INTERPERSONAL PERCEPTION IN THE CLASSROOM: STUDENTS' SELF-
PERCEPTIONS AND INTERPRETATIONS OF THEIR TEACHER'S
PERCEPTIONS ABOUT THEM IN TWO FOURTH-GRADE CLASSES
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE
REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
For my husband, Michael Douglas Coe, who is the wind
beneath my wings.
I am grateful for a first-rate dissertation committee,
my mentors, all dedicated educators and researchers. I
would like to thank the chair and my advisor, Regina Weade-
Lamme, whose intellectual insight, support, confidence in
me, and encouragement helped my research in general and
this dissertation in particular.
I am also grateful to Dr. Robert R. Sherman, whose
high standards and careful and specific feedback helped
make this dissertation a reality. I would also like to
thank Dr. Kristen M. Kemple, whose input and encouragement
helped me continue to explore children's perspectives, and
Dr. Jin-Wen Y. Hsu, whose insight helped shape the
questions and methodology in this study. I am grateful to
Dr. Jane Townsend, for her careful critique of my
dissertation and for her unfading smile.
I would also like to thank Ms. Naylor (pseudonym) and
Mrs. Cleary (pseudonym), who opened their classrooms to me
and welcomed me as a member. I am especially grateful to
the parents of all the fourth-grade students I worked with,
the students who shared their perspectives with me, and to
the school administration.
I am grateful to Dr. Mary Grace Kantowski, chair of
Instruction and Curriculum, for her genuine interest and
support in this study and in my personal growth. I am also
thankful to all the secretaries in our department who were
always willing to assist me.
I would also like to thank Dr. Edward Turner for
taking the time to talk to me, especially when it was
needed. His support and encouragement helped me deal with
the pressures of completing the dissertation process.
There are many friends and family members I would like
to thank for their help, encouragement, and understanding.
My utmost thanks go to my husband, Michael Coe, whose
patience, support, and understanding gave strength to
complete this project. I am blessed to be the mother of
Rebecca, whose smiles and hugs helped me carry on. I am
grateful to my parents, Ioanni and Evanthia Zygouris, for
their love and to my in-laws, Hazel and Wally Coe for their
moral and financial support, and for believing in me. My
thanks go also to my officemate, Susan Wegmann, who put up
with my piles of paper and long hours with a smile and a
kind word; and my sister-in-law, Demie Zygouris, for her
encouragement through the phone.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ......................................... iv
ABSTRACT ................................................ x
LIST OF TABLES ........................................... viii
LIST OF FIGURES ........................................... ix
1 INTRODUCTION .................................. 1
Statement of the Problem ...................... 3
Purpose of the Study and
Research Questions .......................... 7
Significance of the Study ..................... 8
Definition of Terms ........................... 12
Design of the Study ........................... 16
2 REVIEW OF RELATED LITERATURE .................. 18
Students' Perceptions in the Classroom ........ 19
Students' "Voices" in the Classroom ........... 30
Students' Meta-Perceptions .................... 36
Conclusion .................................... 41
3 METHODOLOGY ................................... 42
Introduction .................................. 46
The Setting ................................... 46
Description of Site ...................... 46
Selection of Site ........................ 46
Entry and Access ......................... 47
Participants ............................. 50
Classroom Organization ................... 52
Research Methods .............................. 61
Overview ................................. 61
Methods and Procedures ................... 65
Participant Observation .................. 67
Interviews ............................... 73
Free Responses ........................... 76
Methodological Limitations ................
Data Analysis ..................................
The Researcher's Role
and Biases ...................................
Issues of Validity and
4 FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION ............................
Students' Self-perceptions .........................
of Teacher's Perceptions .........................
Information Students Used to
Construct Interpretations ........................
Classroom Interactions and
Student Interpretations ..........................
5 CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS .......................
Limitations of the Results .........................
Relationship of Findings
to Previous Research .............................
Implications for Future
Implications for Educational
A IRB APPROVAL .............................
B A SAMPLE OF FREE RESPONSES ...............
C A SAMPLE OF DOMAIN ANALYSIS ..............
D SAMPLES OF TAXONOMIC ANALYSIS ............
E INTERVIEW QUESTIONS: TEACHERS ............
F INTERVIEW QUESTIONS: STUDENTS ............
G A SAMPLE OF VERBATIM TRANSCRIPTS .........
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ................................
LIST OF TABLES
3-1 Degrees of Participant Involvement ........... 70
3-2 Strict Inclusion Example ..................... 85
3-3 Domain Analysis Worksheet .................... 85
3-4 Research Questions, Data Collection,
and Analysis ................................. 88
4-1 Content Analysis Comparison: I Think I Am .... 98
4-2 Content Analysis Comparison:
I Think Teacher Thinks I Am .................. 102
4-3 Content Analysis Comparison:
Domain Occurrence ............................ 107
4-4 Content Analysis Comparison:
I Would Like To Know What My Teacher
Thinks Of Me When I .......................... 109
4-5 Sources Of Information Children Used
To Construct Interpretations ................. 113
4-6 Verbal Information Students Used To
Construct Interpretations .................... 116
4-7 Written Information Students Used To
Construct Interpretations .................... 119
4-8 Non-verbal Information Students Used To
Construct Interpretations .................... 122
4-9 Information From Teacher's Practices
Students Used To Construct Interpretations... 125
4-10 Other Information Students Used To
Construct Interpretations .................... 127
4-11 What Students Wanted The Teacher To Do ...... 129
LIST OF FIGURES
1 Floor Plan of Classroom A.......................54
2 Floor Plan of Classroom B ..................... 55
3 Ethnographic Questions ........................ 63
4 Commnunity Bulletin Board Message .............. 153
5 School Rules .................................. 155
6 Teacher's Flag Rules .......................... 155
7 Rules To Play By .............................. 156
8 How Students Can Get What They Want
From The Teacher .............................. 156
9 What Does Not Work With The Teacher ........... 157
10 How To Treat Others ........................... 160
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
INTERPERSONAL PERCEPTION IN THE CLASSROOM: STUDENTS'
SELF-PERCEPTIONS AND INTERPRETATIONS OF THEIR TEACHER'S
PERCEPTIONS ABOUT THEM IN TWO FOURTH-GRADE CLASSES
Chair: Dr. Regina Weade-Lamme
Major Department: Instruction and Curriculum
The purpose of this study was to investigate how
children perceived themselves and interpreted their
teacher's perceptions about them in class. The researcher
assumed a social-interaction perspective that views the
development of self through social interactions. The study
focused on four questions:
1. What is the content of students' self-
2. What is the content of students' interpretations
of their teacher's perceptions about them in
3. What kinds of information did students use to
construct their interpretations?
4. What is the role of classroom interactions in
the construction of students' interpretations of
their teacher's perceptions about them in
Qualitative research methods were used to collect and
analyze the data. The researcher used a methodological
triangulation to better examine students' perceptions.
Students wrote free responses about themselves and what
their teacher thought of them. Formal and informal
interviews were conducted with 21 out of the 60
participating children. Classroom observations were
conducted over a period of five months.
Taxonomic and content analysis revealed the following:
1. Children perceived themselves differently
from what they thought their teacher thought of
2. Children lacked information in what their
teacher thought about them, especially in areas
in which they did not have feedback.
3. Children used their classroom interactions and
experiences with the teacher as the sources of
information for their interpretations.
The results suggested that in order for teachers to
create and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships in
their classrooms, they need to provide students with
specific feedback about their personal, social, and
When people interact with others, they see what
others do and hear what others say in various social
situations. People select, organize, and interpret
information about themselves and others; they construct and
co-construct perceptions and assign meanings. People
connect new information with previous knowledge, focus on
what and who interests them, and create new understandings
about themselves and others.
Interpersonal perception is largely an internal
process; people cognitively process socially constructed
roles and meanings. Interpersonal perception is a process
of individual meaning-making with its content, steps, and
outcomes varying within different individuals and contexts.
Human behavior is an outcome of how people see themselves
and their experiences. Although this may be seen as
obvious, the failure of people to understand it is
responsible for much human misunderstanding, conflict, and
even loneliness (Combs, Avila, & Purkey, 1978).
How students perceive, organize, and interpret their
classroom experiences with their teachers and the social
world in which they live is an integral part of the
learning process (Brookover, Thomas, & Patterson, 1964;
Andrade, 1995). Studying how experiences involving oneself
and others seem to a student through the "eyes" of that
student, and the intersubjective perspective of the
student's own experience, will help researchers and
educators to better understand the process of interpersonal
perception (Combs, Avila, & Purkey, 1978).
Through daily classroom interactions and school
experiences, as well as interactions with oneself, students
develop a conception of personal existence; next to the
home, schools probably have the single greatest influence
on how students perceive themselves and their abilities
(Purkey & Novak, 1996).
How adults--and children--perceive themselves and how
they think others perceive them may influence the views
they construct about themselves and, as a consequence,
their social interactions with others (Hansford, 1988).
The way people construct reality is fundamental to the way
they perceive themselves. What people think of each other
is a strong influence in virtually every area of their
lives (Mead, 1934). People often act in response to what
they believe is other people's attitude toward them and
often fall into the role they feel others assign to them.
Each person looks at an interpersonal relationship in two
ways: (a) how he/she perceives the relationship and (b) how
he/she thinks the other person sees the relationship.
This study adopted and adapted a symbolic
interactionist perspective. In this perspective, the
student is viewed not only as a knower of the social world
but also as an actor in it (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934).
Accordingly, in this study the student is viewed as not
only the perceiver of social reality but also as a co-
constructor of it. The student is seen as someone who not
only interprets and transforms social experiences but one
who is also transformed by them. Meaning is constructed
and negotiated in the interactions among the members. The
classroom setting is viewed as a culture in which members
construct common knowledge about ways of acting and
interacting with each other, about the social and material
artifacts of their experiences, and about the world around
Statement of the Problem
Research about students' perspectives is a relatively
recent phenomenon and has provided researchers and
educators with valuable information about the importance of
students' perceptions for their development of self,
learning, and overall achievement (Wittrock, 1986).
Students' perceptions have been viewed as mediators of
student learning (Purkey, 1981, 1991; Purkey & Novak, 1996;
Winne & Marx, 1980). Studies have shown that teaching can
be better understood and improved by knowing its effects
upon the learner's thoughts that mediate achievement
Although investigations into the opinions and
perceptions of teachers hold a predominant place in
educational research (Cohen & Manion, 1981), how students
perceive their teacher's perceptions about them has tended
to be ignored. Much research evidence exists on what
students think about school (Woods, 1979), learning
(Weinstein, 1983), schoolwork (Woods, 1976b), teachers
(Prentiss, 1995), student teachers (Cortis & Grayson, 1976;
Prentiss, 1995), and others (Livesley & Bromley, 1973). On
the other hand, research evidence is missing on what may be
a vital factor in student learning--academic and social--
and teaching. Research is missing on students' "meta-
perceptions": on what children think their teacher thinks
of them as a student in the social setting of the
How students generate and construct meaning from
their experiences with the teacher in the social setting of
the classroom may mediate the development of students'
self-perceptions, identity, present and future classroom
interactions with the teacher, and students' learning and
success in school. These interpretations, referred to as
"meta-perceptions" (Kenny, 1994) or "reflected appraisals"
(Blumer, 1969) may function as a filter through which any
information about oneself, one's abilities, and learning is
processed. Such a filter may mediate students' personal,
interpersonal, academic, and social development.
