Researching in Classrooms

The classic method for researching in classrooms is non-participant observation, the method used by OFSTED inspectors. However, there are other methods available to the researcher who wishes to conduct research on actual lessons within schools.

Classrooms are closed environments with very clear rules of behaviour and typically containing around 20-30 students, one teacher and maybe one learning assistant, and lessons usually lasting from 40 minutes to an hour.

The obvious choice of research method for using in a classroom is that of non-participant observation, where the researcher takes on the role of the OFSTED inspector.

The fact that there are so many students in one place, and potentially hundreds of micro-interactions in even just a 40-minute lesson gives the observational researcher plenty to focus on, so classrooms are perhaps some of the most data rich environments within education.

Arguably the most useful way of collecting observational data would be for the researcher to have an idea about what they are looking for in advance – possibly how many times teachers praise which pupils, or how many times disruptive behaviour takes place, and how the teacher responds, rather than trying to watch everything, which would be difficult.

And students will probably be used to OFSTED inspections, or other staff in the school dropping in to observe lessons occasionally, thus it should be relatively easy for a researcher to blend into the background and observe without being too obtrusive.

The fact that classrooms are usually organised in a standardised way (they tend to be similar sizes, with only a few possible variations on desk layouts) also means the researcher has a good basis for reliability – any differences he observes in teacher or student behaviour across classrooms or schools is probably because of the teachers or pupils themselves, not differences in the environments they are in (at least to an extent!).

There are, however, some limitations with researching in classrooms.

Gaining access could be a problem – not all teachers are going to be willing to have a researcher observing them. They may regard their classroom as their environment and think they have little to gain from an outsider observing them – although if a researcher is a teacher themselves, they could maybe offer some useful feedback about teaching strategies applied by teachers.

Teachers will probably act differently when observed – if you think back to OFSTED inspections, teachers usually ‘up their game’ and make sure to be more inclusive and encouraging, this is likely to happen when anyone observes.

Similarly, pupils may behave differently – they may be more reluctant to contribute because of a researcher being present, or disruptive students may act up even more.

Classrooms are very unique, controlled environments, with only two roles (teachers and students) and clear norms. Teachers and students alike will not be themselves in these highly unusual situations.

Finally, researchers wouldn’t be able to dig deeper and ask probing questions when part of a lesson, unless they took on the role of participant observer by becoming an learning assistant, but even then they would be limited to what they could ask if they didn’t want to disrupt the lesson flow.

It’s not all about direct non-participant observation

Researchers might choose a more participatory approach to researching in classrooms, by training to be a learning assistant or even a teacher, and doing much longer term, unstructured observational research with students.

This would enable them to get to really know the students within a lesson, and make it very easy to to ask deeper questions outside of lessons.

The problem with this would be that they would then be part of the educational establishment and students may not wish to open up to them precisely because of that reason.

A further option would be to put up cameras and observe from a distance, but this might come up against some resistance from both teachers and students, and it would be more difficult to ask follow up questions if reviewing the recordings some time after the actual lesson took place.

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Issues surrounding researching in schools

There are tens of thousands of schools in the United Kingdom, which means that observational research which focuses on just one, or a handful of schools will be unrepresentative. This is also a  problem with any of the popular documentary programmes which focus on just one school – they are very interesting as they focus on the stories of the school, and some (but only some) of the pupils and teachers, but they are never going to be representative of all schools!

There are a lot of official statistics available on schools, much of it freely available on the DFES website – information on results, attendance, exclusions are all available, as are the latest OFSTED reports, so using a mixture of secondary qualitative and quantitative data may be a good choice for researchers given that schools are ‘data rich’ institutions.

A researcher could also use official statistics to easily select a sample of schools which represent all the regions in the UK, different OFSTED grades, and/ or different school types.

However, official statistics on education can be misleading – exam results may not reflect the underlying ethos of a school, or show us the difficulties a particular school faces, and schools can manipulate their data to an extent – for example, they can reduce their exclusion statistics by ‘off-rolling pupils’ – getting parents to agree to withdraw them before they exclude them.

