You may have heard the expression “never work with children or animals” and having been a primary school teacher and now a lecturer in Primary Education I have always felt that this is rather an unfair maxim. From my experience, it is often children that offer a more insightful view of the world we have created rather than the adults who created it. Children are able to reflect on the world from their unique vantage point, unburdened by big picture pressures of the big ‘p’ and small ‘p’ politics of daily life: the politics of party political education policy and its ramifications in schools and classrooms. However, working with children does offer an element of unpredictability, surprise and unplanned for diversions – and perhaps this is what the expression is hinting at. As a researcher at UWE Bristol, these are the qualities that make researching with children so powerful and engaging.
I have just completed my Doctoral studies researching the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check and drawing on the voices of teachers and children to evaluate the Check in its widest sense. Kushner identified evaluation as a social service and the data that it generates as representing “the people – their hopes, fears, aspirations and failures.” Children, in their open and generous responses provided just this and so giving a momentary insight into the world of children aged 5 and 6, in Year 1.
One child, let’s call him Jamie, left a particular impression. The struggle to become a reader was etched on his face and clearly, reading was a real challenge. In fact when introducing the research to the children and asking if they were happy to be part of it, he immediately volunteered “I’m no good at reading, it’s really hard,” suggesting he was therefore not suitable to be part of such a research study. Jamie repeated through the session that the only way to get better was to practice – every day. His ideas of perseverance and practice seemed to be, in part, repeated tropes from teachers and parents. He offered this as the way to learn to read but without any joy or delight in the process or even a sense of any satisfaction in the final destination. Jamie knew reading was important: he made this clear – he mentioned the need to read as an adult, to get a job, to find your way “around London” as he put it. Jamie seemed to have internalised a fear of not being able to read and a keen knowledge that his friends could. Jamie expressed how he was not as good as others at reading and his face seemed to express how tired he was by this constant ‘practice’ that he seemed to suggest was his ‘lot’ for some time to come. Jamie, whilst being only six was no longer a primary school child but, as described by his teachers, ‘a student’ ripe for intervention. How is it that this term ‘student’ has come to be used with reference to all school aged children where once it was only used to identify learners at University? Have we lost the fact that Jamie is a child and that he won’t recapture these years as a child at primary school?
Jamie expressed an almost treadmill approach to developing as a reader – learning sounds; being tested on sounds; reading allocated books; moving through the book levels until one day in the future moving to that enviable position of being a free reader. Each step will be marked out by daily practice. Not only that, but Jamie expressed what seemed to be an ‘obstacle race’ view of the process – adults putting unnecessary additional hurdles in the way of the drudgery. “We have to read alien words,” he said – words that don’t make sense to children “only aliens”. Lucy piped up at this point to correct him:
“Miss Honey said that, um they are just to help you with your sounds they are not for any other use they just help with sounds – um, a bit of a waste of time.”
These children are taught by fabulous teachers who inspire and enthuse their classes and there were many children that reflected this as part of my research. It is the voice of Jamie though that is the voice that sticks with me. In the introduction I talked about the warning that you should “never work with children or animals” and Jamie is perhaps one of those children, not because he is difficult or disruptive but because of the uncomfortable truths he expresses. Yes, we do want to teach Jamie to read and for some children, like Jamie, it won’t always be easy. However we do need to learn how best to make this a joyful process and one that doesn’t become so focused on the mechanics of practice that we lose sight of the child ‘in the student’.
Jane Carter ,Senior Lecturer in Primary Education