Information Age Education Blog
In Some Sense, All Teachers Are Ethnographers
As you know, I read a lot. Recently I read the short book:
Wolcott, H.F. (2010). Ethnography Lessons: A Primer. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Harry Wolcott is a long time colleague and friend from the College of Education at the University of Oregon. We are both part of the “Tuesday lunch” group of retired College of Education faculty who get together to discuss the past, present, and future.
Harry was an elementary school teacher who decided to go back to school for a doctorate. His doctoral work at Stanford University was in a combination of education and anthropology, and his dissertation was an ethnographic study of a small North American Indian village in British Columbia. While doing the fieldwork for his dissertation, he was a teacher in this isolated island village. Ethnography Lessons is based on this fieldwork.
Here are three reactions I had when reading this book:
- I know very little about most fields of study and I sometimes feel somewhat overwhelmed and inadequate when I read books outside my comfort zone. However, Wolcott is an excellent writer and a good thinker, and I got great pleasure from reading his book.
- Reading outside my comfort zone stimulates new ideas and gives me appreciation for the different ways of viewing the world and its steadily growing accumulation of human knowledge. Each new book I read and each person I encounter can help me to learn.
- I attempted to assimilate what I was reading into my current knowledge and ways of viewing the world—and was lead to developing new world views to accommodate Wolcott’s points of view. I am not yet too old to learn!
In brief summary, an ethnographer studies one of something in great detail, organizes the findings, and reports on the findings. In Wolcott’s long career he studied one village, one school principal, beer gardens in Rhodesia, one young person, and so on. Ethnographers report their findings in scholarly talks, papers, and books.
Now, consider an elementary school teacher. This teacher is constantly studying his or her class of perhaps 30 or so students. In many ways, each school year the teacher is a participant observer in a nine-month study. Some of the observed information is written down and some is stored in the teacher’s head. A variety of records are collected and some are kept on file. The teacher also does triangulation by reading earlier records and gathering information from people such as parents, other teachers, and other school personal.
Professors face the pressure of “publish or perish.” However, the typical elementary school teacher does not have this same challenge. The teacher is not required to carefully organize the collected information, analyze it for patterns, and make it widely available through talks, published papers, and books.
However, the typical elementary teacher is in a continual mode of gathering, categorizing, and analyzing data, storing important findings mentally and in written notes, sharing ideas with colleagues through conversations, perhaps sharing in writing via email and social networking systems, and taking actions based on the findings. Thus teachers tell their ethnographic stories to themselves and informally to a number of other people—sometimes including their students.
The “taking actions” part of what teachers do is different from what ethnographers do. In teaching their students, teachers change them in many ways. Typically ethnographers do not make direct efforts to change the people they are studying or their environments.
I believe that teachers should give more careful thought to their role as ethnographers. One aspect of this would be more sharing of what teachers do and how teachers think with their students. Every student is learning to be a teacher, and some will go on to be professional teachers. I think all students can benefit from more direct instruction about major ideas and findings that come from their teachers’ routine ethnographic work.
What You Can Do
Spend some time learning a little more about ethnography. See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnography and http://www.bethelcollege.edu/users/blowers/Writing an Ethnography.htm.
Then introspect about ways in which you do some of the same things an ethnographer does. Use this exercise to learn to think more like an ethnographer.
The IAE Blog entries tend to have a relatively long "shelf life." However, over time, the references tend to get out of date. You can help your fellow readers and IAE by adding a Comment that includes an up-to-date reference and its URL. Your Comment should include a couple of sentences summarizing the up-to date-information and ideas.
Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications
You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications.
Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.
Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.
Here are some examples of publications that might interest you.
All educators are engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning. See http://iae-pedia.org/Scholarship/Science_of_Teaching_and_Learning.
Educational Anthropology. See http://iae-pedia.org/Educational_Anthropology.
Folk Math. See http://iae-pedia.org/Folk_Math.
Joe the Plumber (the "common man") and the idea of Computational Thinking literacy for all people. See http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2009-13.html.
Our educational system should strive toward heterogeneity rather than homogeneity. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/our-educational-system-should-strive-toward-heterogeneity-rather-than-homogeneity.html.
Using humor to maximize learning. See http://iae-pedia.org/Using_Humor_to_Maximize_Learning.
Written by Dave Moursund, November 14, 2010.
As I read the various entries in the IAE Blog, I keep thinking about what one person or a small group of people can do to improve education through making use of ideas in the IAE Blog entries.
The Ethnography discussion seems to me to be an easy one. There is considerable room for an increase in the day-to-day professional level interactions and sharing of teachers. The Japanese idea of Lesson Study provides an environment in which teachers work together.
The U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology recently released a 124-page report titled: Transforming American Education: National Education Technology Plan 2010. It is available online at http://www.ed.gov/technology/netp-2010. It includes a strong focus on making it easier and more common for teachers to be more collaborative.
And, of course, there is team teaching. In such an environment, teachers learn from each other.
So, off the top of my head I easily listed three ideas that I believe are relevant.
Written by Aj Alvarez, March 19, 2012.
As defined, ethnography is a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures. In which case, it applies to what teachers do. Yes, teachers are ethnographers.