Schools are potentially very convenient places to conduct research – because the law requires pupils to attend and teachers/ managers need to attend to keep their jobs, you can be reasonably certain that most people you want to research are going to be in attendance! You have a captive audience!

However, school gatekeepers (i.e. head teachers) may be reluctant to allow researchers into schools: they may see research as disruptive, fearing it may interfere with their duty to educate students.

Schools are also highly organised, ‘busy’ institutions – researchers may find it difficult to find the time to ask questions of pupils and teachers during the day, meaning interviews could be a problem, limiting the researcher to less representative observational research.

The researcher will also need to ensure they blend-in, otherwise they may be seen as an outsider by teachers and students alike, which would not be conducive to getting respondents to open up and provide valid information.  

Researching Parents

Home factors have more of an influence on pupil performance than school factors, and parents are certainly the biggest influencers of pupils at home, especially in their early years.

Parents can influence a child’s attitude towards education in various ways:

  • The amount of time they spend reading with their children in early years
  • How they play with their children more generally, and how educational that play is.
  • How strict they enforce rules.
  • The importance they attribute to education themselves
  • The amount of interest they show in their child’s education

As a result of early socialisation, children end up being either culturally deprived or having cultural capital (or somewhere in between), which means they are either ill-prepared for school or very well prepared, which will make an enormous difference in how well they adapt to school life when they first start.

If you wish to research pupils, you may well need the consent of parents, so some minimal contact may well be necessary even if it’s not them you are actually researching.

Problems of researching parents

Validity issues

Middle class, pro-school parents are more likely to want to engage with research about education, as they will be more interested and will probably be able to use it as an opportunity for self-validation – they can show off how much they care about their children’s education. They will also be more familiar with filling in questionnaires, and engaging in social research, which are quite ‘middle class’ pursuits.

Working class parents, who themselves maybe didn’t have such a positive experience of schooling, might be more reluctant to take part in research, feeling less comfortable engaging with the middle class researchers.

Parents may also try to ‘impression manage’ with researchers, exaggerating their involvement in their children’s education for example, because this paints them in a more positive light.

Practical Problems

Gaining access to parents could be difficult – if you don’t want to hang around the school gates or at parents evenings then you would have to approach them either at home or via phone/ email.

Gaining access to parent’s private addresses is going to be difficult because schools will not share that data with you because of GPDR, thus if you wanted a representative sample by postcode then you wouldn’t be able to get it.

Schools might agree to send out questionnaires or letters asking for interviewees to parents on your behalf, but then you’ve got the problem of getting a self-selecting biased sample back. The chances are only those parents who are pro-education would want to take part in your research.

It could be very difficult to gain access to the parents of traditionally underachieving groups – white working class parents or traveler parents for example.

When it comes to researching, it would be more difficult to get parents into a group to research them (also, this might be pointless anyway), so you’d probably have to do one on one research which could be more time consuming.

Reality TV School Shows – How Valid are They?

Reality shows featuring schools have become common place on British T.V. over the last decade.

One well-known example is the ‘Educating’ series, which started in Essex in 2011, then visited Yorkshire in 2014, and then another three series, with the latest airing in 2017.

Each series followed one school through an entire year, with cameras going into lessons, and interviews with several students, teachers and managers.

Another example which is more a creative work done in conjunction with the children, is ‘Our School’ on CBCC…..

In research methods terms this method is a combination of ‘non-participant observation’ and semi-structured interviews, and these sources shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because real life educational researchers rarely get access to one school for an entire year, so there is a rich vein of data here.

However, these are not works of sociological research, they are documentaries, produced for entertainment purposes and for a profit, so we need to be cautious about how useful they are.

Practical issues

Given the problems of a researcher gaining access to a school, having these shows done for us is great, as someone else has already gained access!

Theoretical issues

Representativeness may be limited – it’s likely that only schools which are doing OK will agree to take part – schools in special measures probably wouldn’t.

Also, these shows tend to focus on the dramatic cases of students – rather than the ‘normal’ ones!

