Having attended public schools throughout my childhood and adolescence, I never was familiar with the term functionalism and its many elements. After observing and analyzing my field placement classroom I have come to understand the concept of functionalism to some extent. In general, functionalists “see schools as serving to socialize students to adapt to the economic, political, and social institutions of that society” (Feinberg, p. 6, 2004).
They also theorize that in order for societies to survive, they must carry out vital functions such as, attaining fundamental knowledge and acquiring essential skills and proficiency, acknowledging certain norms and values within their community, and recognizing authority figures. It is also believed that social solidarity and role differentiation are the primary aspirations for a society and is achieved by means of the educational system. I can recall instances from my schooling experience, where functionalist aspects were taught and are presently being utilized in the classroom I observed.
Some of the various features of functionalism that I identified within the classroom are hidden curriculum, role differentiation and specificity, which I will be addressing, more in depth throughout this paper. The classroom I analyzed from Smith Junior High consists of six special education students between the ages of 13 to 17. A majority of the students are racially diverse and come from a low income household. These students are classified as moderately mentally disabled and each have an IEP, which include their present level of academic achievement and functional performance.
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The setting of the classroom is comprised of a structured yet uncomplicated curriculum, where their teacher Angi Root, incorporates practical and efficient learning strategies. The entire curriculum is based upon the concept of functioning in every day situations so I was able to identify numerous functional activities. My first observation of the class was on January, 29th at 12pm in the afternoon. The students were just arriving back in the room from lunch and were quite boisterous because I was in the room. As soon as their teacher, Mrs. Root asked them to settle down, they instantly became silent.
This is an example of an unspoken expectation of the teacher and is one of many hidden curriculums that I witnessed in the classroom. Another instance was during instruction; Mrs. Root had asked a question pertaining to shapes and who ever knew the answer, demonstrated this particular hidden curriculum by raising their hand. The functionalist concept, hidden curriculum, is best defined as “organizational features and routines of school life that provide the structure needed to develop the psychological dispositions appropriate for work and citizenship in industrial society” (Feinberg, p. 1, 2004). It is intended to assist in achieving norms, learning one’s position in society, and how to think of oneself. Hidden curriculum has also been explained as making the transition from family to the real world less difficult. This concept applies to the examples I gave because when the teacher asked the students to settle down, they instantly knew that they needed to follow directions. The idea that teachers are authority figures and deserve to be respected is instilled in children at a very young age and is expected to be upheld.
As for students raising their hands when wanting to speak or answer a question, this has also been implanted in children’s minds and is a norm in today’s society. I conducted my second observation the following week on Monday, February 2nd, in the morning at 9am. The students had just barely arrived to school and it was the first day back after the weekend. Mrs. Root began the day by allowing the kids to choose their designated job o the week. The six jobs the students can select from are line leader, door holder, paper passer, sharpening pencils, turning the lights on/off, and errand runner.
The kids get so excited about choosing their job or “role” for the week. This motivates them and makes them want to become more efficient and responsible. Functionalists dispute over the fact that all members within a society are compelled to perform different tasks. The concept of role differentiation is found in almost all communities and guarantees that even the most unpleasant jobs are completed. The process of selecting and fulfilling a classroom responsibility helps student’s form a personal identity of themselves. Role differentiation facilitates individuals to gain a sense of belonging in their society and helps build their character.
It also assists them in learning responsibility which they can apply to everyday life. My final observation took place on Tuesday, February 3rd, at 2:30pm. I was able to observe the teacher, Mrs. Root, enact the norm of specificity. One of the students, a girl named Shelby, is required to wear leg braces because she has a difficult time walking. When walking to Adapted P. E, we had to travel up stairs, which proved to challenging for Shelby. So she wouldn’t trip and fall, Mrs. Root helped Shelby maneuver up the steps until she was safely at he top. Another student named Marcus asked why we didn’t help him up the steps.
Mrs. Root answered, saying that Shelby has a harder time getting up the stairs then he does. While Marcus can easily run up and down the steps twenty times, Shelby can barely make it up once with assistance. Specificity “refers to the treatment of a person in terms of some standardized basis of comparison” (Feinberg, p. 19, 2004). Universalism, which is equal treatment of individuals, is quite the opposite of the term specificity, permitting exceptions to be made for special circumstances. In lieu of the observations I made, Mrs. Root used her judgment on how to handle the situation of fairness.
Instead of requiring the same treatment for all her students, certain exceptions are made for individuals with specific needs and disabilities. Overall, I was surprised to discover exactly how many differential functionalist aspects were actually utilized in the classroom I observed. Analyzing the roles and behaviors of the students and teacher, I now feel I have a greater grasp on the functionalist concepts. As for my view on functionalism, I am a bit concerned with the increasing diversity of school populations and the effect this is having on teaching functionalism in schools.
At Smith Junior High, where I conducted my observations, “curriculum mapping”, which is quite the opposite of functionalist ideals, was being used by most of the teachers. There are many challenges that must be dealt with, in regards to this, because of the “No Child Left Behind Act”. I am not in opposition to the cohesion of different ethnic groups but am worried about the direction public schools are taking. I sense that the main functionalist approaches taught in public schools may become phased out, which in turn, will be extremely detrimental for the society as a whole.
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