teaching resources for A-level sociology AQA focus 2020
I’ve just released the latest research methods teaching resources for sale as part of my sociology teaching resources subscription package, available for only £9.99 a month!
Research Methods teaching resources
The November download includes the following lesson materials:
Participant Observation lesson
Participant observation lesson 2
Cross National Comparisons
Secondary Qualitative data
Bringing it all together: stages of the research process
NB the October release contained all of the preceding methods (intro, surveys and experiments) and the next release in December will include Methods in Context material – the monthly subscription will give you access to all the methods material, and all material to date (education and families and households), so that’s almost the entire first year of A-level sociology teaching!)
Resources in the bundle include:
5 workbooks covering the methods above
5 Power Points covering most of the above lessons
9 lesson plans covering all of the above lessons.
Various supplementary hand-outs for some of the above lessons as necessary.
Fully modifiable resources
Every teacher likes to make resources their own by adding some things in and cutting other things out – and you can do this with both the work pack and the PowerPoints because I’m selling them in Word and PPT, rather than as PDFs, so you can modify them!
NB – I have had to remove most the pictures I use personally, for copyright reasons, but I’m sure you can find your own to fit in. It’s obvious where I’ve taken them out!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Non-Participant Observation involves the researcher observing respondents, but keeping their distance, and not engaging with those respondents.
As with many of the ‘minor’ research methods in A-level sociology, this one can be a bit of a struggle to make interesting, but here are three starter activities to get your students in the mood for making observations…
Starter 1: How many passes does the team in white make?
I won’t give too much away, but it does show one of the limitations of doing narrowly focused structured observations where you are only looking for one thing!
Starter 2: Whodunnit?
Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but this demonstrates how difficult observation can be, in terms of the amount of things you might miss if you’re not paying close attention!
Starter 3: Street Life:
This is a bit of an old video, but it introduces students to some of the strengths and limitations problems of qualitative, unstructured observations.
You might like to think about showing this in contrast to a video of street life in a very underdeveloped country, and comparing the differences.
How to use these starters
I use these three starters one after the other before I get students to go out and perform their own structured and unstructured observations of street-life in the local high street.
The first two are really just a bit of fun, but they do drive home the fact that you might miss a lot if you are just focusing on a few factors when doing structured observations.
If you like this sort of thing and want to see how these starters blend into the rest of my A-level sociology lesson on non-participant observation you might like to subscribe to my A-level sociology teacher resources.
Non Participant Observation material is scheduled for release in October 2020.
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.
For a great example of a really extreme experiment in a school, see ‘Chinese School‘.
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…..
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.
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!
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?
This post aims to provide some examples to some of the more unusual and interesting experiments that students can explore and evaluate.
I’ve already done a post on ‘seven field experiments‘, that outline seven of the most interesting classic and contemporary experiments which are relevant to various topics within the A-level sociology syllabus, in this post I provide a much fuller list, and try to present some more unusual examples, focusing on contemporary examples with video examples where possible.
Channel Four’s ‘The Circle’ is an experiment of sorts – contestants have to stay in one room and can only interact with each other by a bespoke, in-house social media application, competing for popularity. At the end of every day the two-three most popular people get to kick out someone from the least three popular people, then a newbie comes in to replace them.
This recent series which aired on BBC2 involves getting identical twins to do the same tasks under different circumstances – to see what the effect of ‘external stimuli’ (independent variables) are on factors such as ‘concentration’.
In one classic, and super easy to relate to example, sets of twins are asked to do a written IQ test – one half are allowed to keep their mobile phones on the table, another have to put them away – all other variables remain the same. The findings are predictable – the group with their phones out get worse scores.
Conclusion – mobile phones are distracting, quite a useful fact to remind students of!
Sleep deprivation makes people less likely to want to socialise with you!
A 2017 experiment measured how respondents perceived tired people. The findings were that respondents were less likely to want to socialise with sleep-deprived people.
25 Participants (aged 18-47) were photographed after normal sleep and again after two days of sleep deprivation.
The two photographs were then rated by 122 raters (aged 18-65), according to how much they would like to socialise with the participants. The raters also rated the photos based on attractiveness, health, sleepiness and trustworthiness.
