ERIC Identifier: ED334867
Publication Date: 1991-04-00
Author: Castaldi, Teresa
Source: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education Washington
Ethnography and Adult Workplace Literacy Program Design.
Many researchers recommend that, to serve students' interests, teachers
consider the social dynamics in both the classroom and the communities
of which the students are part. Heath (1983), for example, did not draw
sharp distinctions between what occurred inside and outside the school
walls in her study of learning in the Carolina Piedmonts, but rather gave
detailed, integrated accounts of both the communities and the schools she
examined. Freire (1973), who has worked extensively with literacy programs
in developing countries, advocates learning about the lives of the students
prior to beginning instruction.
In order to gain as broad a picture as possible of the students being
served, many researchers have employed ethnographic methods. Educators,
too, have discovered that ethnographic tools, which are part of qualitative
research, can be useful for examining learning processes and the transmission
of culture in the home, school, and community.
THE ETHNOGRAPHIC METHOD
Ethnography, which seeks to understand and represent the points of view
of the members of a particular culture, is a primary approach to data collection
and analysis in anthropology. As in other forms of qualitative research,
the data collected are rich in their descriptions of people, places, languages,
and events. Ethnographers conduct extensive fieldwork during which they
listen carefully to what people say, directly observe their behavior, and
study the products of their behavior. Their goal is to make detailed observations
of behavior with a minimal amount of distortion and ethnocentric bias.
This classic anthropological method has been used successfully by various
researchers in education. For example, authors in Cazden, Hymes, and John
(1972) used ethnographic methods to explore the social functions of language
use in the classroom. Erickson and Mohatt (1982) used direct observation,
videotaping, and interviews to study the organization of social relationships
in two classrooms of culturally similar children (Odawa and Ojibwa, in
Northern Ontario) whose teachers had different cultural backgrounds from
THE ETHNOGRAPHER'S TOOLS
Ethnographic research can be characterized by its multi-instrumental
approach. A cornerstone of ethnographic methodology is participant observation,
in which the observer becomes part of the community being studied in order
to understand the subjects' point of view. Many ethnographers spend years
living and working as participant observers in the communities they study.
Michael Armstrong (1980), for example, spent an entire school year observing
and teaching children in a British primary school class to study intellectual
growth and its enabling conditions (p.13). His book, "Closely observed
children," is a meticulous account of what he observed. Heath (1983) spent
several years examining the literacy tasks that people in three communities
in the Carolina Piedmonts routinely encountered. This helped her to understand
their use of oral and written language and how that use might influence
In addition to participant observation, with extensive note taking and
possibly audio- or videotaping, data gathering techniques include interviewing
informants and compiling biographical data on them, collecting genealogies
and life histories, taking photographs or making films, administering questionnaires
or surveys, and eliciting ratings and rankings. These and other forms of
instrumentation assist the ethnographer in attaining a holistic view of
the culture studied.
Since ethnographers do not set out to test pre-established hypotheses
but instead try to describe all aspects of the community they are studying
in the greatest detail possible, they structure and refine their research
as they proceed. Thus, the collection and analysis of data affect the design
of the research.
USING ETHNOGRAPHIC TOOLS IN DESIGNING WORKPLACE LITERACY PROGRAMS
Teachers, administrators, or researchers seeking to design workplace
literacy programs sensitive to their learners needs do not need to spend
years collecting data and conducting full-blown ethnographic studies. Instead,
they can learn a tremendous amount about the home, school, and community
contexts of their clients by using some of the ethnographic techniques
described above. For example, in a study of the on-the-job reading practices
of 42 service and clerical workers of the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone
Company in Washington, DC, Kirsch and Guthrie (1982) found that the amount
of time workers spent engaged in various types of reading activities significantly
predicted their performance on related tasks.
Kirsch and Guthrie's findings are consistent with other ethnographic
research which has shown that workers can and do acquire competencies to
meet their particular occupational and personal needs. Sticht (1982), for
example, found that people can enhance their ability to perform particular
types of reading tasks at work, even though they may not make gains in
what he terms "general" reading. Marginally literate adults enrolled in
a job-related reading program made approximately twice the gains in performance
on job-related reading tasks than they did on standardized reading tests,
which measured generalized reading ability.
Through ethnographic approaches, including participant observation,
questionnaires, and interviews, Castaldi (1989) found that union employees,
including both native and non-native speakers of English enrolled in degree
programs, experienced significant overlap among their worlds of work, school,
and family. Their success with school-based writing was closely correlated
with the ways they used writing in their jobs. For example, union secretaries
who regularly cut out and highlighted newspaper articles for their employers
used these newspapers as models for their essay writing in college. Thus,
through their work activities, these women learned to construct their academic
writing. As a result of this study, classroom teachers and administrators
began to examine closely the working backgrounds of their students before
planning course curricula.
Shore and Platt (1984) found that cultural and social factors played
a large role in Samoan immigrants' adaptation to the American workplace.
The high value placed on human relations within the Samoan community radically
differed from employers' expectations of punctuality and consistent attendance
on the job. Also, young Samoans, who acted in a submissive manner in the
presence of older adults, did not communicate well in interviews conducted
by older employees, especially when asked questions about their personal
achievements. Samoans of all ages acted as if they had understood directions
when in fact they had not, so complex orders were often misunderstood.
Finally, the Samoans studied were accustomed to hands-on educational experiences,
so that abstract "blackboard explanations" given in class were confusing
and alienating. These findings have profound implications for both the
workplace and the design of worker education programs for these individuals.
CONCLUSIONS AND APPLICATIONS
As shown above, ethnographic methods have proven to be highly successful
for providing insights into adult literacy students' school, work, home,
and community experiences. This information can be invaluable in the design
of training and educational programs for both American-born and nonnative
It has been argued by some that good ethnographic analysis can be conducted
only by those who have received substantial training in this social science
research strategy (Feinberg, 1977); there may also be those who believe
that they are ill-prepared to begin an ethnographic study of a classroom
or student body. However, an observant, skilled teacher, administrator,
or employer can successfully use many of the techniques employed by the
ethnographic researcher (Castaldi, 1989; Passmore, 1981).
For example, if a class is small, the teacher could hold individual
interviews with learners at the beginning of the course to elicit information
about their educational and employment backgrounds and the current demands
of their jobs. A teacher could construct and distribute a basic questionnaire
that asks learners to elaborate on their previous classroom experiences,
if any, and on the types of reading and writing they do on the job and
at home. This questionnaire could also ask learners to describe the work
they do and note the connection between their job responsibilities and
course requirements. If the class is held at the workplace itself, the
teacher should examine firsthand the types of routine, on-the-job tasks
learners are involved in and design course assignments accordingly.
Inquiry into the types of skills learners use in their homes and at
work can shed light on their performance in the classroom. Conversely,
exploration of the dynamics and demands of the classroom can illuminate
its influence upon the workplace and home environments. For example, an
employer might investigate whether particular skills are best learned on
the job or in a classroom environment. Whatever the case, the interests
of the students are served by considering both the classroom and the communities
of which learners are part.
In summary, the use of ethnographic methods in the design of adult workplace
literacy programs allows a clearer understanding of a particular population
and places literacy learning in the context of the social practices that
promote or inhibit it. Investigation of the different domains in which
the literacy activities of adult ESL workers take place--home, community,
school, and workplace--can highlight the wide range of activities that
involve reading and writing. It can provide those who help to prepare ESL
adults for the workplace with a far richer view of the expansive world
of literacy in which those adults participate.
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Cazden, C., Hymes, D., & John, V. (1972). "Functions of language
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Sticht, T. (1982). "Evaluation of the reading potential concept for
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