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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook


Ethnographic Bifocals: Using Ethnographic Methodology in a Teaching and Learning Environment


MaryBeth Curtiss

Several educational theorists have written on the importance of classroom observation in the instruction and engagement of students. All of these theories operate under the supposition that effective teaching involves a synthesis of social, emotional and academic growth, as well as the recognition of these factors in the creation of a classroom culture and learning space. In Carolyn Frank’s Ethnographic Eyes, several student teachers engage in a system of ethnographic observation in their classrooms, a method that is apparent both inside and outside of their respective classrooms. This method, though insightful in many respects, can be somewhat short-sighted in scope and lacking in consideration of the realities of teaching, both in the classroom and extra-classroom setting.
The Tenets of Ethnographic Vision

Ethnography, put briefly, consists of a series of specialized observations of learner and their actions in the classroom environment. Frank’s work, however, encourages a broader interpretation of this system of observation, in that her student teacher researchers also engage in the personal lives of students in their homes and neighborhood cultures. One of the key goals of this approach is to make these observations free from judgment, assumption or preemptive conclusion, as well as incorporating these understandings of learner/group/classroom dynamics into an active and personal engagement with the students. That is to say, it serves to allow teachers to become familiar with previously unfamiliar environments and to foster a personal rapport with the individual students. Such ethnographic practice can also familiarize the teacher with individual characteristics of the region, school and learner, thus better enabling them to individualize the curriculum.

In Carolyn Frank’s perception, ethnographic observation can include such activities as “notetaking/notemaking” and others that place ethnographic observation against the natural and often unconscious assumptions that are drawn from them. In a notetaking/notemaking exercise, an observer takes notes as objectively as possible of the students, their interaction, their environment and the like. Only after making such ethnographic observations can they extrapolate from these particular assumptions and suppositions based on that information. Like this exercise, the use of ethnography forces the observer to become aware of their assumptions and regard them as separate from their initial observations.

Notetaking/Notemaking in Practice


the teacher is instructing on the multiplication of fractions

the teacher is instructing the multiplication of fractions in a lecture-like fashion

several students are doing other things while the teacher is instructing

several students are distracted or have lost interest in the material – is this due to the teacher’s instruction style?

almost half of the students in the class have failed the math test

many of the students who failed the test were among those who were not attentive during the lesson, but not all – was the instruction sufficient in preparing the students for the test?

many of the failed tests show a sufficient understanding of the material

many of the answers on the failed tests are correct with little or no error – what accounts for the failing score? were the directions unclear? were the students given enough time? I do not believe that the instruction was sufficient preparation for the test and much of this is not due to laziness on the students part.


This is a very simple example of how to separate actual observations from the assumptions that unconsciously follow. These assumptions, however, can be tremendously damaging in the teacher/observer’s understanding of the classroom and neglect the true needs of the students. In this example, the teacher (not the observer) may observe the non-attentive students and the failing test scores and immediately extrapolate that the test failures were due to their laziness and distraction during the lesson. While this may be true, the teacher must divorce their “kneejerk” response and instead consider other observations that may have been disregarded in the construction of this conclusion. Who were the students who were and were not attentive? Were these the same students who failed the test? In what ways did they fail the test? Were there patterns of error among the students’ tests? How effective, then, was the lesson? What were the students’ reasons for not being attentive? These are all questions that the observer in the notetaking/notemaking example begin to tackle.

Similarly, and in a much larger scope, teachers often “observe” the neighborhood of their school, the socio-economic background of its students and perhaps other factors, such as the school’s reputation, racial makeup, and the like in their notetaking. Often, teachers make particular assumptions based on this information that are also a tremendous disservice to their students. In practice, for example, many teachers have observed that their school is in an urban-setting, and conclude from this the unrelated leap that there will be a significant problem with discipline. This is clearly a dangerous over-simplification that will potentially affect the teacher’s effectiveness later.