The raters were less likely to want to socialise with the participants in the ‘sleep-deprived’ photos compared to the photos of them when they’d had normal sleep. They also perceived the ‘sleep-deprived’ versions as less attractive, less health and more sleepy.
There was no difference in the trustworthiness ratings.
You have to think about this to get to what the variables are:
The main dependent variable is the raters’ ‘desire to socialise’ with the people in the photos.
The independent variable is the ‘level of sleep-deprivation’ (measured by photos)
What I like about this experiment is the clear ‘control measure’ – the researchers used photos of the same participants – after regular sleep and sleep-deprivation.
Without that control measure, the experiment would probably fall apart1
Science Professors think female applicants are less competent
In this 2012 experiment researchers sent 127 science professors around the country (both male and female) the exact same application materials from a made-up undergraduate student applying for a lab manager position.
63 of the fake applications were made by a male, named John; the other 64 were made by a female, named Jennifer.
Every other element of the applications were identical.
The researchers also matched the two groups of professors to whom the applications were sent, in terms of age distribution, scientific fields, and tenure status.
The 127 professors were each asked to evaluate the application based on
their overall competency and hireability,
the salary they would offer to the student
the degree of mentoring they felt the student deserved.
The faculty were not told the purpose of the experiment, just that their feedback would be shared with the student.
Both male and female professors consistently regarded the female student applicant as less competent and less hireable than the otherwise identical male student:
The average competency rating for the male applicant was 4.05, compared to 3.33 for the female applicant.
The average salary offered to the female was $26,507.94, while the male was offered $30,238.10.
The professor’s age and sex had insignificant effects on discrimination —old and young, male, and female alike tended to view the female applicants more negatively.
Blind auditions improve the chances of female musicians being recruited to orchestras
A comparative study by Cecilia Rouse, an associate professor in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University, seems to confirm the existence of sex-biased hiring by major symphony orchestras.
Traditionally, women have been underrepresented in American and European orchestras. Renowned conductors have asserted that female musicians have “smaller techniques,” are more temperamental and are simply unsuitable for orchestras, and some European orchestras do not hire women at all.
To overcome bias, most major U.S. orchestras implemented blind auditions in the 1970s to 1980s, in which musicians audition behind a screen that conceals their identities but does not alter sound. However, some kept non-blind auditions.
This provided the context for a nice ‘natural experiment’…
Using data from the audition records, the researchers found that:
– for both blind and non-blind auditions, about 28.6 percent of female musicians and 20.2 percent of male musicians advanced from the preliminary to the final round.
– When preliminary auditions were not blind, only 19.3 percent of the women advanced, along with 22.5 percent of the men.
The researchers calculated that blind auditions increased the probability that a woman would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent.
As a result, blind auditions have had a significant impact on the face of symphony orchestras. About 10 percent of orchestra members were female around 1970, compared to about 35 percent in the mid-1990s.
Rouse and Goldin attribute about 30 percent of this gain to the advent of blind auditions.
Their report was published in the September-November issue of the American Economic Review.
The Marshmallow Test
This classic 1971 experiment was designed to measure a child’s level of self-control, or will-power. In sociological terms, this is measuring a child’s ability to ‘defer gratification’.
Researchers put a child in a room with one Marshmallow. The child was informed that they could eat it whenever they wanted, but if they could wait until the researcher returned, they could have two Marshmallows.
The researcher then left and the child was left alone to deal with their temptation for approximately 15 minutes. In the end 2/3rds of children gave into temptation and ate the Marshmallow, the other third resisted.
The researchers then tracked the children through later life and found that those who had more will power/ self control (those who hadn’t eaten the treat) were more likely to do well at school, avoid obesity and generally had a better quality of life.
NB – it’s down to you to do your research on how replicable and valid this experiment is.
Here’s one of the original researchers in 2015 saying how they’ve evolved and replicated the experiment and he’s written a book on the importance of teaching self-control to enhance people’s quality of life:
On the other hand, this is a video which is critical, saying that future studies found that social economic background accounted for around half of life-success, with individual will-power only accounting for half.
(However, this second video appears to be one young guy with no academic credentials, other than the lame bookshelf he’s put in the background, hardly semiotics genius.)
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