Sociological Imagination & Sociology of Education in Teaching Practice

You have to learn to walk before you can run. You have to understand yourself, your professional identity as a teacher, and the importance of learning about each of your students as individuals – understanding and reflecting on their unique backgrounds and their stories, before you even teach a single class. Teaching is relationship-based. Sociology of Education and the Foundations of Education should be introduced, reflected upon and then embedded – like bedrock, into every other teaching module on a programme. It is integral.

I was recently asked by my friend and colleague Dr Melanie Ni Dhuinn, to do a podcast for the Professional Master’s in Education(PME) students at Trinity College Dublin.  Melanie and I both lecture on the Sociology of Education module and due to COVID restrictions, all of the PME learning has been fully online.  This ‘remote’ learning is new for the students at the university, (let’s be real… for a lot of learners). Melanie thought it was a great idea to enhance the student’s live lectures and tutorials by providing them with Asynchronous learning in the form of a podcast that they can listen to at their convenience. Asynchronous learning is learning that students can engage with without the constraints of having to be in a certain place at a certain time.  It can be completed at their convenience. What follows are the reflection and narrative notes that I prepared in advance of our conversation together. I will post a link to the podcast through Trinity School of Education, when it is officially launched.  

Why Sociology of Education?

Before I jump into ‘sociological imagination’ let me start off with my view about ‘sociology’.  Many people, especially students, get very nervous when they hear terms like ‘sociology’ and about learning ‘sociology’.  My advice is to them is always to NOT overthink it. 

Image credit: Laura Chouette on Unsplash.com

We are all part of social communities and social relationships, and ‘sociology’ is a natural part of us.  We have all lived and internalized sociological concepts from the moment we were born and through our interactions with others.  All that sociology does is to put names or descriptors to what we already know and live… this should really help take the pressure off a student fearfully thinking they are learning something ‘new’. The science of sociology takes it a step further…

I really like Schaefer’s (2020) definition of sociology as simply the scientific study of social behaviour and human groups.  It focuses on social relationships and how those relationships influence people’s behaviour and how societies, through those relationships, develop and change. 

Image credit: www.frontiersin.org

What’s Sociological Imagination?

Let’s talk about the term ‘sociological imagination’.  

Sociological imagination is something that you should employ in your every day life!!! The term “sociological imagination” was coined by the American sociologist C. Wright Mills in his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination to describe the type of insight offered by the discipline of sociology.

It is simply a particular type of critical thinking that invites you to try and think about your ‘self’ and your awareness of the relationship between yourself and other individuals, AND your interaction with the wider society… but as an ‘outsider’ might think, rather than just from your own perspective, experiences, and cultural biases.  

Image credit: https://www.slideshare.net/brianbignoux/the-sociological-imagination

So, why is a Sociological Imagination important?  

The sociological imagination is the ability to see things socially and how they interact and influence each other. Sociologists would argue that you can’t make sense of your own behaviour, much less the patterns of behaviour in families, corporations, or nations, without developing that quality of mind that makes up the ‘sociological imagination’.  

Without perspective, we are apt to experience our private lives as being largely beyond our understanding or control. Kind of like as children… they may see that as their reality, but as we grow… and mature… and learn, we all know that this is just simply not possible.  There’s so much more to it than that, and so much that we can actually control. So many of our own experiences and possibilities are shaped by larger social forces, that we can’t function effectively either as individuals or as citizens unless we develop the capacity to understand those social forces that influence us. For instance, let’s talk about what happened in Dublin with the ‘anti-lockdown’ ‘anti-mask’ protesters. 

Image credit: The Irish Times

We would all have an opinion or a stance on what took place there.  The violent interactions that occurred and played out on social media. Whether it was intended or a product of heightened emotions… it was a tense and uncertain event  that would tend to make many very uncomfortable and raises a lot of questions and discussions in your own social groups, I am sure. Taking a step back and engaging your sociological imagination will help to critically reflect on and question the involvement of varying groups of people and ‘why’ they were participating – but with an outsider’s perspective.

Covid has taken a toll on societies all across the world and many are beyond frustrated.  Mental health and social stability are breaking down.  Families have suffered, businesses have suffered, children have suffered.  Now, more than ever, we need to take a step back, use our sociological imagination, and frame what is happening in our society before leaping to conclusions about the rationale of others.

