Classroom ethnography, teacher work sample methodology, and the culture of accountability

Mark Girod

Western Oregon University

Michael Pardales

University of Michigan, Flint

Judie Rhoads

Western Oregon University


September 8, 2003



In an effort to better understand the classroom context, for the goal of facilitating deeper student learning, preservice teachers engaged in ethnographic analysis of their mentor teacher’s classroom culture. Using digital video technology, video ethnographies were produced to illustrate salient qualities of classroom culture including routines of action, shared beliefs and values, and patterns of interaction and engagement. Through stimulated recall sessions with the researchers, preservice teachers describe learning a great deal about research methods, classroom culture, and how to more effectively participate in these cultures to facilitate student learning. Vignettes and classroom anecdotes illustrate research results.


"…an ethnography succeeds if it teaches readers how to behave appropriately in the cultural setting, whether it is among families…in the school principal’s office…or in the kindergarten class." (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998)

"Learning and teaching are not inherently linked. Much learning takes place without teaching, and indeed much teaching takes place without learning." (Wenger, 1998)

Indeed the goal of teaching is student learning. Much recent attention has been on this issue in the United States given the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and what has become known as the No Child Left Behind legislation that became law in early 2002. In this climate, educators and policy-makers continue to search for ways to connect teaching and student learning (Millman, 1997). As the Wenger quote recognizes, teaching does not necessarily ensure learning, so we must be systematic in our efforts to assure teacher effectiveness.

The teacher as researcher movement has given serious attention to this issue for a number of years calling for teachers to become more systematic and methodological in investigating the effects of classroom instruction on student learning, among other things. Similarly, teacher work sample methodology (Cochran-Smith, 2003; Girod, 2001; McConney, Schalock & Schalock, 1998; Schalock, Schalock & Myton, 1998) has emerged as a specific kind of structured inquiry and demonstration of effort to connect teaching and learning. One of the central elements of teacher work sample methodology is examination of classroom context for the purpose of identifying how to teach most effectively within it. Similarly, Bogdan and Biklen tell us that learning to interact within a particular culture is one goal of ethnography, and so, given this, our research explores the role that ethnographic analysis might have on student learning.

Teacher work sample methodology

Teacher work sample methodology, endorsed by both the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), is a multi-layered approach to assist teacher candidates in efforts to connect their teaching with student learning. Occasionally referred to as a demonstration exercise, several statewide teacher licensing commissions have begun to require completion of teacher work samples prior to teacher licensure (Girod, 2001).

Typically, a work sample has the following components: 1) a description of the context in which the teacher candidate will be teaching; 2) an articulation of the learning goals to be targeted; 3) a rationale statement, defending the goals as important, and the pedagogical moves as sound, in light of the context; 4) lesson plans; 5) pre and post tests; 6) analysis of testing results and student learning gains, and; 7) reflections on teaching efforts, student learning, and personal professional growth. Each section is developed and executed in the context of a field experience placement with real students and contextual demands. A teacher work sample is a vehicle to help teacher candidates articulate, document, investigate, and reflect on their teacher actions and their impact on student learning.

Because a teacher work sample is such a major project and, in several states, has consequences for licensure, helping teacher candidates master the components is challenging and critical. Several practice activities have been designed to assist in this effort, of which, ours, the classroom ethnography project, is one.

Instructional setting

Our agenda as teacher educators is three-fold. First, our goal is to assist preservice teachers in learning the skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary to complete a high quality teacher work sample. Second, because our students are enrolled in our classes on action research methods, our goal is to teach the skills, knowledge and dispositions of structured inquiry. Third, in an effort to model action research and illustrate attempts to connect our teaching with student learning, we are studying our own effectiveness to meet the first two goals.

