Researching Pupils in Education

Educational researchers might reasonably expect to have to conduct research with pupils at some in their careers, given that they are at the centre of the education system.

This post outlines some the challenges researchers may face when researching pupils in the context of education. It has been primarily written for students of A-level sociology.

Why you might want to research pupils?

The whole education system is based around the pupils. Without them there are no teachers, no OFSTED, no exams, no system! So it makes sense to ask them their opinions on education from time to time!

Pupils tend to have lower status than staff in the system, so giving them a voice is ethically sound!

Schools and pupils want to portray themselves in a good light, so the portrayals they give of their institutions may not be accurate.

Failing students often don’t get a voice, they probably don’t want to talk about education, and so finding out what they think about education might be especially valuable.

The problems of researching pupils

If conducting research within schools, senior leaders and teachers may select which students researchers get to collect data from, possibly selecting some of the better behaved students to portray the school in a positive light.

Once they have gained access, pupils may be reluctant to open up to researchers because they are not used to interacting with any adults other than their parents and teachers.

Younger pupils will be less able to grasp the meaning of key concepts such as social class, or even ‘occupation’, so researchers will have to think carefully about how they might operationalise concepts so that students can understand them.

The reading ability of younger learners may mean that questionnaires will not be a suitable method of investigating their attitudes, so interviews or observations will probably be more appropriate methods, and these tend to be more time consuming.

Speech codes may be a barrier to a researcher gaining trust and understanding from certain groups of students.

Younger pupils may not be able to fully understand the purpose of the research, so it may not be possible to gain fully informed consent from them.

The attitudes pupils have towards the power structure of the school may influence the validity of the data the researcher gets. A pro-school student may be reluctant to criticise the school, whereas anti-school students may do so even if their criticisms are invalid. The later is a criticism that has been made of David Gilborn’s research on Teacher Racism.

Given the general status of children as ‘vulnerable’ researchers need to take special care that students will not suffer any unnecessary harm (such as stress) during the research process.

Because of their vulnerability status, there are going to be gatekeepers to get through in order to research pupils – probably both parents, and teachers, before any research with pupils can take place.

Researchers will have to work within Child Protection legislation – they will need criminal record checks in advance, and ensure that no personal data collected is shared.

It is highly unlikely that researchers would be allowed to spend any time alone with students today, like Paul Willis was able to do for 18 months back in the 1970s! So Participant Observation as a method is probably out of the question today.

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Cross National Comparison Research Task

Below is a task students of A-level sociology can usefully do to give them a feel for doing Cross National Research.

Select any one of the questions below and use the resources nuder the relevant headings below to explore these questions

  1. Why are some countries richer than others?
  2. Why do some countries have higher levels of gender equality than others?
  3. Why do some countries perform better in the PISA tests than others?
  4. Why are some countries happier than others?
  5. Why are some countries more peaceful than others?

Why are some countries richer than others?

This is a list of countries by Gross National Income per Capita, provided by the World Bank. The countries should appear listed in order.

Look at the top 10 countries, the bottom 10 countries, and look at ten in the middle.

NB you may need to screen out certain odd countries (such as those which are Islands with very small populations for example!)

Using your own knowledge, and further research on these countries if necessary, try to find out if any of the above three groups (top 10, middle 10, bottom 10) have anything in common.

Can you come up with theory for why rich countries are rich and poor countries are poor?

Why do some countries have higher levels of gender equality than others?

This link will take you the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, 2020.

Look at the top 10 countries, the bottom 10 countries, and look at ten in the middle.

NB you may need to screen out certain odd countries (such as those which are Islands with very small populations for example!)

Using your own knowledge, and further research on these countries if necessary, try to find out if any of the above three groups (top 10, middle 10, bottom 10) have anything in common.

Can you come up with theory for why some countries are more gender equal than others?

Autobiographies in social research

An autobiography is an account of the life of an individual, written by that individual, sometimes with the assistance of a professional biographer.

