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The Ethnography Project: A Method for Increasing Sensitivity in Teacher Candidates
by Nancy Harding
Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Education and Psychology, Pepperdine University

March 2005

The need to create a teaching force that is culturally sensitive is undeniable. According to The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE, 2001) teacher candidates must develop proficiencies for working with students from diverse backgrounds; dispositions that respect and value differences, and skills for working in diverse settings. This is easier said than done. Many teacher education students have little experience outside of their own culture. All students bring to class their own biases and stereotypical points of view. As teacher educators, we hope that cultural diversity classes will help our students become aware of their own beliefs and become more culturally sensitive. We expect that this expanded understanding and awareness will inform their work with diverse students.

To date, teacher education has employed limited methods for implementing multicultural education in teacher education programs. We often rely on traditional methods of reading, lecture and discussion, to address issues the topic (Van Hook, 2002). There is need for teacher educators to develop innovative teaching methods that will impact our students' thinking and emotions about cultural diversity. This paper illustrates the use of a method that is positively impacting the personal beliefs of our teacher candidates. We call this method The Ethnography Project and it is embedded in our cultural diversity courses.

Multicultural Education

Neito (2000) suggests that one must become a multicultural person before they can become a multicultural teacher. One goal of cultural diversity classes is to create in our students and understanding of themselves in relation to the cultural other (Montecinos, 1995). Understanding oneself in relation to cultural others is a lifelong process. Becoming a multicultural teacher is no less than a self-transformation, and it occurs over time. In The Ethnography Project our students have the opportunity to take a meaningful and personal first step in this process.

For students to become effective multicultural teachers they need to develop intercultural sensitivity (Chen, 1997). Intercultural sensitivity is defined as, “An individual's ability to develop a positive emotion towards understanding and appreciating cultural difference that promotes an appropriate effective behavior in intercultural communication” (Chen, p.5). If, as Chen suggests, intercultural sensitivity is an affective construct, then one's understanding and misunderstanding about cultural differences are emotionally linked. Therefore providing an experience that has affective impact is vital for our students' development. For some, The Ethnography Project is their first experience outside their own culture. Many of our teacher candidates believe that they live in a world completely separated from the one in which their students live (Montecinos, 1995). The ethnography experience helps them to understand that their lives and the lives of their students are interconnected (Montecinos).


Ethnography is the work of describing a culture. Its purpose is to understand and explain cultural processes: Ethnographic researchers seek to learn from those they are studying and to understand their perspectives, customs and meanings within the context of their culture (Spindler & Hammond, 2000; Thornton & Garrett, 1995). Ethnographic studies attempt to suspend judgments, preconceived stereotypes and interpretations of behaviors based on the researchers' personal culture, and to construct an image of the worldview of the culture they are studying (Thornton & Garrett, 1995).

Ethnographic research can include many different methods of data gathering (Spindler & Hammond, 2000). Our students employ three commonly used methods: in-depth, open-ended interviews, direct observation of activities, events and behaviors, and analysis of documents. It is our contention that an experience that is personal for our students will be meaningful and therefore transformational. We anticipate that our students will be moved and surprised. In the next section, passages from three ethnography projects are presented. They are taken directly from the papers written by the students. All identifying information has been changed. The investigators in all three are White females. All three chose to learn more about someone they already knew. The passages included describe experiences and the students' reaction to them.

Student Responses to the Ethnography Project

There are students who go through this experience without being impacted, but they are the minority. For most students the experience generates an emotional reaction that potentially leads to authentic change.

Synopsis I

Jane is a White upper-middle class student who has always lived in a White suburb. She chose to spend time with a Korean acquaintance for her ethnography. She describes her reactions to being out of her “comfort zone” and how this experience impacted her.

When we first walked in [to a Korean restaurant] we were the only White people in the place. Being a member of the majority race I have never felt uncomfortable walking into a restaurant before because there are usually other White people eating there. This is what it must feel like to be of another race. In this instance I felt out of my element. I was confused when I saw the menu-there were descriptions of the Korean dishes in English (another example of White privilege) but that didn't seem to help. I ended up asking to have what the people at the table next to us were eating.

The most eye opening part of the ethnography experience for me was realizing how privileged I am because I don't have to make an effort to fit in. I am part of the dominant culture. I can't imagine what immigrants feel like when they come to America and don't understand or know the customs, not to mention how they are made to feel if they don't quickly assimilate and learn the American way. These experiences have allowed me to discover another culture different form my own. It has armed me with sensitivity to other cultures and their beliefs. This is important for future educators because it builds awareness.

Synopsis II

Sue is a middle class White student who decided to do her ethnography on a friend from high school who is Mexican American. When I first met P I never thought about her background, it wasn't until I took the initiative to probe deeper into her Mexican American heritage that I found out how much of her identity I was missing out on. I laughed when P told me that her family was from Tijuana. For me this was a dirty boarder town where everyone was trying to sell you something. She informed me that it was not like that. Her mother had spent a great deal of her childhood riding horses and participating in horse shows on her grandfather's ranch and she hoped to get married there. I was surprised by her fondness of a place my grandfather called the devils barrio. A surprise to me was that P does not speak Spanish and cannot communicate directly with her grandfather in Mexico.

