What’s an ethnographer to do?

In my last post, I wrote about ways of explaining what I do in such a way that teachers will see a purpose to it. The way I framed it was more or less like so: I do my work, and I involve teachers in it as much as I can, and then I try to convince teachers that what I’ve learned through my research is useful to them as well.

Reading about the alt-ac and post-ac movements, though, I’m coming to think that’s not the best way. “My research” isn’t something I’ve done — it’s whatever I’m doing now, and something I’m continually redefining as I progress with it. So why not start by talking to teachers and looking for what might be useful?

Among teachers, some of the backlash against the testing-heavy corporate reform movement has brought an increased call for quantitative qualitative data to be used. That is, student test scores and graduation rates are not the only kind of data that can be informative for improving education, and much of the time, it’s not even useful at all. For an individual teacher trying to improve their classroom practice, “thick” ethnographic data is likely to be more on point than “big” testing numbers. People like math education specialist Geoff Krall, for example:

During the year, pay for subs to watch classes while teachers observe other teachers facilitating inquiry lessons. And have a non-threatening observation protocol in hand.

I’ll take your “non-threatening observation protocol” and raise you “ethnographic field methods.” Let’s dump the checklist altogether. Instead, we’ll talk about ways of understanding the classroom environment on its own terms, abandoning our preconceptions, spending time with the students and teachers in a classroom until we come to understand their way of thinking. No evaluations, no agendas, just colleagues who want to understand what you’re doing so they can help you do it better.

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9 comments on “What’s an ethnographer to do?
  1. Dan Gosselink says:

    Team Schools a region of KIPP in Newark NJ does exactly this extremely well. Observations by teachers in a non threatening way, often just observing to notice student interactions one might not see from the front or when occupied by “teaching” or to provide feedback that is from a peer.
    I set aside 3 preps a week to observe my colleagues because I want to improve my craft Ns my understanding of my students.
    Ya’ll can come do the and thing, observe in my classroom any day.

    • Daniel says:

      This is really interesting. Can you share any details of how it works in practice? For example, do you have any training or instruction in what to look for when you’re observing, or a pre-conference with the teacher you’re observing? Who observes who – same or different subject or grade; one person repeatedly, or a lot of different colleagues? What’s the debrief like afterward?

      I’m also intrigued because KIPP is known for its no-excuses philosophy. How does that jibe with the observation practice? Do you get time off teaching to do it, or is it extra work? Does observation or peer review factor into your evaluations, or is it more based on quantitative measures?

      • dan says:

        First sorry about the typos in my last post, doing this from my phone. This post could be 10 pages long and this conversation would be much more enjoyable in person, but briefly here it goes.

        The training I have in what to look for for when observing comes from co-observing with my department head, co-teacher or Director of Instruction, also from weekly meetings with my department head and grade level chair on my specific areas for growth and what to look for while observing. (this year i focused on Student talk time – ratio, clear instructions – what to do and making connections to the present) These people will most often guide me to particular teachers to observe that they know do things that I ned to work on or would benefit me in some way to observe.

        Rise (my school) has an open door policy, I teach 4 – 66 minute blocks a day and almost every day I will have another teacher in my room for varying lengths of time, some days it will be many teachers, my department head or other supervisors and often we have visitors from other schools who get the same open door policy.

        I almost never preconfernce with a teacher, sometimes I will let them know ahead of time in the morning or the day before, most times I will just drop in unannounced. Teachers at Rise crave feedback, so I try to give grows and glows for every class I observe, meaning I send an email before I leave the class to just the teacher, with a few things they did especially well (glows) and a few things they could work on (grows) I do this even to veterans, even in my first year at the school.

        Every teacher is different in who, how often and when they observe. Like I said, I try to observe three preps a week, menaing 3 – 66 minute blocks (You are right this a ton of prep time, but it was worth it). At this point I have observed every teacher in the school several times, but obviosuly more some than others.

        I taught small group and whole group 7th grade history this year, and since I was new to small group (3-5 students with IEPs generally) I did a lot of observing in similar atmospheres, whether it was science, math, literature, I observed.

        I’m not sure what you mean asking how “no-excuses” jibes with observations, what would be at odds?

        We don’t have subs at my school and I think that getting subs to cover your class while you do observations would be antithetical, why would you miss your own instructional time to do this? I use my preps, I beleive I am given enough prep time to do this, I do this for me, I want to be the best teacher I can be. I have worked as a sub and tecaher in a traditional public school and having a sub in my room while I am out observing would be a waste of everybodies time.

        Lastly, no these informal observations do not factor into teacher evalutaions, this is about personal growth, in my case mostly for the person observing (me).

        Hope that helps!!

