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A Critical Analysis of an Ethnographic Research

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Topics: Education, School
A Critical Analysis of a Research Article:
Cecile Wright, 1992. Early Education: Multiracial Primary School Classrooms in Racism and education: structures and strategies

Introduction
This paper is a critical analysis of an ethnographic research paper, which examined four inner- city primary schools in London. The study was conducted in 1988-9 by Professor of Sociology Cecile Wright and considers the significant cultural and perceived racial difference in the daily learning experiences and interactions in classroom and school settings. The paper examines in particular the relationships between peer group and the teachers. The study found some of these children to be at risk of experiencing educational and social constructed disadvantages. This paper provides an overview of the background issues explored, methodology used and conclusions reached by the study.
What is the problem that is addressed in the research?
Wright argues that before 1992 there was very little research that had examined the effects of school education on children from different ethnic of backgrounds. According to Wright, previous studies were not based on direct observation and rather focus on secondary school students.
Wright acknowledges the existence of formal educational distinctions between groups of people along the lines of race and ethnicity. She argued however to fully understand the workings of the education system and its impact on students, it is imperative for observational studies to be done in schools. Her research consequently aimed to fill the gap in the body of existing knowledge, which only explained the different experiences as direct consequence of students’ school behavior.
Wright’s study concluded that children of different ethnic backgrounds did experience school differently. By observing and exploring the fundamental processes that lead these children to have different interactions within a primary school setting, the study demonstrated these differences were the result of environmental and structural factors and that ethnicity had a significant impact on their learning experiences.

What approach is taken to address this problem?
The study used the tradition of school ethnography to examine children’s experiences in multiracial classrooms for a twelve-month period. Within the field of social studies, this strategy has been considered one of the most elemental and popular methodologies to collect qualitative research data (Hammersley - Atkinson 1995).
Bouma (2000), defines the methodology as simple as observing a group of people over a period of time. This strategy is argued to be particularly useful in answering questions about learning / teaching processes and educational issues (Walford 2008). The main advantage of using this method for Wright was that it enabled her to study behaviours through participant observation in everyday contexts, as opposed to researcher’s created conditions (Hammersley 1998).
The study used a multidisciplinary approach to obtain relevant data drawn from observation and informal interviews with students teachers and parents in the four selected schools and also the recording of interaction in different school settings. As claims made by the study were primarily based on qualitative information linked with the particular school context and commonly made in ethnographic research. It is assumed that for validity purposes the study also used quantitative information obtained from census information, schools composition/characteristics and attainment test scores completed by three of the four schools.
The essential school selection criterion was based on two variables; a) schools having a significant proportion of children of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian backgrounds attending and b) both working and middle-class representations were included in their catchment areas.
Table 1 below, shows a summary of research quantitative information about school & nursery demographics.

Afro-Caribbean Asian Mixed Race White Other
Teaching staff 49
Support Staff 5 2 9
School Sts 108 144 7 363 5
Nursery Children 21 30 16 62 2 Table 1 Wright study aimed to describe the studied practices, in other words, focusing on understanding rather than transforming practices. The intention to advocate can also be inferred. Hence, her research does not come from a position of neutrality, but rather makes representations on behalf of a group aiming to demonstrate the need to assess and reflect on the findings. This does not mean the study is biased or lacking of neutrality. In reporting her own research, it can be said she interpreted data produced from the perspective of the population observed and with awareness of her role as an active part of the research process.

The outcomes and significance of the research
Wright’s research presented individual outcomes and findings for the different subjects involved as teacher-pupil relations, South Asian children experiences, Afro-Caribbean children’s experiences, the Rastafarian experiences, multiculturalism in the classroom, teacher view’s and peer relations. Although the study indicated parent’s participation in informal interviews there is no evidence of findings.
Important findings included evidence of stereo¬typing, under-expectation, and racism. She found that teachers treated ethnic minority children differently from white children, arguing that some black children are disadvantaged at this early educational level compare to white children.
Findings showed use of teachers negative stereotyped strategies based in inaccurate assumptions on values and believes, resulted in differences between children’s achievements and interactions. No relationship was shown to link these results with educational abilities or home backgrounds. Pointing out at the under-achievement of the formal educational system to provide positive and appropriate teaching and learning opportunities for students from ethnic minorities.
She also found evidence that racism was prevalent among children and was experienced in and outside the classroom.