If students entered the classroom as tabula rasas,
there would not be a need to invest time and energy
examining how they perceive their experiences with the
teacher in the classroom. However, students enter school
with well-defined perceptions of self, others, and school
life (Stipek & Hoffman, 1980b). In their daily
interactions with their teachers they define and redefine,
shape and reshape, reject old and construct new ideas about
oneself, others, and learning.
Everything the teacher does as well as the manner in
which he does it invites the child to respond in some
way or another and each response tends to set the
child's attitude in some way or another. (Dewey, 1933,
Students use their perceptions and interpretations in
an unrelenting struggle to make sense of their world. These
perceptions influence their interpretations of and reaction
to classroom experiences. As long as students and teachers
have sufficient knowledge of each other's perceptions,
communication and interpersonal relationships take place
smoothly. However, an incongruity in perceived
perspectives may interfere with a student's personal
growth, classroom interactions, participation in classroom
activities, and overall learning. Incongruity between
teachers' and students' meanings is of immense importance
to the educational process (Sainsbury, 1992).
The problem this study addresses is the lack of
information about how students make sense out of their
classroom interactions with their teachers. Academic,
social, and interpersonal learning is not created in
isolation but through relationships, and students'
interpretations of what their teacher thinks of them could
affect their communication and interactions with the
teacher and their overall success in school. As a society,
we want our children to develop personally,
interpersonally, socially, and academically so they can
function as successful citizens. Of the 52 million children
enrolled in U.S. primary and secondary schools, millions
are at risk for failing to reach their educational
potential (Schneider, 1995). Not only does the U. S.
educational system fail to reach large numbers of American
children, but it fails to meet the needs of our nation (A
Nation at Risk, 1983). In order for children to grow and
learn successfully, they need to have enough information on
what their significant others think of them in various
If researchers and educators are to help all students
succeed, both academically and socially, in school, they
need to realize that it is necessary to understand
students' perceptual worlds and perspectives. Many times
the problems adults have with children stem from failing to
check children's perceptions (Karns, 1994). Students'
perspectives should not be disregarded: they supply the
bedrock for meaning, building of self, behavior, and
learning (Purkey, 1996; Taylor, 1993). Dewey (1938)
recommended that researchers and educators need to know
more about how students experience education and how they
reflect on that experience.
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this study was to identify how students
perceived themselves and how they perceived their teacher's
perceptions about them. This study used a symbolic
interactionist perspective that views the development of
self through daily emic, or intersubjective, social
interactions with significant others in our world. The
following research questions were examined:
1. In what manner do fourth-grade students perceive
themselves? What is the content of their self-
2. In what manner do fourth-grade students perceive
their teacher's perceptions about them? What is
the content of their interpretations?
3. What kind of information do fourth-grade
students use to form interpretations of their
teacher's perceptions about them in class?
4. What is the role of classroom interactions in
the construction of students' interpretations of
their teacher's perceptions about them in class?
Questions one and two reveal information about the
similarities or differences between students' self-
perceptions and their interpretations of the teacher's
perceptions about them. The third question provides
information about what elements students select from daily
classroom interactions with the teacher, how they organize
that information, and how they use it. The fourth question
offers insight about the ways students' interpretations
relate to their classroom interactions with the teacher.
Significance of the Study
Unlike much research in interpersonal perception that
focuses on children's self-perceptions, the focus of this
study was on how children perceive themselves and form
interpretations about what their teacher thinks of them in
actual, naturalistic classroom settings. The results of
the study may offer useful information about what elements
of their classroom experiences children select to form such
interpretations that in the long run could affect their
self-perceptions, behavior, and learning. A student's
perceptions of what the teacher might think of him/her will
not necessarily cause the student to misbehave in the
classroom, but they might serve as a reference point or an
anchoring perception, for his/her self-perceptions and
behavior (Marsh, 1986).
Classrooms are extremely complex and dynamic contexts
in which students and teachers construct and co-construct
perceptions about themselves and others. Better
understanding of how students perceive and interpret their
experiences with the teacher in the classroom may prove to
be a significant mediating variable that will help
educators understand a child's behavior--academic,
social--in the classroom.
The present study can yield a number of contributions
to both research and practice in the area of interpersonal
perception. Findings from this study could extend the body
of knowledge in children's interpersonal perceptions and
may support the usefulness of symbolic interactionism in
understanding children's interpersonal perceptions.
For researchers this study might have theoretical
significance in that it will illustrate in detail how nine-
to ten-year-old students perceive their experiences with a
significant other--their classroom teacher--in everyday
interactions. It could help develop a system for
explaining the processes by which children construct
interpretations of their teachers' perceptions by
specifying constructs and possible relationships between
and among those constructs.
The study of social processes in classrooms is
important because: (a) teacher-student relationships are
important mediators of the academic outcomes of schooling
(Hansford, 1988) and (b) the school experience itself may
have significant social outcomes that influence students'
self-perceptions and their interactions with others inside
and outside the school setting (Levine & Wang, 1983).
In addition, this study might show whether students
have a generalized or specific view of how the teacher sees
them and whether this view changes over time (Levine &
Wang, 1983). The results from this study could serve to
highlight variables that can stimulate further research by
researchers who are interested in developing ways that
educators can use to have a positive influence on the
personal, academic, and social development of their
students (Good & Brophy, 1994). Methodologically, this
study might illustrate the usefulness of qualitative
methods in the study of children's perceptions.
Understanding children's perceptions and interpretations of
their experiences with teachers might help us understand
children's responses to teachers and the formation of their
views of interpersonal relationships.
Findings from this study may also be of value to
practitioners. The detailed descriptions of the classroom
settings might increase teachers' awareness of the
importance and capability of students' interpretations of
their classroom experiences with their teachers. It could
also increase teachers' awareness of the need to study
students' views in order to better understand how they
select, organize, interpret, and use their social
experiences with their teachers. Attention to the
students' perceptions could lead to better instruction and
interactions, and even help correct and prevent
misunderstandings between students and their teacher in
Finally, it could help teachers to not underestimate
the immense potential of students to actively participate
in the construction of their own learning experiences.
This study may illustrate the importance of understanding
how experiences are seen from the student's perspective.
The results of this study might help teachers better
understand how their interactions with their students are
being received, interpreted and acted upon (Egan, 1990;
Gordon, 1974). Patterson and Purkey (1993) suggest that
such understanding should be a major goal of teacher
In summary, this study could help improve our
understanding of the significance of interpersonal
relationships between students and teachers in elementary
classrooms. Some teachers claim that a major source of
difficulty in their work is relating to their students, and
that once this has been achieved, the academic issues are
relatively simple (Hall & Hall, 1988). Good interpersonal
relationships are "the major condition for learning"
(Patterson, 1973, p.98).
Definition of Terms
For the purpose of this study, the following terms
need to be defined: perception, interpersonal perception,
self-perception, "meta-perceptions" (or "reflected
appraisals"), and symbolic interactionism.
Perception is a fundamental aspect of interpersonal
relationships (Wilson et al., 1995). Perception gives
meaning and stability in our relationships because it is a
process through which we select, organize, and interpret
what is happening around us (Wilson et al., 1995).
Perception is an active, inductive process involving
attention, selection, organization, and interpretation
(Triandis, 1977). Perception refers not only to the
"seeing" but also to the "meaning" or personal significance
of classroom experiences for the student experiencing them.
A study of these meanings may reveal students, beliefs,
values, desires, and personal ways in which they perceive
themselves and what their teacher thinks of them in the
classroom (Combs, 1978).
Interpersonal perception is the process of perceiving
and evaluating others in a context in which people are
interacting (Kenny, 1994). It involves not only how people
perceive themselves and others in social interactions, but
also how people think others perceive them.
Self- Derceptions are thoughts, beliefs, and feelings
about self, others, and events. In the past, research in
this area was based predominantly on behavioral theories,
environmental stimuli, and reinforcement theory as
influences of behavior (Schunk & Meece, 1992). Current
cognitive theories of learning assume that students are
active rather than passive processors of information and
knowledge and that there is no automatic relation between
information presented and how it is perceived by students
(Schunk & Meece, 1992). Self-perceptions involve
perceptions of one's abilities, goals, efforts, interests,
attitudes, values, and emotions (Schunk & Meece, 1992).
Self-perceptions are a complex, continuously active system
of subjective beliefs about one's personal existence.
Self-perceptions guide one's behavior and choice of roles
in life (Purkey & Novak, 1996).
"Meta-perceptions" (Kenny, 1994)--or "reflected
appraisals,"--according to symbolic interactionists (e.g.,
Blumer, 1969)--are the perceptions of another person's
perception; they refer to people trying to "get into other
people's heads" (Kenny, 1994). In this study, students'
"meta-perceptions" will be examined through symbolic
interactionism (Blumer, 1969; Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934),
which proposes that our very selves are an outcome of
material components, our perceptions of how others view us,
and inner psychological mechanisms (Shrauger & Schoeneman,
1979). According to this perspective, the self is a social
product of a person's interactions with others. The self
is a function of a person's manipulation of the social
environment and a function of the way in which a person is
treated by others (Mead, 1934).
The premise of this perspective is that people care
about how they are viewed by significant others.
"Significant others" are people such as, parents, teachers,
coaches, and peers who are close to a person and whose
views and actions matter to him/her (Mead, 1934). Although
there are expected variations in the vigor of people's
desire to know what others think about them, symbolic
interactionists assume that meta-perceptions are usually
accurate (Kinch, 1963). Kinch (1963) suggested that a
symbolic interactionist self-theory involves the
interaction of four components: (a) one's self-concept; (b)
one's perceptions of others' attitudes and responses toward
the individual; (c) the actual attitudes and responses of
others toward the individual; and (d) one's actual
This study is not concerned with degree of accuracy in
children's "meta-perceptions"/Oreflected appraisals," but
rather with how children form "meta-perceptions" from and
in their daily classroom interactions with one of their
significant others--their teacher.
Symbolic interactionism supporters (e.g., Mead,
1934) would suggest that people's perceptions of
experiences depend on the meaning they assign to them.
Meaning is a product of social interaction. In order to
understand someone's reality, it is necessary to understand
the symbol system he/she uses and the meaning those symbols
have for the him or her. Reality in the classroom could be
seen as having three aspects: (a) the outside world (e.g.,
society); (b) the inner world (e.g., teachers' and
students' inner world); and (c) a shared symbolic world of
beliefs, experiences, and meanings constructed and
sustained through social interactions.
In order to understand the symbolic world of the
classroom, we should consider that teachers' and students'
actions are based on the meaning they assign to classroom
life. Meaning is fundamentally intersubjective; therefore,
in order for researchers to understand how students
perceive themselves and the teachers' perceptions of them
in class, their construction of meaning and their
perspectives need to be examined.
Design of the Study
Having received approval from the University of
Florida Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects, the
researcher established a monthly observation schedule with
the two fourth-grade teachers who had previously agreed to
have the study take place in their classrooms.