Leaping to Conclusions… Image credit: Katie McBroom on Unsplash.com

Thinking sociologically can give an alternative view of familiar situations or issues that you experience in your daily life. It can highlight connections and it can evaluate meanings.

  • In some cases certain views and actions, like the protests, may sit well with your own opinion and personal experience, thus deepening your understanding and helping you to make that connection.
  • If it doesn’t, then articulating your objections, critically reflecting and formulating your own alternative will also add to your knowledge and understanding.

Sociology and engaging your sociological imagination offers ‘other’ the views.

As educators, I encourage my students to approach societal behavior, interactions, and experiences using their sociological imagination.  I ask them to practice briefly pulling away from the situations and concepts discussed and think from an alternative point of view – before acting. This is something that is vital in the classroom. 

Image credit: Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash.com

Sociology of Education, Theories, and Everyday Teaching Practice

Firstly, let’s be clear that in sociology, there are no definitive answers or all-encompassing theories to adequately explain how society is and how it operates, and it can differ drastically from one region, nation, and continent to another. It can even differ greatly from two schools in a community sitting side by side, or just across the road from each other. 

Sociologists and educators debate the function of education and there are three main theories that represent their views that I refer to as the three biggies in sociology of education: 

  • Functionalist Theory
  • Conflict Theory 
  • Symbolic Interactionist Theory
Image credit: Garland lecture slides – Sociology of Education

Functionalist Theory

Think of the Functionalist Theory – in the sense of ‘interlocking systems that must work together’ – a machine with parts that all have a job and a function, where everyone must do the job that has been allocated to them. Functionalists like Durkheim (the Father of Functionalism), Parsons (The Bridge Theory), Davis and Moore (Principles of Stratification), think in terms of the bigger societal picture. From a macro, or large scale, picture. Their focus is primarily the relationship between the different parts of society and how those different parts function together.  Everyone has a station in life and a role that must be allocated according to their station in life to keep society ‘running’ smoothly.

Conflict Theory

Then there is Conflict Theory – which stems from Marxism and the issues surrounding economics.  Their theories come from a more ‘meso’ – intermediate or middle lens. They study and theorise over the socio-economic stability or instability, of groups and institutions within society, and then relates these issues to the power struggles between those ‘machine-like’ systems of the wider society. Theorists like Bourdieu (Cultural Capital), Foucault (Knowledge and Power), Bowles and Gintis (Hidden Curriculum), and Althusser (Ideological State Apparatus) believe that society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources. A constant tension and clash between the Haves and the Have Nots, if you will. Conflict theory holds that social order is maintained by domination and power.

Symbolic Interactionist Theory

Then there is Symbolic Interactionist Theory – these studies the ‘micro’ aspects of SF and CT through ‘shared meanings’ and focus on the social interactions of individual or very small groups.  George Herbert Mead, believed that people develop self-images through interactions with other people. It would be one of his students, Herbert Blumer, that labeled this as ‘symbolic interactionism’. Other theorists, such as Cooley (Looking Glass Self) and Basil Bernstein (Language Codes) would identify as symbolic interactionists. If you were to do some research on classroom practice or looking at the interaction of students in a classroom, you would likely be looking through a symbolic interactionist lens.  

Of course, Feminist Theory comes into play in the sociology of education as learning theories and approaches are used to tackle ‘the big three’ issues of equity and equality in education. Social Justice frameworks, Universal Design for Learning and LGBTQ+ approaches.

Time for a Sidebar…

sidebar is a shorter piece of text that appears next to and accompanies a longer article. Sidebars can appear in publications such as magazines, newspapers, websites, or blogs. Sidebars can feature dissenting opinions, additional resources, real-life examples, or (in this instance) expert viewpoints that I hope will further your understanding from a sociological perspective.

The Connection between My Research on Volunteering and Sociology of Education

My research explored the lived-experiences of active volunteers in Ireland during their third level education and beyond, to gain insight and understanding of the volunteer identity and learning as informal learning over the life course. I examined the lives of the active community volunteer in Ireland who attended or completed post-secondary education, and who are currently volunteering for an organization, group, or individual within their community.

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@thedakotacorbin

I explored the concepts of social identity, sociocultural theory, and lifelong learning theory as a matter of civic education.  I wanted to understand for myself, and explain the personal ways individuals relate volunteering with their identity, learning as part of their volunteer experience, and understanding identity through learning. Sociocultural theory looks at the important contributions that society makes on an individual’s learning and development. Sociocultural theory suggests that learning is largely a social process and emphasizes the interconnection between people and the culture in which they live. 