Validity may be an issue – both schools and teachers may well act differently because they know there are cameras present.

Having said that, we do get something of an insight into the stories of a limited number of students.

However, if the data is not valid, there’s little point!

Ethical issues

These documentaries do seem to be done with the co-operation of the students – so I guess this gives them a voice.

I’m not convinced the teachers would be that happy about this as a whole – maybe quite a lot of railroading by the SLT?

Researching Teachers in Education

Teachers are the ‘front line’ of education, with the primary day to day responsibility students’ education and well-being.

If you want to understand the impacts that education policies are having on different types of student, then teachers are probably best placed to be able to tell you.

However, there are a number of potential problems when researching teachers:

Teachers have hectic working lives

Teachers work very long hours and often suffer with high stress levels, and they may not be willing or able to spend more time to engage with researchers.

For this reason questionnaires may be a better choice of method than interviews and observations may also be a good choice as these don’t really take up any time, but they could add to teacher stress, so it might be difficult to get teachers to agree to being observed.

Teacher professionalism

The validity of information you get from teachers may be compromised because of their professional status.

Teachers are bound by the GDPR and have a duty of care towards their students and so probably will not share data about their students with researchers from outside of the school.

Teachers could also be concerned about ‘impression management’ – they may want to present themselves in the best light possible and some may feel duty bound to present their school in a good light, because to do so is good for marketing and student recruitment, which could limit the critical views you get from teachers as a researcher.

On the other hand, there are also ‘jaded’ teachers that are fed up with their jobs, and are just time-serving their way to retirement – if you got a group of these together in a group interview, you might just get unrepresentative biased moaning about how bad life is as a teacher.

Line managers

If you want to gain access to teachers in a school you will have to approach the senior management team, and these may limit your access to the teachers you can research, possibly directing you towards the better and more compliant teachers to pain their school and the management in a positive light.

Even if you had unlimited access to teachers, they may not wish to be critical of the school for fear of this getting back to their superiors. In some schools there may well be very few critical teachers, and if research findings showed negative views of the school, in such cases it would probably be obvious which teachers were responsible for such negative comments, even if data was anonymous.

Home may be the best place to research teachers?

You don’t have to research teachers in their school setting don’t forget, you may get more valid information if you interview them in their homes, away from the school setting, away from the ‘front stage’ where they are performing their teacher role.

Experiments within schools

What are the strengths and limitations of using laboratory and field experiments to research education?

As a student you probably would have been the subject of an experiment within your school at some point during your 13 years of formal education.

Experiments conducted by schools themselves are a lot more common than educational researchers conducting their own field experiments within schools, and so such experiments are a rich source of data for students studying Methods in Context for A-Level sociology.

It is quite usual for schools to conduct small scale field experiments to try out new teaching techniques or to evaluate the effectiveness of banding of streaming.

If there are several classes of students of similar abilities doing the same subject, it is relatively easy to keep some classes being taught in the same way as usual but to change one aspect of teaching of other classes, and to measure the effect this has on student behaviour or learning.

Some years ago we conducted the following experiment in my institution, designed to measure the effectiveness of splitting students into ability bands:

In five subjects we deliberately created one class of all higher ability students (those predicted to get Bs or above at A-level based on their GCSE grades), but kept some high ability students in all of the regular mixed ability classes.

So in A-level sociology we had 7 classes at AS, and we ended up with one ‘high ability class’ and then 6 mixed ability classes, each with 2-3 A/B students rather than 3/5 A/B students.

The hypothesis of the Senior Management was that grouping all the higher ability students into one group would lead to improved results.

The control students are the high ability students still in the regular mixed classes.

We let this run for a year and compared the AS exam results at the end (it was a long time ago, when we still had AS exams.

The results in the end were inconclusive when we looked at the results of the ‘top band’ classes across all subjects – there was no signficant evidence that putting them in once class led to them getting better results.

As far as I am aware the students involved to this day have no idea they were subject to this experiment!

This kind of experiment within education is probably more common than you think!