The Classroom Ethnography Project

Prior to employing the Classroom Ethnography Project, our students tended to write either vague descriptions of the classroom context using phrases like "a fun place to learn" and "mostly middle class students." Or, attended to details with little consequence like the color of the walls of the room and the bus and bell schedule. What was almost always lacking from these earlier setting descriptions was a meaningful understanding of the inner workings of the classroom and how these affected learning. We hoped our students would understand the routines of action, shared values and beliefs, and the roles of the various classroom stakeholders so as to more effectively foster student learning. We believed examination of classrooms and instructional contexts through the lens of culture, and ethnographic analysis, would be more appropriate. Culture (in terms of routines, shared values, and methods of interaction) is, afterall, a central element of all classrooms (Hammersley, 1990) that most teachers work hard to build. Yet, prior to employing our classroom ethnography project, teacher candidates were attempting to teach and manage in an environment in which they were not aware of the implicit rules or structures governing actions.

To begin, students were asked to spend several weeks observing, taking fieldnotes, and talking to both students and teachers, about the tacit rules or structures in the placement class. We offered several guiding questions such as "from where do conflicts arise in this culture?" and "Why are the interaction patters in this class the way they are?" Our questions were designed to help our teacher candidates dig beneath a surface understanding of the classroom culture. We never strayed too far, however, from our ultimate question, "So how could your understanding of these things be used in facilitating more/better/deeper student learning?"

Simultaneously, we worked with our teacher candidates to help them articulate, and make transparent, their own beliefs, values, and ideas about teaching and learning. As it is, these dispositions serve as lenses or filters through which our student-ethnographers would be viewing and interpreting classroom practices. A central element of ethnography is understanding how one’s own predispositions as a researcher interact with the process of inquiry and the culture itself. We assisted students in this regard by asking for autobiographical analysis of their own school experiences, a great deal of story sharing, and reflective writing designed to reveal these predispositions. These predispositions often served as initial analytic frameworks used in analysis of ethnographic data.

After field placement class routines became more transparent to our teacher candidates, and appropriate analytic frameworks had been identified, students spent several days capturing digital video footage in an effort to further explore, systematize, and critique these salient cultural elements. We chose digital video as our central media as it afforded easy manipulation, analysis, and editing. Through prior experience, we discovered analysis became more rich and nuanced if we used digital video as it allowed us to view class data with or without sound, assisted in viewing and re-viewing, and, most importantly, allowed for easy annotated analysis and clip organization.

As products, students were asked to create digital video ethnographies that illustrated central elements of their field placement classroom culture through the lenses of their personal analytic frameworks. In the end, typical video ethnographies ran between six and 10 minutes in length, incorporated a mix of classroom footage, text, and narration to illustrate themes and new understandings of the classroom setting. All ethnographies ended with very clear action statements about how to interact effectively in this classroom culture for the goal of student learning.

Method and data

The following sections draw data from 43 students at the conclusion of their classroom ethnography projects. Data comes from end-of-experience interviews and stimulated recall sessions in which the teacher candidates and the researchers watched the ethnographies together and discussed their content. A semi-structured interview protocol was also used asking participants questions regarding: learning the skills of ethnography, building awareness of contextual demands of the classroom culture, and becoming better prepared to analyze their efforts through work sample methodology. Interview and recall sessions lasted 45 to 90 minutes in length. Sessions were recorded and transcribed for analysis. Using a grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), data was categorized into themes, themes collapsed, expanded, combined, and re-emerged with our efforts to achieve interpretive reliability. Emergent themes were shared with participants, and, again themes were adjusted to better match the thoughts, opinions, and experiences of the participants. Due to this member-checking, we believe our interpretations have a high degree of reliability. Data was grouped into three themes and a brief discussion of each is included. Pseudonyms are used instead of actual student names.

Theme 1: learning about research

A central goal of any class project is learning subject matter. In the classroom ethnography project, students learned a great deal about ethnographic field methods, classroom culture, and research in general. Students reported new opinions about the subjective nature of their video data even with the "all seeing eye" of the video camera. Emma, a science student teacher, commented on the restricted vision provided by the camera, "Because I was trying to capture footage about small group interaction in lab settings, I know I missed other important data happening in other parts of the room. My assumptions about what was going to be interesting may have kept me from seeing other important things happening in the room."

