On observations: 4 approaches from Harry Wolcott

I’ve been reading Harry Wolcott’s book “Transforming Qualitative Data” (Sage, 1994) and have really enjoyed the chapters on observation. Wolcot takes more of an ethnographic stance on observation than I do, but there is much to ponder in what he says, and lots of interesting questions .


Wolcot relates how in discussion with students about conducting observations he is surprised at how quickly the conversation digresses into ethical issues about the process of observation and the role of the observer, and the “how” and the “what” are largely overlooked. I think that the role of the observer and the how and the what are closely connected. If I think about how I am going to observe teachers in learning rounds, I need to be aware of what I am doing. In the “doing ” of observation I can look around, look at,   look for, record and listen, without needing to interact much with the others in the room, but do I want to be a passive observer? I might not have much choice as Wolcott points out that in schools there is a “prevailing institutional norm”   (Wolcot 1994:155) which usually turns visitors into passive observers, and it doesn’t take much imagination to understand how that works.  I need to accept that in classrooms, observing teachers who are in turn making their own observations, my role will be passive, as will theirs, I suspect, but maybe a little less so.

What exactly will I observe? There are problems with approaching this and  knowing what you’re looking for so strategies are necessary, and awareness of  the context is also important.  Wolcot talks of the dangers of over-familiarity with the observational environment. I think this could be something that teachers conducting observations might need to acknowledge as Wolcott points out the tendency in teachers to want to evaluate, not observe when they are in their own familiar environments. Being  aware of this might mean assuming a “business as usual” understanding of the situation (e.g.  business as usual in classrooms might be: teachers give instructions, students follow instructions and check for clarity, accuracy until task is complete, or something similar). What might be interesting to focus on using  this model would be the interruptions to “business as usual” – the events which disrupt it; specifically what constitutes an interruption? How are interruptions dealt with and what are their effects?

Wolcott describes 4 approaches to observation which are helpful:

1: Observe and record everything. It’s fair to imagine that this will result in a mass of data, which quickly prompts the researcher to be selective, and also to be reflexively aware of observing and recording habits, which can be a useful exercise in itself. Observing everything especially in the early stages, Wolcott suggests also allows for the researcher to provide a broad overview of the observational situation. It may be helpful to revisit this at the writing -up stage for the purpose of  offering a new-comers’ viewpoint to potential readers who will need some orientation towards the project, while  the researcher having been immersed in the project may be well beyond this stage and overlook that need.

2. Observe and look for nothing in particular. If the situation is too familiar (as in the classroom situation describes above) or too unfamiliar ( e.g. perhaps the green room in a TV studio; inside a petro-chemical refinery; somewhere you’ve never been and had no experience of) this might be a useful approach. It acknowledges that too much might be occurring too quickly for the unfamiliar observer to make sense of, so instead of trying to take everything in, imagine the  observational landscape is flat and focus on the “bumps” – the things that seem to stand out. I can see how this might work in the classroom situation for a teacher, but I’m finding it difficult to imagine separating out the “business as usual” from the disruptions in an unfamiliar situation – how do you know which is which?

3. Look for paradoxes. Wolcott’s idea is that there is  interest in the contradictions and dilemmas of observational situations. He gives an example from his experience observing a  fishing community, but I can imagine this will be something I can work on. The obvious paradox for me will be the observation/evaluation problem. In previous research I found that in spite of clear intentions and statements indicating that they would not evaluate practice in observations, teachers in all situations I researched used judgemental language and expressed concern about reporting their findings to colleagues. This was useful data for me as the study was looking at what teachers do when they say they are doing learning rounds, but for this study the focus is more on the processes -what actually goes on inside a learning round so the observation/evaluation dilemma will play a different part perhaps revealing the nature of some relationships, the purpose of the LR within the school/LA national policy context etc.

4. Identify the key problem confronting the group.

As far as I understand this relates more to interview questions than the process of observation. Wolcott gives an example of medical students who come to realise they cannot learn everything they need to know to practice medicine in medical school, so they focus on what they need to learn first, to be able to stay in medical school. For me I understand this as:  If LR is the answer – what is the question? What need/ requirement is this collaborative learning activity responding to? What are people’s reasons for engaging with it and what are their expectations of it?  What questions might it answer for them? These are questions I will be seeking answers to in my interviews, I’m not sure observation would be the method for eliciting these answers.

The context for observation is subject to past present and future influences. Future because the observations always serve a future purpose – the paper, thesis, film etc that results from the study. Present influences can often be limitations (or enablers) imposed upon the study by contextual factors -e.g. time or funding constraints. Past influences will be found in the body of literature surrounding the focus of the study, and the culture of the organisation where the observations are taking place.

All in all this chapter offers good guidance and pointers on framing and  conducting observations which I’ll try to make good use of in coming months.


Wolcott, Harry F. (1994) Transforming Qualitative Data: description, analysis and interpretation. Sage Publications


About catrionao

I'm a PhD student at Stirling University, studying a school based practice of teacher professional learning. I also do online facilitation for various organisations such as SELMAS and the Strategic Leadership Development Programme.
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