Through the lived experience, I looked at volunteer identity from the view-point of the AV and their understanding of what learning through volunteering means, “if” or “how” those understandings change over time, and to provide a deeper understanding of the concept of learning that remains in their everyday relationships and volunteer practice. Researching from a sociological perspective and the concepts of sociology was vital to this research because I was looking at social relationships, experiences and impacts over a person’s life course. Because volunteering, is a social practice, it is so central to a person’s self-perception that it virtually defines them as a social human being. 

Volunteering is a personal expression of the greater ‘civic’ self which simply means [your understanding of yourself within a community].  It is a way of expressing yourself as a citizen with the rights and responsibilities of that community and with a sense of citizenship and belonging within your community. 

Image credit: uwstout.edu

This civic identity offers a relational element of being community-minded and a feeling of connection to the community by engaging and participating within that community. This provides a significance for understanding how we construct identity and make meaning [learning] through volunteering.  Volunteer engagement immerses participants in their community and society

Participating and contributing to the furtherance of a community in which one belongs is an imperative personal and social aspect of volunteer well-being, motivation and learning. Volunteering is critical for learning about yourself and those around you – your community, and a greater global worldview.

The subtle influence during formative education and the balance of identity and learning that can have big impact on volunteering as an adult. For instance, let me tell you about one of my research participants.  Xavier, started as a practicing teacher, then went on to become a principal, and then completed his PhD to become a university professor.  He said something in our conversation about his volunteer experience in secondary school and the informal learning that impacted him.  He said: 

‘Going back to my days of volunteering in school, it shaped my life in many ways.  It gave me a responsibility at an early stage in my life and the affirmation and validation to say that I can lead in situations and take on situations that I have acquired a series of skills and capacities for, and that while they’re not necessarily recognized in a school curriculum or in a formal academic curriculum, they are important life skills to have, and that informal learning that occurred during my formal learning environment impacted me hugely.’

Government, educational, and community entities have been calling for wider community participation and engagement, and active citizenship.  You can find them peppered throughout contemporarystrategic plans, mission statements and community development goals.

Image credit: https://twitter.com/DeptRCD

In December 2018, the Department of Rural and Community Development in Ireland put out a call for input on a National Strategy for volunteering because they identified that volunteers make an enormous contribution to Irish society… So what is the role of the Department of Education and institutions of learning for citizenship education and for volunteering? 

Service Learning, also known as Community-Based Learning broadly is an teaching and learning practice that links community service with learning activities and learning activities with community service… but it is still quite unknown and only in sporadic ‘pockets’ throughout Ireland and the EU.  For instance, theCovid pandemic has impacted volunteering and a call for active citizenship formally and informally.  Here in Ireland, Volunteer Ireland, who are the keepers of Ireland’s national volunteering database, has reported that there are more people signing up to volunteer than there are available volunteer roles.

One local meal delivery service (serving the elderly and shut-in population), saw a huge increase in the number of volunteers registered with their program since Covid 19.  They went from a small staff of approximately 5 volunteers to near 30.  This is just one of many similar stories across Ireland.  

Image credit: The Irish Times

I think that says a lot about the evidence base from a sociological perspective, on the importance of volunteering and learning through volunteering and the need for stronger, more dynamic citizenship education curriculum and programmes.  

Interested in finding out more about volunteering?  Click volunteer.ie to visit Volunteer Ireland.  Additionally, here is a video I did for Campus Engage that talks more about your volunteer identity and how to get involved, if you are interested in volunteering.

Sociology of Education, Policy and Practice

Bauman and May (2020) say that sociology comprises ways of framing the social world as well as methods for understanding and explanation.  To think sociologically and to embrace a sociological imagination means that you are not only taking the world and societal experiences in… but that you are considering what you are seeing and experiencing in the world.  That you are reflecting critically and then, I HOPE… taking action to make change.  

Of course, there are disconnects between policy and practice that continue to perpetuate social and educational stratification in Ireland, which… in a nutshell is simply society’s categorization of its people into groups based on socioeconomic factors like wealth, income, race, education, gender, occupation, and social status, or derived power. Sometimes, those who are in positions of power and authority over the governance of education, don’t clearly see what is going on, or to coin a military phrase – don’t have ‘boots on the ground’.  

