Over an eighteen month period in 2002 – 2003 my good colleague Michael Shevlin from Trinity College Dublin and myself ran a project called Encouraging Voices. The expression “encouraging voices” was deliberately adopted as it has two meanings. Firstly it implies voices that encourage, and secondly it indicated a project that encouraged others to voice their opinions.
During this project Michael and I brought together a range of colleagues who were engaged in research with young people that was enabling them to express their ideas and opinions about their educational experiences. The project targeted individuals from marginalised groups, including those with disabilities, refugees, young people who had been bullied, members of the gay community and representatives of Gypsy Traveller groups to tell their stories of schooling. We were particularly interested to hear from these young people about what had enabled them to be effective in their learning, as well as those inhibiting factors that they had encountered along the way. Each had experienced a form of discrimination but had come through this, often with the help of teachers and were keen to share their educational stories with others. The experiences of these individuals were recorded and reported in a book as a means of illustrating their educational experiences and in order to provide examples for supporting teachers who were keen to address the exclusion of children from positive educational experiences.
This project provided an important period of reflection for Michael and myself and over the subsequent years we gave continued to work together as researchers and writers with a commitment to involve young people in examining our education systems. The insights that have been provided, often by very young children, into their learning experiences have certainly shaped our thinking and informed our practices over the years, and whenever possible we have worked to ensure that such an approach is incorporated into the work in which we become involved as researchers.
Today I have had an opportunity to put these principles into practice whilst working with my Swedish colleague Per Skoglund in Malta. Part of our morning was spent interviewing a group of primary school children about their educational experiences and trying to gain insights into their daily lives. In order to do this we visited a school and talked as informally as possible to a small group of pupils. As was predictable, these young people didn’t disappoint and were soon in full flow, recounting stories from their schooling and expressing their likes and dislikes with great enthusiasm. As is inevitably the case in these circumstances the children were eager to give their opinions, but equally keen to interact with Per and myself and to provide elaborate examples to illustrate their responses to our questions. The warmth of Per’s personality coaxed even the most reluctant participant to respond and we passed an enjoyable hour in the company of these lively youngsters.
There have been times when I have been asked whether it is a genuinely worthwhile occupation seeking the views of children. In particular there are some who have questioned whether interviewing those described as having special educational needs or who are very young are capable of providing truly valid information. Doesn’t their limited experience mean that they will have little to say about their education, and how can you guarantee that what they tell you is true? My experience, and that of my colleagues such as Michael and Per who have worked in this way over a number of years is that this process is not only worthwhile, but possibly essential if we wish to understand children’s lived experiences. The abilities of children are too often underestimated or overlooked by adults who fail to recognise that they see the world from a unique perspective. They are often uninhibited in their expression and honest in conveying their experiences and interpretation of the ways in which adults have interacted with them. They are usually thoughtful in their responses and responsible in the ways in which they interact during these conversations.
As adults, our relationships with children are often founded upon positions of power and subservience. To some extent in the teacher child relationship this is inevitable. The ways in which we use our authority are important in terms of the messages that we convey to children. When we treat them with respect and demonstrate that we value their opinions they more often than not reciprocate. Such was the situation today.
As always when opportunities have arisen to listen to children talking about their educational experiences, I found today’s session with a group of youngsters both enjoyable and informative. I do hope that they too enjoyed the time that they spent today in conversation with Per and myself.