One of the most popular UK autobiographies of 2020 was Harry and Meghan’s ‘Finding Freedom’, and it is supposed to ‘dispel rumors about their relationship from both sides of the pond’.

The Amazon critics, however, disagree. The comments ranked at 2 and 3 (accessed 18 August 2020)  in order of usefulness both give the book 1 star out of five and comment thus:

Dela – 1.0 out of 5 stars Pure fantasy

“… the reader can only assume a good proportion of [this book is] made up… the reader is left with a very poor impression of the couple. As someone else said – this is very much an ‘own goal’.”

600 people found this helpful

hellsbells123 – 1.0 out of 5 stars Dross of the highest order – all time low for Harry

“Dreadful book full of ridiculous unnecessary detail from a couple who profess to want privacy. This is a book masquerading as a love story but full of bile, hatred and bitterness. “

578 people found this helpful

Source

The strengths and limitations of autobiographies as a source of data

Whether they have a readership of millions or tens, autobiographies are selective in the information they provide about the life of the author.

They thus tell you what the author wants you to know about themselves and their life history.  

However, you have no way of knowing whether the events outlined in an autobiography are actually and I wouldn’t even trust an autobiography to give me an accurate view of the authors’ own interpretation of what the most significant events in their life history were.

The author may exaggerate certain events, either because they mis-remember them, or because they want their book to sell, thus they are selecting what they think their audience will want to read.

In some cases, events may even be fabricated altogether.

As a rule, I’d say that the more famous someone is, then the less valid its contents are.  An exception to this would be less famous ‘positive thinking’ lifestyle gurus, whose income maybe depends more on their book sales than really famous people, who could possibly afford to be honest in the biographies!

Either way, there are so many reasons why an autobiography might lack validity, I wouldn’t trust the content of any of them – think about it, how honest would you be in your autobiography, if you knew anyone could read it?

Using autobiography sales data may be more useful…

IMO the value of autobiographies lies in telling us what people want to hear, not necessarily in getting to the truth of people’s personal lives.

If want to know what people want to hear, look a the sales volumes – there are really no surprises…..

Top selling autobiographies of all time (source)

Relevance to A-level Sociology?

Twitter data is a source of secondary qualitative data (public rather than private data) and so is relevant to the research methods part of the course.

New social norms revealed by Twitter data?

It is possible to analyse qualitative social media data to reveal social trends in attitudes. 

Twitter recently released an analysis of the content of 4 billion tweets made over the past three years, from users based in the United States. (Source)

The fastest growing theme which Twitter users are talking about is ‘creator culture’, with people tweeting about products they create in order to sell to make a living…

They claim that the content of tweets reveal that the U.S. population has become increasingly interested in six major cultural themes over the last 4 years (from 2016 to 2020):

  • Tweets about ‘Creator Culture’ are up 462% – which includes tweets about creative currency, ‘hustle life’ and connecting through video.
  • One Planet tweets are up – 285% – includes tweets on the themes of the ethical self, sustainability, and clean corporations
  • Tweets about Well Being are up 225% – tweets about digital monitoring, holistic health and being well together
  • Tech Life tweets are up – 166% – on the topics of blended realities, future tech and ‘tech angst’.
  • ‘My Identity’ tweets are up – 167% – fandom, gender redefined and ‘representing me’ are the main themes here.
  • Tweets about ‘Everyday Wonders’ are up 161% – a theme which includes DIY spirituality, awe of nature and cosmic fascination.

Sustainability is another large twitter conversation growth area.

The 2020 report by twitter (here) was produced for marketing purposes, but nonetheless reveals what twitter users are becoming increasingly interested in, and there are no real surprises here.

The report is broken down into several sections which include the nice infographics I’ve put up in this post, there are many more available in the reports.

Intuitively I’m not surprised to see any of the above trends emerging from this analysis – I’m sure that as a population as a whole, we are generally more interested in all of the above in 2020, compared to 2016.

The limitations of using Twitter data to reveal cultural trends

There may be a lot of data, but there are possible problems with representativeness – twitter users tend to be younger and more educated than the wider population. (Source).