      • Daniel says:

        That sounds like something that could potentially be very useful – thanks for providing detail at such length. When I was teaching, I remember feeling like I was living in an egg carton, with my classroom carefully sheltered from everyone else’s. Breaking down the barriers is the first step to fostering a real collegial learning community.

        That said, what you describe is not the same as what I’m proposing. I prefer to listen and observe at length — repeated sessions of the same class, over a number of months — before giving any kind of praise or constructive feedback. Any feedback involves making an evaluation of the teacher I’ve observed, and before I can tell you how to be a better teacher, I need to understand what “good teaching” means to you. For example, if I compliment you for allowing students a lot of space to talk, but you don’t think about student talk time in the same way that I do, then what does my feedback mean to you? The discussion has to take place in the context of a shared vision of classroom practice, and as the observer I have to defer to your vision until I can understand it well enough to have that conversation. Longitudinal observation also allows you to see the students in a different way, to get a sense of who they are and what they need; sometimes you come to see that what you would have suggested initially, isn’t actually appropriate for the context you’re observing.

        This is why I was asking about the role of “no excuses.” If I want to talk about the reasons behind the choices I’ve made as a teacher — if I say, “That’s great, but it won’t work with my kids” — will that be perceived as “making excuses”? After all, the difference between an excuse and a reason is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. Ari Sherris says:

    Greetings Daniel!

    It is engaging to read your reflection. I especially enjoyed when you stated, “we’ll talk about ways of understanding the classroom environment on its own terms, abandoning our preconceptions, spending time with the students and teachers in a classroom until we come to understand their way of thinking. No evaluations, no agendas, just colleagues who want to understand what you’re doing so they can help you do it better.”

    I think you should try this, if you and the teachers and students actually all want to try this and if all stakeholders can also explore the assumptions you would be working with by utilizing this foundational belief system. Questions I might pose to myself were I to approach this would be:

    1. What does understanding a “classroom environment on its own terms” mean? Plus the correlative question, how and when can those ways be enacted by all/some of the stakeholders (e.g., students, teachers, researchers)?

    You begin to answer the two questions I pose by writing, “abandoning our preconceptions, spending time with students and teachers in a classroom until we come to understand their way of thinking. No evaluations, no agendas, just colleagues who want to understand what you’re doing so they can help you do it better.” Questions I might pose to myself were I to attempt to work from this foundational belief system are:

    1. What are understandings? Can these be defined? How and when will they be reached? Is there an agreed way to save understandings? Do we want to save them or are they in continual flux? If it is the dynamic nature of the understandings that we want to capture in our research collaboration, how do we do that?

    2. What does the evaluative “better” mean in your statement “they can help you do it better”?

    Finally, have you read about kenkyu jugyo? It is an approach to lesson study among teachers that could be expanded to included students and researchers. It is simply a group of stakeholders (originally just teachers, I’m suggesting more stakeholders) sitting down and designing a lesson together, choosing one or two in the group to enact it in a classroom environment with other students, while other members of the design group watch and take “time-task-selective verbatim notes” on what they see. This is really good if there is lots of group work and different observers are assigned different groups. Then everyone comes together, including a few volunteers from the class who were not in the original design group in order to improve the design for enactment in another teacher’s class, and so on. It is a powerful way to develop lessons, build collaborations. The foundational belief system or ideology is bottom up as well as including an insider-outsider dynamic (i.e., by including outsider-researchers). Best, Ari

    • Daniel says:

      The clearest description of this approach that I’ve read is in David Bloome’s work. As far as “understanding a classroom environment on its own terms,” he really strips it down to basics: what is a classroom? (Primarily in the social/institutional sense rather than the architectural sense, although of course that plays into it as well.) Who and what belong and don’t belong there? This is before we even get to the realm of symbolic interaction, although that’s part of it as well. All of this is implicit, but can be inferred from observations.

      So when I say that I want to help teachers be “better” at what they’re already doing, that’s according to their own emic understanding of what constitutes “good teaching.” There are a couple of reasons why I’m deferring to them on this. For one, it’s not my classroom, and I don’t want to be presumptuous; I trust my participants’ professional judgment. But also, even if I’m convinced I’ve found the next big thing in education, I’m not going to get very far with it if I’m the only one who sees it that way. That’s why I’ve written research proposals in which I argue that culturally relevant math pedagogy with an explicit metalinguistic component is an approach that aligns with the Common Core State Standards. I’m agnostic as far as the CCSS is concerned, but I believe in metalinguistic instruction, and if I can make common cause with CCSS people then that’s where collaboration happens.

