ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Using Student Shadow Days for Ethnographic Research

Winter 2018

By Ryan Dahlem

In 2016, the St. Margaret’s Episcopal School (CA) board of trustees approved a bold new strategic plan organized around the school’s four core values (high expectations, character, balance and breadth, and community). The plan is aspirational rather than operational, a living document to be engaged on a daily basis rather than a checklist to be filed away until the next annual report. In an incredible act of confidence and trust, the board charged the administration, faculty, and staff to define specific tactics to realize the larger vision and goals they set forth in the plan.
A plan of this sort needed an innovative approach for implementation. We engaged the creativity and passion of every employee by inviting them to gather in self-selected teams around each goal in the plan. Colleagues from different divisions, departments, and offices worked side by side, energized by a common passion for their goal area. 
We also decided to use the design thinking process to place our students at the center of this work. We often quote the advice of IDEO founder David Kelley, who says to “fall in love with your end user”—something we’re already very familiar with as educators. We collaborated with a team of innovators from Lime Design, a firm in the San Francisco Bay Area with connections to the Stanford, who brought deep experience and understanding of design thinking and a creative approach to teaching the process to others. 
The first step of the design thinking process is to empathize through ethnographic research. After practicing interviews in a highly engaging professional development workshop, employees set off to apply their new skills and gather insights from students, colleagues, and parents. Throughout this process, we listened intently to understand not just what interviewees were saying, but what they were feeling. 
The insights flowed: stories of transformational teachers, new terms students use such as “adulting” (the emerging sense of maturity that ensues when students are given responsibility and decision-making authority with real-world projects), and the unexpected joy from our older students about opportunities to connect with younger ones. 
There were also clear challenges or friction points, including stress and lack of sleep created by our early start time (7:45 a.m.), a desire for more relevance and choice in our curriculum, and a need for more faculty collaboration time. 
The interviewers diligently documented interviews, created empathy maps to analyze interviewees’ thoughts and feelings, and wrote needs statements. They gathered to share insights and participated in unbounded ideation sessions to generate solutions that would meet the needs of students, faculty, and parents that were connected to strategic plan goals. We then built prototypes and tested these tangible ideas with actual “end users,” gaining invaluable feedback to incorporate with additional testing and pilot programs. 

A Day in the Life

The ethnographic research did not end with the interviews. To go deeper in empathizing with our students, we needed to experience the school through their eyes, to walk in their shoes, to sit in their seats. Administrators stepped forward to spend entire days shadowing students who volunteered to show us the school from their perspectives. This would be different from a standard classroom observation or drop-in visit. We asked administrators to clear their calendars, put their phones away, and live the full life of a student for the day.
Head of School William Moseley was the first to jump in, spending a day shadowing a middle school student. Other administrators quickly followed, each eager to gain a deeper understanding of our students. 
Moseley described the demands of the curriculum and a full schedule balanced with important community time. Academic Dean Jeneen Graham was astonished at how hungry she was by the time lunch arrived after a succession of classes with no break for a snack. Lower School Principal Jennifer Blount began her shadow day with a list of questions to ask her host, but quickly realized there was no time for idle chitchat. They both were continually on-task and engaged in lessons that were highly organized and well-planned by the teachers who used a variety of teaching modalities.
Interested in the full scope of our preschool–12 program, I spent one day shadowing a 3-year-old in our preschool and the next day shadowing an 18-year-old senior in our upper school. This was an incredible opportunity to experience the bookends of a 15-year student journey in just two days, and I learned so much by seeing how our program begins and culminates.

Shadowing a Preschooler

A day in the preschool is like joy in motion—and a workout. We are fortunate to have an incredible preschool program, deeply rooted in the constructivist philosophy of the Reggio Emilia approach. The day began for my host, 3-year-old Isla, with a choice of several intentional provocations designed by her teacher. What would she like to do?  Isla chose the plastic covered magnets, seamlessly beginning her school day by building colorful structures that would inevitably collapse under their own weight, much to her delight. What an engaging way to start the school day, I thought—with a choice.
Next, we flowed into the outdoor classroom where Isla made the rounds to the swings, a percussion instrument called the marimba, the wall climber, and a giant inner tube jumper (I tried the latter, but was politely reminded by a teacher that I was too big and might pop the tube). Isla played with other children and by herself, moderating social interaction at her personal pace. Later there was community time to enjoy a story and song with Isla’s loving and engaging teacher, and ample time for a snack and lunch, both eaten with friends seated at a table alive with conversation. 
One of the most memorable experiences with Isla was when she paused at the very top of the climbing wall, turned to me and exclaimed, “Look what I can do!” I marveled at her confidence and reflected on the importance of providing opportunities for students to demonstrate growth and success on their terms. 
Several of Isla’s learning experiences were interdisciplinary, combining literacy skills with STEM concepts through the exploration of generative topics. Examples included the algorithmic steps and vocabulary involved with baking muffins and an exciting “field trip” to the school garden where Isla explored the rich soil with her hands and discovered earthworms and roly-poly bugs. 
The early afternoon brought naptime and a chance to catch my breath. As much as I wanted to participate, unfortunately I was too much of a novelty in the classroom and needed to step outside so the children would fall asleep. They awoke on their own time frames, and the teacher prepared puzzles outside for the early risers. 
The day closed with more community time, as students recapped their day, packed up, and said goodbye. Isla left with a smile, just as her day had begun. 
I was so impressed by what I saw and experienced in the preschool. Educators often talk, with good reason, about the portrait of a graduate and backward design. I couldn’t help thinking about the portrait of a preschooler and the potential of “forward-designing” this powerful learning experience through the continuum of our program. With that in mind, I looked forward to my day in the upper school with great anticipation.