Observations began in September, 1996 and continued in the
classroom until the December vacation. Interviews were
completed in January, 1997. The researcher observed 190
hours of classroom activity in the two fourth-grade
classrooms. Observations were centered on how children
interacted with the teacher in their classroom, how they
behaved in and responded to classroom events, and comments
they made about themselves, the teacher, and classroom
events. All children in the participating classrooms wrote
free responses four times per month about their self-
perceptions and how they thought their teacher perceived
them in class.
Three formal interviews with 21 children (13 from one
classroom and eight from the other) and three formal and
several informal interviews with the two teachers were
conducted during the term of the study. Interviews with
students were used to further investigate the process of
meta-perception: how students perceived their teacher's
perceptions about them in class. Interviews with the two
teachers were used to investigate how they provided
information to their students about what they thought of
them in class. In addition, students' school records were
Data were analyzed for content and were organized into
domains (Spradley, 1980). Using data from across domains
helped to formulate taxonomies to represent patterns,
similarities, and differences in students' self-perceptions
REVIEW OF RELATED LITERATURE
Putting together a literature review about students'
self-perceptions and "meta-perceptions" is a continuing
challenge, for few researchers have focused on this
phenomenon, particularly as it evolves in classroom
settings. The following literature review offers necessary
background for the research questions raised in this study.
The review focuses on studies of students' perceptions in
the classroom, students' voices in the classroom, and
Why do people behave in different ways? Combs (1962)
explains human behavior as a product of how people see
themselves, the situations they are involved in, and the
meaning or personal significance that situation has for the
person experiencing it. Meanings extend far beyond the
sensory experience and include such perceptions as beliefs,
desires, feelings, values, interests, and the personal ways
in which people "see" themselves and others around them
(Combs, 1962). Following this perceptual perspective,
Purkey (1981) explains that:
Each person is a conscious agent who considers,
constructs, interprets, and then acts. .. All
behavior is a function of the individual's perceived
world. .. A person's behavior makes sense from the
"internal' view of the experiencing person. (p.17)
To understand human behavior one must make sense of
how things appear from the unique point of the individual
at the moment of behaving (Purkey, 1996). Perceptions are
important in understanding human behavior as they refer to
the distinctions people are able to make in their personal
experiences (Purkey, 1996). Perceptions change over time.
Through daily encounters with others, and especially with
significant others, people construct certain essential
perceptions that serve as guiding filters for making sense
of the world. Purkey (1996) views perceptions as:
reference points for behavior. They influence the
memories people use to understand the past and plan
the future. They also affect the possibilities that
people can imagine and the goals they are willing to
work for. (p.23)
Students' Perceptions in the Classroom
Researchers recently have investigated student
perceptions to determine their relation to teaching and
student behaviors (Brophy & Good, 1986), but historically
student perceptions have received little research
attention. Lately, researchers and educators have been
making systematic efforts to understand students' role in
research. The problems associated with inviting students
to play a more focal role are authenticity, legitimacy, and
and authority (Denzin & Lincoln, 1993) and the ethical
relationships between researchers and their participants
The third edition of the Handbook of Research in
Teaching (Wittrock, 1986) contains a chapter on students'
thought processes, a new addition to this volume of
educational research. Research shows that student
perceptions can mediate the relationship of teacher
behaviors to student achievement. This chapter includes
many studies on students' thought processes that emphasize
the need for understanding how students learn how to learn
and how they can be taught to improve their thought
processes to facilitate knowledge acquisition, learning,
The relevance of these studies to this topic lies in
Wittrock's (1986) proposition that "the learner's
perception of the teaching is the functional instruction
that influences student learning and achievement" (p.298).
For the purposes of this literature review, the following
studies were be examined: studies on children's academic
self-perceptions and expectations; self-perceptions of
ability and achievement; perceptions of schools, teachers,
and student teachers; perceptions of school tasks;
perceptions of teachers' communication style; and,
children's perceptions of cognitive processes in the
Numerous researchers (Darakjan, Michael, & Knapp-Lee,
1985; Hansford & Hattie, 1982; Harter, 1983; Hattie, 1992)
have demonstrated a modest but positive relationship
between children's self-perceptions and academic
achievement. Researchers consistently demonstrate that
there is a relationship between students' self-evaluations
and their level of academic achievement (Byrne, 1984, 1986;
Chapman, 1988; Harper & Purkey, 1993; Hoge & Renzulli,
From the early elementary school years, children
perceive their academic performance positively (Stipek,
1981). In the third or fourth-grade, the children's
perceived school performance begins to correlate positively
with their teacher's evaluations of their ability
(Nicholls, 1979). The feedback teachers offer to students
about their academic performance seems to be related to
students' self-perceptions of ability. Wittrock (1986)
suggests that children are not only capable of perceiving
feedback from the teacher about their academic performance,
but their perceptions of teacher feedback seem to influence
their expectations about their future school performances.
Livesley and Bromley (1973) focused on describing, by
means of free descriptions and content analysis, elementary
and adolescent children's perceptions of others. Three
hundred and twenty children (ages 7 to 15) were asked to
write free descriptions about eight people known to them--a
man; a woman; a boy and a girl they liked; and a man, a
woman, a boy and a girl they disliked. The changes in
content were greatest between the ages of 7 and 8 years.
Children under the age of 7 or 8 years described people in
terms of external, readily observable attributes (e.g.,
appearance, life history, and physical condition).
Between the ages of 8 and 12 years there was a rapid
growth in psychological vocabulary (e.g., mutual
interactions, social roles, evaluations, and specific
behavioral inconsistencies). Children's descriptions of
liked persons were less factual than those of disliked
people; more explanatory statements were made about
disliked people possibly because the children were trying
to justify their feelings (Livesley & Bromley, 1973).
This landmark study of children's perceptions of
others provided evidence of the developmental changes in
the way younger and older children perceive and "explain"
behavior. Even young children can explain simple forms of
behavior; it is not until the age of 9 or 10 years that
children are able to use motivational concepts to explain
their perceptions of others' behavior (Livesley & Bromley,
Another group of researchers (Brattesani, Weinstein, &
Marshall, 1984; Marshall & Weinstein, 1986; Weinstein,
Marshall, Brattesani & Middlestad, 1982; Weinstein,
Marshall, Sharp, & Botkin, 1987; Weinstein & Middlestadt,
1979) have been interested in how students perceive and
interpret teachers' behaviors toward different students in
the classroom. In Weinstein and her colleaques' empirical
work, children report that compared to high achievers, low
achievers receive more negative feedback and teacher
directness, and more messages related to a work and
classroom rule orientation.
Children perceived high achievers as receiving more
attention by the teacher, more opportunities and choice of
activities in the classroom, and higher expectations from
the teachers. One of the most impressive findings of these
studies is that even children in the early elementary
grades believe that teachers treat high and low achievers
differently (Weinstein et al., 1987). Weinstein &
Middlestadt (1979) found that there are differences among
younger (Grade 1-3) and older (Grade 4-6) students,
perceptions of teachers' differential treatment. Younger
students thought that teachers criticized high achievers
more, and older students thought teachers criticized low
The early development and socialization of children's
achievement perceptions have been studied by a number of
researchers (Eccles, Wigfield, Harold, & Blumenfeld, 1991;
Harold et al., 1989; Wigfield et al., 1990). Results from
a three-year cross-sectional study (Grades K, 1, and 3)
show that the relations between students' beliefs and
teachers' beliefs are stronger in the mathematics, reading,
and sports domains (especially at Grade 2 and Grade 4) than
in the social and music domains (Wingfield & Harold, 1992).
In Grade 4 children's beliefs in mathematics and
reading came closer to the teachers' beliefs in those areas
than in the other two grades. This finding verifies
Nicholls' (1979) findings that children's perceptions of
their reading attainment become increasingly highly
correlated with their school grades as they get older.
Wingfield & Harold (1992) suggest the above finding could
be attributed to the fact that teachers at Grade 3 or Grade
4 provide relatively consistent and realistic messages to
children about their performances and children may
incorporate them into their self-perceptions. Another
reason could be that teachers' beliefs have a stronger
impact at this grade level because of children's' shifting
beliefs about ability.
Nicholls (1979, 1984) suggested that children around
the age of ten start to view ability as being more stable
rather than modifiable. The combination of changes in the
nature of children's perceptions of ability, the stronger
relations between children's ability perceptions and actual
performance, and the increased focus on competitive
performance in school may make it likely for children to
internalize the teachers' perceptions and expectations of
them in the middle to upper elementary school years
(Wingfield & Harold, 1992).
Although there is evidence that suggests that
students' self-perceptions are influenced by teachers'
perceptions of them, the studies reported here are
correlational in nature, so causality cannot be implied.
What is needed is research on how students' interpret their
teachers' perceptions about them in daily classroom
interactions. Such research may reveal more information
about how students apply their understanding to a
situation or experience, which in turn may explain the way
they think their teacher thinks of them.
Sainsbury (1992) states that the individual's
perspective constitutes the fundamental prerequisites for
communication. She asserts that it is the responsibility
of the teacher to provide a learning environment in which
misunderstandings are minimized. According to Sainsbury
(1992), if the goal of education is "understanding on the
part of the students, it must be education by means of
meeting of perspectives." (p.114)
Darley and Fazio (1980) discussed how individuals
actively construct and interpret each other's behavior
based on their ongoing social interactions and on
information they might have about each other. They suggest
that individuals make personal or situational inferences to
interpret each other's behavior. If, for example, a
student accepts the teacher's beliefs about him/her, that
student might adjust his/her behavior to reflect the
teacher's beliefs. An interesting question here is "At
what point do children begin to make reasons for theirs and
their teachers' behavior?"
Wingfield and Harold's work (1992) and Weinstein's and
her colleaques' work (Weinstein 1985, 1989) suggest that
"relations between teacher beliefs and student self-
perceptions exist quite early on in elementary school, but
to date we know less about how students actually interpret
the messages they receive from teachers" (Wingfield &
Harold, 1992, p.114). A clearer understanding of the
participants in classroom research can eventually help
those participants to understand each other more fully
How students perceive their assigned school tasks
influences their motivation to learn and their perceptions
of themselves as learners (Ames, 1992). Marshall (1994),
in her study on children's understanding of academic tasks,
argues that a methodology that unfolds children's
understanding of classroom events (e.g., observations,
interviews) may provide researchers with a new perspective
of how students learn. Such a perspective might help
teachers reflect on their classroom practices (Marshall,
1992). Marshall (1994) calls for more studies of how
children understand their classroom world, more in-depth
studies with a greater number of students, in order to
document in detail potential changes in children's
understanding over time and contexts.
During the past two decades, researchers have paid
increasing attention to students' perceptions of schooling
as a means of evaluating educational efforts and programs
(Klein, Kantor, & Fernie, 1988; Levine & Wang, 1983;
Weinstein, 1983; Wittrock, 1986). Duke (1977) postulated
that students' perceptions of what happens to and around
them in school provide helpful information to researchers
Lisa Wing (1995) used qualitative methods of
participant observation and in-depth interviews to explore
kindergarten, first and second-grade students' perceptions
of classroom activities such as work and play. Data
indicated that young children negotiate meaning from the
events, situations, and interactions in their classrooms,
and in doing so they form a framework around which they
understand what they do in school.
