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Symbolic Interactionism and School Behavior



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Symbolic Interactionism and School Behavior


Symbolic interactionist studies of education examine social interaction in the classroom, on the playground, and in other school venues. These studies help us understand what happens in the schools themselves, but they also help us understand how what occurs in school is relevant for the larger society. Some studies, for example, show how children’s playground activities reinforce gender-role socialization. Girls tend to play more cooperative games, while boys play more competitive sports (Thorne, 1993) [7] (see Chapter 4 "Gender Inequality").


Applying Social Research


Assessing the Impact of Small Class Size

Do elementary school students fare better if their classes have fewer students rather than more students? It is not easy to answer this important question, because any differences found between students in small classes and those in larger classes might not necessarily reflect class size. Rather, they may reflect other factors. For example, perhaps the most motivated, educated parents ask that their child be placed in a smaller class and that their school goes along with this request. Perhaps teachers with more experience favor smaller classes and are able to have their principals assign them to these classes, while new teachers are assigned larger classes. These and other possibilities mean that any differences found between the two class sizes might reflect the qualities and skills of students and/or teachers in these classes, and not class size itself.

For this reason, the ideal study of class size would involve random assignment of both students and teachers to classes of different size. (Recall that Chapter 1 "Understanding Social Problems" discusses the benefits of random assignment.) Fortunately, a notable study of this type exists.

The study, named Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio), began in Tennessee in 1985 and involved 79 public schools and 11,600 students and 1,330 teachers who were all randomly assigned to either a smaller class (13–17 students) or a larger class (22–25 students). The random assignment began when the students entered kindergarten and lasted through third grade; in fourth grade, the experiment ended, and all the students were placed into the larger class size. The students are now in their early thirties, and many aspects of their educational and personal lives have been followed since the study began.

Some of the more notable findings of this multiyear study include the following:


  • While in grades K–3, students in the smaller classes had higher average scores on standardized tests.

  • Students who had been in the smaller classes continued to have higher average test scores in grades 4–7.

  • Students who had been in the smaller classes were more likely to complete high school and also to attend college.

  • Students who had been in the smaller classes were less likely to be arrested during adolescence.

  • Students who had been in the smaller classes were more likely in their twenties to be married and to live in wealthier neighborhoods.

  • White girls who had been in the smaller classes were less likely to have a teenage birth than white girls who had been in the larger classes.

Why did small class size have these benefits? Two reasons seem likely. First, in a smaller class, there are fewer students to disrupt the class by talking, fighting, or otherwise taking up the teacher’s time. More learning can thus occur in smaller classes. Second, kindergarten teachers are better able to teach noncognitive skills (cooperating, listening, sitting still) in smaller classes, and these skills can have an impact many years later.

Regardless of the reasons, it was the experimental design of Project STAR that enabled its findings to be attributed to class size rather than to other factors. Because small class size does seem to help in many ways, the United States should try to reduce class size in order to improve student performance and later life outcomes.



Sources: Chetty et al., 2011; Schanzenbach, 2006 [8]

Another body of research shows that teachers’ views about students can affect how much the students learn. When teachers think students are smart, they tend to spend more time with these students, to call on them, and to praise them when they give the right answer. Not surprisingly, these students learn more because of their teachers’ behavior. But when teachers think students are less bright, they tend to spend less time with these students and to act in a way that leads them to learn less. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968) [9] conducted a classic study of this phenomenon. They tested a group of students at the beginning of the school year and told their teachers which students were bright and which were not. They then tested the students again at the end of the school year. Not surprisingly, the bright students had learned more during the year than the less bright ones. But it turned out that the researchers had randomly decided which students would be designated bright and less bright. Because the “bright” students learned more during the school year without actually being brighter at the beginning, their teachers’ behavior must have been the reason. In fact, their teachers did spend more time with them and praised them more often than was true for the “less bright” students. This process helps us understand why tracking is bad for the students tracked down.

Other research in the symbolic interactionist tradition focuses on how teachers treat girls and boys. Many studies find that teachers call on and praise boys more often (Jones & Dindia, 2004). [10] Teachers do not do this consciously, but their behavior nonetheless sends an implicit message to girls that math and science are not for them and that they are not suited to do well in these subjects. This body of research has stimulated efforts to educate teachers about the ways in which they may unwittingly send these messages and about strategies they could use to promote greater interest and achievement by girls in math and science (Battey, Kafai, Nixon, & Kao, 2007). [11]


KEY TAKEAWAYS


  • According to the functional perspective, education helps socialize children and prepare them for their eventual entrance into the larger society as adults.

  • The conflict perspective emphasizes that education reinforces inequality in the larger society.

  • The symbolic interactionist perspective focuses on social interaction in the classroom, on school playgrounds, and at other school-related venues. Social interaction contributes to gender-role socialization, and teachers’ expectations may affect their students’ performance.



FOR YOUR REVIEW


  1. Review how the functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist perspectives understand and explain education. Which of these three approaches do you most prefer? Why?

[1] Ballantine, J. H., & Hammack, F. M. (2012). The sociology of education: A systematic analysis (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

[2] Ballantine, J. H., & Hammack, F. M. (2012). The sociology of education: A systematic analysis (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

[3] Ansalone, G. (2010). Tracking: Educational differentiation or defective strategy.Educational Research Quarterly, 34(2), 3–17.

[4] Grodsky, E., Warren, J. R., & Felts, E. (2008). Testing and social stratification in American education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34(1), 385–404.

[5] Booher-Jennings, J. (2008). Learning to label: Socialisation, gender, and the hidden curriculum of high-stakes testing. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 29, 149–160.

[6] Cole, M. (2008). Marxism and educational theory: Origins and issues. New York, NY: Routledge.

[7] Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: Girls and boys in school. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

[8] Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., Hilger, N., Saez, E., Schanzenbach, D. W., & Yagan, D. (2011). How does your kindergarten classroom affect your earnings? Evidence from Project STAR.Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126, 1593–1660; Schanzenbach, D. W. (2006). What have researchers learned from Project STAR? (Harris School Working Paper—Series 06.06).

[9] Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York, NY: Holt.

[10] Jones, S. M., & Dindia, K. (2004). A meta-analystic perspective on sex equity in the classroom. Review of Educational Research, 74, 443–471.

[11] Battey, D., Kafai, Y., Nixon, A. S., & Kao, L. L. (2007). Professional development for teachers on gender equity in the sciences: Initiating the conversation. Teachers College Record, 109(1), 221–243.



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