      Your questions about the fluid nature of individual perspectives are really thought provoking. If we’re talking at the level of ideology, I imagine those understandings would be more resistant to change, but on a more micro level the reasons behind concrete social actions are multiplex, and the indexicality of an individual social action is polysemous. I guess the best any ethnography can do is to offer a descriptive interpretation of a snapshot, and it’s important to remember that that’s all it is. Ultimately if we have a lot of people doing this kind of work, we can build a strong theory that will help us to come up with more accurate interpretations.

  3. Ari Sherris says:

    Daniel, it seems like your first paragraph above is a response to my first two questions, which were:

    What does understanding a “classroom environment on its own terms” mean? Plus the correlative question, how and when can those ways be enacted by all/some of the stakeholders (e.g., students, teachers, researchers)?

    However, not having read Bloome, your response to my initial questions amounts to higher levels of abstraction that baffle me. I was hoping, actually, you would move to lower levels of abstraction to respond; that is, actual ways of knowing you might enact to reach understanding.

    I get paragraph two, which addresses my question:

    What does the evaluative “better” mean in your statement “they can help you do it better”?

    It seems you are saying that a researcher might develop interpretations about what is happening in a particular classroom environment from the classroom discourse itself (e.g., by finding topics and concepts, as well as looking for patterns that link those topics and concepts from phrases and lexical items in the actual transcripts); in a multimodal study, there would be gestural data, etc. to interpret too). Moreover, you might agree that a researcher might check these interpretations with the agents/participants/teachers/students through stimulated recall sessions or asynchronous threaded discussions about the interpretations that would happen after real-time interaction from which the dataset was collected.

    Yet I’m still left wondering about how a researcher can help students and teachers to do what they do better as a result of the above process. The correlative question is as follows: Even if the researcher asks the students and teachers to reach consensus on how he/she can help them to do what they do better and a suggestion is produced, isn’t this a product of the insider-outsider dynamic and wouldn’t it be wrong to continue to define it as emic? Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, and I apologize if that is what you think is happening. Nevertheless, I am genuinely interested in the foundational beliefs you bring to your work. Grappling with them can be useful, at the very least to clarify what research can and cannot accomplish as it is being conducted. I should also add, that I don’t believe that anyone ever works without or beyond ideology. Which is another way of saying, I’m not sure it is possible to say anything meaningful without or beyond ideology. It is a bit like trying to defend objectivity in research of any kind, including double blind studies with hugh scale up. The defense of objectivity quickly becomes ideological.

    • Daniel says:

      That’s a point well taken about ideology. When I referred to ideology in my earlier comment, I was thinking about interpretations that are specifically aimed at describing participants’ ideologies (as opposed to the motivation behind a specific observed action) but yes, you’re right, there is no research that isn’t ideological. A lot of what you’re identifying in your comment is my own ideology as a researcher: that the way people behave in social contexts can be best understood through careful longitudinal observation and follow-up conversations, for example.

      As far as how this translates into professional practice, you’re pointing out a separation between research and its applications, two things that I had been clumsily attempting to combine. In a pretest – intervention – post-test research paradigm, the connection is clearer: if the difference between pretest and post-test is statistically significant with a reasonable effect size, practitioners should consider adopting the intervention for everyday use. For a less positivist approach like the one I’ve been describing, it’s not as clear how they connect. So let me try to get concrete and outline one possibility.

      The approach I’ve been using in my research proposals to public schools and districts is based on Bernstein’s concept of invisible pedagogy. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s roughly the idea that schools leave implicit a lot of what they’re expecting from students, because the kind of behavior that is legitimated in school is something the teacher recognizes in a subconscious way but can’t articulate. As a result, students whose primary socialization is more similar to that of the teacher have an easier time picking up on the cues that tell them how to act. Think Shirley Brice Heath stuff: what’s the structure of a “good story,” etc.

      So my role as a researcher is to make explicit what is left implicit. For example, in my math class work, perhaps I can articulate what teachers are expecting when they call on students to explain their reasoning. Most math teachers were never directly taught how to take a sequence of equations, translate those equations into sentences, and string those sentences together into a cohesive instance of mathematical argumentation; they just figured it out. This linguistic structure and its social indexicality (competence in mathematics? being a nerd?) is the emic ideology that I’m attempting to uncover.

      An application of these findings would be an instructional approach that explicitly teaches the linguistic structure of mathematical argumentation and leads students to take ownership of it. To frame this as “helping teachers to be better at what they’re already doing,” teachers have to believe/understand that their mandate involves teaching linguistic structure as well as mathematical content. My participants may come to understand this as a consequence of their collaboration with me, which, you’re right, begins to break down the insider/outsider distinction.

      Does this answer your question?

  4. Ari Sherris says:

    Oops. “hugh” should read “huge”!

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