Wing (1995) observed children in their actual
classrooms for a year and conducted in-depth interviews
with 14 children from each classroom. Constant comparative
method and taxonomic analysis revealed information about
relationships among patterns in children's perceptions of
work and play. This study showed that children considered
activities to be work or play if the activities were
obligatory or not. Work involved any activities that were
designed or directed by teachers. Work also involved any
activities about which teachers had certain expectations of
the outcomes of the children's efforts. Any activity that
required no specific product as an outcome or that the
teacher was not directly involved in was considered to be
play. Any activity that could be abandoned at will was
characterized as play, but the need to finish an activity
was perceived as work.
Older children characterized activities "in between"
working and playing (Wing, 1995). Children's perceptions
were not entirely consistent with those of the researchers
and teachers. Play was not work. Children were able to
pick up subtle messages from the classroom teacher and
context in constructing their views of work and play.
"Work is what you want, play is what I want." (Wing, 1995,
Bruno (1995) examined at-risk high school students'
perceptions of school. He found that the students who
participated in his study did not perceive themselves as
being connected to school or society, and that they
perceived their time in school as "doing time" in the
classroom. The findings in his study indicated that at-
risk students preferred nondirected, time-consuming
activities (i.e., hanging out, video games, watching TV,
etc.). An interesting finding in this study is that the
at-risk students showed a lack of recognition and
connectedness between past, present, and future events in
their lives. Students' perceptions of school (i.e., "doing
time") affected not only their attitudes toward school, but
carried implications for their success in school, learning,
Levy, Wubbels, and Brekelmans (1992) examined the
relationship between characteristics of students and
teachers and their perceptions of teacher communication
style. There was a wide discrepancy between students' and
teachers' perceptions of teacher communication style. In
addition, there was a wide discrepancy between both
students' and teachers' view of reality and teachers'
ideals. Although this study is not directly related to
students' self-perceptions and meta-perceptions, its
findings carry implications about discrepancies between
teacher and student perceptions. These findings stress the
need for studying students' perspectives and including them
as part of teachers' reflective practice.
The studies reviewed in this section have contributed
to our knowledge of the role of students' perceptions in
the classroom. Despite these valuable contributions, and
their view of students' perceptions mediating students'
achievement, there remain questions about the ways in which
students define and assign meaning to their classroom
experiences and their definitions of self and others.
Students' "Voices" in the Classroom
Studies about students' construction of meaning in the
classroom are reviewed in the following section. Evidence
will be presented about students' understanding of gender,
schooling, reading and writing, language and literacy, and
Sociolinguists (Cook-Gumperz 1986; Green & Allexsaht-
Snider, 1990; Green & Bloome, 1983; Green, Kantor, &
Rogers, 1991; Green & Wallat, 1981a; Green & Weade, 1987,
1990; Weade & Green, 1986) have described the complexities
of language and culture in the classroom and have shown
that little is known about how the child as listener
interprets the language of the classroom culture, how
personhood and identity are constructed within and across
particular cultural groups.
Kantor, Davies, Fernie, & Murray (1994) investigated,
both in America and Australia, how children understand what
it means to be gendered, as they also try to fit in the
cultural role of student and peer in preschool classrooms.
Using multiple ethnographic methods (i.e., field notes,
video recordings, and interviews) they found that children
were capable of negotiating their memberships as students,
peers, and gendered persons within their classroom
Children became gendered students and peers through
interpreting the "fine print" of daily discourse and
interaction and by the positions made available and taken
up by both adults and children. They were collaborative
and constructive in creating their social worlds (Kantor,
et al., 1994).
The ethnographic approach--adopted and adapted by all
of the above researchers--to the study of students'
perspectives reveal that knowledge in schools is personally
and socially constructed and that learning is fundamentally
a matter of inquiry and interpretation rather than
memorization of facts (Yeager, Floriani, & Green, 1995).
The above studies share a common interest in
understanding students' emic, or insider, views of
schooling and understandings of their worlds (Andrade &
Moll, 1993) and recognize that children's interpretations
of their experiences are valid in and of themselves
(Andrade, 1995). Andrade (1995), in her study of life in
elementary schools, recommends the use of participant
observation and dialogue journals for researchers who wish
to learn from people (Spradley, 1980). She advocates that
children are active agents in the creation of their social
world and states that
we cannot understand adult-child relationships within
the home, school, and community without understanding
the children's community (Andrade, 1995, p.176).
Dahl (1995) observed, listened to, and analyzed inner-
city children's reading and writing in kindergarten and
first grade classrooms in her efforts to understand young
children's early reading and writing experiences in school.
The results of her studies (Dahl, 1993; Dahl & Freppon,
1994; Dahl, Purcell-Gates, & McIntyre, 1989; Purcell-Gates
& Dahl, 1991) show that children connect what they
experience in school with who they think they are: i.e.,
their efforts, knowledge, and things they are interested
in. Her work suggests that researchers and educators
become attentive to what children value as learners and
carefully consider their perspectives "if we are to
genuinely support their learning." (Dahl, 1995).
The Santa Barbara Discourse Group (1992) studied how
students and teachers construct their social worlds in the
classroom. They argue that there is a need for unique
research methodologies that are developed specifically to
address the nature of students' learning processes in the
classroom process. Although their work has focused in the
use of language, literacy, social construction of student
and teacher roles and identity, their efforts to explore
students' "voices" have stimulated research in students'
perspectives of classroom life. The definitions of self
and others that students and teachers construct are
reflected in the process and content of their interactions,
the access to classroom resources, and the goals of the
participants within the interactions (Green, Kantor, &
Rogers, 1990; Collins & Green, 1990).
Denny Taylor (1993) advocates that in order to
construct effective evaluation programs for students and
schools, more research needs to be done to understand
To evaluate, we need to build descriptions of children
as they participate in the social construction of
their own environments. The ways in which we develop
our explanations should be analytic and well trained
(Taylor, 1993, p.171).
Taylor (1993) examined a number of elementary school
age children's points of view through participant
observations, children's written stories and analysis of
literature, children's journals, and interviews. She
viewed a child's point of view as a source of knowledge for
key educational decision-making. Her rich observations and
ethnographic portraits of the learners' world provide
support for her argument that designing appropriate
curriculum, instruction, and assessment requires that we
understand the complex ways children construct their own
literacy and learning environments in their everyday
Taylor (1993) stresses the need to view students as
informants and to intimately know the environments in which
their knowledge is constructed. She calls for inviting
students' perspectives to shape our evaluations of their
performance and education in general and highlights the
point that when examining students' perceptions,
researchers should be concerned not only with how closely
students come to their teacher's actual perceptions of
them, but should be more concerned with how they construct
their perceptions and how they formulate meaningful
Lytle and Cochran-Smith (1992) state that it is the
teachers' expertise that creates significant ways of
knowing the particular complexities of their students'
everyday classroom experiences, the ways students
participate in problem solving situations, and how their
students' learning can be supported in school. Through
their social interactions, teachers and students construct
classroom life and opportunities for academic and
interpersonal learning (Bloome & Greene, 1984; Cochran-
Students and teachers negotiate what counts as
knowledge--subject, interpersonal, social--in the classroom
and how knowledge is generated, challenged, and evaluated
(Cochran-Smith, 1993). If researchers and educators are to
better understand how students' ideas about self, others,
and learning are constructed in school, they need to be
examining students' learning and their social world from
within and across the student's individual and shared
perspectives (Lytle & Cochran-Smith, 1992; Taylor, 1991,
An interesting question arises as a result of the
above perspective and findings: "How is a researcher
supposed to intimately know the perspective and world of a
learner unless that researcher observes, participates in,
and asks the learner to express--verbally or in written
form--his/her view of the everyday classroom world?"
Taylor (1991) states that "If we really want to know about
the children in our classrooms, ethnographic observations
in classrooms can tell us more than any test." (p.18)
Sociolinguistic research has helped make visible the
ways that communities of learners socially construct
understandings. The above research has shown that learning
from students' voices is not just a matter of handing a
student a survey and asking him/her to fill it in.
Learning from our student voices--in the fullest
sense-- requires major shifts on the part of teachers,
students, and researchers in the ways of thinking and
feeling about the issues of knowledge, language, and
power (Oldfather, 1995, p.87).
The studies reviewed in this section have contributed
to our knowledge of children's construction of meaning and
knowledge and have directed and stimulated much needed
naturalistic research on students' perspectives. Despite
their valuable contributions, there remain some gaps in our
understanding of how students assign meaning and interpret
their daily classroom experiences with their teachers.
A final group of recent --and some not so recent--
studies are reviewed in this section to address the issue
of students' interpretations of their teachers' perceptions
of them. Evidence is presented about studies of students'
perceptions of teachers' feelings about them, students'
perceptions of teachers' evaluations and teachers' actual
evaluations, and students' self-concept of ability and
perceived evaluations of others.
What do others think of us? How do we know? When
people form an opinion about what others think of them, are
they likely to be right? How do their interpretations of
others' perceptions relate to their own self-perceptions?
The question of whether people know how others view them
has been of importance in clinical psychology, personality
psychology, social psychology, and sociology (Kenny, 1994).
In sociology, the symbolic interactionist approach
(Cooley 1902; Mead, 1934) proposes that our very selves are
an outcome of our perceptions of how others view us.
Cooley (1902) introduced the term "looking-glass self" to
describe the process by which a person looks into the eyes
and minds of significant others and imagines how they view
Symbolic interactionists assume that "meta-
perceptions"-- or "reflected appraisals"--are usually
accurate (Kenny, 1994). Evidence from clinical psychology
shows that depressed individuals are "right on target" with
their insistence that others do not like them (Lewinsohn et
al., 1980). Pozo, Carver, Wellens, & Scheier, (1991) have
shown that socially anxious people think that others take
an especially dim view of them.
When examining meta-perceptions, it is important to
consider that what others think of us is not always
available or clear. In sharing our views of others with
others, sometimes people are reluctant to convey bad news
(Swann, Stein-Seroussi & McNulty, 1992) or good news
(Felson, 1980). Moreover, some people may wish to see in
others what makes them feel good about themselves (Swann,
Given the difficulty of monitoring and accurately
assessing others' views of people in social interactions,
people may use other sources of information to form "meta-
perceptions". Felson (1981, 1992) has suggested that
people may observe their own behavior, form their own
judgments about their own behavior, and assume that others
would judge that behavior as they do.
Kenny and DePaulo's study (1990) showed that there was
a strong positive correlation between how subjects viewed
themselves and how they thought others saw them. This
implies that people's perceptions of how others perceive
them are based primarily on their self-perceptions. This
is opposite of what the symbolic interactionists suggest.
They postulate that self-perceptions are products of the
beliefs about how the self is viewed by significant others;
self-perceptions are the reflection of what one "sees" in
other people's eyes.