What evidence does the author present in support of the conclusions?
The study compiled and documented information on outcomes through note taking, case - study and tape recordings of participants’ interviews and day –to- day observations. Wright examined and presented her findings by providing detailed descriptions of events observed, transcription of interactions between the subjects and interviews conducted. These practices combined with the use of relevant research literature assisted and supported her empirical analysis of the pattern and complexities of relationships in formal multicultural schools contexts.
Putting forward her findings using simple yet highly academic language, reflected well-founded professional and personal expertise of the topic been studied. She also used a precise and meaningful way to explain and interpret meanings behind verbal and non-verbal occurrences.
Notwithstanding ideological commitment of the school system to anti-racism practices, the study showed evidence of substantial racial discrimination within the classroom and school context.
Afro-Caribbean students tended to be ignored, seen as having discipline problems and placed in lower tracks not reflecting their academic abilities. In addition, the interaction between teachers and Afro-Caribbean students was frequently characterised by conflict and confrontation where students were blamed for teacher’s perceived decline in standards of achievement and likely to be punished more than white children when committing similar discipline offences.

In turn the South Asian students were expected to be well disciplined, tending to be the subject of teacher labeling who also undervalued aspects of their culture. At pre-school levels, teachers poorly involved these students in class discussions due to assumptions that they had poor English language skills. Asian girls were particularly ignored and expressed conflict between cultural and family expectations and educational requirements.
Nonetheless, teachers also showed to posses higher expectations of South Asian children over those of Afro-Caribbean background.
Wright found evidence that both these groups of children experienced frequent racism and even physical attacks from white students whilst teachers were reluctant to formally address the racial harassment.
The study provided insufficient in- depth analysis of how standardised approaches to pedagogy are inadequate when considering the needs of culturally diverse classrooms. Culturally relevant teaching strategies providing multicultural representations help connect students, their diverse experiences, and what the school curriculum requires (Banks, Cookson, Gay, et al., 2001).
Conflict is identified in Wright’s acknowledgment of ethnicity as the sole factor influencing teacher-student interactions. Evidence found in her study as well as current literature indicates that gender and class are also determining factors (Skerrett 2006).

What assumptions can be identified within the approach, conclusions or evidence presented?
Ethnographic fieldwork often holds the premise that important knowledge can be obtained only by participant observation methodology. This method of engagement has the elements of human connection with the subject and the allocation of time. It is assumed that as the researcher becomes a regular and familiar figure, participants are more likely to build trust, be more open about their personal life experiences and behave as they would normally do. Research success therefore, depends on the researcher’s ability to develop and maintain a positive interaction and involvement with participants.
It can be assumed that Wright agrees with views that promote the advantages of using small study samples. Such ethnographic research focuses on the participants’ own specific truths and realities.
On one hand this epistemological assumption gives her study validity, as it wanted to gain detailed information about interactions in the classroom and not be concerned so much with developing broad and absolute generalisations of all peoples’ experiences in education. On the other hand, current studies have expressed conceptual and methodological problems with studies such as this one, which can have limited representation as it partially represented a larger population and only included schools in a major city. Especially difficult is to assess the incidence and frequency of the targeted practices. (Schofield1991).
Arguments identify a wide range of schools and individual variables that might be used to explain the differences found. Suggesting therefore, that a wide array of school settings should be surveyed and studied in order to effectively identify individual and contextual factors and conditions in operation. A small cohort diminishes the likelihood that specific characteristics of one or two schools can determine the results.
All methods have their limitations, especially those concerned with complex educational issues such as racism and multicultural education. Troyna & Hatcher (1992) and Connolly (1998 )have also examined a limited number of schools and share Wright’s findings about the way school affects children’s educational experiences.
An ontological assumption of the study relates to the background information and knowledge one must previously possess on the country’s educational history and migration experience, which underpinned the social and political context in which the research took place.
Some additional research variables that were not recorded in Wright’s study were length of residence in the country, family composition, parent’s educational backgrounds either in first or second languages and employment status. These data would have been useful exploring issues of cultural or language identity and social participation.
Assumptions can be made that whilst defining ethnicity and selecting school selection criteria the study considered the use of these variables with informed caution as they can be used to explain students’ disadvantages and failure to achieve educational outcomes in terms of family or cultural backgrounds. They can also take away responsibility from educational curricular underpinned by political and socio-economic systems of governance.
Wright’s article inferred that her own Afro-Caribbean ethnicity prompted a variety of attitudes from the subjects. It is undeniable that she is her own primary source of data. Whether her subjectivity is a weakness or strength is not an issue in this study. This feature might be useful to inform how the subjects would react in different circumstances. (Hammersley & Atkinson 1995).
Wright’s article concluded suggesting that if a person at an early school age is frequently treated in the way that has been described throughout her study, it is most likely that by the time adolescence is reached, the negative attitudes would be deep-rooted in a young person’s perception of self.

