An ex-student popped into school the other day. She has just began a nursing degree, and back home for Christmas she had agreed to come and chat to my current tutor group about nursing applications. One thing that struck me from her visit, aside from her obvious love of her new course and university, was how fondly she looked back on her sociology lessons. She told the students how valuable sociology had been for her initial steps into nursing, and how out of all her lessons she misses sociology the most.
This got me thinking, how do you go about engaging students with sociology, a subject that they have never studied before and probably know very little about? How do you get students to realise how relevant the subject will be regardless of what they decide to do post A levels? This question of engagement is of particular importance for sociology as most students begin their A level with no prior knowledge of the subject and in many schools and colleges sociology is still often regarded as the ‘soft’ option, recommended to students unsure of what to study, or those who do not meet the entry requirements for the core subjects. We have all heard the jibes; sociology is just ‘common sense’, sociology is ‘easy’, ‘you will never get into a Russell group university with sociology, do a core subject’. I have found to keep students engaged they have to understand the wider value of the subject, just as my ex-student can now vouch for with her nursing.
So how do you do this? I start with a language the students will understand; ‘sociology A level will give you useful practical skills’. Even the weakest student will leave the course with essay writing skills, the ability to use evidence to construct an argument, to apply a range of material to a given question. They will begin to think philosophically and critically and understand the relationship between theory and methods. The topics covered (families, education, beliefs and crime) students can easily relate to and have wide applicability to many other academic and vocational areas. This will not be enough however – to truly develop a love for the subject you have to win the hearts and minds- so once you have made the students see what they will gain from the subject, tell them what they will be able to offer once they have their A Level.
In the first few weeks of the course I explain to my students that being a sociologist is different from being a historian, geographer or an English student. Being a sociologist means you commit yourself to social action. I tell them that by learning about society, constructing theories, conducting research and revealing inequalities the sociologist arms themselves with the tools of change. The purpose of sociology, and its very reason for being, is to change society.
This is an important lesson. To be successful students need to be fired up and inspired. They need to have purpose. They need to understand why sociology is such an important subject, how it has influenced policy, helped our understanding of society and revealed injustices and inequalities. And that if they stick with it, potentially one day they could contribute to this.
Sociology and sociology students should not be underestimated. As my ex-student has demonstrated sociology has wide applicability beyond the classroom. Not only does it jar even the most passive 6th former out of their slumber, and provide much needed essay writing skills, it opens student’s eyes to the effects of things they have taken for granted, and plants the seeds of alternative possibilities. It can empower students to stand up for their beliefs and excites them at the thought of the potential of their futures. So I suggest if you are having difficulty engaging your students with the subject, strip it back to basics, tell them to ignore the sceptics, roll up their sleeves and think about things they want to change. Encourage them not to just study sociology for the sake of an A level or UCAS points, but to develop into sociologists. As by doing so they might just become better people for it.
Such is the potential of sociology.
Alexandra Hay teaches social sciences at a secondary school in Staffordshire and is a professional doctorate student at Keele University.