A lot of schools put students into ability bands, and it makes sense that they review their results from time to time and ‘experiment’ to see if mixing up the bands give better results – for example, if you’ve got 6 maths groups in one school year, you could either have 6 discrete bands, or 2 more general bands, so you end up with a wider range of abilities split across 3 classes.

It kind of makes sense for schools to play around with how the split groups up to see if they can improve behaviour our outcome.

If you think about all of the things that schools can do differently, there are a lot of potential variables schools can change in one class, say, but not in others, just to see if changing that one variable makes a difference after a year in one class, rather than risking rolling out a change across the whole year group.

Variables you might change (all possible in-school experiments):

  • The gender mix of classes.
  • Seating lay-outs within classes
  • The length of lessons/ number of lessons in a week
  • The timing of ‘support lessons’ – before or after school, weekends, holidays.
  • How support staff are used in classrooms
  • Wider school policies on uniform, discipline and punishment
  • The teaching techniques used in lessons.
  • The ratio of face to face and online learning.

The practical, theoretical and ethical strengths of schools conducting experiments

Don’t kid yourselves, this kind of micro-experiment goes on all the time, but there some good reasons:

  • Ethically teachers and schools have to provide students with the best education they can – educational theory about what the most effective teaching techniques changes, technology changes, so teachers and schools have to adapt. Doing an experiment for a year with one class can be a useful way of finding out how to implement changes more effectively across the whole school the following year. Or if some experiments don’t work out, at least it’s not all students who suffer.
  • Practically, the students are there, the school is there, it’s relatively easy for teachers and schools to do experiments, rather than having them done externally.
  • Theoretically – validity should be very high because one typically doesn’t inform students they are part of an experiment. Reliability should also be good because the conditions are relatively stable over time in most schools.

The practical, theoretical and ethical weaknesses of schools conducting experiments

  • There is the ethical problem of deception and some students getting treated differently for the period of the experiment, which goes against equal opportunities.
  • Teaching one class differently to the rest can be stressful and demanding for the teacher.
  • In very small classes and schools with few classes, it’s hard to get a large enough sample for good representativeness.

Related Posts

For a great example of a really extreme experiment in a school, see ‘Chinese School‘.

For some of the general strengths and limitations of field experiments please see this post.

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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Methods in Context Questions: A Full Mark Answer from the AQA

An example of a full mark answer to a methods in context question from the AQA.

Below I provide an example full mark answer to a methods in context question taken from the AQA’s 2016 Specimen A-level sociology paper 7192 (1) and provide some running commentary on this model answer.

NB – I also outline why the AQA has (IMO) miss-marked this exemplar… I don’t think it should get full marks, because IT DOES NOT do what the mark scheme says it should do to get 20/20. However… it’s still a good answer…!

The question I’m focussing on is as follows:

Methods in Context

About Methods in Context Questions:

Methods in Context questions will ask students to evaluate the strengths and limitations of any of the six main research methods for researching a particular topic within the sociology of education, applying material from the item.

Students often struggle with these questions and so it is useful to have exemplars which demonstrate how to answer them.

The Specific Question with Item:

Read Item C below and answer the question that follows.

Item CInvestigating the influence of the family on pupils’ education

Families have an important influence on pupils’ education. For example, the family’s income may be able to pay for educational materials and experiences as well as for comfortable conditions in which to study. Similarly, parents’ own education, their child-rearing and socialisation practices, and their speech codes and cultural background can influence children’s’ attitudes to school and their ability to succeed. In all these respects, there are significant class and ethnic differences in family life and they help to explain differences in the educational experiences of different pupils.

One way of studying the influence of the family on pupils’ education is to use structured interviews. These are a good way of gathering basic data quickly. Structured interviews also allow researchers to establish patterns and make comparisons. However, they may be less useful when dealing with sensitive or private issues.

Applying material from Item C and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using structured interviews to investigate the influence of the family on pupils’ education (20).

Mark Scheme (top band only: 17-20)

Answers in this band will show accurate, conceptually detailed knowledge and sound understanding of a range of relevant material on structured interviews.

