Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Ethnography for Teacher Education

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Ethnography for Teacher Education

Article excerpt

One of the requirements in many methods courses in teacher education is to do classroom observations. Still in the process of learning the profession, preservice teachers are faced with many challenges when asked to observe elementary classrooms. One challenge is that the various and complex contexts within classrooms demand different ways of acting and speaking (Erickson, 1982; Green & Harker, 1982). Another is the rapid decision making of the classroom teacher with readjustments to the various roles and positions that are required to meet the individual needs of different students (Dixon, Frank, & Brandts, 1997). These various factors make the classroom vulnerable to criticism by those who do not understand the complexity of what is occurring. The problem this presents to preservice teachers is that they often jump to interpretation and critical evaluation based on too little evidence and use their own experience instead of close observation as a frame of reference.

When preservice teachers are asked to observe classrooms with rating scales, checklists, coding systems, or counting measures, they are using systems that are predetermined, contain questions from outside the classroom being observed, and define in an a priori manner all events that will happen (Borich, 1999). Teaching and learning as complex phenomena are seen as narrow categories, and underlying assumptions and theories that drive these schemes look as if they are based on simplistic models of instruction (when that is not the case). Preservice teacher observations from this perspective are based on what research says should be happening in classrooms and not on what is actually happening in classrooms. Critics of these coding methods point out that observers are less likely to gain access to how classroom participants organize and interpret interactions (Edwards & Westgate, 1994).

What other recourses then do we have when we ask preservice teachers to observe complex contexts of teaching and learning inside classrooms? We address this problem by drawing on anthropological research methods that study the complexity of classrooms so that preservice teachers can become different kinds of observers. Observers using a qualitative perspective view interactions between teachers and students inside classrooms as cultural and linguistic (Edwards & Westgate, 1994; Florio-Ruane, 1990). A qualitative or ethnographic approach assumes that the cultural practices of members of a social group can be uncovered by listening to the language and observing the actions (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995). The purpose of ethnographic and sociolinguistic observation is to understand teaching from the perspective of the practitioner and to uncover the social practices of the members of the classroom (Green, Dixon, & Zaharlick, 2002). Rather than observing classrooms from a predetermined set of tasks that should be happening in classrooms, an anthropological view of classrooms as cultures understands that what is happening inside classrooms is socially constructed through language (Cazden, 2001; Dixon, Frank, & Green, 1999; Edwards & Mercer, 1987); that is, teachers plan lessons by following curricular guidelines and assessments and strive to become effective teachers. However, what is actually happening moment-by-moment, day-by-day inside classrooms is constructed socially by teachers and students as they engage in conversations and particular social practices (Bloome, 1985; Rex, 2001; Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group, 1992).

Our experience with ethnography prior to becoming teacher educators made us think about using ethnographic methods of observation with preservice teachers who were required to observe in elementary classrooms. Our orienting questions for the current study were the following: Could preservice teachers use observation methods from ethnography and sociolinguistics to delay their evaluations and interpretations of classroom practice? …

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