The above studies suggest that people form
interpretations about others' views about them by depending
very little on feedback from others. Instead, they
directly observe their behavior and infer from it what
others might be thinking of them. According to Kenny
(1995), "symbolic interactionists have the direction of
causality exactly wrong, at least for adults." (p.176)
What are the implications of the above studies for
children and their meta-perception process? How about the
role of significant others and their views of children on
children's development of self? To take it a step farther,
how are self-perceptions developed? Are they developed in
isolation? Should researchers be more concerned with
accuracy rather than identifying the ways in which children
view others' perceptions of them and the implications of
their meta-perceptions for their personal, interpersonal,
academic, and social development?
The results of the preceding studies are not
generalizable to elementary school settings, for the
subjects in the reported studies were college
undergraduates. Work with other populations in a variety
of contexts may help researchers to learn if people know
what kinds of perceptions others form of them. Children
rely on parents, teachers, and others for feedback and
direction. How children interpret their significant
others' perceptions of them may help us improve student
learning and help students create positive identities.
Davidson and Lang (1960) examined the relationship
between fourth-grade through sixth-grade students'
perceptions of their teachers' feelings toward them and
students' self-perception, academic achievement, and
classroom behavior. A significant positive relationship
(r=.82) between children's perceptions of their teachers'
feelings towards them and their self-perceptions was
reported. Phillips (1963) reported a close correspondence
between third-through sixth-grade students' perceptions of
their teachers' evaluations about them and the students'
self-evaluations (there was no correspondence for third
grade students and r=.57 for sixth grade students).
Brookover, Thomas, and Patterson (1964) showed that
students' self-concept of ability was significantly and
positively related with students' perceived evaluations of
their teachers perceptions about them.
On the other hand, another set of studies (Miyamoto &
Dornbush, 1956; Orpen & Bush, 1974; Quarantelli & Cooper,
1966; Sherwood, 1965; Walhood & Klopfer, 1971) suggest that
there is a minimum association between one's self-
perceptions and perceptions of others' evaluations because
people do not perceive others' perceptions accurately.
Calsyn and Kenny (1973) examined the relationship between
self-concept of ability and perceived evaluations of
others. They reported that there is no evidence that
perceived evaluations of others are causally predominant
over self-concept of ability. Instead, the actual
evaluations made by teachers are causally predominant over
perceived evaluations of others, self-concept of ability,
educational plans, and aspirations.
Although the studies reviewed in this chapter provide
evidence about the role of students' interpretations of
their teachers' perceptions about them for students' self-
perceptions, there are a number of questions that still
remain unanswered. How do students construct their
interpretations of the teacher's perceptions about them?
What elements from their daily classroom interactions do
they select and how do they organize them to form an
interpretation? Do their interpretations affect their
classroom interactions with the teacher? If yes, how do
students' interpretations relate to their interactions with
the teacher in the social setting of the classroom?
The present study attempts to answer some of the above
questions by examining how fourth-grade students perceive
themselves and interpret their teachers' perceptions about
them in the class.
If one wishes to understand the term holy water,
one should not study the properties of water,
but rather the assumptions and beliefs of the
people who use it. That is, water derives its
meaning from those who attribute a special
essence to it.
Thomas S. Szasz, Ceremonial Chemistry (in
Krawthwohl, 1993, p. 311)
The word qualitative implies an emphasis on processes
and meanings that are not strictly examined or measured (if
measured at all) in terms of quantity, frequency, or
intensity. Qualitative research involves an interpretive,
naturalistic approach to understanding phenomena,
experiences, and meanings in individuals' lives (Denzin &
Lincoln, 1994; LeCompte, Millroy, & Preissle, 1992).
Qualitative researchers study things in their natural
settings, attempting to interpret phenomena in terms of the
meanings people bring to them. They pursue answers to
questions that emphasize how people's social experiences
are created and assigned meaning. This is in contrast to
quantitative research which stresses the measurement and
analysis of causal relationships between variables, not
processes (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994).
Guba (1990) argues that reality can never be
adequately understood or captured, only approximated
through multiple methods and well-developed evaluation
criteria. This kind of research is naturalistic,
observational, descriptive, open-ended, and in-depth
research. Why do such research to investigate students'
self-perceptions and interpretations of their teachers'
perceptions about them in the social setting of the
classroom? Such research will enable the researcher to
examine the inner experiences, perspectives, perceptions,
and interpretations of fourth-grade children, from the
point of view of the children, in their actual social
In this study the researcher adopted and adapted a
symbolic interactionist perspective grounded in Blumer's
(1969) symbolic interactionism theory. Mead's work (1934)
was made popular by Blumer, who first constructed the term
"symbolic interactionism" in 1937. Blumer (1969) stated
three main principles: (a) people act toward things on the
basis of the meanings that those things have for them, (b)
the attribution of meaning to objects through symbols
(i.e., signs, language, gestures, or anything that conveys
meaning) is a continuous process, and (c) meaning is
of human lived experience, and posits that lived experience
is rooted in people's shared, intersubjective meanings,
interpretations, actions, and interactions (Blumer, 1969;
Mead, 1934; Prus, 1996).
Central to this approach is the notion that human life
is community life; it is intersubjective life in essence,
and it cannot be understood apart from the community or
context in which people live and operate on a daily basis
(Prus, 1996). People's intersubjective realities are
constructed in social interactions through the individuals'
actions, perceptions, interpretations, and symbolic
meanings. People become reflective through interaction
with others and by taking the viewpoint of others with
respect to oneself (Prus, 1996).
Following Janesick's (1994) criteria for qualitative
design, this study was qualitative in the following ways:
(1) It was holistic: it looked at the larger picture
(children's personal and interpersonal development in
school) and started with a search for understanding of the
whole (child-school). (2) It looked at relationships within
the social setting of the classroom (e.g., students' self-
perceptions and their interpretations of teacher's
perceptions about them). (3) It focused on the personal,
face-to-face experiences (i.e., children's personal
interpretations of their daily classroom interactions with
the teacher). (4) It focused on understanding (rather than
predicting about) the social setting of two fourth-grade
classrooms. (5) It demanded the study of settings and their
participants over time. (6) It required equal amounts of
time and effort spent in the field and on analyzing the
data. (7) It required the researcher to become the research
instrument by observing and interviewing the participants.
(8) It incorporated ethical principles and informed consent
decisions. (9) It required ongoing analyses of the data.
(10) It required the researcher to acknowledge her role,
personal biases, and ideological preferences.
The primary focus of this study was to learn from
fourth-grade students how they perceive themselves and how
they interpret their teacher's perceptions about them in
class. In order to learn from them, the researcher
observed what they did (cultural behavior), listened to
what they said (cultural knowledge), collected their
written free responses (cultural artifacts), and went
beyond all these to discover what meaning they assigned to
their classroom experiences with the teacher (Spradley,
Description of Site
The study was conducted in two fourth-grade elementary
classrooms in a fairly large city in Florida. The school
was established in 1934 and was located in a working class
area. The 334 member student body was 69% Caucasian, 21%
African-American, 7% Hispanic, and 3% other. The school
population represented families from the lower to the upper
In the school there were two classrooms each for
grades three through five, five for primary grades (first
grade and second grade combined), two for kindergarten, and
one pre-kindergarten classroom. Aside from self-contained
classroom teachers, there were also an art teacher, a music
teacher, a counselor, a curriculum specialist, a gifted and
academic resource teacher, a science teacher, a physical
education teacher, and a speech therapist. In addition to
classrooms, the physical facilities included a gymnasium;
an auditorium; a library; an art, music, and science room;
and a lunchroom/cafeteria.
Selection of Site
This study was conducted in two fourth-grade
classrooms. The selection of the classrooms was guided by
several criteria that reflected this project's objectives.
The criteria for classroom selection were as follows: (a)
two fourth-grade classrooms were chosen for purposes of
comparison. Also, children at the fourth-grade level can
handle abstract information more easily than at earlier
ages (Flavell, et. al, 1968; Piaget, 1970), are able to
take the perspective of the other (Damon, 1977, 1981;
Selman, 1980), have well-developed vocabulary, can go
beyond the information given (Damon, 1977, 1981; Selman,
1980), and the teacher is still an important socialization
agent in their lives (Higgins & Parsons, 1983). (b)
Classrooms in which students would have opportunities to
interact with the teacher in a number of ways throughout
the school day. (c) Teachers who would be comfortable
having a researcher in their classroom for an extensive
amount of time. No preexisting relationship or
acquaintance existed between the researcher and the two
Entry and Access
Certain ethical research principles were considered in
order to insure the research was conducted in an ethical
manner. These principles involved protection of
participants, especially minors, confidentiality, and
participants' rights and obligations.
The researcher's first step prior to school entry was to
seek approval of the project from the University of Florida
Institutional Review Board. The form along with a copy of
the Teacher Consent Form, Parent Consent Form, and the
Child Assent Script were submitted in June, 1996 to the
Board (see Appendix A). After approval of the project by
the Board, in July 1996, the researcher contacted the
participating school's principal to set an appointment for
an initial meeting.
The meeting took place in August, 1996 at the school.
During the meeting an outline of the project (including a
description, purpose, significance, design, methods,
procedures, and a timeline) were presented to the
principal. In addition to the above, the researcher
explained her reasons for selecting fourth-grade and her
role in the classroom. The principal stated that she would
like both teachers to participate because they work as a
team. The principal was interested in the project and
showed great appreciation for the topic and the proposed
research. The researcher assured the principal that she
and the teachers, as well as the parents of the
participating students, would have access to the study's
The next step involved the completion and submission
of a similar form developed by the participating elementary
school for official approval of the project. The principal
wished to present the project to the two fourth-grade
teachers herself, and she gave the researcher her informal
permission to conduct the study in the school. The
principal contacted the researcher the following day and
informed her that the teachers were interested in the
project and were willing to have the study take place in
their classrooms. The researcher submitted the proposal
and other paperwork to the school's research office and
made arrangements to meet with each teacher individually.
During the meeting with the teachers the researcher
reviewed the project, its purpose, methodology, and
timeline. The researcher established that she would
observe each classroom for 10 hours each week until the
December holiday and that she would need to do interviews
with some of the children and the teachers. In addition,
the idea of free responses was introduced, and the teachers
suggested that the writing be done during the regular
journal writing time. It was agreed that the free
responses would start toward the end of September and would
end before the December holiday. A tentative schedule was
put together by the researcher, and a detailed monthly
schedule was given to both teachers during the first week
of observations. Teacher consent forms were given to the
teachers. In addition, parent consent letters were given
to the teachers, who sent them home the same week, and
observations began the following week. The teachers
provided the researcher with a weekly classroom schedule.
Sixty fourth-grade students and two fourth-grade
teachers were the participants in this study. The main
focus of this study was on the students' self-perceptions
and their interpretations of the teachers' perceptions
about them in class. The teachers were also used as
"informants" because of their classroom interactions with
the students and their knowledge of the classroom dynamics.
According to Spradley, "Informants are a source of
information. [Tihe ethnographer [also] hopes to learn to
use the native language in the way the informants do"
(1979, p.25). The teachers provided information on how
they interacted with students and the means they used to
inform the students about their perceptions of them in
The student body of this school reflects the
population of the state of Florida in terms of racial,
ethnic, and income distribution. All 60 students enrolled
in fourth-grade participated in this study. There were 15
girls and 15 boys in each class. There were 18 children
identified as "gifted" who were distributed across the two
classes (10 from class A--seven girls, and three boys, and
eight from class B--three girls and five boys). One boy
from class B received language, speech, and Title 1
services. One boy from class A and two girls from class B
received services for severe learning disabilities, and
four children--a boy and a girl from each class--received
help with remedial work. The above information was
provided by the school's office and was based on results
from standardized testing, intelligence testing, and
The teachers were two females, each with a Master's
degree in Education and four years of teaching experience.