When I went to P's house for a traditional Mexican meal P's grandmother welcomed me with a kiss on the cheek and a big hug. I was taken back that a women who only met me a few times in passing had so much affection for me. In my own family you have to know someone before you start to have that kind of physical affection and even then we did not do it all that often.

I feel fortunate to have gotten to see how P, like so many other bi-cultural children, struggled with their identity. Knowing her for many years, I had no idea how much her Mexican culture impacted her life. Through this experience I feel that I better understand multicultural education. In fact, this experience has inspired P and me to take Spanish lessons so that P can communicate with her grandfather in Mexico and I can better communicate with my students.

Synopsis III

Leslie is a middle class White student whose parents immigrated from South African before she was born. She is a religious Jewish woman who chose to study an Indian friend.

In my initial interview with L she explained that her [Indian] culture encompasses close-knit family ties, respect and obedience for elders and male dominated societies. I felt like I could instantly relate to these cultural characteristics, as I was raised in a very traditional Jewish home where family was highly esteemed, respect for ones elders was expected and control was essentially in the hands of the patriarch.

I had the opportunity to visit a Hindu temple for prayer. I have to admit it felt weird to remove my shoes and sit on the floor and be surrounded by statues representing Hindu gods. This experience was unlike any previous religious experience of mine. In Judaism god is represented as an idea and universal being rather than a physical representation made out of stone or ceramics. Since the service was conducted in English I could understand the sermon. The priest discussed unveiling one's soul in order to discover the immaculate self that guides one. Most importantly, this experience of exploring the spirituality of the Indian culture enlightens my understanding in respect to the commonality of al faiths. The subtle differences of priest, rabbi, and god as a statue form or god as a universal idea sitting on the floor, sitting on seats, disappears in the lieu of a the grand desired of peace and clarity of mind and purpose.

The Indian ritual and worship style spoke to me as Jewish person as many of the same ideas are present in the Jewish religion and customs. In many of my Indian cultural experiences I was reminded that deculturalization and assimilation are still very much part of our modern day society. It is not enough to be aware of cultural difference, but it is up to all citizens to accept differences and note similarities among cultures and welcome these practices into a multicultural backdrop.


These three students illustrate reactions that are common to The Ethnography Project. In this brief immersion into a different culture, students understand the challenges of cultural sensitivity in a way that talking does not accomplish. The experience with the projects creates discomfort; this discomfort is a necessary part of becoming teachers who understand the complexity of diversity in the classroom.


Inspiring teachers who can enhance the learning of diverse students is a challenge. Through ethnographic investigations our teacher candidates have an opportunity to challenge their own attitudes, behaviors and dispositions and to experience another cultural point of view. The Ethnography Project is active and student directed. It offers teacher educators a practical method that can affect students' beliefs.

We must continue to explore methods to enhance our cultural sensitivity; an internal transformation is needed for some students to understand themselves in relation to cultural others. We have found that an active experience enhances the quality of the discourse in our classes. Reading, writing, and talking about cultural diversity is not enough. We must challenge ourselves to create innovative methods within the constraints of our teacher education programs if we are to prepare the types of teachers that our schools need.

The work of teacher educators is to develop teachers for the twenty-first century. The clash of cultures that is occurring worldwide illustrates the dire need we have as a society to become interculturally sensitive. Teachers are cultural workers (Freire, 2000) and their cultural insensitivities can negatively affect the lives of the children they teach. If teachers are committed to the process of becoming interculturally sensitive and understand the complexity of their students' cultures (Chen, 1997) then they make a positive impact on the lives of their students.


Chen, G. M. (1997, January). A Review of the concept of intercultural sensitivity. Paper presented at the Biennial Convention of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association, Honolulu, HI.

Friere, Paulo (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum International Publishing.

Montecinos, C. (1995). Culture as an ongoing dialog: Implications for multicultural teacher education. In: C. E. Sleeter & P. L. McLaren (Eds.), Multicultural education, critical pedagogy and the politics of difference (pp.291-308). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), Spring, 2002. Standards for Professional Development, Standard IV Diversity. Retrieved May 10, 2004 from

Nieto, S. (2000). Affirming Diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.

Sleeter, C., & McClaren, P. (1995). Multicultural Education, Critical Pedagogy, and the Politics of Difference. Albany, N Y: SUNY Press.

Spindler, G., & Hammond, L. (2000). The use of anthropological methods in educational research: Two perspectives. Harvard Educational Review, 70 (1), 39-48.

Thornton, S., & Garrett, K. (1995). Ethnography as a bridge to multicultural practice. Journal of Social Work Education, 31(1), 67-74.

Van Hook, C. (2000). Preparing teachers for the diverse classroom: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. Issues in Early Childhood Education, and Dissemination of Information, Champaign, IL: Proceedings of the Lillian Katz Symposium (pp. 67-72). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 470878)

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