Survey Says: Ethnographic Research Can Provide Valuable Insights

Winter 2018

By Erin Park Cohn, Carla Silver

In an episode of the 1980s British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister, two government officials reveal the trouble with surveys as a method for discovering people’s feelings about a subject. Bernard Woolley, the prime minister’s personal secretary, informs Sir Humphrey Appleby, the cabinet secretary, that the prime minister would like to reinstitute the National Service because “the party had an opinion poll done and it seems all the voters are in favor” of the measure. “Well, we’ll just have another opinion poll done,” Appleby suggests, “showing the voters are against bringing back the National Service.” In response to Woolley’s befuddlement, Appleby engages him in a humorous exchange of rapid-fire, deliriously leading questions and answers through which he manages to manipulate Woolley into both supporting and opposing the reinstatement of the National Service. Appleby layers simple, value-laden questions on one another until Woolley has no choice but to arrive at the conclusion Appleby desires. The scene makes light of how simple it is to design surveys to “measure” what the survey designer hopes is the case, and then use that seemingly objective data to support an agenda.

We already know this about surveys. Yet as schools seek information from their stakeholders about a possible future direction, they often turn to community-wide surveys that measure satisfaction levels with programs, facilities, teaching, and leadership. Why? Certainly, surveys are easy to conduct—especially with the advent of Google forms and SurveyMonkey. With just a click of a button, they are a convenient way to reach a wide constituency of parents, alumni, students, faculty, and trustees. And they provide us with the illusion of having raw, objective, quantifiable data—hard truths that we can use to guide our decisions.

Yet survey data only goes so far in terms of what it can help us understand about our school communities. If we truly want to innovate in lasting ways, we need to illuminate the unknown and shine a light on new pathways. 

So what is the antidote to surveys? Anthropology. In the book The Ten Faces of Innovation, Tom Kelley, a partner at the innovation and design firm IDEO, outlines 10 roles or personas that innovators adopt as they go out to invent something new. Among others, they include the “Hurdler,” the “Experimenter,” the “Cross-Pollinator,” and the “Collaborator.” Which persona is the most important according to Kelley? The “Anthropologist”—the person who ventures out to conduct fieldwork, to observe and interview with an open mind in order to understand human experience. “The Anthropologist role is the single biggest source of innovation at IDEO,” Kelley writes. Why? “Like most of our client companies, we have lots of great problem solvers. But you have to know what problem to solve.” 

Sound familiar? School leaders are not usually short on ideas and solutions for perceived problems. Anthropologists, with their ability to observe, listen, and reframe problems, are more likely to emerge with original insights that might lead to a breakthrough idea. 

Unlike a survey, anthropological research can be deeply human and relational, as it allows you to witness, firsthand, a stakeholder in a particular moment. The goal of the anthropologist is not to collect “data” but rather to collect stories that reveal the perspectives, values, and motivations that provide true insight into unmet needs—which is really at the heart of both determining the problem and designing the innovative solution. 

The Limits of Survey Data

The scene from Yes, Prime Minister, detailed above, presents one flaw of using survey data for research purposes: Surveys are often designed to lead the person answering the questions to respond in certain ways. Behavioral scientists describe this as “choice architecture.” Yet there are several other reasons we would do well to use caution with surveys as instruments of school research.

People rarely go “below the line” when answering survey questions. Sometimes in our work with school leaders, we ask them to do some reflective writing on what’s going on with them. Then we ask them to draw a line and to write below the line about what’s really going on with them. They often surprise themselves with the deeper insights that surface when they go “below the line.” On the other hand, when we complete a survey, we’re highly aware of the construct of the survey experience, and we present a very specific, often superficial version of ourselves in answering the questions. Surveys, therefore, rarely tap into what’s going on in our communities “below the line.”

Stories and human behaviors can be revealing. More often than not, what we say about ourselves in general terms differs greatly from our actual feelings or behaviors. If you ask a student to describe her eating habits in the dining hall, she might report eating well-balanced meals regularly. Yet, if you ate with her for a week, you might witness her skipping meals and consuming a lot of fluffernutter sandwiches. A parent might say that “strong subject matter knowledge” is what he values most in a faculty member, but then tell story after story of the emotional connection his child had with her chemistry teacher. People are complex, and so much of that complexity is lost in survey data.

Surveys encourage “averagarian” thinking. In his book, The End of Average, Todd Rose dispels the myth that humans can be boiled down to a statistical average. We certainly could measure the amount of time each student reports spending on homework each night, for example, but even if that data was reported accurately, it still would ignore the larger picture of each individual student’s experience, learning needs, and the type of homework they were doing. In other words, isolating a single data point and measuring its average tells us less than we might think. Each individual member of our community is a unique constellation of many data points, all of which matter. 