Conversations about reflexivity surfaced as students described the camera as a participant in the classroom culture. Our students relayed their experiences watching children behave in unusual or extraordinary ways as a result of the camera’s presence. Richard commented, "Even though I told them to act naturally, I know they [the students] were nervous about being on film and tried to sound smart or more academic than they normally do." In an effort to reduce the novelty effect of the camera, Richard worked to make the camera a more common element in the classroom. Commenting on this, Richard stated, "It took me a while but I think I learned how to get better data."

Through repeated viewing, students were able to take "multiple cuts" on the same data, thereby better understanding the salience of analytic frameworks and initial theories. Even after identifying likely analytic frameworks and personal political stances, many students were forced to either modify their existing stances, abandon them for others, or do contrasting analyses with multiple lenses of analysis. Teacher candidates seemed to have learned a great deal about the research process in doing so. In the interviews, all 43 (100%) students agreed the project helped them learn important skills and understandings related to ethnography, culture study, teacher research, and field methods.

Theme 2: learning about classroom culture

Entering a classroom as a student teacher is one of the most challenging things we ask pre-service teachers to do. Classrooms often have unique cultural characteristics including shared values, routines of action, myths and legends, and simply shared experiences. For example, Justin commented in an interview, "On my second day of teaching, I referred to Abraham Lincoln’s ‘seminal comments’ and the kids absolutely erupted in laughter. I felt like a total fool because something very funny had happened and I didn’t get it." Justin went on to explain that his mentor teacher had shared the origins of the word ‘seminal’ (derived from semen) with the students earlier in the year, "I wish I would have picked a different word that day!"

Isabella described her experiences missing a value that had been instilled in her high school English classroom by her mentor teacher earlier in the year. "My mentor teacher really values expression. He wants kids to write as much and as often as they can without much regard to mechanics. Well I guess he and I never really talked about these kinds of things because when I started grading kids down for misspellings and poor punctuation it almost led to a revolt!"

Both Justin and Isabella learned important elements of their classroom’s culture. In the case of Justin, his class had shared an experience without him and this led to a few moments of embarrassment and perhaps the loss of momentum in his lesson. Although it is likely that studying his classroom as a culture would not have prevented this experience, it certainly demonstrates the power of shared experience between teacher and students. Isabella, on the other hand, may have learned about the existing classroom value regarding student expression had she more time, focus, or experience in ethnographic inquiry.

Finally, Tanna, a social studies student teacher focused her ethnographic analysis on issues of power in her mentor teachers classroom. Her mentor teacher gave long lectures, requested very little student input, and wanted students to understand history as represented in the class text or via his interpretations. Tanna commented, "Although I didn’t agree with how my mentor teacher taught — marginalizing alternative representations of history — I found myself teaching in a similar fashion, rather than working against the existing classroom structure." Although her understanding of the classroom culture didn’t help her be more faithful to her own pedagogical convictions, it did inform her decision making in the classroom, "I knew I wasn’t going to be working in that classroom much longer so I decided to just deal with it."

Theme 3: learning how to function within classroom culture for the goal of student learning

Most importantly, all 43 (100%) of the students reported feeling more knowledgeable about the nuance and unique demands of their classroom setting and the importance of this in connecting teaching and learning through the teacher work sample. For example, Emerson commented, "In one of my first field experiences, I ran into trouble right away with kids not doing what I asked. This led to tension between us and I ended up getting really mad at them. Things just didn’t go well. I see now that what I was probably doing was asking them to behave in ways that were outside of the existing norms of the class."

Because this theme represents the ultimate goal of the project, we will expand on it more completely using two vignettes illustrating common student experiences.


