Sociological Detectives: An End Has A Start

This is a simple, counter-intuitive, teaching technique that can be used to enliven run-of-the-mill lessons (or serve as a quick’n’dirty lesson template when the inspiration for all-singing, all-dancing lessons has temporarily left the room) by reversing the teaching process: instead of starting-at-the-start and gradually revealing more and more information to students, you begin-at-the-end and encourage them to “build backwards” to create an understanding of The Bigger Picture (whatever it was you need them to grasp).

And if this all sounds a little complicated, an example should clarify things.

Starting at the Start…

A conventional way to teach a high-level concept such as “Functionalism” might be to start-at-the-start by identifying a number of key ideas –

  • Organismic analogy
  • Consensus
  • Function
  • Purpose and Needs
  • Social system
  • – and then explaining, illustrating and applying each as necessary to provide a broad overview of this general perspective.

    At various points in the process students can be asked to make contributions, such as answering a question or providing an example, but it can be very easy for them to be relatively passive observers and recorders of your teaching.

    If you want to make your students do a bit more of the work – and who, quite frankly, doesn’t? – there’s a simple way to do this: one that doesn’t involve a lot of additional pre-preparation, gets your students actively involved in their own learning and is the kind of simple lesson template you can reuse as much as you like.

    Because although the process is always the same, outcomes will always be different.

    And rather than just telling students something, you structure your teaching to lead them to discover it for themselves – which sounds as though it might be complicated and involve a great deal of work on your part, but really doesn’t.

    How you achieve all this is, like all good ideas, deceptively simple.

    An End Has A Start…

    You can prepare exactly the same things you want your students to learn, but instead of starting with the Big Picture (“Functionalism is…”) and leading them carefully forward by filing-in the details (consensus, systems…), you start with the details and lead them backwards to reveal the Bigger Picture. Like the little sociological detectives you’d like them to be, you provide a set of clues they need to investigate and interrogate before they (hopefully) arrive at the conclusion you want them to reach…

    In this respect, instead of starting by giving students the concept you want them to learn (in this instance “Functionalism” but once you’ve got a handle on the technique it can be used to create lessons around a range of concepts / theories / methods or whatever) and then providing the information they need to understand it, you start by giving them illustrations they can then build into an understanding of the concept – something that’s accomplished using two simple lists:

    1. “What It Is” provides ideas that illustrate the concept (“Functionalism”)

    2. “What It Isn’t” provides ideas that do not illustrate the concept.

    For example, instead of starting by saying something like “Functionalism is a Consensus theory” and then explaining and illustrating what you mean, you start by writing on the board something “Functionalism is” and following that with a statement about “What Functionalism isn’t”.

    For example:

    What It Is

    People co-operating to achieve shared goals

    Greater than the sum of its individual parts

    What It Isn’t

    A war of all-against-all

    All about the individual

    Students can record these if they want, but it’s probably not that important at this stage.

    After each “Is” and “Isn’t” you ask for observations, questions, clarifications. This will start slowly, because they’re probably going to need a few more clues before they can start to grasp the bigger picture, but will eventually build into something much more substantial.

    You can continue adding “Is” and “Isn’t” contributions until you’re at the stage where students should be able to explain “Functionalism” as a perspective, even if they don’t necessarily know or use the exact term (that’s something you can eventually lead them towards – “What one word might describe this general way of looking at the social world?” – if no-one suggests it as part of the process).

    If you want to be a bit more creative you can introduce graphics into the lists, such as a picture of Durkheim under “What It Is” and Marx under “What It Isn’t”. Since students are unlikely to recognise these people it will give you an opportunity to give them a bit of background about them and they will eventually come to see how each fits into the Bigger Picture.

    Although it will depend on the students, you should find even the most difficult to grasp ideas will start to reveal themselves after 6 – 10 observations (which will all effectively be the kinds of ideas and illustrations you would have used when “normally” teaching the concept. In this respect there’s not much “extra work” involved here, although you’ll probably have to think about how to adapt your illustrative material to the “Is” / “Isn’t” framework)..

    When constructing “Is” and “Isn’t” ideas you need to make sure they’re linked to the general ideas you want your students to grasp. In the above example you’re trying to lead them to say it’s some sort of Consensus-based perspective by constructing examples that lead them towards this end (people co-operate, shared values, etc.).

    It’s important the clues you construct to illustrate, in this instance, Functionalism aren’t so direct that students are effectively being “told the answer” or too obscure that they turn the exercise into a guessing game.

    The object, in this respect, is to guide students towards building a body of knowledge and understanding that gives them a much more intuitive grasp of an idea – or set of ideas – because they have “discovered it for themselves” (even though you’ve actually structured it just as rigidly as if you’d introduced the Big Idea at the start).

    And the added bonus here is that your students should become much more actively involved because they’re having to think about the clues you’ve provided and how they can be assembled to reveal the Big Picture of whatever it is you want them to learn.

    Finally, once you’ve led your students “back to the start” – they have an understanding of Functionalism as a general perspective – you can extend the process by doing things like getting them to apply their understanding of the perspective to “make predictions” about how “Functionalists” would explain the role of institutions like families, schools or the workplace.


    Click to download Presentation
    Searching for Clues…

    If you want to add an extra layer of sophistication to this type of lesson, I’ve put together a simple PowerPoint that allows you to present your What It Is and What It Isn’t points in a way that looks a little more organised than simply writing stuff on the board – although the trade-off here is that while you can write as many clues as you like on a whiteboard, this Presentation only has space for 8.

    I say “only”, but this should be enough for most ideas you want to present.

    If for some reason it’s not you can always edit the PowerPoint to add more (at it’s easiest it’s just a question of making a copy of the original “clue” screen).

    To use the Presentation just add your own preferred text to replace the placeholder text and reveal each point as and when required.

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