Appropriate material will be applied accurately and with sensitivity to the investigation of the specific issue of the influence of the family on pupils’ education.

Students will apply knowledge of a range of relevant strengths and limitations of using structured interviews to research issues and characteristics relating to the influence of the family on pupils’ education. These may include some of the following and/or other relevant concerns, though answers do not need to include all of these, even for full marks:

  • the research characteristics of potential research subjects, eg individual pupils, parents, other relatives, teachers (eg class and ethnic differences among parents; teachers’ professionalism or attitudes towards pupils’ families)
  • the research contexts and settings, eg pupils’ homes, school premises, school gates
  • the sensitivity of researching influence of the family on pupils’ education, eg families’ material circumstances or child-rearing practices; eligibility for free school meals; stigmatisation; policy and resource implications for schools; parental consent).

Evaluation of the usefulness of structured interviews will be explicit and relevant. Analysis will show clear explanation. Appropriate conclusions will be drawn.

Indicative Content for the strengths and limitations of the method

Strengths and limitations of structured interviews, as applied to the particular issue in education, may include: time, cost, access, hypothesis-testing, quantitative data, factual data, correlation, reliability, sample size, representativeness, generalisability, inflexibility, superficiality, lack of validity, interviewer bias, social desirability effect, status differences, misunderstanding, ethical issues.

Student Answer

KT’s comments in bold and red beneath each paragraph…

Structured interviews are usually closed-ended interviews which produce reliable, quantitative data. They are relatively quick to carry out and require little training. If the school agrees to the research taking place the researcher would be able to get a large sample of pupils. However, these interviews, although preferred by positivists, are limiting because the questions are fixed. The quantitative nature of the interviews means they are ideal for examining cause and effect such as whether parent attending parents’ evening has an impact on the pupils’ education.

This is a good general introductory paragraph about structured interviews, but it’s really only a mark band level 3 response: because you could replace the phrases ‘school’ and ‘pupils’ with (for example) ‘hospitals’ and ‘patients’ and it would be saying the same thing. The same is true with the final sentence. You could say that about ‘eating 5 pieces of fruit a day’ has an impact on ‘patient recovery rates’.

This is a good example of a paragraph where the candidate may think they’ve said something at level 4 or 5, but really it’s down at level 3!

However, when asking parents about how they bring up their children there could be many problems. Most parents will not want to be thought of as bad parents who do not care about their child. These parents will want to show that they are supportive of their child. The formality of a structured interview will increase parents’ fear and this means that parents may give socially desirable answers, especially as they are face-to-face with the interviewer. They may see the interviewer as a teacher in disguise and this will further encourage choosing answers that may not reflect the true situation of their involvement in their child’s education.

This is a solid ‘mark band level 5’ paragraph – the method applied specifically to the topic under investigation.

Another problem with unstructured interviews is they are inflexible. Closed questions with limited responses will only give the options chosen by the researcher and so may miss vital aspects of home life that could have an impact on a child’s achievement such as temporary housing or domestic abuse. This is likely if the parents are working class and the sociologist is middle class and does not have experience of working class life or know the concerns or worries facing working-class families.

Not quite as solid as the first paragraph, but it does pick up on aspects of home life, so should be at least level 4.

Working-class parents may have lower levels of education and speak in restricted speech code. This means they may not understand a question or they may say something the sociologist does not understand. In a structured interview the sociologist cannot ask for clarification of what has been said. The same problem applies if the parent and the sociologist are of a different ethnic background, in this case there may also be a language barrier if the parent does not speak English or it is not their first language.

Seems like a solid level 5 paragraph again.

Many deprived pupils may have a sense of shame or stigma attached to them. Many do not claim free school meals for this reason and if they are asked about this they may not want to tell the truth. They may lie and they are more likely to lie when they do not feel relaxed or comfortable. This is much more likely in a structured interview as there is no chance to gain rapport. Since the interviewer is present there is an increased risk of social desirable answers. There may be an ethical issue of harm linked to the research due to the nature of the topic and the questions that the interviewer may ask about personal circumstances linked to the pupil’s home background.

