Friday, March 2, 2012

Sociology: What to Teach?

When I began teaching sociology in 1987, I was given a course outline, a book written at the 7th grade reading level, and a classroom that had lots of handouts from the previous teacher.  There were no state or national standards, the American Sociological Association had not yet gotten involved in high school level sociology, and I was fresh out of college with only my university courses as my guide.  At the time, there was also no internet (insert your own age-related joke at this time).  
I recall sitting on the floor of my living room with multiple sociology books and all the handouts I was given and attempted to make sense of it all.  What were the most important ideas to cover?  What kind of pedagogy would work best?  Do I lecture?  Do I lead discussions?  The previous teacher had some inquiry-based materials, should I use them?  What kinds of of projects do I give?  Should I use the sociodramas that I was given?  Do I give exams?  Multiple choice, short answer or essay?  How hard to I make the course?  

Over those first few years, I made many, many mistakes.

When dealing with high school sociology, what material was most appropriate?  I spent hours examining and reexamining these questions.  After much experimentation, these are the units I decided to focus on in order to best teach critical thinking skills and keep student interest high.

1.  Perspectives of Sociology:  Without this, we ignore the power of sociology.  To me, this unit is essential since sociology is not about facts, but about gaining tools with which to examine human social and group behavior.  Though they may be challenging to understand and teach, they are essential.

2.  Culture:  I do skip methods as a unit to get right into culture.  The interplay among values, norms, roles and sanctions can be applied to any and all social behavior--this lens is critical for a sociological mind.

3:  Social Interactions:  This one I use as a hook to keep the kids interested after all the examination of culture--This really hits upon the Symbolic Interactionist Approach.

4: Socialization (with an emphasis upon education):  While we examined the various social components to socialization, one emphasis was the unintended lessons of education (one assignment I will be posting about later)

5.  Race, Ethnicity, Prejudice:  When I began teaching about sociology, I was in a community that was 90% European-American.  Northwest Indiana had been cited as one of the most segregated areas in the country, so I used what I could to illustrate challenges for those in groups that had been discriminated against.

6: Gender and Sexism:  The tools and perspectives from the previous unit I used to understand gender, the power differences, and how media shaped images and perceptions of gender.

7: Family:  Since I was teaching exclusively seniors, I would use this unit as the end of the course--what better to finish the course with than what they dealt with daily?  

Formerly taught units I've abandoned:

Deviance:  There is much interest, but so much focus from the student point of view was violence.  In my view, it took too long to properly debrief and contextualize these issues.  I certainly realize that I may be in the minority 

Social Problems:  I taught this back when I had an honors sociology course.  I abandoned it when it abandoned me.

Ultimately, we need to look at the demographics of our students, examine what skills and perspectives from which they would benefit most, and how best to integrate those into the sociological perspectives.  Without that integration, we are just teaching our favorite topics in a text.  There is so much value in the sociological imagination, I shudder to think of the courses that are labeled as sociology but are really something else less valuable.

posted by Chuck Schallhorn


  1. Great post! I have a BA and MA in sociology and would love to teach it at the high school level. Unfortunately, with the current standards and high demand for teachers in areas like math and special ed, it's hard enough getting hired to teach history these days...let alone sociology! Schools just aren't looking for people to teach soc these days. Shame...

  2. Hello! I appreciate this post! Can I please have a syllabus and recommended readings? I was just told I am teaching sociology and i am freaking out because I have nothing!

  3. I like the reader above am starting a sociology course this year -- your blog has been super helpful so far and this post especially. If you do have syllabus or rec. readings you can share easily, I would love it -

  4. I like the reader above am starting a sociology course this year -- your blog has been super helpful so far and this post especially. If you do have syllabus or rec. readings you can share easily, I would love it -

  5. Glad to see I'm not the only one who just learned their teaching soc! Have prepped for world history all summer. I have a BS in soc and really do love the subject. Should be a fun semester!

  6. I was just told I would teach Sociology this fall (2016). If any one can assist me with a basic syllabus and anything else I would really appreciate it. My email is:

  7. Wow! I have a similar story - I was just asked to teach Sociology in semester two which is only one month away! Please help by sending anything you can to me at Thank you!

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  10. We need to teach them the best we see and hear form the world so you all need to be ready for that as is always there to help the students we are having all around us.