Upper School Observations

Very quickly, I observed many of the same experiences from the preschool, just fast-forwarded 15 years. Learning through play was alive and well in the upper school. For example, Tyler, my incredible senior host, delighted in carrying out a lab in AP Physics on friction coefficients using a force sensor attached to a wooden block. I immediately thought of Isla playing with wooden blocks the day before. Tyler’s day also included music as he joyfully sang and played the piano in chapel, just as Isla had blissfully played the marimba. Tyler proudly rehearsed a hilarious scene in his drama class for the school play—clearly a “Look what I can do!” moment. And, throughout his day, the love and care from his teachers was abundant, just as it was for Isla.
Naturally, there were differences as well. Tyler’s day began at the same time, yet he and his classmates appeared tired and the start seemed out of sync with their biological clocks. With an academically challenging course load, the structure of Tyler’s day was fast-paced and demanding, and the transitions were quick as we moved through back-to-back classes. The lessons in each discipline, engaging and thoughtfully planned by expert teachers, were ripe for interdisciplinary connections. There wasn’t time for a snack, and Tyler ate his lunch on-the-go as we ran off to another of his extracurricular commitments. 
My day with Tyler extended well past the 3 p.m. bell. After he took a quick trip home for dinner and some homework, we met back at the school for his starring role in the upper school play. Tyler emerged from backstage after an electrifying performance. It was 9:45 p.m. We joked about how exhausted we both were; I felt somewhat guilty with the realization I hadn’t worked nearly as hard as Tyler. As we walked to our cars, I wondered how in the world this inspirational young man would have his mind, body, and spirit ready to go for class at 7:45 a.m.

Research Influences Changes

Shadowing a student is one of those “sticky” learning experiences that stays with you.  Each of us who shadowed came away with an incredible appreciation for the responsibility and expectation placed on our students and the ways they rise to meet daily challenges. We were newly informed on the structure and pace of their days, including subtleties like when they need to be “on,” how often they are assessed, and when they have those important reflection and renewal moments.
We now take these new understandings into every decision we make to advance the student experience. The results of our collective ethnographic research, both the interviews and shadow days, significantly informed the implementation of our strategic plan through a better understanding of our students, their needs, and experiences. 
We subsequently embarked on an all-school schedule redesign grounded in student health and wellness. Our new schedule, set to launch next fall, features a later start time, allowing for more student sleep and additional faculty collaboration, fewer daily classes and transitions, additional breaks, and more advisory time. There will also be a flexible innovation block that supports opportunities for service learning, interdisciplinary studies, entrepreneurial projects, mindfulness, and other health and wellness programming. 
To foster connections across academic departments, we created a Summer Innovation Grant program to fund teachers interested in designing interdisciplinary curriculum. The faculty response was robust with more than 40 teachers from every division and department participating. Highly creative interdisciplinary pilots ran this fall and included a collaboration between AP Economics and AP English that explored inequities in the American Dream; a collaboration between anatomy and photography compared the human eye and the camera lens; and a science/art/technology collaboration used design thinking and 3-D printing to create gardening tools for our preschoolers.
Our academic dean initiated a discussion with department chairs about choice in our curriculum and in the classroom. We refined our communication to underclassmen and parents about the variety of unique course pathways, and we are considering opportunities for students to choose how they demonstrate their learning in the classroom.
Ethnographic research did more than influence our community’s student-centered approach to strategic plan implementation. It also elicited positive feedback from students and adults who helped to shape new initiatives and define action steps. 
There are few days that go by in my role at St. Margaret’s that I don’t reflect on my days alongside Isla and Tyler, and I suppose that is the ultimate impact of this unique research experience. We plan to expand opportunities for faculty and staff to shadow students and consider this to be a vital, ongoing professional development opportunity that permanently changes one’s perspective. 
The guiding principle of “fall in love with your end user” continues to resonate with us and our relationship with the most important element of our innovation process: the students themselves.

Ryan Dahlem

Ryan Dahlem is the assistant head of school for Strategic Initiatives at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School (CA).