Case Study: Warren and Tevin’s Grades

In Mr. Smith’s fifth grade class, there are two students that stand out as consistently under-achieving. There seem to be obvious reasons for Mr. Smith’s lack of success with these two students, but Mr. Smith has yet to notice or address these problems. In Warren’s case, he is tremendously easily distracted and has trouble focusing on a task for more than a few minutes, something that is more than typical of a pre-adolescent mind. Mr. Smith, however, makes no attempt to maintain Warren’s focus. On a recent test, however, Warren would get entire sections of the test completely correct, without a single error, showing a great understanding of the material and an attention to detail that was largely unequaled even among Mr. Smith’s favorite students. Some other sections, however, would be marked completely incorrect, due to a misunderstanding of the directions, or they were left completely blank. Rather than noting that Warren had clearly mastered the material, Mr. Smith failed this test, because it was incomplete and had mistaken some of the directions. Tevin, on the other hand, has several disciplinary problems, in Mr. Smith’s view. Tevin is regularly sent to the Accomodation Room, a resource room used primarily for students who have been removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons. Tevin, then, misses as much as half of the instruction that occurs in Mr. Smith’s class. Clearly this is the reason for many of his low grades. On one particular quiz, however, Tevin was the only student in the entire class to receive a 100%. I informed this to Mr. Smith and he immediately quipped, “Well, I often have the answer key on my desk, I should look into that.” The quiz, however, was for sentence answers, thus the key did not give answers, as each student’s would vary. Not only are there significant problems in the attention that Warren and Tevin are receiving, but the teacher even lacks faith in their abilities. This is an example of an unwarranted conclusion that hampers the students success, and that could be easily understood and addressed with individualized inquiry.


How Ethnography is Useful in the Extra-Classroom Context

In many ways, ethnography is inherently separate from the classroom culture, in that it requires that the observer “step back” from the shared culture and consider it in its holistic form. It is also essential that the teacher occasionally disengage from the typical teacher à learner one-way transmission of information that is traditionally essential to schooling. Instead, the teacher must also become a learner, gathering information from his or her student, both spoken and unspoken, and synthesize this interaction into a better individual understanding and a personal rapport.

This paradigm raises the initial importance of the seemingly paradoxical notion of “ethnographic bifocals”. In Carolyn Frank’s ideal sense, the teacher can at moments become an almost pure ethnographer, a quite problematic assumption. With ethnographic bifocals, the teacher is, instead, engaged in an ethnographic discourse of observation and culture-analysis while still recognizing his or her placement within the culture. In this way, the teacher sets his or herself apart, if only for a moment, while still being aware of his or her influence in the form of presence and role in the culture of the classroom.

In a second understanding of the “bifocal” metaphor, it is both naïve and problematic to assume that the results of ethnographic inquiry will be entirely helpful, productive and positive. Frank’s book includes a description of a series of home visits conducted by the researchers. The researchers were teaching in a population largely composed of first-generation and immigrant students of Mexican and Latin American descent. The researchers were, in large part, well received in the homes of their students and found a great deal of cultural awareness and enrichment in their home visits. This is not and cannot always be the case. The observations of teachers will not be entirely positive, and thus, the teacher must retain and employ their sensitivities as a teacher and not an ethnographer in these instances. Ethnography can only take an educator so far.

Case Study: Mr. Smith’s Call Home

One particular student in Mr. Smith’s fifth grade class has made tremendous progress in the past few years. Mr. Smith’s class is in a Philadelphia public school, and Andrew has just transferred to this class from an alternative school for students with severe disciplinary problems. Andrew’s transition has been nothing short of miraculous. He is currently among the top grades in his class and has few disciplinary problems in school. On one particular day on the way out to recess, he was so anxious and excited that he would not stay still in the single file line. Later, after recess, he continuously hummed and sang during quiet reading time and rolled his eyes when he was asked to stop by Mr. Smith. That evening, Mr. Smith called Andrew’s mother and left a message and she promptly came to school the next day to pick him up from school and talk to Mr. Smith. As the teacher described what Andrew had done, Andrew’s mother became more and more upset and began yelling at Andrew. Mr. Smith did not relent as he saw Andrew’s mother’s temper and continued to tell her about seemingly minor infractions until she grabbed Andrew’s shirt, pulled him into her face and screamed at him until he started to cry. Despite the relatively minor nature of Andrew’s misbehavior, his mother exploded with anger, an experience that I, as an observer found disheartening and upsetting. Why would Mr. Smith continue to tell Andrew’s mother about such tiny problems when he saw the extent and potential of her anger, including threats about what she would do when they got home? In this ethnographic inquiry into the home life of a student, the observations were not positive, nor was the experience particularly helpful. This is the kind of naïveté in Frank’s notion of ethnography. In this case, Mr. Smith should have retained his sensitivities as a teacher and placed Andrew’s behavior in a rational context.

