, another abstract type subject where such fixed paragraphs could not work.
Such an approach is a mechanical, remote and rote form of learning. Everything I have learnt right back to the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (and before, for example the Adult Education course in 1989-90) speaks against this method of writing down the correct words for learning
It would not be enough to set up paragraphs containing advantages or disadvantages. Rather, the learning must come through imaginative task work, open questions and through discussion. Students will also do their own searches through text books, making links themselves. Weaker students receive more help. Learning this way is more likely to stick, and is better than a forced write-learn directed procedure.
Advanced Subsidiary (AS) levels (like Advanced levels or A2) have two sides of marking, the Assessment Objective 1 (AO1) and Assessment Objective 2 (AO2). The first is purely factual and the second is analytical and evaluative. The second is the most diffiuclt to achieve, and the first most difficult to remember as a fact-fest. If students can learn the connections between sociology arguments (through tasks, open questions and discussions) then they can have facts in context and recall facts better.
Unless abstract and analytical methods are used, essay planning becomes mechanical and dependent on a start to end process of revising. The text creates dependency on it rather than students gaining confidence of approaching problems themselves. Sociological imagination needs imagination. Resources I have produced on essay plan assistance show me following a set revision paragraphs based approach, but I added as much analytical content as possible.
For example, the mechanics of exams and marking meant a conclusion had to contain new information - which is not a conclusion. Apparently examiners are forced to tick piecemeal bits of information and bits of evaluation, not taking the whole essay into account. To get around this a conclusion can be an evaluation for an AO2 mark.
Teenage experience of GCSE marking encourages point scoring and this gets continued into AS level and even A2. Abstract thinking should have begun at their stage of development.
I did not realise that scoring ten points of AO1 and ten of AO2 in a twenty mark twenty minute essay could lead to 100% - what 100% of an answer was that? One capable student gained 148% in one essay I marked (when given 25 minutes). She had taken advice and focussed the essay down to very many short point scoring sentences, well reduced even from revising paragraphs.
So even set paragraphs evan became too long and unwieldy. When there is lack of understanding a retreat can happen, to even more rote learning on shorter sentences: simplification and repetition takes over when explanation is exhausted.
Students have to grasp the overviews of Marxism, Functionalism and Feminism (and possibly Postmodernism - that really is abstract). If students fail to grasp these they cannot contextualise other information. These overviews are first encountered in a unit like The Family. When not grasped, questions arise like if Marx, because he dealt with the terminology of capitalism, was in favour of capitalism. This demonstrates lack of understanding and contextualising - placing - knowledge. Many will not see that functionalism is dynamic. Dynamic demands abstract.
It is another step for higher level textbooks to be rejected as too difficult (for example, Sociology: Themes and Persectives by Haralambos and Holborn has no pictures and contains inadequate white space and boxing, but the larger Sociology in Focus by Taylor et al.) will aslo be too difficult); instead bright, coloured, simple textbooks get used to try to simplify a writing process. If other resources (such as answers to questions) are used they become too complex themselves. Once a retreat starts, it is in full swing.
Friends of mine who did O levels in the 1970s in an ex-Grammar school (I did mainly CSEs there, but joined them more fully at A levels) said they were taught O level French by an old-style gowned teacher in rote learning fashion. It was the means of learning French grammar and sentences over and over again. My reply was yes, on the basis that somewhere along the line they would start to join the dots and later acquire understanding. This method of teaching French has of course been abandoned in favour of more stress on conversation and empathy with language use. This is also needed in Sociology.
Just as there is Marxism, functionalism and feminism as overviews, Sociology in Research Methods at AS and A2 level has positivism versus interpretivism. Falsification has not been placed on the syllabus, explicitly. Positivism is taught as the theoretical basis of quantitative approaches to research and reliability. This is the linear connection down one side of the research methods argument, pitched in binary fashion against interactionist or interpretivist connections down the other side of the argument. This seems somewhat false. Positivism is a clapped out perspective in Sociology that is historically interesting but lost into its past; It comes from Comte and was attractive to Durkheim in creating a science of Sociology. But science hardly uses positivism, never mind Sociology. Positivism is an absolutist myth: it is basically an inductive method of research (from the bottom up) that produces facts that are deemed to exist. This has long been replaced by the more effective falsification, the deductive method as by Karl Popper, which starts with a hypothesis and evidence is looked for that disproves it. If there is no disproof, the hypothesis holds until it is disproved. Even GCSE, never mind A2, students are taught in coursework to begin with a hypothesis. It is not splitting hairs to say that using this is not positivism. It is from falsification. It also moves on to fit the Thomas Kuhn approach that paradigms of knowledge exist, so that research directed by hypotheses produce a narrative outcome of knowledge that has a shelf life. When falsification happens the hypotheses change and a new narrative of knowledge takes over.
Of course this is too high a level of understanding for AS even A2 students, but what they are taught should be consistent with the higher level. Teaching positivism as the exclusive quantitative perspective is not.
More than this, it is from falsification and paradigms that, then being critical of metanarratives as ever changing intellectual constructions, postmodernism comes. Anyone who analyses science also knowns that falsification is itself in trouble: instead, scientists will persist for some time even if they receive negative results. Hypotheses and paradigms are sticky.
AS and A2 level teaching today invove (by my experience) a huge level of guidance and even spoonfeeding. Everything, it seems, has to be bitesize. I have compared my experience at A levels with students I taught. I was a late developer at school. We were not guided as actively as students today. We got on with it, starting with undivided A level work, and we either failed or succeeded. I remember doing Economics (a new subject to take up like Sociology). I learnt the facts of Economics because I could fit them into the connections, not the other way around. I could see that macroeconomics of Keynesianism did not match the microeconomics we also studied. This was because I was developing abstract thinking through the use of drawing diagrams relating to what happened after dictated notes and through producing short essays. I found out from the news and magazines about Monetarism, and I was able to write about Monetarism (it was not excluded, as was the much older method of falsification in Sociology!). My own thinking about these diagrams and the account of Keynesian economics had led me to a kind of Monetarism, but the likes of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek had got there first and much better (of course). Whilst it was enough to stick with the Keynesian account and standard liberal microeconomics it was not disallowed to go further It was, however, impossible for me or anyone to receive 100% in an essay: the teacher simply took the balance of the quality of an essay. It might receive an A or a B, but A was around a figure of 75%, a numerical mark for a qualitative judgment. Sociology essays now start the A grade at 80%, a numerical mark refelecting the numerical count of AO1 and AO2 marks.
Incidentally, I dropped History at A level. Whereas Economic and Social History, combined at O and CSE levels, made sense, the lists of Kings and Queens and European wars meant nothing to me. It was facts and names. I understand when students tell me that they cannot not remember sociologists names and what they have said.
A number of teachers suggest that in the last fifteen years there had been some dumbing down of student capabilities and A levels. Students are culturally different from before 15 years with more demands upon them. However it has not been recent. I suspect a replacement of quality with quantity: AS and A2 level students do huge amounts of work. I never did the amount they do. My view is that less work is sometimes appropriate, and resting is important. Width is not quality.
What is vital is that A levels are recovered as a bridgehead to semi-independent learning. Otherwise the academic route is undermined. Learning retreats backwards. Of course universities are complaining: there are students without sufficient literacy or numeracy for the level of work; there are students who have been spoonfed for too long. There are indeed students who are not developing sufficient abstract thought for the literate thinking subjects. Best practice suggests they should and they must.


Adrian Worsfold, 2006

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful


Last updated on April 19, 2006