The link to free school meals at the beginning should just about clarify this a level 5 response.

A problem with structured interviews with pupils is that most of them will be under 18. This means that they are unable to give their consent and this will cause some ethical concerns. Parents will be unlikely to give their consent because they will feel a sense of shame or they just may not want their child to be part of the research which asked them to give personal details about the parent-child relationship.

This should classify as a standard ‘level 4 response’, about pupils in general.

Structured interviews could be used with teachers to assess their views of the impact of home background. Teachers would be more likely to take part in a structured interview as they are less time consuming. As the questions would be related to children’s home backgrounds teachers may not be able to answer all the questions if they did not have all the details of a pupil’s home situation. Teachers may also give answers that suggest that achievement is linked to factors at home rather than in the school as this takes some of the pressure away from their responsibility.

A clear level 5 response… teachers not knowing about home background… one of the clearest level 5 responses in the whole essay.

Examiner commentary

The answer shows a wide range of application. Many of the points are linked explicitly to the issue of the influence of the family on pupils’ education. The answer covers a range of characteristics of research subjects; parents, pupils and teachers. There is some consideration of the school as a research setting. There are a number of points that consider the sensitivity of researching this subject and the problematic nature of the presence of the interviewer when carrying out this research.

20/20 marks awarded

KT’s commentary…

This is a solid answer, HOWEVER… I don’t see how it can get 20/20 because IT DOES NOT DRAW APPROPRIATE CONCLUSIONS. Hence as far as I can see the AQA should have awarded it a maximum of 16/20.

There’s another example of a methods in context essay here! And for more examples of model answers to exam questions, please see the links on my main page on exam advice!

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.

Signposting

Methods in Context questions will ask students to evaluate the strengths and limitations of any of the six main research methods for researching a particular topic within the sociology of education, applying material from the item.

For further examples of exam questions you might like my Exams, essays and short answer questions page of links!

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How to Answer Methods in Context Questions: A Model Answer from the AQA

‘Methods in Context’ questions appear on A Level Sociology Paper 1 (Education with Theory and Methods) and AS Sociology Paper 1 (Education with Methods in Context).

Methods in Context questions will ask students to evaluate the strengths and limitations of any of the six main research methods for researching a particular topic within the sociology of education, applying material from the item.

Students often struggle with these questions and so it is useful to have exemplars which demonstrate how to answer them. Thankfully the AQA has recently released some of these, with examiner commentary, and below I’ve reproduced a top band 18/20 answer to one particular methods in context question!

NB – I’ve take this directly from the AQA’s feedback to the 2017 AS sociology exam series (specific source below), but I’ve repositioned the comments on each paragraph to make them more accessible (at the end of each paragraph, rather than at the end of the whole essay.

The specific question below appeared on the June 2017 AS Sociology Paper 1 – the whole paper is now publically available from the AQA’s web site.

Methods in Context

The Question:

Investigating working-class educational underachievement

Read Item B below and answer the question that follows.

ITEM B

On average, working-class pupils underachieve in education compared with those from middle-class backgrounds. Some sociologists believe that material deprivation is one factor that causes working-class underachievement.

Other sociologists argue that values and attitudes in working-class homes may cause underachievement. School factors may also affect achievement. Sociologists may use written questionnaires to study working-class educational underachievement.

Using written questionnaires enables the researcher to reach a large number of pupils, parents and teachers. Also, those who complete the questionnaire can usually remain anonymous. However, not all those who receive a questionnaire will complete it.

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using written questionnaires to investigate working-class educational underachievement.

The Mark Scheme (Top Band Only: 17-20)

Answers in this band will show accurate, conceptually detailed knowledge and good understanding of a range of relevant material on written questionnaires.

Appropriate material will be applied accurately to the investigation of the specific issue of working-class educational underachievement.