I recently listened to a speech that Senator Lynn Ruane made in the Seanad in mid-2019 on the Free Education bill and the prohibition of fees and charges.  What she said really resonated the disconnect between policy and practice or ‘politicians and the lived experiences of families with school-aged children in this country’. I use this example, because thankfully the bill was passed.  

Ruane said that ‘the conversations that go on in the boards of management are not reflective of what goes on in a classroom’ and that while they might be well-meaning discussions, they are clueless to what is happening in the school yard and in the classrooms when the school places the burden of paying the lights bill and school budget on families who are unable to pay their own. She said that families should not be publicly shamed and made to feel guilty that if they don’t pay a voluntary contribution that their school will not be able to buy art supplies. 

Drawing from sociological perspectives during initial teacher education, as an integral part of teacher education provides a conscientious, inclusive, inquisitive perspective to looking at social processes and social interactions within teaching and learning, but more importantly linking to the wider societal perspective. It is one thing to learn sociology of education, but so much more to internalise it and then to take action. 

Sociology connects the what (which is education)… and the why (which is social interaction and relationship) to provide cultural explanations, theories and perspectives that are necessary for understanding people, groups, interactions and global perspectives. 

Sociology of Education, along with the other social sciences and theories of education – such as Philosophy, Psychology, and the history of education should be an integral FOUNDATION of every teacher education programme.  This is an important element that can be lost sometimes in the rush to practice placement, teaching subject mastery and teaching methodologies. 

You have to learn to walk before you can run.  You have to understand yourself, your professional identity as a teacher, and the importance of learning about each of your students as individuals – understanding and reflecting on their unique backgrounds and their stories, before you even teach a single class.  Teaching is relationship-based.  Sociology of Education and the Foundations of Education should be introduced, reflected upon and then embedded – like bedrock, into every other teaching module on a programme.  It is integral. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@serrah

Education is an institution and is socially significant because teaching, learning and research often focuses around sociological questions that are addressed in education like:

Are students safe in schools?​
Should basic competencies in key subjects outweigh the importance of other subject areas?​
How should education be funded?  
Is one school/area more deserving than another?​
What type of teachers and classroom environments provide the best learning experience for students?

Covid_19 and Sociology of Education in Initial Teacher Education

I think that one of the most important impacts has been the obvious issue of ‘isolation’ and what we MUST do to make ‘virtual’ lectures and learning meaningful and impactful for the students.  Covid has certainly forced everyone’s hand at learning and teaching digitally… and from a sociology perspective as well as a personal perspective, I have found this challenging and really rewarding. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@pillepriske

Challenging… because as a very involved educator, who personally thrives on physical, social interaction, and relationship building, I had to re-evaluate these meanings and embrace change.  

Rewarding… because as the days, and weeks, and months pressed on, I found new ways to engage and build relationships with my students, virtually.  One of these was implementing an virtual ‘open office, open door’ policy and mode of contact with students that helped them to reach out to me with the assurance that I cared for their well-being first, and foremost and that I was available as a resource for whatever they may need.  

As far as teaching sociology of education to students, through Covid, I think that the experience is largely dependant upon the organization and creativity of the lecturer and the module lead, as well as the mind-set of the student. 

Most students that I received feedback from were initially worried if they were going to be able to engage effectively with their course content and whether they would receive the required help if they encountered difficulties with any part of the sociology of education or receive assistance with the completing their reflections or assignments.  This is the sentiment felt across all levels of learning!

Creating an environment of cohesivity across the course content and between the teaching team is absolutely vital.  As students sometimes feel disconnected from course materials and content in normal circumstances, the environment of social distancing and physical closures of campus and classrooms magnify this disconnect. 

Getting this right means that as educators, we need to meet with our module and programme teaching team regularly to outline and ensure that the connections are made across the programme. Students will recognize very quickly if the teaching team is not connected and this will diminish their engagement and the impact of the course content on their learning.

As for how Covid has impacted students perspective of sociology of education? I think that it has impacted them personally in a very deep way.  Many students expressed to me that they easily feel invisible and overwhelmed, and their own home/learning environment can be very stressful with nowhere else to go to study or work quietly, and again to feel isolated and alone is a lesson in sociology in and of itself.  

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@brett_jordan

With that said, I think that Covid has provided a very eye opening and self-identifying element of sociology of education.  Everyone is living these sociological and societal issues on a daily basis and if the lecturer is very good about recognizing it, and capitalizing on it, in discussions and reflections, it will be something that can make HUGE impact on a student understanding and living sociology of education in their everyday lives.