Surveys tend to lead us toward unimaginative solutions. While quantitative research may give schools a good sense of what is, it is often fairly limited, if not misleading, about giving schools a sense of what might be. Even those surveys that contain open-ended questions like, “What would you like to see us offer in the future?” usually generate responses grounded in what people already know and believe is possible—more of something, less of something else, or the latest bells and whistles that the competitor school has added, leading to the inevitable “keeping up with the Joneses” approach to future planning. Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and other wildly successful inventors and innovators, knew that it was useless to ask people what they wanted because most people are limited by their own mental models of what already exists and are incapable of imagining beyond them to new possibilities. Henry Ford supposedly quipped, “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” It’s time to retire the horse trainer and let the anthropologist rev her engine.

Becoming an Anthropologist 

Schools rarely have professional anthropologists on staff, but there are plenty of people who can learn and practice the habits, mindsets, and skill sets of anthropologists. 

In his book, A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger writes about the power of the “neotenous mind”—the ability to wonder limitlessly as if everything one encounters is something altogether new. This, Berger writes, can also be described as “vuja de—a sense of seeing something for the first time, even if you have actually witnessed it many times before.” The more one is willing to get curious, open one’s ears, mind, and heart, and walk through the familiar terrain as a visitor, the more likely one will be able to emerge with new insights and revelations that can lead to more clearly defined problems and new solutions.

So what exactly do anthropologists do that allow them to collect stories and insights and determine human needs? They observe, ask, and listen. Dev Patnaik, founder and CEO of the corporate strategy firm Jump Associates, refers to these skills as ethnography and writes about the techniques he and his team use in his books Wired to Care and Needfinding: Design, Research and Planning, the textbook he created for his course at Stanford University. “Ethnography is the rigorous study of the routine daily lives of a group of people,” he writes. “It was originally developed by empires to better understand their conquered subjects.” While we might now have far less nefarious plans for our research, the disciplined study of daily habits can tell us a lot about our subjects. Observation can be a tedious and tiring process. If you have ever spent a day, much less several consecutive days, shadowing students, you know that watching quietly, jotting down the small details, sketching, and photographing is hard work. As Patnaik writes, “The secret to observing is to watch, get bored, then watch some more.”

In those moments of pure observation, however, you begin to discover the details you might miss everyday: copious college pennants displayed on walls, a group of students hacking a section of hallway space for a collaborative project, a student who wilts in math but has her curiosity ignited in history. All of these observations are revealing and can offer fresh paths toward reimagining a school.

Along with observation comes asking and listening. The main goal in interviews is not to solve a problem, but rather to identify one. The more specific you get with your interview questions, the more likely you will be to get a response that is both truthful and illuminating. If you ask a student about new fashion trends, you might get something that sounds like an answer from a YouTube blogger. But if you ask students to tell you about the shoes they have on, you might learn about their shopping habits, their friendships, the way they spend their free time, and whether or not their parents approved of the purchase or paid for the shoes. If you ask students what they want in a teacher, they might generalize the qualities of all of their teachers and create a mythical creature. But if you ask them to tell a story of an impactful learning experience in a recent class, you will probably learn about what they truly value in their teachers. You might also discover that their most impactful learning moment came from a peer or from their own exploration of a topic. This kind of information can be priceless when you are trying to design something for this particular user.

Throughout all of the anthropological research, the trickiest part is to learn how to separate what you observe from what you interpret. Humans are wired to make meaning out of complexity, and we usually bring our own experiences, biases, and values into the mix when we try to understand the behaviors and motivations of others. While there is nothing wrong with emerging with a hypothesis, it is important to check biases and ask, “What am I bringing to this interpretation? What did I actually hear or see? How did my emotions or preconceived assumptions color my interpretation of what I saw or heard?” Good anthropologists and problem solvers are often highly attuned and have strong intuitions, but their inferences are also based on carefully collected data: specific quotations for shared stories, observed behaviors and activities, and personal artifacts. 

Examples in Action

This sort of anthropological research not only helps frame the true problem that needs solving but also sets the foundation for designing innovative solutions. For example, Hillbrook School (CA) came to us last fall to help them redesign their schedule using these techniques. Fresh off an innovative strategic planning process, the school realized that in order to achieve their goals of offering students greater individualization and opportunities beyond campus, they would need to restructure the way they organized time. Our collaborative schedule design process relied heavily on anthropological research to surface real student needs. For example, the design team shadowed a student for an entire day to document the student’s lived experience of time. The team then built on the insights that emerged out of those observations to develop a set of specific, targeted principles that are shaping their ultimate design of the Hillbrook’s new schedule, which will roll out in the fall of 2018.