Students will apply knowledge of a range of relevant strengths and limitations of using written questionnaires to research issues and characteristics relating to working-class educational underachievement. These may include some of the following and/or other relevant concerns, though answers do not need to include all of these, even for full marks:

  • the research characteristics of potential research subjects, eg pupils, teachers, parents, (self-esteem; literacy skills; attitude to school)
  • the research contexts and settings (eg school; classroom; home environment).
  • the sensitivity of researching working-class underachievement (eg schools’ market position; negative publicity; vulnerability of participants; parental consent; teacher reluctance).

Evaluation of the usefulness of written questionnaires will be explicit and relevant. Analysis will show clear explanation and may draw appropriate conclusions

Student Answer – Awarded 18/20 (AS standard!)

Picture version:

Page 1

Page 2

Text Version:

Paragraphs as in actual student response, numbers added for clarity.

Examiner comments appear in red after each paragraph.

ONE – Written questionnaires are a type of survey where questions are standardised and distributed to large numbers of people. This is useful in an educational setting because it means they can be given to numerous students in numerous schools, something which is very important when investigating working class pupils as there are many regions which are predominantly working class.

First paragraph – general advantages of written questionnaires – standardised and large distribution. Attempt to link to topic

TWO – One major advantage of using questionnaires is that they pose relatively few practical issues. They are fairly cheap to create and distribute and they quick to fill out, especially if all questions are closed ended. This means that access is not usually an issue for the researcher as they will not disrupt lessons as much as other methods such as structured interviews, meaning that the researcher is more likely to received permission from the gatekeeper. Furhtermore, working class pupils are more likely to need to take on paid work and so the quick-nature of questinnaires which are not very time consuming means that they are useful for investigating working class underachievement.

Para 2 – advantage of Wc related to context of research in schools (gatekeepers).

THREE – However, when investigating working class pupils there may be the issue of cultural deprivation, particularly language issues. Berciler and Englemann argue that the language spoken by the working class is deficient, a particular issue when trying to interpret the questions on a written question questionnaire. When coupled with the fact that questionnaires are written in the elaborated code but working class pupils (and parents) tend to speak in the restricted code this can be a major problem in gaining accurate results; unlike with other methods, questions cannot be clarified

Para 3 – good link to topic and WQ re language and speech codes.

FOUR – As well as posing few practical issues, written questionnaires do not pose many ethical issues. This is because the respondent can remain anonymous if they so wish and they can also leave any intrusive or sensitive issues blank. When studying working class underachievement this is a particular advantage because some pupils may be embarrassed to discuss their home lives, particularly if they live in poverty.

Para 4 – ethical issues discussed – anonymity developed with reference to topic

FIVE – Even though there are relatively few ethical uses, the researcher must be aware of harm to respondents. For working class children there may be a stigma attached, and for sensitive issues such as home life, the use of questionnaires can still cause distress. Nevertheless, the fact that respondents are not obligated to respond means this ethical problem is easily overcome.

Para 5 – further developed with reference to topic

SIX – From the perspective of a positivist, written questionnaires are a useful way to investigate working class underachievement because the data produced when using standardised questions is quantitative and high in reliability. This makes questionnaires useful for investigating working class underachievement because it allows cause and effect relationships to be established, for example whether or the not the structure of the education system reproduces working class underachievement, or whether there is a correlation between family background and achievement. However, the nature of written questionnaires can be an issue if the researcher’s meaning is imposed onto the questionnaire so it is another  fact that must be taken into account

Para 6 – various positivist concepts – good on usefulness of WC – but not unique to topic

SEVEN – From the point of view of an interpretivist, written questionnaires are not useful when investigating working class underachievement because the data lacks validity. While questionnaires may be able to identify that factors such as material deprivation may influence the achievement of working class pupils, it does not get to the heart of the matter. Written questionnaires do not investigate the meanings that pupils may attach to the reasons they may underachieve, and do not let the respondent communicate their ideas freely. Because of this lack of validity interpretivists do not favour the use of written questionnaires to investigate working class underachievement.

