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Asking Sociological Questions

A former student of mine shared a post on Facebook a few weeks ago (see picture for image): "Here's an idea for you to ignore. We should plant various fruit trees on city sidewalks so everyone including the homeless could eat all year long."  

For my Introduction of Sociology elective, I put this image on the screen on the first day of school and asked them What questions might you have about this idea if you were a mayor/business owner/city treasurer/citizen?

Here is a list of questions they came up with:

  • What kind of trees would be planted?
  • What is the growing season of those trees?
  • Who would care for these trees?
  • How soon would trees bloom after planting?
  • Would trees attract homeless people?
  • Would they create a mess with rotting or uneaten fruit?
  • Would it increase vermin in the city?
  • Would business owners be willing to have these planted?
  • Is hunger an issue for the homeless?
  • Could this affect produce sales from local grocery stores or farmers markets?
  • Could this affect food banks or soup kitchen efforts? How?
  • What parts of the country could support these plants?
  • How could the effectiveness of this program be measured?
  • Who would pay for these trees?

None of these questions presupposes the idea is good or bad morally, just that it isn’t as simple as a Facebook post suggests.

Sociology is a social science discipline that examines behavior and interactions within society. We learn about inequality and variables that affect life chances. Students seek to generate solutions that are sustainable, measurable, effective, and in line with our Christian faith.

During the course of the semester, we will discuss a myriad of social issues including marriage, homelessness, poverty, parenting, education, and social media.

One of the qualities of any good researcher is the ability to ask good questions that generate usable data. Since part of our Concordia mission statement is to become lifelong learners, asking questions is a key skill. Of course, answering those questions often requires additional skill sets, but any time students learn to ask good questions and not take any idea at its simplest face value makes them into better citizens of our world.

I also teach English and Adult Roles and Responsibilities. My students are often mired in social media, and they get a lot of their information from things their friends share. A goal of our digital literacy standards is to teach students not to blindly follow their echo chamber into the social media void. While social media can increase connections and information sharing, platforms like Instagram and Snapchat also allow users to condense their opinions into a few images or words, and that can also squash critical thinking and complex problem solving. Information sharing is good. Asking no questions about that information is bad.

While teachers sometimes parrot, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question,” I also believe some questions are better than others. Starting an idea sarcastically with “Here’s an idea for you to ignore” — as this fruit tree Facebook post did — does not encourage questions at all. Questions that generate civil discourse are awesome. Attacking an opponent’s intelligence or background is not.

This year, encourage your students to ask good questions. Model asking the questions yourself. When you interact online or in person, do so civilly and constructively, especially when ideas challenge our thinking. This is an important part of our witness, and our kids are definitely paying attention.

Lizzy Hoham,
English and Sociology Teacher