At Kent Denver School (CO), we used similar anthropological research to very different ends. A thriving college prep school, Kent Denver wanted to design more opportunities for students to engage in creative and passion-driven learning experiences outside the boundaries of traditional disciplines. While the school could draw on models of interdisciplinary institutes, it was important to them to ensure that whatever they ultimately designed be rooted in the needs of their unique school community. In order to assist them in identifying those needs, Leadership+Design spent three days immersed in the Kent Denver community. We shadowed students and interviewed parents, students, faculty, and recent alumni, and shared our insights to help a team collaboratively prototype their first interdisciplinary efforts. Building on those efforts, Kent Denver launched their first iteration of the Rollins Institute for Technology and Design this past fall and will be ready to introduce The Hunt Family Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies this spring. These and other future initiatives will be largely informed by student’s need for agency, choice, and experimentation, which emerged from the anthropological research.

Bringing an anthropological approach to work in schools does not require a large design problem, however. Indeed, faculty and staff can benefit greatly from simply adopting these skills and exploring the world inside and outside of school through an ethnographic lens. In our year of professional development with the Curtis School (CA), for example, we sent the faculty out to “hack” the city of Los Angeles. Small faculty teams spent several hours at forward-thinking businesses and workplaces like Hulu, Sony Pictures, and YouTube, where they interviewed employees and observed their work habits to better understand the world outside of school that their students would someday enter. They returned to their school to share sketches, notes, and insights, and considered and discussed what they observed. Experiences might inspire a new way of organizing a classroom or collaborative space, or a new approach to interacting with each other as a faculty. Faculty members also designed small-scale experiments spurred from what they saw in their visit to the city to try out with their students.

A Bigger Toolbox

Engaging in anthropological research of this sort has an additional benefit: It helps to foster a culture of care and conversation in your school. A process of interviewing and observing demonstrates a level of empathy and collaborative spirit that goes a long way toward strengthening the fabric of your school community. As Tom Kelley points out, “When you seek out field observations, remember: The more emotional breadth you gather, the better. The more human needs and desires you unearth for your experiential map, the more likely it is that they will lead you to promising new opportunities.” While it will be impossible to meet all of the needs that surface, people will leave the experience feeling heard and seen.

There’s no need to abandon surveys entirely, however. They can be a helpful and convenient tool if you’re looking to gather concrete, quantifiable data. Want to collect demographic data about what kinds of families make the decision to send their children to your school, or find out how many times teachers have used the makerspace in a class project this semester? Survey away. But to gain a sense of the lived experience of community members, to be able to understand their varying needs, and to design creative solutions that will meet real needs, become Margaret Mead and gather a group of thoughtful, committed citizens and change your world.


Five Simple Ways to Get Started

Shadow a student for a full day. Carve out one full day and observe a single student, from as early as possible to as late as possible. If you can, ride the bus with him or her. You don’t need to participate in his or her experiences (leave the gym shorts at home), but pay careful attention and document what you see and hear. You’d be amazed at how different your school is from the perspective of a student.

2  Collect stories. When you encounter students, parents, or alumni, ask them to share specific anecdotes and stories with you about their experience at your school. Begin sentences with “Tell me about a time when…” and make note of their responses. Take these stories back to your team to analyze and examine together to determine what human needs lie within them.

3  Go off campus. Many educators go straight from being a student to being a teacher, and never actually spend much time out of a school setting. Take a short break from school and venture out into your city or community with an anthropological mindset, and see what you might be able to creatively apply to your work with your students.

4  Ask “why.” Naturally, patterns emerge within all human cultures, and schools are no exception. As newcomers to a social system, anthropologists routinely ask why—Why does a group do things this way? Why did that practice emerge? Stopping to challenge the why within your school can help your team move beyond the answer, “Because we’ve always done it that way.”

5  Take a minute just to watch with fresh eyes. As busy educators, we often rush through our day focused on the task at hand, and rarely pause to observe our surroundings. Make yourself take a break from your work and just sit in a common space—the faculty room, the cafeteria, the student center—and listen to what you hear without judgment or preconceived notions. Or pay attention to the dynamics within a committee meeting. Try to adopt some “vuja de” for a moment and see what insights emerge.
Erin Park Cohn

Erin Park Cohn is senior partner at Leadership+Design, a nonprofit organization that designs experiences—including strategic planning, professional development programs, and school change projects—for the people who create the future of teaching and learning. She is based in South Londonderry, Vermont.

Carla Silver

Carla Silver is executive director at Leadership+Design, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools to support positive change in schools.