Participant observation – how schools are using shadowing to gain insights into education

I came across the Shadow a Student Challenge initiative today which aims to help teachers and principals better understand the needs and experiences of their students by having them shadow one of their students. This shadowing approach is far more closely aligned to the anthropological method of ethnography and participant observation  than purely just observing as they follow students around. The educators participate in the student’s classes, basically doing everything they’re doing as part of being a student. It’s a wonderful tool for gaining deep understanding of a group of people and building empathy.

I thought it was interesting on two fronts. Firstly, that students have become like ‘customers’ for schools where educators look at the experience of their students and uncover ways to improve their services and deliver on their overall purpose. But mostly, I thought it’s a great example of a very practical way of using anthropological methods in contemporary contexts to understand often complex issues. I often lament the wide chasm between academia and industry that I think exists in the discipline of anthropology, and so I am always pleased (ok, actually joyful!) when I find great examples that are making anthropology accessible and applicable to broader audiences outside of the discipline and delivering value.


If you are a teacher, check it out! Or if you’re trying to understand a group of people, such as users, community groups or customer segment), have a play in the website as it provides some great tools and step by step instructions on how to ‘shadow’.