There’s also a problem with the motivations behind the data being collected – this was done for marketing purposes, to be useful to companies wishing to advertise on Twitter – so this analysis wouldn’t show any more negative trends which may have been tweeted about.

A limitation of the way this data is published is that we’re not told the raw numbers – so we know how much more a particular trend is being tweeted about in percentages, but we don’t know about the actual numbers. Some of these may have started from a very low base in 2016, in which case a 250% increase in 4 years still wouldn’t be that signficant!

This analysis paints Twitter as a wholly positive place where people are full of wonder and fascination, and are creative and positive. In reality we all know there’s a darker side to Twitter!  

Relevance to A-level Sociology?

Twitter data is a source of secondary qualitative data (public rather than private data) and so is relevant to the research methods part of the course.

Students really should be considering how valid, reliable and representative twitter data is in terms of what it can tell us about broader cultural, political and economic values.

You may well decide that it’s NOT a valid data source at all, but that’s fine as Twitter gives you something to be critical of, and being critical is all part of A-level sociology!

Personal Documents in social research

Personal documents are those which are intended only to be viewed by oneself or intimate relations, namely friends or family. They generally (but not always) not intended to be seen by a wider public audience.

For the purposes of A-level sociology, the two main types of personal document are diaries and personal letters.

Today, I’m inclined to include personal ‘emails’ and certain intimate chat groups – such as circles of close friends chatting on WhatsApp, in this definition, because the data produced here will reveal personal thoughts and feelings, and isn’t intended for wider public consumption.

I think we can also include some personal blogs and vlogs in this definition, as some of these do reveal personal thoughts and feelings, even if they are written to be viewed by the general public – people sharing aspects of their daily lives on YouTube, or people writing more focused blogs about the travel experiences or how they are coping with critical illnesses, all have something of the ‘personal’ about them.

We could also include ‘naughty photos’ intended only to be shared with an intimate partner, but I think I’ll leave an analysis of those kind of documents out of this particular post!

Just a quick not on definitions – you need to be careful with the distinction I think between personal and private documents.

  • Personal documents = anything written which reveals one’s personal thoughts and feelings. These can either be written for consumption by oneself, by close others, or sometimes for public consumption.
  • Private documents – these are simply not intended to be viewed by a wider public audience, and can include someone’s personal diary or intimate letters/ photos between two people, but company accounts and strategy can also count as private documents, even if shared by several dozens of people, if not intended for consumption by a wider audience.

As with all definitions, just be clear what you’re talking about.

Certainly to be safe, for the sake of getting marks in an A-level sociology exam question on the topic, personal diaries and ‘intimate letters’ are certainly both types of personal document.

Examples of sociological research using Personal Documents

Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant (1918/ 1921)

Ozana Cucu-Oancea argues that this remains the most significant work using personal documents in the history of the social sciences (source).

The study used a range of both personal and public documents, and the former included hundreds of letters between Polish immigrants and their families back home in Poland, as well as several personal diaries.

In all the work consisted of 2,200 pages in five volumes, so it’s pretty extensive, focussing  on the cultural consequences of Polish migration.

The documents revealed touched on such themes as crime,  prostitution, alcoholism; and the problem of social happiness in general.

What was significant about this study from a theoretical point of view is that it put the individual at the centre of social analysis and stood in contrast to Positivism which was popular at that time.

The limitations of using personal documents in social research

  • There is a problem of interpretation. The researchers might misinterpret the meaning of the documents. The less contextual information the researchers have, the more likely this is to happen.
  • Practically it takes a long time to sift through and organise the information.
  • Who cares? Let’s face it, are you really going to go and read a 2, 200 page work analysing letters from Polish Immigrants, written over 100 years ago?

Relevance to A-level Sociology?

Twitter data is a source of secondary qualitative data (public rather than private data) and so is relevant to the research methods part of the course.

A-Level Sociology Official Statistics Starter (Answers)

One of the supposed advantages of official statistics is that they are quick and easy to use to find out basic information.

