Positive Sociology in the Classroom

March 5, 2014

By: Margarita Mooney

Originally posted www.patheos.com on February 20th, 2013

My recent visit with Jane Dutton of the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations inspired me to adapt some of their practical exercises for building leadership and thriving workplaces to my own classroom. Dutton and colleagues have created two tools, the Job Crafting Exercise, a tool designed to make people’s jobs more engaging and fulfilling, and the Reflected Best Self Exercise, which helps people identify their character strengths and help build on their unique strengths and talents.

Based on those tools, I created my own tool, which I called  the Reflective Best Student Self and Reflective Best Classroom Exercise. Here it is!

Reflective Best Student Self and Reflective Best Classroom Exercise, written by Margarita Mooney

Objective: One of the principles of positive psychology and positive sociology is that we can identify our character strengths, build strong relationships, and foster enabling social environments to be our best self and to be able to give to others. In this exercise, we will reflect on what about ourselves and our classroom has enabled us to get the most out of this learning experience. Although your answers will be anonymous, your fellow students and I will read them so we can further reflect on our best selves and our best classroom environment.

Part A. Our Reflective Best Student Self

1.       Fill in the following sentence:

I am my best student self when I _________________________. (e.g., am well rested; have completed all class readings; am personally engaged with the material I’m studying, etc.)

2.       Reflect on what you wrote in Question A1 and tell us: What conditions enabled you to be your best student self? What conditions have limited your ability to be your best student self? (not sleeping enough, taking too many classes, etc.)

3.       Reflect on the paper you just wrote for this class and tell us: What conditions enabled you to be your best student self in this paper? (e.g., getting feedback on my paper) What conditions have limited your ability to be your best student self on this paper? (e.g., not enough time to work on it because of multiple commitments)

Part B. Our Reflective Best Classroom

The classroom setting includes students, the professor, and the TA, all working together to create an engaging learning experience. In this part of our exercise, I want you to reflect on what others do (or don’t do, or could do) to enable your learning experience in our classroom.

1.       Fill in the following sentence:

Our classroom is the best it can be when other students, the professor and/or the TA contribute to the learning environment by_________________________. (e.g., making clear presentations, offering interesting insights, etc.)

2.       Reflect on what you wrote in Question B1 and tell us: What have other students done to enable our classroom to be the best it can be? (e.g., students arrive on time; students’ comments refer back to the readings; students have given engaging presentations; students gave helpful feedback on my paper.) What more could other students do to enable your learning in this classroom? What have other students done to hinder our classroom from being the best it can be? (e.g., talking to each other instead of listening to the group; not having done the readings; making unrelated comments.)

3.       Reflect on what you wrote in Question B1 and tell us: What have the Professor and TA done to make this classroom the best it can be? (e.g., facilitating class discussions; making connections across readings, giving feedback on papers.) What more could your professor or TA do to enable your learning in this classroom? What have your professor or TA done that have hindered your learning in this classroom?

End of Exercise

Typical student evaluations generally invite negative criticism of the professor and other students, and hence many faculty are somewhat skeptical of what students say on them. Although my questions certainly asked for constructive feedback about me and others, I first asked students to tell me what they strive for as a student, and then to identify why and why not they are doing their best. Students responded honestly about their own limitations–too many classes, needing to find a job before graduating, difficulty in completing all the readings, etc. They also acknowledged that they can participate more and learn more when they prepare for class by completing all the readings and written assignments.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that students overwhelmingly responded that other students’ insights on readings and peer feedback on papers had greatly helped their motivation and learning. By acknowledging the importance of group dynamics to their own learning, students learned a basic sociological insight: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Now that my students have said in their own words that group dynamics help their learning, I can build in more effective group exercises to further facilitate their learning. For example, I plan to discuss with students how they can form reading groups to meet outside of class and discuss the readings. Second, having seen the positive effects of getting early feedback on their papers, students will be more motivated to take advantage of more such opportunities for their next paper.

Completing the exercise about myself helped me to honestly share how I’m struggling to make clear connections between positive psychology and positive sociology. I can rather easily articulate positive psychology because it has been so well described by Martin Seligman and others, but positive sociology is really a new field that lacks clear articulation and clear examples from research. When I shared my own lack of clarity with the class, one of the students responded, “Yes, I’ve been wondering how exactly positive sociology builds on Seligman’s PERMA.” This is exactly the question that 8 sociologists gathered together to try to figure out last fall (and we are still working on it!) One of the great benefits of teaching is precisely that you learn from your students, so I taught this class in order to help me answer unanswered questions, not necessarily to tell students all that I know. By telling them precisely where my own thinking is not yet articulated, I can better invite them into the conversation that will develop the field of positive sociology.

We did the Reflective Best Student Self and Reflective Best Classroom Exercise right after discussing positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, in which he describes 5 Foundations of Morality: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. Haidt describes how having social order and cooperation requires more than just valuing care and fairness, it requires group loyalty, respect for authority, and viewing some social norms as sacred.

With those 5 Foundations of Morality still up on the board, I realized I value a loyal classroom. I want students to show up on time to class, to come prepared, to participate, and to help each other. Repeated absences or missing in-class exercises like giving peer feedback on papers detracts from group loyalty. I also wish to have authority in the classroom, but my view of leadership is that my role is to put my knowledge and expertise at the service of student learning. Is the classroom sacred? I’m not sure about that one, but maybe we could make “Positive Sociology at UNC” t-shirts and wear them for a few days and see what happens?

Building on Jonathan Haidt, who builds on Emile Durkheim, I’ve been telling students for the past few weeks that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that psychology is social and moral, and that society is moral. By putting our own classroom into a social and moral framework, students now have seen those basic insights as it applies to their everyday lives right in class. Humans are not autonomous individuals, we are profoundly social, relational, and moral beings.

How might you use adapt this exercise to your classroom or workplace? Is your classroom or your workplace really a moral space? Do you think greater self-reflection on your strengths and the strengths of your classrooms or workplaces will make you more engaged, more motivated, and ultimately more accomplished?

Margarita Mooney is an Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Sociology at Yale University. Her areas of interest include religion, culture, immigration and economic sociology. Her book Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora was published by University of California Press in 2009.