Para 7 – interpretivism and validity – not related to topic specifically (generic)

EIGHT – Ultimately, written questionnaires can be useful to investigate working class underachievement because the data is easy to analyse and compare, which may be useful as the data could be used over time to look at whether government policies put in place to reduce working class underachievement really work. Not only that but they are representative, so generalisations about the wider population can be made in a way that methods favoured by interpretivists cannot.

Para 8 – attempt to relate strengths of WQs to topic

Overall COMMENT – very strong on method with some (2/3) clear links to topic

MARK: 18/20

For more examples of model answers to exam questions, please see the links on my main page on exam advice

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.

Signposting

Methods in Context Questions (possibly better know as ‘applied methods questions’ will appear on the Education with Theory and Methods Paper in the A-level sociology exams.

For more examples of how to answer exam questions please see my page on exams, essays, and short answer questions.

Sources:


AS SOCIOLOGY Paper 1 Education with Methods in Context, Tuesday 16 May 2017

AS Sociology 7191/1 Education with Methods in Context Final Mark scheme 7191, June 2017

AS SOCIOLOGY: Feedback on the exam(s) Student responses and commentaries: Paper 1 Education with Methods in Context Published: Autumn 2017

How I Would’ve Answered Yesterday’s AS Sociology Exam Paper (7191/1 – Education)

A few thoughts on how the AQA’s 7191 (1) Education AS exam from May 2017 –

If any teacher finds this annoying because they like to keep these papers back for next year’s mock exam, forget it –

  • Any student can find out the questions on social media, very easily
  • The AQA seems to be publishing last years’ exam on their public access web site earlier, rather than keeping them secure.

You can easily just make up yr own exam papers and mark schemes using adobe editor. Also, I’m not giving the exact questions (well, with the exception of Q01) 

Question 01 – Define term hidden curriculum

Boom! Easy starter – in my 13 key concepts for the sociology of education

The norms and values taught at school which are not written down as part of the formal curriculum – for example the norm of respecting authority and being punctual.

Question 02 – Selection policies and social class

Covered here

Some oversubscribed schools select by catchment area – pupils have to live in a house within a certain distance from the school to stand a chance of getting in – this has resulted in covert selection by mortgage – house prices near the good schools increase and so poorer, working class families cannot afford to move into those areas, thus they have no real choice of getting into the best schools.

Question 03 – Three ways in which school mirrors capitalism

Classic Marxist correspondence theory: see here for three ways, explain school – work…

  • hierarchy
  • authority
  • motivation by external rewards
  • even the reproduction of class inequality 

Question 04 – Education policy and ethnic minorities’ experience of education 

Looks awful, but I’m assuming the policies don’t have to be about ethnicity in particular.

Policy 1 – Tony Sewell’s Generating Genius Programme – linked to positive aspirations for black boys, pro-school subcultures. 

Policy 2Banding and streaming – linked to institutional racism, Steve Strand, Gilborn and Youdell, educational triage. 

Question 05 – In school factors, the gender gap and educational achievement 

Simple really – It’s covered here and you could’ve bolstered it with this stuff

  • Point 1 – teacher labelling and evaluations 
  • Point 2 – Feminisation of teaching and evaluations
  • Point 3 – Subcultures – laddish ones obviously, also hyper-feminine and evaluations
  • Point 4 – Gender identities – I’d use sexual harassment of girls as an evaluation
  • Overall evaluations using out-of school factors and changing gender roles linked to in-school factors, probably concluding that schools really don’t change very much! 

Question 06 – Questionnaires and class differences in educational achievement.

It’s quite similar to this question here

My answer would have focused on the strengths of the method for making comparisons, and the ease of measuring material deprivation compared to the problems of measuring things like cultural deprivation and cultural capital and gaining access to working class parents. 

I would’ve covered all of Theoretical, ethical and practical of course. 

Interestingly the item didn’t give you very much….

You may have noticed that if you follow this blog, you can pretty much game the sociology exams just by memorizing the content. Personally I’ve no problem with this, being good at exams and being able to think sociologically are two different things, and one of these is a useful life-skill, the other isn’t!

Game on!