To test this out, I use the following as a starter for my ‘official statistics’ lesson with my A-level sociology students:

I print the above off as a one paged hand-out and give students 10 minutes to find out the approximate answers to each of the questions.

If some students manage to find all of them in less than 10 minutes, they can reflect on the final question about validity. I wouldn’t expect all students to get to this, but all of them can benefit from it during class discussion after the task.

Official statistics stater: answers

Below are the answers to the questions (put here because of the need to keep updating them!)

How many people are there in the UK?

66, 800 000 estimated in 2020

Source: Office for National Statistics Population Estimates.


How many households are there in the UK?

27.8 million in 2019

Source: ONS Families and Households in the UK 2019.


How many marriages were there last year in the UK?


240 000 in 2017, latest figures available

Source: ONS Marriages in England and Wales

How many cases of Domestic Violence were there in England and Wales last year?

In the year ending March 2019, an estimated 2.4 million adults aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year (1.6 million women and 786,000 men).

Source: Domestic Abuse in England and Wales, November 2019.


What proportion of GCSE grades achieved 4 or above in 2020, how does this compare to 2019?

79% of GCSE entries in 2020 received 4 or above, up from 70% in 2019.

Source: The Guardian.

How many students sat an A level in Sociology last year?

38, 015 students sat an exam in A-level sociology in 2019.

Source: Joint Council for Qualifications (curse them for PDFing their data and making it less accessible for broader analysis).

Do any of the above sources lack validity?

It’s hard to make an arguement that the last two have poor validity – however, you can argue that these are invalid measurements of students’ ability, because of variations in difficulty of the exams and a range of other factors.

With the DV stats, there are several reasons why these cases may go under reported such as fear and shame on the part of the victims.

Marriages, there may be a few unrecorded forced marriages in the UK.

In terms of households, the validity is pretty high, as you just count the number of houses and flats, however, definitions of what counts as a household could lead to varying interepretations of the numbers.

The population stats are an interesting one – we have records of births, deaths and migration, but illegal immigration, well be it’s nature it’s difficult to measure!

The point of this starter and what comes next…

It’s kinaesthetic demonstration of the practical advantages of official statistics, and gives students a chance to think about validity for themselves.

Following the starter, we crack on with official statisics proper – considering in more depth the strengths and limitations of different types of official statistics, drawn from other parts of the A-level sociology specification.

A-level teaching resources

If you’re interested in receiving a paper copy of this, along with a shed load of other fully modifiable teaching resources, why not subscribe to my A-level sociology teaching resources, a bargain at only £9.99 month.

Unlike Pearsons or Tutor to You (however you spell it), I’m independent, all subscription money comes straight to me, rather than the resource designers getting a pittance and 90% of the money going to the corporates at the top, like with those companies.

Cross National Comparisons

Cross National Comparisons involve researching a specific social institution, trend, or phenomenon in two or more countries using the same research methods, with the intention of comparing how this institution, trend, or phenomenon manifests in different socio-cultural settings.

Researchers might choose to focus on broad topics such as the education system, or a specific trend such as the suicide rate, and they may use analysis of already existing secondary data to do this, or conduct their own original primary research.

The aim may be to seek new explanations for similarities or differences or to gain a deeper understanding of social reality in different national contexts.

Examples of Cross-National Comparisons

Durkheim’s classic 1897 study of Suicide

Emile Durkheim’s study of Suicide was the first ever study to call itself a work of sociology. Durkheim wanted to find out whether the very personal act of suicide was shaped by social factors.

He used official statistics on a range of factors such as the religion of a country (Protestantism or Catholicism), the rapidity of economic growth, and the divorce rate (among other things) and then correlated these with the suicide rate.

He famously found that countries with lower rates of social integration and social regulation have higher suicide rates.

(NB this is a summary of one aspect of the study, it’s a bit more complex than this!)

He was famously criticised for many reasons, one of which was his failure to take account of the stats lacking validity.

Wilkinson and Picket (2010) The Spirit Level

In 2010 these two researchers looked at income equality in several different countries (the gap between the highest and lowest earners.

