What is School Ethnography?

by Bill Rich

David Foster Wallace tells us that the value of a liberal arts education is it helps us know what we should pay attention to throughout the course of our lives.

I’ve been writing about the hidden curriculum for adults and children during a career that has lasted over 40 years. The hidden curriculum is the theme that has tied together my early experiences as an elementary school teacher and principal, and more recently as a university professor of education. Over the past 10 years, my first-hand look at the hidden curriculum has emerged from my role as a consultant and contract researcher looking at issues of school accountability, and vocational education in prisons.

The classical definition of curriculum is everything that happens to students under the aegis of the school. But the ethnography of the schools goes one step further. Educational Ethnography is everything that happens to everyone under the aegis of the school including to the adults. It includes much more than documents. It also includes the story of that which is “hidden” from both the children and adults alike. It includes the hidden curriculum through which pre-existing social arrangements are reproduced, and particularly the power relationships embedded in those arrangements.

Schooling and education is dominated by the state that creates the institutions, the culture that creates the state. It is the needs of the state, culture and institutions that are served, not the child’s. Education is ultimately then reduced to a set of standards or to some kind of conceptual framework that serves the mythologies of the culture and aligns with the perceived needs of the economy and nation. The idea that the planned curriculum, the material and content we want to teach our students is the main focus of the school experience is one of the ideas I critique. Children, adults are all learning all the time at school. The questions for me are, ‘What are they learning? Why are they learning? And what are they experiencing that results in their learning?’

Those who lead our national and state efforts in education discourage thinking about everything that happens at school. It takes the eye off the ball, the mind off the goal which are the bureaucratic goals which preserve the bureaucracy itself. And it can be depressing which saps our ability to take action. Reformers encourage focusing on the things that the teachers and school staff can control and generally believe it is much more rewarding. One can improve lessons, make them creative, work on classroom design, administer ever more detailed evaluations of the acts of teaching, re-design school architecture and much more.

Yet much of the ‘everything else’ that happens is more fascinating and could be more important. At the risk of overusing metaphors one can describe the ‘everything else’ more completely by using them. For instance, if school is a garden and the little seedlings are the students, and the gardeners are the adults, then who is the mouse, the grasshopper, the rabbit the hawk, the microbes in the soil, the weeds and so on? If school is a woven tapestry and the students and adults are the weavers, then where did the material come from and how did those stray threads get in there? How did a green one appear when the weavers didn’t plan for it?  If school is a ship and the adults are captain and crew, then who are the barnacles on the hull, the birds that follow the ship, the diseases that the sailors contract?  If school is a gold mine, then what seam are we looking at when we dig? This is why I liked the metaphor of writing in the seam. I thought this is what I have been doing but still it doesn’t hit the mark.

The seams I follow are not fixed in place. They move like water in a stream. Best for me now is the idea that I am in the stream following currents, sometimes seeing the currents from above, sometimes from within the water, heading downstream where the water flows into a broader river, or sometimes upstream into rivulets or tiny freshets, or sometimes underground, invisible in a cenote of memories, facts, impressions, emotions and funny stories. In this writing, the currents are moving; what I see in the stream is moving; I am moving among them.

I have loved to be in the classrooms and walk the halls of schools whether as teacher, administrator or university professor. I have also loved to listen to children, parents and educators of all stripes talk about their challenges, victories, paradoxes and tragedies. In this way, the hidden becomes more visible to me. Yet, as ethnographer I know that what I see, what I pay attention to is provisional. Theories are turned upside down and replaced by new theories. My personal stance in writing about schools reflects a sense of play, intense curiosity, appreciation, joy, love and admiration, as well as the broader social, economic and political aspects of schools. Furthermore, it continues to evoke deeper and more visceral autoethnographic perspectives. School ethnography for me now is a pathway into a well-spring of knowledge and understanding about the tension among myriad human experiences and the nature of schools, even of society itself. It tells me what is important and lasting; what is truly valuable in education.