ACTIVE LEARNING: SENDING STUDENTS TO OBSERVE
IN THE FIELD


BY JOAN GOLDSTEIN, PH.D. RESEARCH ESSAY

In nearly every class I teach, I include a field research component tailored to the goals of that particular
course. For “Sociology of Education, “ a college course attended primarily by students interested in becoming
educators, I ask the students to observe, experience, and understand social interaction within an educational
setting. This field assignment allows for growth of emotional intelligence and curiosity well beyond what the
pages of the textbook define.

To begin, I ask students to select an educational setting of their choice for observation. I don’t make these
arrangements for them; and that works out well because they are taught to network and negotiate with
administrators and institutions. Moreover, as they are community college students with jobs and complicated
lives, they can communicate with their former elementary, middle or high school teachers or family members
for access to the schools at a convenient time. I give each student a formal letter on college stationary which
requests that the “Dear Colleague” allow this student to be admitted to a classroom “in order to experience an
educational setting.”

The Assignment: Students are asked to enter a classroom as unobtrusively as possible, sit at the back, and wait
until they have spotted a child that engages their attention. They are to observe one student only, as if they
had a camera centered on the one individual, and they are to record what happens. What does the child look
like? What does he or she do? Who does the child interact with? Why did you pick this student to observe?
They were to write their observations as field notes which were later translated into a report. Here’s what
some of them discovered:

“In school, until I was about twelve, I was always shy. I never spoke until I was spoken to…When it came to
interacting with others, I was not very willing…I wanted to observe a student who represented me in my
childhood. After fifteen minutes, I realized who the shy kid was.” - Dan C.

At the conclusion of the written report, the students were asked to comment on what misperceptions they
would correct based on observation. Dan C. wrote: “…it is important to understand that some people are just
shy and have a hard time socializing with their peers. This was a great learning experience which I will take
with me when I become a teacher.”

Barbara N., who observed a kindergarten classroom, concluded: “I realized that there are times I assume
things and I should not, and now it clicks to me.”

Still another student, after observing a Kindergarten class wrote: “My assumption of how a child would act
near a teacher was a not right. That may be my instinct, but all people are not the same…”
These acts of self –correction came from a renewed sense of self-awareness that only the students themselves
could have generated. Beyond their own insights, the observing students became more effective at
understanding teacher-student interaction and the non-verbal responses of children.

In some cases, students observed troubling student-teacher interactions. Zsofia P. wrote the following about a
boy in an eight-grade class.

“I observed a backpack and I started to search for its owner, and this is how my attention focused on
Alexander, a tall skinny boy…His glance was a bored one. During the reading, he was doodling in his
notebook. Once he volunteered to read like all the other children, but the teacher ignored him, so he had to go
back to his drawings.” After watching several of the boy’s attempts at participation, Zsofia wrote: “After I got
out of the school, I tried to recall the class and figure out why Alex was rejected all the time. I still don’t know
the answer, but I think he is more intelligent that the history teacher gives him credit for; Alex deserves more
attention and appreciation from the teacher.”

Conclusions: One student summed up the experience this way: “In my next observation, I would like to
observe Beth in another classroom and see if she reacts the same way to another teacher. This observation
made me aware of the individual things students do during class. I have done observations in school settings,
but I have always been assigned to watch the instructor. This assignment has given me a chance to observe
someone other than the teacher.”

(Published in the Bank Street College of Education’s “Street Scenes”, Fall, 2005.)

Joan Goldstein, Ph.D. teaches Sociology of Education at Mercer County Community College in West
Windsor. She is a ’67 graduate of the Bank Street College of Education, NYC; and has a Ph.D. in research
sociology from The Graduate Center/CUNY. Dr. Goldstein is the author of several books and articles.

THE HALL INSTITUTE OF PUBLIC POLICY - NEW JERSEY IS A NON-PARTISAN, NOT-FOR-PROFIT ORGANIZATION THAT EXPLORES ISSUES OF SOCIAL, ECONOMIC, EDUCATIONAL AND CULTURAL IMPORTANCE TO THE GARDEN STATE. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THE HALL INSTITUTE ONLINE AT WWW.HALLNJ.ORG OR EMAIL INFO@HALLNJ.ORG.