They found that a higher level of inequality was associated with all sorts of social and cultural problems such as:

  • Higher rates of imprisonment
  • Higher levels of obesity
  • Higher rates of suicide.

A 2014 study on immigration and gender equality

In 2014 Roder and Muhlau noted that there is considerable cross national variation in attitudes towards gender equality, and they were interested in exploring what happens to the attitudes of immigrants who move from a less gender egalitarian culture to one in which gender equality is more activity promoted.

They started off with the following hypothesis:

(a)Second- generation immigrants have a more egalitarian-gender ideology than the first generation and (b)the gender relations of the origin country exert less influence on the gender attitudes for second generation immigrants than for first generation immigrants.

To test the hypothesis the authors used data from the European Social Survey (2014), which is conducted in several European countries by structured interview every two years.

They defined ‘second-generation immigrant’ as anyone who was born in the country in which they presently lived but had at least one parent who was born abroad.

To measure gender egalitarian attitudes, they relied on two questions from the questionnaire, both being Likhert Scale questions, consisting of statements which people had to agree or disagree with on a 1 to 5 scale.

To measure gender equality in the origin country, researchers relied on indicators such as female representation in parliament, professional jobs, and income differences between men and women.

  • ‘When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to do a job than women’
  • ‘A woman should be prepared to cut down on her paid work for the sake of her family’

The hypothesis was broadly proved correct

The Limitations of Cross-National Studies  

Cross national studies tend to be very large in scope, and so can require considerable funding to carry out, securing funding can be a problem (an agency based in one country may be reluctant to fund research that takes place in multiple countries, so sources of funding are likely to be limited to international agencies, rather than national governments).

Data collected from official government sources (official statistics) may not be comparable – the categories used and the methods of collecting the data may differ from country to country.

Data will have to be translated, and there is a problem of this translation being insensitive to specific national and cultural contexts. Cross-national research helps to overcome assumptions we might make about life in other countries.  

How has Coronavirus Affected Education?

The most obvious impact of the 2020 Coronavirus on education was the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams, with the media focusing on the chaos caused by teacher predicted grades being downgraded by the exam authority’s algorithm and then the government U-turn which reinstated the original teacher predicted grades.

While it’s fair to say that this whole ‘exam debacle’ was stressful for most students, in the end the end of exam period cohorts ended up getting a good deal, on average, as they were able to pick whichever ‘result’ was best.

It’s also fair to say, maybe, that most of the students who missed their GCSEs and A-levels didn’t miss out on that much education – what they missed out on, mostly, was the extensive period of ‘exam training’ which comes just before the exam, which are skills that aren’t really applicable in real life.

However, in addition to the exam year cohorts, there were also several other years of students – primary and secondary school students, and older students, doing apprenticeships and degrees, whose ‘real education’ has been impacted by Covid-19.

This article focuses on some of the recent research that’s focused on these ‘other’ less newsworthy students.

This post has primarily been written to get students studying A-level sociology thinking about methods in context, or how to apply research methods to the study of different topics within education.

Research studies on the impact of Coronavirus on Education.

I’ve included three sources with lots of research: the DFE, The NFER and the Sutton Trust, and then a few other sources as well.

The Department for Education (DFE)

The DFE Guidance for Schools resources seems like a sensible place to start for information on the impact of the pandemic on schools.

The Guidance for the Full Opening of Schools recommends seven main measures to control the spread of the virus.

This guidance suggests there is going to be a lot more pressure on teachers to ‘police’ pupils actions and interactions – although ‘social distancing’ is required only dependent on the individual school’s circumstances, and face coverings are not mandatory. So schools do have some discretion.

All in all, it just looks like schools are going to be quite a lot more unpleasant and stressful places to be in as various measures are put in place to try and ensure contact between pupils is being limited.

The National Foundation of Education Research (NFER)

The NFER has produced several mainly survey based research studies looking at the impact of Coronavirus on schools.