Investigating the culture of a physical education class, Larry struggled for an initial analytic lens through which to view his video footage. His initial analytic framework included a disposition toward elimination of unnecessary and negative competition in physical education. Unfortunately, this lens provided little when employed in analysis. Upon repeated viewing, however, he began to understand that participation in his P.E. class had several unexpected elements. For example, the high school football star, although active in class, was held to a different standard for participation than other students. Larry’s final video ethnography showcased the football star not doing his calisthenics, sitting in a chair during a dodgeball game, and napping during another whole group activity. Larry commented, "Because my filming didn’t initially focus on the football star, it took me a while to see what was going on. After more filming, however, and watching other students react to his lack of participation, I now realize that it was creating a problem in the class."

After continued analysis, Larry did find that his sensitivity toward issues related to competition gained analytic utility. Larry noticed unusual patterns of interaction between English and non-English speaking students. In what he believed was an effort to avoid confrontation with English-speaking students, it seemed that second-language learners maintained a passive stance toward participation, except amongst themselves, during which times they competed fiercely. Larry stated, "I have a better sense of the engagement in my field placement classroom and I know what I need to do to ensure more equity and participation from all my students." In the end, Larry re-designed the classroom environment during his student teaching to more fully engage all students, "Because of my new awareness of participation patterns in class (particularly as they relate to issues of competition), I was better able to design curriculum and activities for all kids. I can show you through my work sample that average participation grades improved after this."


Beginning her project with strong feelings about differential participation between boys and girls in science classrooms, Chelsea was surprised when her data led her to conclude something quite different. "I entered my student teaching experience having read all about how boys dominate in science and I wanted to show that through my video ethnography." After much analysis, Chelsea came to realize that although boys caused the majority of disruptions in class, girls frequently asked more thoughtful questions and appeared more engaged throughout class. By turning off the sound and just watching the actions of her classroom participants, Chelsea became more attuned to the dynamics in the room. "Having the video allowed me to key in to facial expressions and body language in ways no other data would have. Plus, being able to watch the same scenario over and over again, really allowed me to ‘get inside’ the situation." Rather than re-design her classroom to encourage more girls to participate, Chelsea focused more on managing boys’ inappropriate behavior. "I was prepared to really coax the girls in class into science but instead all I had to do was better manage the boys and suddenly all students were more engaged and I began to have the kind of science classroom I’ve wanted all along!" Chelsea went on to explain the results of this move on student learning, "I can show you how a couple of my girls, in particular, have really seemed to blossom given my new classroom management plan. Two girls test scores are up while the boys scores haven’t really changed much at all."

Results, significance, and conclusions

It’s clear from the experiences of Larry, Chelsea, and others, that students participating in the classroom ethnography project became more attuned to the unique challenge of their classroom setting. They were able to respond to these challenges in productive ways, thereby helping more students learn to the best of their abilities. In this way alone, the classroom ethnography project was a success. However, in addition to these, 39 of the 43 (91%) teacher candidates reported feeling more efficacious in their abilities to conduct classroom research in personally and professionally meaningful ways as well as to use video technology to support their efforts to do so (33 of 43, 77%).

We argue the most critical element of teaching is responding to the unique needs and challenges of the learners or classroom culture. Teacher work sample methodology holds this point tightly and the classroom ethnography project is designed to systematically engage teacher candidates in investigations of the culture of their teaching setting. In this age of both teacher and student accountability, methods like these (work sample methods and the classroom ethnography project) are tools that encourage the thoughtful connection of teaching and learning, helping all students learn (participate, interact, connect…) to the best of their abilities. Teacher effects research is clear in criticisms of new teachers regarding their inability to successfully make accommodations and modifications for diverse learners, in diverse settings. Educating perception and sensitivity to classroom culture, through classroom ethnography, is a different solution path than the more traditional compensatory model of education and related services. We offer classroom ethnography as one effective means to assist in the task of systematically connecting teaching with student learning.



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