Read about ‘participant observation’. Seein Canvas for core and suggested readings.
Make notes in your journal about some of the possibilities this method of enquiry offers and some of the challenges you may encounter.
The notion of participant observation is an interesting one in contrast to ‘management observation’ (my term). The latter is the common employed by school leaders to observe classroom practice against some form of criteria. The former on the other hand is about observing the environment, what is happening, the complexities of the classroom. The latter is about the product, the former about the process.
Relatively recently, my ‘management observations’ have moved away from gazing solely on the teacher and their practices to gazing predominantly on the learner and their experiences. I have started to ask myself ‘what’s it like to be a learner in this classroom?’. While this shift is helpful in gaining a richer understanding about the quality of learning taking place, it is still quite a but removed from participant observation.
Delamont (2012) and Gordon et al (2005) describe an experience that is wholly more involved than what I am used to. It is more akin to the ‘fly on the wall’ documentary where the viewer sees and hears all and reflects on all. My current practice sees me noting key events or practices but participant observation appears to require a running record of everything witnessed. Delamont herself expects to fill up to 20 pages of her notebook if observing a 90 minute lesson (Delamont, 2012, p348). These notes are then written up in a more formal structure which further increases the sides of paper involved. Whilst the insights gained will be very detailed and no doubt helpful, the time required to carry out a participant observation to this level seems difficult to achieve in the midst of a normal school week.
Both authors hint at some of the challenges of participant observation and the main issue that I was drawn to was the influence that a visiting adult can have on a ‘normal classroom’. Participant observation is supposed to give the observer real insight into the goings-on and workings of the situation. However, ones mere presence in that situation changes the norm. From my own experience, I have seen teachers look at me before or after giving a certain instruction as if to check that it is what I am expecting. Similarly, children change their behaviours when a new adult is introduced to their environment. For example, in a classroom I was observing, one girl constantly left her seat to show me her work. She was looking for my approval but this was not her normal behaviour.
Another challenge is that of overcoming assumptions and judgements. Delamont explicitly warns against this and encourages us to instead focus on “what the participants think is going on, what they do, why they do it, how they do it and what is ‘normal’ and ‘odd’ for them” (Delamont, 2012, p345).
So, what does this mean for me?
Firstly, I need to shift my focus (for this exercise) from ‘management observation’ to ‘participant observation’. That is from judgement to insight.
Secondly, I need to decide upon what realistic note taking and writing up looks like. I acknowledge that I need to watch for more, record more, reflect more and then write more but I need to balance this with the pressures of my day-to-day priorities.
Thirdly, I need to consider how I account for the impact that my sheer presence in a classroom can or will have on the ‘normal’ that I am hoping to observe.
Delamont, S., 2012. Traditional’ ethnography: Peopled ethnography for luminous description. In: S. Delamont, ed., Handbook of Qualitative Research in Education. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp.342–‐353
Gordon, T., Holland, J., Lahelma, E. and Tolonen, T. 2005 Gazing with intent: ethnographic practice in classrooms. Qualitative Research 5(1), pp.113–‐131