One NFER survey of almost 3000 senior leaders and teachers in 2200 schools across England and Wales asking them about the challenges they face from September 2020.

The main findings of this survey are as follows:

  • teachers report that their students are an average of three months behind with their studies after missing school due to Lockdown
  • Teachers in the most deprived schools are three times more likely to report that their pupils are four months behind compared to those in the least deprived schools.
  • Over 25% of pupils had limited access to computer facilities during lock down. This was more of a problem for pupils from deprived areas.
  • Teacher anticipate that 44% of pupils will need catch up lessons in the coming academic year.
  • Schools are prioritizing students’ mental health and well being ahead of getting them caught up.

The Sutton Trust

The Sutton Trust has several reports which focus on the impact of Coronavirus, specifically on education. The reports look at the impacts on early-years and apprenticeships, for example.

A report by the Sutton Trust on the impact of the school shutdown in April noted some of the following key findings:

  • Private schools were about twice as likely to have well-established online learning platforms compared to state schools, correspondingly privately schooled children were twice as likely to receive daily online lessons compared to state school children.
  • 75% of parents with postgraduate degrees felt confident about educating their children at home, compared to less than half of parents with A-levels as their highest level of qualification
  • 50% of teachers in private schools said they’d received more than three quarters of the work back, compared to only 8% in the most deprived state schools.

Research from other organisations

  • This article from the World Economic Forum provides an interesting global perspective on the impact of coronavirus – with more than a billion children worldwide having been out of school. It highlights that online learning might become more central going forwards, but points out that access to online education various massively from country to country.
  • The Institute for Fiscal studies produced a report in July focusing on the financial impacts of Coronavirus on Universities. They estimate that the sector will have lost £11 billion in one year, a quarter of income, and that around 5% of providers probably won’t be able to survive without government assistance.
  • This article in The Conversation does a cross national comparison of how schools in four countries opened up. They grade their approach. It’s an interesting example of how some social policies are more effective than others!

Final Thoughts

I’ve by no means covered all the available research, rather I’ve tried to get some breadth in here, looking at the impact on teachers and pupils, and at things globally too.

By all means drop some links to further research in the comments!

Sociological Perspectives on the 2020 Exam results fiasco

What a mess this years exam results were!

First of all students get awarded their results based primarily on an algorithm, which adjusted center predicted grades up or down depending on how their historical results records.

Then those results were scrapped in favour of the original teacher predicted grades, awarded several months ago, unless the algorithm grade was better!

And finally, amidst all that chaos, BTEC students just get forgotten about with the publication of their results being delayed.

Unfortunately there isn’t a ‘total balls up’ perspective in Sociology, as that would most definitely be the best fit to explain what occurred, and I’m not sure that any one perspective can really explain what’s going on, but there some concepts we can apply….

Marxism

A basic tenet of Marxism applied to education is that the education system tends to benefit the middle classes more than the working classes, and especially the 7% of privately schooled kids compared to other 93% who are educated in state school.s

The algorithm which was used to adjust teacher predicted grades benefitted those from higher class backgrounds more than from lower class backgrounds.

You’ll need to follow the Twitter threads below for the evidence…

The Power of Popular Protest

However, students protested…..

And as we all know, the algorithm was overturned, and we ended up with teacher predicted grades being the basis for results (unless the algorithm gave students a better result of course!).

So in this case the system did try to to screw the working classes, but popular protest managed a small victory.

NB – it’s worth pointing out that Independently schooled kids probably still have better results on average than working class kids, so while this may feel like a victory, it’s maybe no big deal really?

Labelling Theory

I think there’s an interesting application here in relation to teacher predicted grades – clearly teachers have exaggerated these as much as they can, because the results on average are nearly a grade up compared to last year – which is a great example of teachers positively labelling their students in terms of giving them the highest grades they might have achieved.

It kind of shows you that, at the end of the day, teachers are more positive about their students than negative.

For one year only, we’ve got results based on labels, the projections in teachers’ heads rather than being based on objectively measured performance. In some cases over the next year we are going to see the limitations of labelling theory – just because a teacher says someone is capable of getting 5 good GCSEs doesn’t mean they are going to be able to cope with A levels rather than BTECs at college.