They worked as a team; they planned and developed their
instructional objectives together, wrote parent letters
together, discussed their ideas together, decided on what
books to order and use for literature or mathematics and
borrowed and shared materials and supplies. They were also
actively involved with conferences, curriculum committees,
Their relationship with the researcher was one of
warmth, openness, and trust. The teachers welcomed the
researcher in their classrooms, invited her to come, stay,
or go as she pleased. They made the researcher feel
welcome from the beginning of the study. Many times they
asked the researcher her opinion about things like
welcome from the beginning of the study. Many times they
asked the researcher her opinion about things like
teaching, education in general, or what she thought about
classroom activities. Occasionally, the teachers allowed
the researcher to assist them by copying materials for them
or helping out with classroom parties and festivities.
A full-time female intern was in each class until
November 15. The interns were not asked to participate in
this study because the focus of the study was on what the
students thought their regular classroom thought of them.
The teachers were in charge of their classrooms, and were
present when the interns were teaching. The teachers made
all curriculum and instructional decisions.
The studied classrooms were adjacent. A small office
separated the two classrooms. This office was used by both
fourth-grade teachers, as well as by the reading specialist
and speech therapist when needed. A telephone, desks, a
computer, and many planning materials were located in that
room. Teachers and academic resource personnel had access
to each fourth-grade classroom through that room. Children
and adults (academic resources personnel, high school and
college student volunteers) frequently passed from one
classroom to the next. Small groups of children who needed
The fourth-grade classrooms were similar in size and
arrangement. For the purposes of this study the researcher
refers to the two social settings as classroom A and
classroom B. As shown in Figures 1 and 2 (see pages 54 and
55), the classrooms were typical of many elementary rooms.
A large dry erase board lined two-thirds of one long wall;
the remainder of the wall was lined by a regular chalkboard
used for posting key information from class discussions
during writer's workshop and Florida history, and graphic
organizers (i.e., KWLs (a type of graphic organizer),
summary grids) on units they studied as a class during
literature time. Both teachers used the dry erase board
for announcements, daily schedules, homework, class goals,
and teaching. Individual cubbie-holes lined both halves of
another wall, while cupboards used to store books, rewards,
and supplies, lined the other half.
One large bulletin board, on which children's work
(e.g., stories, art, literature illustrations) was
displayed, lined half of the third wall in each room. In
classroom A there was a very large world map next to the
bulletin board, and in classroom B, there was a chalkboard
that was used for displaying a Florida state map and
colorful, motivating posters reading. The North side of
each room consisted of large windows. Children sat at
Figure 1. Floor Plan of Classroom A.
Figure 2. Floor Plan of Classroom B.
individual desks, the organization of which was shifted
many times during the first half of the school year.
The teachers' preferred seating plan consisted of two
to four (Teacher A) and four to six (Teacher B) desks
pushed together to form a rectangular surface. Some
students' desks were grouped and others' desks (seven to
nine) formed a long horseshoe arrangement. Both teachers
used a mixture of seating arrangements to accommodate
individual student needs. The seating arrangements were
determined by group dynamics and teacher and student needs.
The groups were heterogeneously formed in terms of gender,
race, or ability. Their structure was flexible which
allowed the teacher to move students as needed. The
seating plans in both rooms facilitated interactions among
Although students spent much of their day at their
desks, they worked at other locations too. Students were
placed in different groups (ranging from four to six per
group) for language arts, mathematics, social studies,
games, and art. Sometimes students were allowed to work
outside at the picnic table. Two large, adult size, tables
(one circular and one rectangular) were in the back of each
room. Those tables served as work stations for different
groups or for students who were sent by the teacher to work
alone because of misbehavior.
The aforementioned area of the classroom was known as
the "outer circle," a place where a student could "cool
down," and put himself/herself together before re-joining
the regular class activities. While in "outer circle," a
student would at times take his/her work and complete it
alone. Students at times would complete their work, take
tests, and follow along from those tables; at other times
some students would just sit at the table. The teacher
decided when a student would move from "outer circle" back
to his/her desk and vice versa. At other times children
would go to that area to select a book from the classroom
library, and during recess that area was also used for some
students to catch up with their homework.
In addition, parent volunteers used the "outer circle"
to file students' work and school/teacher announcements in
the student folders. This was usually done on Fridays.
Student volunteers also used it occasionally to work with
children who needed help with their work. The researcher
also was seated in that area of the classroom and moved
only when children needed to use the tables for group work.
In each classroom there was a "time-out" desk located
in the back of the room, approximately six feet behind the
"outer-circle" area, by the back door. Students were sent
to the "time-out" to isolate themselves from the rest of
the class, to think about their behavior, and to write a
letter or apology to whoever else was involved in the
event. A computer station, with three computers and one
printer, was located on one side each classroom. Students
used the computers during writer's workshop to publish
their work, and during recess to play games. Teachers used
the computers to write their own tests, outlines, handouts,
parent letters, for bulletin board messages, and so forth.
Commercially-produced posters and book covers from
different children's books were taped on cupboard doors.
Posters of different sport teams were taped on the windows.
The inside of each room's front door was decorated with
student names and motivational messages in classroom A, and
student names with sports messages in classroom B.
The classroom atmosphere in both rooms was comfortable
and positive. Children were encouraged to interact with
each other, go to the back and work alone when others were
distracting them, pick a book from their classroom
"library" when they had extra time, or help a student in
need. Children were also involved in classroom activities.
They collected or passed out papers, helped the teacher
grade the class's "Mad Minute" sheets (timed mathematics
facts exercises); helped clean the board, hamster cage, and
the classroom; run copies of papers, passed out rewards,
helped others with work; delivered papers to the office;
led the line to the cafeteria, art, music, science,
physical education, and back; took notes about who talked
or misbehaved in line; and, helped run the class meetings.
These job roles and responsibilities were welcomed by the
children who seemed to execute their jobs and
responsibilities carefully. Parents and parent and student
volunteers visited the classrooms from time to time.
To better acquaint the reader with the classrooms'
schedule, a typical day is summarized. The teachers
arrived at school at 7:00 a.m. and from that time until the
children came in at 8:00 a.m., they would talk with each
other, copy papers, work on the computer, and take care of
other school responsibilities. The children lined up
according to grade in the ramp (where most parents dropped
them off) and walked to the classrooms as a group. School
supervision was provided. Many mornings the teachers went
up to the ramp and walked back with their classes.
The daily schedule along with a challenge
(mathematics, language, or geography) were always on the
board prior to the children's arrival. Once students
arrived in class, they put their backpacks in their cubbie-
holes and put their homework assignment sheets along with
their homework in the designated trays behind the teachers'
desks. The teachers took daily attendance and hot lunch
count. The folders were picked up by school personnel.
After the daily school announcements, which were sometimes
broadcast over the loud speaker and other times through
television, the pledge to the flag, and the daily
challenge, the regular class activities begun.
Mathematics was taught on a daily basis, with
mathematics games on Fridays. Social studies was taught on
Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 9:20 a.m.
Art was taught on Friday, physical education in Tuesday and
Thursday, and Music on Wednesday. Fourth-grade had
Language Arts (Spelling, Reading--Literature Groups--,
Writing Workshop) for two and a half hours every day except
Wednesday. Library visits and class meetings were held on
Wednesday, as needed. Little Buddies, an organizational
format in which fourth-graders were paired with younger
children to read a book, took place every other week.
Lunch was from 10:55 a.m. to 11:25 a.m., followed by
recesses (11:25 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.). The children were
dismissed at 2:30 p.m. and the teachers, usually, did not
leave until 5:00 p.m..
Students' self-perceptions and interpretations of
their teacher's perceptions about them were explored
through a qualitative and naturalistic research approach.
Spradley (1980) has developed a systematic set of
procedures designed specifically for the exploration of
meaning, called the Developmental Research Seauence. This
particular model follows a cyclical pattern of
investigation: the researcher selects a project, raises
questions, collects data, makes a record, analyzes data,
and writes the report. The sequence of questioning,
collecting, recording and analyzing was repeated throughout
the study. Data analysis was an integral part of the
Questions are the fundamental element of this pattern
of investigation as they direct the process of data
collection. In this study, not only were questions posed
prior to the study, but new questions were formulated
throughout the research period. The researcher began the
study without any precise hypotheses about degree of
relationships, or cause-effect relationships between
students' self-perceptions and their interpretations of
their teacher's perceptions about them in class. Instead,
the researcher formulated some "foreshadowed questions"
(Wolcott, 1987) to direct her investigation. The following
research questions were an outcome of the researcher's
interests, experiences, and theory (Erickson, 1986):
1. In what manner do fourth-grade students perceive
themselves? What is the content of their self-
2. In what manner do fourth-grade students perceive
their teacher's perceptions about them? What is
the content of their interpretations?
3. What kind of information do fourth-grade
students use to form interpretations of their
teacher's perceptions about them in class?
4. What is the role of classroom interactions in
the construction of students' interpretations of
their teacher's perceptions about them in class?
While these questions guided the overall direction of
this study, other questions also were asked during the
course of the research. Descriptive, structural, and
contrast questions led to different kinds of data in the
field. These questions can be thought of as a funnel (see
Descriptive questions were broad questions used to get
an overview of the classroom settings and what went on in
those settings: i.e., "Who are the children in this
classroom, What do they do, How is the classroom set up?".
These questions enabled the researcher to get an overview
of the two unfamiliar settings.
--- - - - -
Figure 3. Ethnographic Questions (Spradley 1980,
Structural questions followed after an initial data
analysis to add more depth and focus to previously
identified actions, interactions, patterns of behavior, and
events in the classrooms. For instance, it was found that
some students asked more questions of the teacher during
classroom discussions. A structural question posed by the
researcher was, "How do students get information from the
teacher which they may in turn use to form interpretations
about the teacher's perceptions of them in class?" The
researcher also observed that some children were called on
by the teacher more often than others to participate in
classroom discussions. As a result, the following
structural question was formed "Which students get called
on more often to participate in classroom discussions?".
These and other structural questions were constructed
repeatedly and the search for supporting evidence helped
form even more focused observations, which in turn helped
discover the specifics of every classroom.
After further analysis and repeated observations in
the field, the researcher was able to narrow her
investigation even further to make more selective
observations. Contrast questions were the vehicle for such
observations; they enabled the researcher to look for the
existence of any differences among specific categories.
According to Spradley (1980), this is the stage where
discovered differences are and more focused observations or
talk to informants about these differences is required.
Questions such as "What do you think about my story," or
"Why do I have to re-write this," led to selective
observations in which the researcher analyzed her field
notes and conducted additional observations for differences
in the kinds of information students received from the
teacher when asking the above two questions.