Ethnographic Interviews

Carolyn Frank and her researchers are also interested in the role of ethnographic interviews in the classroom. Using a modified ethnographic interview, however, it seems that teachers and students can engage in a multi-faceted discourse that has several benefits, both for personal growth as well as a compliment to instruction and learning. The modified ethnographic interview can familiarize a teacher with a student on a personal and academic level, allowing him or her to identify social and learning difficulties and strengths, the diagnosis of which can contribute to the students’ success in the future. It is also important, then, that each student have a shared relationship with the teacher, as well as a unique one. The creation of these relationships is the most important function of ethnography.

In this way, ethnographic interviews are not only a means to an end (i.e. a means to a better understanding of the students social and academic status), but also an end, in and of themselves (creation of a rapport and a space for individual attention and two-way teacher↔learner inquiry and exchange). The very process of the interview is a learning tool, as well. The experience of completely individualized attention and a safe space for students to discuss their thoughts increases the effectiveness of the teacher’s methods. When the teacher is familiar with the student’s background and areas of strength and challenge, he or she can better adapt the planned curriculum to the individual needs of the students, as well as creating a comfortable space for learning. It is also key that these interviews gather information from the perspective of the student. Too often, teachers rely on the reports, grades and comments of other teachers and experts in place of actual engagement with the learner.

Case Study: Marcus’s Relationship with Mrs. Callahan

Marcus has a unique relationship with Mrs. Callahan. He often finishes his work early and likes to do helpful tasks in the classroom in his spare time. Often, when he finishes an assignment, he will go up to Mrs. Callahan’s desk and she will give him a stack of stapling, collating, or some other organizational task. He usually sits at the table next to her desk and informally chats with her while she finishes paperwork. Even though the short intervals of time are unrelated to the school work, Mrs. Callahan is building an important and lasting rapport with Marcus in short engagements of a few minutes each. In return, Marcus also feel special and essential to the classroom. Ideally, Mrs. Callahan can also have a unique relationship with each of the students, even if it is just this simple.


Ethnography, then, is a separate, but vitally related method of gathering information about students. Many teachers rely on the reports and comments of past teachers; evaluations by guidance counselors, school psychologists, and social workers; or assessments on academic ability. While these are obviously essential elements of the school system, they should not be the only indicators to a teacher. Ethnography in this sense simply serves as a method for educators to frame their own observations. Put simply, the teacher must devise a way to see as a non-judgmental, ethnographic observer while simultaneously retaining the knowledge, experience and sensitivities of an educator. Ethnographic interviews are a lens for engaging and empowering learners, but should not be the only lens.

Some of these sources include: Goldstein, Tara. Teaching and Learning in a Multilingual School: Choices, Risks and Dilemmas. ( Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum, 2003).; Freebody, Peter. Qualitative Research in Education: Interaction and Practice. ( Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2001).; Bennett, Andy, Mark Cieslik and Steven Miles, eds. Researching Youth. ( New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).: Levinson, David L., Peter W. Cookson, and Alan R. Sadovnik, eds. Education and Sociology: An Encyclopedia. ( New York: Routledge Falmer, 2002).; and Zou, Yali and Enrique T. Trueba, eds. Ethnography and Schools: Qualitative Approaches to the Study of Education. ( New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

Frank, Carolyn. Ethnographic Eyes: A Teacher’s Guide to Classroom Observation. (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999).

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