Keep in mind that some of the teacher predicted rates are going to be utter fantasy, and not every case is going to end up in a self-fulfilling prophecy – there are going to be a lot of failures at A-level as thousands of over-predicted students can’t cope.

Probably less so at universities – they need the money from tuition fees, so they’ll probably just lower their standards for this cohort.

Functionalism

You may think that this has no relevance, HOWEVER, the system hasn’t collapsed, has it?

There was a bit of a blip, a few people got upset and protested, and now this year’s students have ended up with much better results than last year’s students based on teacher predicted grades which are clearly about as exaggerated as they can get away with.

And now we’re all heading back to college and university and things are going to go back to the ‘new normal’, without anything very much changing, despite the fact that so many flaws have been revealed in how the exam system works.

I’d say this whole fiasco has been a pretty good example of a system coping well with a crisis and coming out the other side relatively unscathed.

Postmodernism and Late Modernism

The extent to which these apply is a bit of a mixed bag….

The government certainly showed a high degree of uncertainty about how to award results, resulting in wide spread chaos, which certainly seems to fit in which the postmodern perspective.

However, that’s about as far as it goes I think…. students and parents alike showed an utter contempt for being ruled by an algorithim, which is one of the primary mechanisms of social control in post/ late modern societies (via actuaralism) – and yet when its workings are brought to light, people resisted – they wanted justice and meritocracy rather than this bizarre way of managing selves.

Also the fact that people actually seem to care about their results and want a sense of justice isn’t really postmodern – it’s a very modernist concern, to be interested in one’s education and future career, and I get the feeling that rather than kicking back and enjoying their postmodern leisure time, students have just been generally worried about their results and their future.

So there’s been a high level of uncertainty and fear/ worry, that’s quite postmodern, but the fact that people actually care about education, that’s more modernist….

Two-stage balloon rocket as an introduction to ‘experiments’ in sociology

The two-stage balloon rocket experiment is a useful ‘alternative’ starter to introduce the topic of experiments – a topic which can be both a little dry, and which some students will find challenging, what with all the heavy concepts!

Using the experiment outlined below can help by introducing students to the concepts of ‘dependent and independent variables’, ’cause and effect’, ‘controlled condition’s, ‘making predictions’ and a whole load of other concepts associated with the experimental method.

The experiment, including the materials you’ll need, and some discussion questions, is outlined here – you’ll need to sign up, but it’s easy enough to do, you can use your Google account.

Keep in mind that this link takes you to a full-on science lesson where it’s used to teach younger students about physics concepts – but modified and used as a starter it’s a useful intro a sociology lesson!

Also, students love to revert back to their childhood, and you can call this an activity which benefits the lads and the kin-aesthetic learners, Lord knows there’s precious little enough for them in the rest of the A-level specification, so you may as well get this in while you can!

The two-stage balloon rocket experiment

(Modified version for an intro to experiments in A-level sociology!)

  1. Set up the two-stage balloon rocket experiment in advance of the students coming into the classroom. Set it up with only a little amount of air, so it deliberately is a bit naff on its first run.
  2. Get students to discuss what they think is going to happen when you release the balloon along the wire.
  3. Release the balloon.
  4. Discuss why it didn’t work too well.
  5. Get students involved with redesigning the experiment
  6. Do round two.
  7. Use the examples of ‘balloon speed’ as ‘dependent’ and ‘amount of air/ fuel’ as independent variables’ when introducing these often difficult to understand concepts in the next stage (excuse the pun) of the lesson.

Questions you might get the students to consider:

  • What variables did we find had the biggest impact on how far the rocket traveled?
  • Did any variables have a very small impact or no impact at all?
  • If we had more time or other materials available, what changes would you make to make the rocket travel even farther?

Don’t forget to save the animal modelling balloons you would have bought for this and use them for the ‘Balloon Animals Starter’ in the next lesson on field experiments.

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