Sociology of Education Theory: Symbolic Interactionism Research Paper Starter

Sociology of Education Theory: Symbolic Interactionism

According to the symbolic interaction perspective, interactions between students and teachers help each develop a set of expectations for that student's performance both in academic subjects and discipline. In particular, interaction theorists posit that through the teacher expectancy effect, a teacher's expectations of a student's performance or achievement influence the actual performance or achievement of that student. When that expectation is low, students then react by finding other outlets for positive feedback or by accepting the expectations of the teacher as true; living down to their potential. Although there has been some research done to test the validity of this approach, research in this area is difficult to perform for practical and ethical reasons. However, the interactionist perspective does have applicability in the classroom, particularly regarding differential tracking systems.

Keywords Conflict Perspective; Education; Hidden Curriculum; Reinforcement; Self-Fulfilling Prophecy; Social Stratification; Symbolic Interactionism; Teacher Expectancy Effect; Tracking

Educational Sociology: Sociology of Education Theory: Symbolic Interactionism


There are many aspects to education that can affect what and how a child learns. The formal curriculum articulates the prescribed subject matter that is taught to the student such as basic skills (i.e., reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic) or more advanced or elective courses (e.g., art, music, ecology). In addition, some theorists posit that students are also taught the agenda of a hidden curriculum, or the standards of proper behavior for a society or culture that are taught within the school system. The hidden curriculum is not part of the articulated curricula for schools, but is taught subtly through the reinforcement of behavior and attitudes that are deemed appropriate by the society or culture. For example, along with being taught material in academic subject areas, children are also taught to raise their hand before asking a question, ask permission before going to the restroom, only work on certain subjects during certain hours of the day, not to talk in class, and obey the rules that most teachers find essential for maintaining order in the classroom.

Teacher Expectancy Effect

Students often pick up on their teachers' expectations of them and perform accordingly. The teacher expectancy effect is the impact of a teacher's expectations of a student's performance or achievement on the actual performance or achievement of that student. In this type of self-fulfilling prophecy, the student may pick up on subtle (or not so subtle) cues from the teacher about how well s/he should be performing. For example, if a teacher thinks that a student should be in the top quartile of the class, but s/he is only performing at the fiftieth percentile, the teacher may attempt to encourage the student to perform up to his or her potential by reinforcing high performing behavior or trying to shame the student into higher performance. Teacher expectancies, however, do not necessarily need to be overt or consciously performed in order to impact student behavior. For example, if a student is mistakenly placed in a remedial reading group, s/he may not be given the opportunity for advanced reading because the teacher does not expect him/her to do well and therefore misses the signs that the student can handle more advanced material. Conflict theorists see this as a way of reinforcing social stratification by reinforcing children so that they stay within their class. Symbolic interactionists, on the hand, see the interactions between students and teachers as a prime way to help students improve.

The symbolic interactionist perspective assumes that one's self-concept is created through the interpretation of the symbolic gestures, words, actions, and appearances of others as observed during social interactions. In education, students and teachers each develop a set of expectations for a student's performance both in academic subjects and discipline, as well as for the teacher's behavior. The actions of the teacher toward the student may help set up a situation where the student can more easily fulfill these expectations. In addition, the teacher may unconsciously look for behaviors that support the teacher's expectations. In other words, the expectations actually cause the behavior rather than predict it. For example, if a middle class teacher expects lower class children to perform more poorly in school, s/he may act in ways that actually encourage them to do so. S/he may not give the lower class students the same attention that s/he gives the other students in the class, may not give additional help or homework that would enable them to do better in school, or ignore them when they ask a question. Although none of this may be done consciously or maliciously, the students will eventually learn that it is not worth the effort to ask a question or to study hard because the teacher is unlikely to help or encourage them. Eventually, this turns into a situation where the lower class students actually do perform more poorly, not necessarily because they have less ability but because they have not been given the same encouragement, reinforcement, or educational opportunities as the other students (Fritzberg, 2001).


Children are often labeled in educational systems in general or the classroom specifically. One child, for example, might be placed in a remedial track that receives less challenging work while another child is put into the gifted track and is challenged to do his/her best. Even outside the formal tracking system, students can be labeled informally as trouble makers, developmentally slow, or as poor leaders. Once a child is labeled in this manner, the cycle of reinforcement for that kind of behavior begins. For example, a child who is considered not to have leadership potential may not be given leadership positions where s/he could learn and practice leadership skills while other children are given that opportunity. Eventually, the child denied the experience of being a leader will typically be less able to lead than other children who are given the opportunity, even if their innate abilities are equal.

Interactionists are particularly interested in the impact of tracking in the educational system on student performance. Interactionists have studied the teacher expectancy effect and found that it is particularly important in the lower grades (i.e., through grade 3). For example, Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968, as cited in Fritzberg, 2001) administered a verbal and reasoning pretest to elementary school students and then randomly selected a sample of 20 percent of the students and designated them as "spurters" from whom teachers could expect superior performance. Because the students in this group had been randomly selected, they represented all levels of ability and were not, in fact, all from the top 20 percent of students as rated by the pretests. However, a later posttest found that the children who had been labeled as spurters scored significantly higher than children who had not been labeled as spurters despite their scores on the pretests. Not only did the rankings of the children's test scores change, but they also received differential ratings from the teachers. Students who had been labeled as spurters were rated by teachers as being more interesting, more curious, and better adjusted than the other students. The researchers concluded that the improvements in performance were a result of the differences in the teachers' perceptions of the students (Fritzberg, 2001).

Other researchers have also found that teachers' expectations affect students' performance. For example, research has found that teachers tend to wait longer for answers from a student whom they believe to be a high achiever and are more apt to give such students a second chance than they are to students they believe are lower achievers. Research has found that this applies not only to academic subjects requiring mental skills and abilities, but to subjects requiring physical abilities as well. For example, one study found that students who were expected to...

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