INTRODUCTION: Many students have a tendency to form quick and faulty assumptions without complete information, thought, or investigation. That’s why I include a field research component in nearly every sociology course I teach. This field work assignment is designed to guide students to gather significant amounts of objective information and, subsequently, uncover and question their own faulty assumptions and hasty conclusions. In short, field work helps my students develop important critical thinking skills.

For my Sociology of Education class, attended primarily by students interested in becoming educators, I ask students to observe, experience, and understand social interactions within an educational setting.  This field assignment, along with its subsequent small group discussions and written reports, promotes the growth of critical thinking well beyond what a lecture or the pages of the textbook can offer.

Since observation is a research tool in most of the social and hard sciences, the field work my students do could easily be adapted for use in many other courses, including social psychology, biology, anthropology, criminal justice, psychology, social work, education, nursing, and even human communication, journalism and business, to name just a few.

SELECTING THE FIELD SITE

To begin, I ask students to select an educational setting of their choice for an on-site observation.  I don’t make these arrangements for them, and that works out well because they learn to network and negotiate with administrators and institutions on their own.  Moreover, as they are community college students with jobs and complicated lives, they can arrange with their former elementary, middle or high school teachers or family members for access to the schools at a convenient time. For students who don’t have this network (for example a young woman from Romania in my class), I ask the other students to offer assistance.

To help students gain access to local schools, I write a letter for them on college stationary which requests that the “Dear Colleague” allow this student to be admitted to a classroom “in order to experience an educational setting.”  I offer my email address and phone number in case they have further need for verification.  Given the tight climate of security in schools nowadays, this letter is essential.

OBSERVATION

I ask my students to enter the classroom as unobtrusively as possible, sit in the rear of the room, look around, and wait until they have spotted a child who engages their attention.  It is only this one student they are to observe, as if they had a camera focused on this one child, and then record what happens.

GUIDELINES: I give the students a series of questions, really queries, which can guide them throughout the experience. To respect privacy, I ask them to give their observed student and teacher fictional names.

  • What does s/he (your selected student) look like? 
  • What does s/he do?
  • With whom does s/he interact?
  • What does s/he say?
  • What happens?
  • Why do you think you picked this student to observe?
  • What do you think you discovered?
  • Any misperceptions or assumptions that you wish to explore?
  • What questions do you still have about this student?

I ask my students to write these observations and discoveries in field notes which are later incorporated into their written report.  One of the criteria for conducting a field observation is that students are to report only what they see and hear.  Under no circumstances are they to label a child or adolescent.  Forget about “hyperactive” or “underachiever”; I can still recall the college student who, despite my cautions, and after only one hour’s observation of a four year old in a kindergarten, determined that this child was an “overachiever.”  I wrote in the margin of her paper, “And how did you determine that?” To this question, my student reported that the observed child was participating in many activities, and this, she decided was overachieving.  In such cases I find it useful to challenge the conclusion.  I asked, “Is there another way to interpret this behavior?” My intention is to help my students develop critical thinking skills as they carefully reconsider their assumptions and conclusions.

After their observations but before they write their reports, I ask students to form small groups in our classroom and discuss their observations.  In these discussions, students can gain insights from classmates as well as shaping their own perceptions.

STUDENT DISCOVERIES

Here’s a small sampling of my students’ important discoveries as a result of this field research assignment:

Dan C. wrote, “In school, until I was about twelve, I was always very shy.  I never spoke until I was spoken to…. When it came to interacting with others, I was not very willing…. I wanted to observe a student who represented me in my childhood.  After fifteen minutes, I realized who the shy kid was.” In the conclusion of their final report, I ask students to write about any misperceptions they could correct based on their observations. Dan C. continued: “…it is important to understand that some people are just shy and have a hard time socializing with their peers.  This was a great learning experience which I will take with me when I become a teacher.” What does Dan take with him as a teacher? Perhaps he has gained a respect for individual differences and a humane approach to quiet, as well as active, children.  I doubt that this life lesson could have resulted from taking notes in a lecture hall.

Barbara N., who observed a kindergarten classroom, concluded: “I don’t know why but whenever I think about kindergarten, I assume that girls always interact and play with other girls, or even boys, during their playtime.  However, by what I observed I was wrong, and I realized that there are times when I assume things and I should not, and now it clicked to me.” Like Dan, Barbara also observed a child who was quiet and played by herself. Since Barbara was cautioned against labeling any individual, she had no choice but to recognize her false assumption that children always play with others.  Barbara could now understand that some children can play by themselves at times, and this does not in any way suggest deviant behavior.

These students’ self-corrections came from a strengthened self awareness and revised perception that only the students themselves could have generated.  For example, Dan C. understood that he was seeking insights into his own reticence.  Once having gained that understanding, he was more alert to and respectful of those individual qualities in others.

Beyond insights into themselves, the observing students became more effective at understanding the emotional component of a teacher-student interaction and the non-verbal responses in children.  Anna P. wrote the following about a boy in an 8th grade class: “…in the third bench on my right, I observed a closed backpack next to an organized bench.  I started to search for the owner of this backpack, and this is how my attention focused on Alexander, an average tall skinny boy…His glance was a bored one. During the reading he was doodling something in his notebook.  Once, he volunteered to read like all the other children, but the teacher ignored him so he had to go back to his drawings.”  After observing several attempts by the student to contribute and rebuffs by teacher, Anna concluded, “I got out from the school and I was thinking about Alex…I was wondering if he had learned something today, and if he likes his history teacher.  I tried to recall the class and figure out why he was rejected all the time.  I still don’t know the answer, but I think that he is more intelligent than the history teacher gives him credit; he deserves more attention and appreciation from this teacher.” This awareness certainly has the likelihood of helping Anna be a teacher who is sensitive to her students’ needs.

CONCLUSIONS:

Rachel C. summed up the observation experience this way:  “Doing this observation made me aware of the individual things that students do during class.  I have done observations in school settings, but I have always been assigned to watch the instructor. This assignment has given me a chance to observe someone other than the teacher.”

The field research experience teaches these potential teachers to look at children, rather than just the teachers.  As Rachel C. suggested, the usual mode of educator training often programs student-teachers to play a scripted role rather than to be alert to individual needs of their students. This different perspective helps future teachers develop empathy for pupils and, using critical thinking, learn to see them as people like themselves, which is a much more effective approach to teaching than one based, as so much teaching is, on preconceptions of what people are like.

–Joan Goldstein, Faculty, Sociology, Mercer County Community College, NJ

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