Methods and Procedures
The researcher's goal was to examine and describe (a)
how fourth-grade students perceived themselves, (b) how
they interpreted their teacher's perceptions about them in
class, (c) the kinds of information they used to construct
their perceptions and interpretations, and (d) the nature
of student-teacher classroom interactions. Perceptions are
mental processes and thus are not directly assessed or
easily observed as tangible behaviors. "In-the-head"
analysis of human behavior is beyond our capability
(Taylor, 1993). Because the meanings that individuals
construct are never directly observable, researchers may
infer meanings from observing the behavior of participants
or interview participants directly about the meanings they
ascribe to events or people (McDermott & Roth, 1978;
We have to allow children to become our informants,
get to know them in their actual settings, build adequate
descriptions of their environments, and focus on children's
everyday experiences as they are expressed by the children
themselves (Taylor, 1993).
One of the most challenging tasks in doing research is
the selection of appropriate methods. Choosing methods that
will enable researchers to deal with their problem and
questions effectively is "an act of judgment" (Shulman
1981, p.12). Three methods were used in this study to
collect data: participant observation, interviews, and free
responses. Multiple methods were chosen because they
allowed the researcher to: (a) ask a range of questions
about the participants' perspectives in their actual
classroom settings, (b) examine how students formed
interpersonal perceptions, and (c) not impose restrictions
on the form and expressiveness of the participants'
Denzin (1970) advocated the use of multiple methods,
or triangulation, which is defined as the "combination of
methodologies in the study of the same phenomena" (Denzin
1970, p.279). The use of multiple methods of data
collection reduces threats to validity in that weaknesses
of one method are offset by strength of another.
Triangulation enables the researcher to collect data that
of one method are offset by strength of another.
Triangulation enables the researcher to collect data that
may explain why data are different or contradictory from
different sources about the same phenomenon. Data
triangulation (the use of a variety of data sources in a
study) and methodological triangulation (the use of
multiple methods to study a phenomenon) were used in this
Participant observation is the most common data
collection method in qualitative studies. It enables one
to describe what goes on in a setting, who or what is
involved, when, where, and why things happen in social
situations. Jorgensen (1989) states that participant
observation is excellent for studying processes,
relationships among people and events, organization of
events and continuities and patterns in social contexts.
One of the greatest strengths of this method is the ease
through which researchers can gain entree to settings.
Because of its relative unobtrusiveness observation can be
conducted inconspicuously (Webb et al., 1966). Another
strength of participant observation is the minimal
potential for generating observer effects because of the
naturalness of the observer's role and the lack of
noticeably obtrusive of all research techniques (Phillips,
Participant observation is especially appropriate
when: (a) little is known about a phenomenon; (b) the
research problem is concerned with human meanings and
interactions viewed from the insider's perspective (i.e.,
students' self-perceptions and interpretations of teacher's
perceptions about them in class); (c) the researcher is
able to gain access to an appropriate setting; and (d) the
research problem can be addressed by qualitative data
collected by direct observation and other means relevant to
the studied setting (Jorgensen, 1989).
People make sense of the world around them in their
daily interactions; they give meaning to their experiences
and interact on the basis of these assigned meanings
(Blumer, 1969; Denzin, 1978; Schutz, 1967). The insider's
perspectives are not directly accessible to outsiders, or
non members of a particular social setting. Thus, it is
impossible for a researcher to obtain a well-developed and
elaborate understanding of the participants' perspectives
until the researcher understands the culture in which
meanings are constructed (Hall, 1976; Spradley, 1980).
Participant observation aims to understand, uncover, and
reveal the meanings people use to make sense out of their
everyday lives in their everyday, natural environments.
The methodology of participant observation requires
that the researcher become directly involved in the
participants' lives in order to understand their world from
the standpoint of an insider. Human meaning and
interaction is approached through sympathetic introspection
(Cooley  1969). Participant involvement may range
from a marginal role to the performance of an insider role.
In this study the researcher's role was overt (with the
knowledge of participants). Blumer (1982) states that the
use of covert (without insider knowledge) observation as a
method is "neither ethically justified, nor practically
necessary" (p.217), and more attention should be given to
access as "overt insider."
Both teachers in this study were aware of the
researcher's purposes, and the students were told, by the
researcher and the teachers, that the researcher wanted to
determine how children think and what are the things they
do in fourth-grade. The researcher's role was described to
the students as "the lady who asks questions and who writes
a lot." Many times during the study the students had to
reminded of the researcher's role and purpose in their
classroom, especially when children would ask the
researcher to help them on assignments. Toward the end of
the study, the teachers occasionally asked the researcher
to help some students, always at the back of the room in
"outer circle," with spelling or homework. Children
usually asked the researcher for help with assignments
during recess and not during the regular classroom
The researcher's degree of involvement varied both
with participants and classroom activities. Spradley
(1980) has proposed five types of participation that range
along a continuum of involvement (see Table 3-1):
Degrees of Participant Involvement.
Non- Passive Moderate Active Complete
Participation Participation Participation Participation Participation
o Researcher Researcher o Researcher Researcher o Researcher
has no does not seeks to seeks to do becomes an
involvement participate balance what other ordinary
with the or interact between being people are participant.
people or the with other an insider doing in
activities people to a and an order to
studied, great extent. outsider, better
Observes and understand
records the culture.
The researcher's participation in the two studied
settings was passive (Spradley, 1980). During the first
month of the project, the researcher rarely interacted with
students inside or outside the classroom. She was
stationed by the teachers in the classrooms' "outer circle"
--the outskirts of the room--where she recorded observed
Participant observers usually keep a log of activities
and experiences, and also written records or tape-record
observations while in the field or shortly after
observations have been completed (Jorgensen, 1989). Action
in the field has been recorded by way of audio, video,
photographic equipment or computers. Researchers have also
used questionnaires, formal or informal interviews, and
document collection along with direct observations (e.g.,
Fine, 1987; Hochschild, 1983; Wallis, 1977). In this
study, the researcher used an audio tape-recorder and hand-
written field notes to record observed activities. She
also used formal and informal interviews and free responses
in order to better understand the participants' perceptions
and interpretations. These strategies will be discussed in
a subsequent section.
Each entry included a date, time, event, setting, and
a detailed description of the activity and the participants
involved. Field notes were kept in a field notebook which
also included the researcher's comments (theoretical,
methodological, personal notes) and reactions to observed
events. Field notes or audio tapes were not shared with
The researcher avoided any verbal or non-verbal
communication with the children and ignored those who tried
to get her attention by either staring, smiling at her, or
trying to talk to her while in the classroom. As the study
progressed, the interactions between students and the
researcher increased and the researcher alternated between
remaining at a fixed location and moving around the
Although the earliest observations were targeted
toward a general description of the classrooms and the
participants, the majority of the observations were
directed toward student-teacher interactions and
activities. Although the children were observed
interacting with other teachers (i.e., science teacher, art
teacher, physical education teacher, reading specialist),
the sole focus of the observations was on the interactions
and events involving the "regular" classroom teacher and
the students in their "regular" classroom settings.
The researcher observed (and tape-recorded) 190 hours
of classroom activity over a four-month period in the Fall
of 1996. Each classroom was observed for half a day twice
a week (approximately 10 hours per week) for four months.
The researcher provided the teachers with a monthly
schedule--developed with the teachers--of her visits,
planned activities, and interview schedules. Field notes
were analyzed by the researcher.
Formal and informal interviews were used in this study
to get a deeper understanding of the participants'
perspectives (Spradley, 1980). All interviews were audio-
taped and occurred with students and the two teachers.
Eight children from class A (two boys and six girls) and
thirteen children from class B (five boys and 10 girls)
were interviewed. The researcher worked out a schedule
that met each parent's schedule, and the children were
interviewed at three different times (November, December
1996, and January 1997). Interviews with the children were
held during after-school hours in the school library
conference room. Teachers also were interviewed three
times in their respective classrooms after school hours.
Formal interviews employ a structured schedule of
questions that allows the researcher to ask specific
questions in exactly the same way with different
participants. Formal interviews produce a highly uniform
set of data (Jorgensen, 1989). The researcher allowed a
certain flexibility in her interviews in order to allow
children and teachers to clarify, elaborate on their
answers, and even talk about events or things they were
interested in. The interviews took the form of "guided
conversations" (see Lofland, 1971). Interviewees spoke
freely and in their own words about their perspectives and
even volunteered unanticipated information (see Appendices
E and F).
Informal interviews are casual, free flowing
conversations that allow the researcher to interview
participants without asking the same questions in the same
manner. Informal interviews were recorded by paper and
pencil, and they occurred when the researcher asked
questions of the children during the course of participant
observation. For instance, when children moved to form
temporary work groups the researcher asked, "What are you
doing?", "What do you think about this activity?" The
informal interviews with the teacher took place during
periods when the students were not in the room (i.e., lunch
break, after school). The teachers talked eagerly about
classroom activities, frequently asked the researcher what
she thought about an observed event, and talked about
children's progress or specific reactions to classroom
events. These questions were elicited by an observed event
and were useful for discerning different viewpoints held by
Audio-recordings are excellent for taking and making
notes, for recording verbal interaction and interviews.
Recorders are readily available, come in different sizes,
are relatively inexpensive, and easy to operate. On the
other hand, they are obtrusive especially at the early
stages of entry in a setting. In this study, a tape-
recorder was used three weeks after observations had
started. The researcher wanted to get first familiar with
the setting and allow the participants to get used to her
presence in the classroom. A small tape-recorder was used
in this study and it was placed by the researcher's
notebook on the "outer circle" table. Some children
occasionally visited the researcher in the back of the room
and spoke right in front of the tape-recorder, but other
than that the presence of the tape-recorder was normalized.
Students and teachers forgot after a brief period that the
recorder was running; they took its presence for granted.
In spite of the advantages of recorders for making
notes, ultimately the tapes demand hours of transcription
for analysis. Tapes were transcribed and analyzed by the
researcher. The results of the analysis are discussed in
the following chapter.
Free response is a projective technique that has been
used extensively in personality and clinical research
(Chandler & Johnson, 1991). A person's productions
(verbal, written, or artistic) reflect his/her inner view
of the world, and a systematic examination of those
productions may help researchers learn something of the
individual's needs, desires, and interests, as well as
his/her perceptions of the significant others in his/her
world. An analysis of such productions may lead to a
better understanding of the individual (Chandler & Johnson,
Free response or sentence completion tasks employ a
set of sentence stems to elicit oral or written responses.
They are particularly useful devices for getting
information on developmental aspects, interpersonal
relations, needs, and threats. Free responses are brief,
non threatening, and not different from other school-type
tasks with which children are familiar (Chandler & Johnson,
1991). They are especially useful with older children
(pre-adolescents and adolescents), "as children are often
suspicious and defensive in testing situations, and often
resist the more intensive methods of assessment." (Chandler
& Johnson, 1991, p.36).
All fourth-grade students were asked to write their
own free responses to the following stems:
1. NI Think I Am. ..
2. "1I Think Mrs./Ms. Thinks I Am. ..
3. "I Would Like To Know What Mrs./Ms. Thinks
About Me When I. .N
Students were given one stem per week, repeated for
three months (October, November, December). The repetition
of the writings enabled the researcher to discover insights
and patterns and changes in the children's responses. The
writing took place usually on Fridays during students'
journal time. This activity was presented to students as a
time where they could share their personal thoughts about
themselves with the researcher and what they thought their
teacher thought of them in class. Children were encouraged
to write freely, not to worry about correct spelling of
words, and to ask the researcher if they had any questions.
