Jayne Baker

Jayne Baker COURSE: Sociology of Education
DEPARTMENT: Sociology at UTM

Sociology of Education is a 200-level course meant to act as an introduction to this sub-field within sociology.  This is a new course for our department but is commonly offered in most undergraduate and many graduate sociology departments.  It tends to attract not just sociology students but also those interested in teaching as a career.  For example, 20% of the class (capped at 200 students) was from another department besides sociology.  Twelve percent of the class was enrolled in UTM’s CTEP (Concurrent Teacher Education Program).

Because the sociology of education is a large sub-field within sociology, it is impossible to cover the full scope of the area in a one-term course. Instead, the course begins by covering the major theoretical traditions and eventually moves in to a more empirically-based discussion of contemporary issues in higher education. Among the topics we cover are educational inequalities rooted in race, gender, and (especially) socioeconomic status; tracking and ability grouping; the effect of school type (public and private); and the status of teaching as a profession. The Sociology department at UTM hopes to introduce a 300- or 400-level course in subsequent years that builds on the foundation set by this Sociology of Education course.
These items are pasted from the syllabus of this term’s offering of Sociology of Education:

Goals and Learning Outcomes: 
The primary goal of this course is for students to think sociologically about the education system and their educational experiences.  Students will develop this understanding via the discussion of key theoretical ideas in the sociology of education, current issues in the contemporary education system, and central findings in the ongoing study of the sociology of education.

On successful completion of Soc 224, you should be able to:

  • Identify and describe the central concepts and theories used in the sociology of education;
  • Apply terminology used in the course correctly;
  • Listen to a lecture, take effective and organized notes, and integrate your ideas in a clear manner;
  • Interpret contemporary issues in education according to a sociological perspective;
  • Relate the history and development of the education system to the present day education system;
  • Define central concepts in the sociology of education;
  • Describe trends in education over time;
  • Identify and explain the relationship between governance, global trends, and the classroom;
  • Use sociology of education concepts and theories to make an argument.

There are a few key learning opportunities and challenges with this course.
The central opportunity is to provide students with a venue and the conceptual tools for thinking about their education more critically and sociologically.  Many of them are in university because it seems like the next step in their educational trajectory.  In Ontario, we have to be in school until a certain point in our lives. But when you put education under the microscope, you come to appreciate how your experience might be strongly related to your family, your neighbourhood, your citizenship, and so on.  You gain an appreciation for some of the contemporary issues facing all levels of education, including ongoing discussions about underemployment of university grads and shortages in skilled trades.
That opportunity also presents itself as a challenge, summed up best in a comment I received from a student in an adapted 3-2-1 ticket-out-the-door I did on day one of the course: “Why do we have to learn sociological perspectives when we have our own perspective on education based on our experience?”  This student’s question perfectly captures a challenge faced in many sociological courses: instructing students on the difference between a “common sense” perspective of their world and a “sociological” perspective, made especially challenging when the subject is something they believe they already know about (in this case, education).

A second challenge was how to integrate writing with a limited set of TA resources.  Writing is commonly found in sociology courses and the sociology of education is particularly well-suited to writing. But it can be quite challenging to integrate well-designed and thoughtful writing assignments into a course when faced with resource constraints.

To address all of the above (the opportunity and challenges), I instigated some short answer questions on both the midterm and final tests alongside some multiple choice questions.  (Multiple choice questions using Scantrons are quite ‘cost-effective’, allowing me to devote more resources to writing.)

I also created a nested writing assignment that students submitted in two parts.  The idea for this assignment grew out of my two days at the CDI, prompted by my learning outcomes and fruitful discussions with others at the event. It was the best way for me to get at a number of different learning outcomes, most especially “Interpret contemporary issues in education according to a sociological perspective.”

In week two of the course, we took 10-15 minutes at the beginning of class to collectively list on the blackboard contemporary issues in education.  I wanted the students to play a part in generating the topic ideas so that they had a stake in the development of the assignment.  I wasn’t sure how this would go…would a couple of students volunteer some topics and then the class would go silent?  In the end, the exact opposite happened.  We filled fully four large blackboards with contemporary issues ranging from the changes being made in teacher certification in Ontario to full day kindergarten to the underemployment of university graduates.  I then ‘curated’ this list to a smaller set of four topics.

For each of these topics, I selected a recent article on the topic from the popular press and an article related to the topic from a sociological scholarly, peer-reviewed journal.  Part 1 of the assignment was a summary: summarize each of the two articles.  As part of the summary for the sociological article, students were asked to identify what about the article made it sociological when compared to the popular press article.  Part 2 of the assignment asked the student to play the role of a policy analyst, in a sense.  They were tasked by a (hypothetical) group or ministry to critically examine a (hypothetical) proposal related to the contemporary issue, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of said proposal, and conclude with a recommendation and their rationale.  (Assignment guidelines and rubrics are attached.)

I had previously participated in a CDI for my large, introductory first-year course in sociology.  I found it overwhelming but extremely helpful.  Although I had already participated in the CDI once before and therefore had a set of resources, I knew that it would be helpful and productive for me to be in that context again.  I would be forced to think about this new course in a way that I simply wouldn’t have if I had been left in my office with my CDI binder from the previous year.  I needed to get in the right mindset with the right people.

Another “take away”: my big post-it of ideas, which I kept on my wall the entire term as a reference for building the assignment.

I worked with Tyler Evans-Tokaryk in the RGASC at UTM to develop rubrics associated with each stage of the assignment.  He was extremely helpful in pushing me to align the wording of the assignments with the rubrics.  These rubrics were available to students at the same time assignment guidelines were made available, and students were encouraged to think of these rubrics as a kind of resource that would help them know whether they were hitting the mark with their assignment.

I also worked with Paula Hannaford in the library at UTM to develop a video tutorial that shows students how to do a library journal article search within the parameters I had set for them: in the Sociological Abstracts data base, published after a particular date, and the article had to be peer-reviewed in a scholarly journal.  Over 40% of the students in the class were second year students; I didn’t want to assume that they had this knowledge or skill set.

With the course now behind me, and while I wait for my students’ course evaluations, I will review each week of the course and make notes on the strengths and areas for improvement.  I look forward to teaching the course again!

There’s a wonderful kind of ‘cross-pollination’ that happens when you’re in a room with like-minded individuals who care about teaching, pedagogy, and thoughtful course design.  There are people in the CDI room that can answer your questions as they come up.  You learn from the facilitators and participants alike.

I quite liked having an assignment that felt like it was a collaborative effort between the students and me.  I liked that it gave them some choices.  In the end, 192 students of the original 200 remained enrolled in the course on the final day that we met, which feels like a success to me.  Creating an assignment from the ground-up, especially during those first hectic weeks of the term, was a bit challenging.  But not enough that it would dissuade me from doing so again in the future.

I’m happy to provide student feedback at a later date.  In the meantime, I know from informal conversations that they appreciate the ‘nested’ model and were happy to have a chance to have a first ‘low stakes’ assignment to make sure they were on the right track before submitting the second submission, the proposal.