References

Banks, J., Cookson, P., Gay, G., Hawley, W.D., Irvine, J.J., Nieto, S., Schofield, J.W. & Stephan, W.G. (2001). Diversity within unity: essential principles for teaching and learning in a multicultural society. Seattle, WA: Center for Multicultural Education, College of Education, University of Washington, viewed 28 March .

Bouma, G 2000, The research process, 4th edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Connolly, P. 1998, Racism, gender identities and young children, Routledge, London

Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. 1995, ‘Chapter 1: What is Ethnography?’, in Ethnography: principles in practice, Routledge, London.

Hammersley, M. 1998, Reading ethnographic research a critical guide, 2nd edn, Addison Wesley Longman Limited, New York.

Schofield, J. 1991, ‘School desegregation and intergroup relations: A review of the literature’, in Grant, G. Review of research in education, vol. 17, American Educational Research Association, Washington, accessed 1 April https://tcrecord.org/Signin.asp?cc=1&r=2

Skerrett, A. 2006, Looking inward: the impact of race, ethnicity, gender, and social class background on teaching sociocultural theory in education, in Studying teacher education: a journal of self-study of teacher education practices , volume 2, issue 2, Routledge, London, viewed 30 March http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a758384916

Troyna, B. & Hatcher, R. 1992, Racism in children’s lives: a study of mainly white primary schools, Routledge, London, viewed 30 March http://books.google.com.au/books?id=vCWouqPyROcC&dq=isbn:0826451152

Walford, G. 2008, How to do educational ethnography, Tufnell Press, London

References: Banks, J., Cookson, P., Gay, G., Hawley, W.D., Irvine, J.J., Nieto, S., Schofield, J.W. & Stephan, W.G. (2001). Diversity within unity: essential principles for teaching and learning in a multicultural society. Seattle, WA: Center for Multicultural Education, College of Education, University of Washington, viewed 28 March . Bouma, G 2000, The research process, 4th edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne. Connolly, P. 1998, Racism, gender identities and young children, Routledge, London Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. 1995, ‘Chapter 1: What is Ethnography?’, in Ethnography: principles in practice, Routledge, London. Hammersley, M. 1998, Reading ethnographic research a critical guide, 2nd edn, Addison Wesley Longman Limited, New York. Schofield, J. 1991, ‘School desegregation and intergroup relations: A review of the literature’, in Grant, G. Review of research in education, vol. 17, American Educational Research Association, Washington, accessed 1 April https://tcrecord.org/Signin.asp?cc=1&r=2 Skerrett, A. 2006, Looking inward: the impact of race, ethnicity, gender, and social class background on teaching sociocultural theory in education, in Studying teacher education: a journal of self-study of teacher education practices , volume 2, issue 2, Routledge, London, viewed 30 March http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a758384916 Troyna, B. & Hatcher, R. 1992, Racism in children’s lives: a study of mainly white primary schools, Routledge, London, viewed 30 March http://books.google.com.au/books?id=vCWouqPyROcC&dq=isbn:0826451152 Walford, G. 2008, How to do educational ethnography, Tufnell Press, London

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