It was emphasized that whatever students wrote was
confidential and private, and they were assured that their
teacher or any other teacher would not see their responses.
During this activity the teachers worked at their desks,
the computer, or sometimes were outside the classroom
taking care of administrative school matters. The teachers
never suggested what the children should write nor did they
help children with spelling or anything else having to do
with this activity.
Manila folders were provided in order to prevent the
sharing of ideas. Writing paper was inserted in each
folder. Children wrote their names on the folder,
decorated it, and some even wrote "Confidential
Information," or "Private: Stay out of it," or "My Personal
Folder" on the outside. Each stem was written on the board
by the researcher who also read it aloud and then asked the
children to copy it on their paper. This activity lasted
for 10 to 15 minutes. No child was forced to write,
although the teachers encouraged all students to do so.
The amount and nature of responses varied from child to
child, with some children writing a word or two to others
writing a paragraph or two, and some others writing a page
Free writing allowed children to express their
personal thoughts in their own way; it allowed them to
"speak" for themselves. This technique provided the
researcher with information about the content, process, and
sources of information children used to form self-
perceptions and interpretations about their teacher's
perceptions of them in class.
There are some inherent problems in participant
observation that have to be addressed in order for the
researcher to have confidence in the quality of the data
collected. The issue of validity and reliability
constitutes one of the chief criticisms against participant
observation (Adler & Adler, 1992). Observers whose
research is solely based on their observations and do not
have the participants' quotes to enrich and confirm the
researchers' analyses are susceptible to more biases from
subjective interpretations of situations (Denzin, 1989;
Webb et al., 1966).
Observations conducted systematically and repeatedly
over time are more credible than those gathered according
to personal patterns (Denzin, 1989). In this study, the
researcher conducted lengthy observations in the two
classroom settings and also investigated the participants'
perspectives on various situations. Direct observation
when added to other research can yield depth and breadth,
and it can enhance a study's consistency and validity
(Adler & Adler, 1992).
Other problems inherent in participant observation
are: (a) effects of the observer's presence or activities
on the phenomenon being observed; (b) effects from the
the inability of the observer to fully witness and record
all relevant aspects of the studied phenomenon (McCall &
Simmons, 1969). Bogdan and Biklen (1982) state that
"qualitative researchers attempt. . to objectively study
the subjective states of their subjects" (p.42). The
qualitative researcher's main goal is to add knowledge and
not to pass judgment on a phenomenon or setting.
Qualitative researchers seek to limit the observer's
biases, since all researchers are affected by observers'
bias (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982).
The researcher guarded against her own biases by
recording numerous lengthy field notes and by including the
participants themselves in the study of this phenomenon.
The researcher also worked with participants who were
accustomed to having observers and visitors in their rooms,
such as parent volunteers, student teachers, student
volunteers, and aids. The fact that the participants were
familiar with having other people in their classroom made
the researcher's presence less intimidating. In addition,
the lengthy observation period (September to December)
enabled the researcher to become part of the classroom.
After the last interviews were completed, in January, the
children asked the researcher if she was planning to come
back and if they would ever see her again.
The fact that the researcher was stationed in each
classroom's "outer circle" and that her role and activities
were made clear to the children, made it easy for the
children to not see her as another teacher. The children
talked to other students, violated classroom rules, argued
with the teacher, got into arguments with other students,
sent notes to other students, and did a lot of the
"regular" things children do in class in her presence.
There were instances where some children "showed-off" for
the researcher; for instance, one girl in classroom B read
the ballad she had written at home to the researcher and
asked her if she would like to keep it in her notes. The
researcher's casual conversations with the teachers also
confirmed her recording and perceptions of the classroom
The researcher dealt with her personal interests,
remarks, and biases about the studied phenomenon through
bracketing (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982). The researcher's role
and biases will be discussed in a subsequent section.
Lastly, the researcher's inability to observe and
record all classroom events related to children's
interpersonal perceptions was dealt with in three ways: (a)
by doing lengthy observations in the classrooms the
researcher was confident that she captured a representative
description of relevant events, activities, and
interactions related to the studied phenomenon; (b) the
teachers acted as valuable informants for events that had
not been directly observed; (c) the researcher's use of a
tape-recorder, interviews, and free-responses filled in
gaps in observational data.
The interviews took place a month and a half after
observations began, allowing time for the researcher and
the participants to become familiar with one another. The
researcher always asked for the children's permission to
"talk" with them and reminded them that whatever they
shared with her would be confidential. At times, some
children were eager to talk with her because of something
that had happened at school that day. Interview data was
compared with written data (free responses) and with
Free responses were used because of their
appropriateness in allowing children to share their own
perceptions and interpretations. One limitation of this
method is that some children wrote more or better than
others; some wrote in complete sentences and others just
listed single words. All three sources of data provided a
means whereby the researcher could make a more
comprehensive evaluation of the data collected.
The data collected through observations, interviews,
and free-responses were in written form. Written records
included field notes, a research journal, transcribed
interviews, and children's free-responses.
In this study, the researcher's goal was to examine
how children perceived themselves and interpreted their
teacher's perceptions of them in two fourth-grade
classrooms. The choice of analysis methods was determined
by the purpose of the research, the nature of the
questions, and the theoretical perspective adopted and
adapted by the researcher (LeCompte et al., 1992).
The data analysis was an ongoing process that
consisted of analyzing and synthesizing information across
data sources and data collection methods. The analyses
carried out for this study make visible the construction of
students' (a) self-perceptions and (b) interpretations of
what their teacher thought about them in class (see Table
3-2). Analysis of this kind involves a way of "looking" at
or thinking about data. It refers to the systematic and
strategic examination of a phenomenon to discover its
parts, the relationships among parts, and their
relationship to the whole.
In this analysis, the researcher (a) described social
situations (activities carried out by participants in a
particular place) and (b) discovered culture (the patterns
of participants' behavior and they meanings they assign to
activities), (Spradley, 1980). The phases of analysis for
this study are described below (Spradley 1980):
a. Domain analysis helped to identify broad domains
such as "Things the Teacher Talked About in Class, Things
Students Talked About in Class, Things Students Talked
b. Taxonomic analysis helped to identify how
domains were organized. The researcher also attempted to
find out how domains were related. For example, within the
domain "Feedback Teacher Gave to Students," there was
"Verbal Feedback and Written Feedback".
c. Componential analysis helped the researcher to
look for units of meaning participants assigned to their
specific cultural categories.
d. Theme analysis involved the search for a theme
that would tie together the identified parts of the
participants' perspectives. It focused the search for
meanings across domains.
The analysis of data helped locate particular patterns
of experiences that represent how students make sense of
their everyday classroom experiences with the teacher. The
main type of relationship in the domain analysis was strict
inclusion (see Table 3-2).
Strict Inclusion Example
Table 3-3 shows the type of worksheet used to help
visualize the structure of each domain:
Domain Analysis Worksheet
RELATIONSHIP FORM EXAMPLE
Strict Inclusion -4 X is a kind of Y -4 Playing the guitar
(is a kind of
1. Semantic Relationship: strict inclusion
2. Form: X is a kind of y
3. Example: Being good in science (is a kind of) ability
Included terms Semantic Relationship Cove
Being good in writing
Being good in reading }-4 is a kind of -4 abil:
Being good in math
The researcher analyzed and counted each student's
written statements. Statements were grouped according to
content, and broad categories were formed. Finally, broad
categories were grouped to form specific categories. The
content and domain analyses were interweaved. The
reseacher took a frequency count of students' statements in
order to explore differences in quality as well as quantity
of students' responses. Students' verbal statements were
analyzed for content.
The researcher coded students' written and oral
reports by assigning pseudonyms and numbers. For example,
(BF21.2) means: this statement came from a female (F)
student in class (B); the student's assigned number was 21;
and she gave this statement at time two. This coding
system made it easy for the researcher to maintain the
students' confidentiality, readily retrieve information
from data, and study patterns in students' responses over
time. Teachers were also given pseudonyms. Teacher A was
called Ms. Naylor, and Teacher B was called Mrs. Cleary.
Audio-taped classroom observations were transcribed.
The transcription involved three phases: (a) description of
events, (b) interpretation of events, and (c) extension of
events. The following transcript conventions were used:
(2, 3, or 4s)= number of seconds without verbal discourse
Sx= unidentified student
SS= more than one student speaking, all unidentified
The three-phased analysis of the verbatim transcripts
showed how everyday classroom interactions between students
and their teacher provided opportunities for students to
co-construct interpretations about their teacher's
perceptions about them in class. Findings from the
transcription data were triangulated with findings from
students artifacts and interview data to validate and
expand on how students formed their interpersonal
perceptions. Field notes were used to give additional
background information about classroom interactions. Table
3-4 (see p. 88) summarizes the research questions, data
collection, and analysis in this study.
The Researcher's Role and Biases
The qualitative researcher is the key research
instrument in qualitative research. The researcher's
biases, methods, and training may influence data collection
and analysis. Wolcott (1975) stated that a researcher must
be flexible, sensitive, a keen observer, sociable,
sensitive to and perceptive of the participants' needs, be
Research Ouestions, Data Collection, and Analysis
RESEARCH QUESTIONS DATA COLLECTION ANALYSIS
1. In what manner do fourth- Student artifacts Domain, taxonomic
grade students perceive (i.e., free responses) analysis
themselves? What is the content Interviews Content analysis
of their self-perceptions?
2. In what manner do fourth- Student artifacts Domain, taxonomic
grade students perceive their (i.e., free responses) analysis
teacher's perceptions about Interviews Content analysis
them? What is the content of
3. What kind of information do 0 Interviews Content analysis
fourth-grade students use to
form interpretations of their
teacher's perceptions about them
4. What is the role of Classroom Transcription of
classroom interactions in the observations recorded classroom
construction of students' (i.e., field notes, interactions
interpretations of their audio-taped classroom
teacher's perceptions about them interactions)
able to "tell" his/her story effectively, and have
experience conducting fieldwork.
Whether a researcher chooses to be a full participant
or fully a non-participant, he or she must put himself or
herself into the research and interpret what he/she sees,
hears, or is told to by others (Woods, 1992). By
observing, taking notes, tape-recording, talking to
participants, reflecting on data, and some initial
analysis, the researcher makes indications, attributes
meanings, and interprets symbols continually. How a
researcher does this depends on the self he/she brings to
the situation and its' interpretation: the experiences,
interests, values, "theories", training, attitudes toward
the participants, and commitment to research (Woods, 1992).
A standard problem for qualitative researchers is the
one between involvement and increased familiarity on the
one hand and distance and objectivity on the other. The
demands of qualitative research create a tension between
"getting inside" and "being outside", and "knowing nothing,
to knowing some things, to knowing too much" about the
participants and their world. Involvement and objectivity
are both ingredients of scientific appraisal, but "too much
of a good thing" may interfere with the "healthy"
progress of one's research. Woods (1992) suggests that
researchers can guard against these dangers by maintaining