25 SES 12, Children's Participation and Play: Constructing a democratic culture
This paper explores a student voice initiative where roles were reversed so that the pupils became the ‘teachers’ and the teachers, the learners. The research findings presented here stem from a study carried out in an English secondary school and involved sixteen Year 8 pupils (12 to 13-year-olds) providing professional development in Information and Communication Technology [ICT] for eight of their teachers. The research question for this study was: "In what ways might pupils taking charge of their teachers’ learning affect the relationships between pupils and teachers?" The theoretical framework for this study positions its research focus in relation to the body of literature on student voice. Student voice is crucial to this paper because it provides conceptual coherence in offering explanations as well as justifying conclusions which are important in terms of establishing the unique contribution to knowledge that this research has to make (Lesham and Trafford).
Although pupils maybe involved in co-planning lessons with teachers (Morgan, 2011; Mullis, 2011) or taking on a role in school as researchers (Demetriou and Rudduck, 2004; Thomson and Gunter, 2006) or building capacity for leadership activity (Fielding, 2011; Mitra and Gross, 2009) there is an absence of literature which reports or documents pupils teaching teachers or being involved in delivering programmes of teachers’ professional development. The fundamental gap in knowledge highlighted in this paper – and therefore the contribution to knowledge this study makes – concerns a conspicuous lack of empirical evidence pertaining to any student-led initiatives in the UK or Europe which involves pupils taking responsibility for orchestrating their teachers’ learning.
Discussion in the literature on student voice widely acknowledges that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [UNRC] (1989) provides a far-reaching – and relatively recent – cornerstone which supports and underpins student voice initiatives (Author, 2015; Czerniawski and Garlick, 2011; Deuchar, 2009; Fielding, 2011; Hart, 1992; Mullis, 2011; Thomson, 2011; Wisby, 2011). In this sense, the convention presents a form of international ratification that children have a right for their opinions to be listened to [Articles 12 and 13] and that when decision-making, adults should act in the best interests of the child [Article 3].
However, the notion of student voice – at least where children and staff decide a joint course of action together (Hart, 1992; Fielding, 2011) and how this may influence approaches to teaching and learning – is seen to be problematic (Lodge, 2005; Thomson, 2011). This stems from a complex range of factors including the balance of power between children and teachers which arises, and is a theme which crops up frequently in the literature (Rudduck and Fielding, 2006; Taylor and Robinson, 2009). Consultation with pupils can bring with it tensions between teachers, and between pupils and teachers, with both feeling uncomfortable about the reversal of power (Flutter and Rudduck, 2004). This calls into question the potential role reversal that may follow because not only does it challenge any wider assumptions concerning the purpose of the education system, it also calls into question the nature of teacher and student identity and issues surrounding agency (Gunter and Thomson, 2007).
In terms of considering a wider international perspective, it is important to stress the need to avoid a purely Anglo-centric approach and to be aware of what is happening elsewhere. Approaches to, and attitudes towards, student voice initiatives tend to vary across countries. For example, attitudes towards recognising the importance of what young people have to say would appear to be strongest in European countries, other than the UK, where there is legislation and a political commitment in supporting this (Davies and Kirkpatrick, 2000).
This study seeks to understand and make sense of situations and social interactions between pupils and teachers and thus adopts an action research paradigm (Creswell, 2005; Elliott, 2009; Noffke, 2009). Action research entails practitioner-based enquiry in order to improve and transform professional practice – in this case a student voice initiative aimed at empowering both children and teachers and transforming the relationships between them (McNiff et al., 2002). Rather than pupils being chosen by adults, the pupils self-selected themselves and volunteered to participate in the research. A non-probability sampling approach was taken although this has elements of opportunistic and purposive sampling. Pupils were asked to nominate the teacher that they wanted to work with, so this secondary process of selection also encompassed features of snowball sampling (Denscombe, 2007) given that the sample grew because of pupils’ nominations. Once pupils had identified the teacher they wanted to work with, it was agreed that they would approach their chosen teacher in person. After several weeks, the cohort of sixteen pupils and eight teachers was finalised. To best answer the research question, methods of data collection included participant observation, semi-structured interviews with teachers and focus groups with pupils. As a researcher, gathering predominantly qualitative data allowed me to engage with what Geertz (1973) refers to as ‘thick description’ because this involves considering the thoughts, feelings and experiences of people in their setting and allows them to speak for themselves as opposed to their opinions, beliefs and actions being judged, evaluated or otherwise interpreted by myself, their superiors or their peers. By using qualitative data analysis, I have loosely followed the process of axial coding whereby I have specified the properties and dimensions of categories and sub-categories to bring coherence to the data and this provided an appropriate framework (Charmaz, 2006). The concepts of validity, reliability and generalisability do not carry the same bearing as they do in quantitative studies and so I achieved rigour using the four criteria of trustworthiness of the human instrument (Lincoln and Guba, 1985). It was a requirement of my university research ethics application regarding children, that I needed to ensure that I complied with the Data Protection Act (1988) and that the children were to be protected under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Articles 3 and 12) (UNICEF, 1989).
Through self-selection, pupils put themselves into a situation of responsibility where they knew that the traditional teacher-pupil model of instruction would be reversed. However, what they may not have been able to anticipate was the way in which this experience changed their perception of their teachers. As one pupil noted: “When that teacher is teaching you, you think that what they do is just to teach, [that] they don’t really do anything else. But then when you start actually teaching them [the teachers] you realise that they don’t know everything and that they still want to learn other things.” The perceived shift in their relationship with their teacher as a result of the partnership was noted in focus groups. Pupils felt that: their teacher “connected” with them; that they had “bridged a gap” between themselves and their teacher; that their relationship had become more informal rather than “teacher-student”, and; that they’d “got closer” to their teacher. Similarly, teachers also commented on how they felt their relationship had changed with the pupils: “I think that it’s broken down the whole I’m a teacher, you’re a student, and there’s, like I was saying earlier, a much more open dialogue. It’s been really good.” There was also the perception that role reversal and handing ‘control’ over to the pupils were desirable outcomes: “It’s a good experience for them to be able to be in a situation where they’re in control of a teacher, an adult. How many kids are in charge of an adult? Very few.” This situation of role reversal was seen by all teachers in the project as an enabler, where as many teachers might actually see it as a threat as arguably it is a situation where the pupil gains control of a system which usually controls them.
Davies, L. & Kirkpatrick, G. (2000) The EURIDEM project: a review of pupil democracy in Europe. London: Children’s Rights Alliance. Demetriou, H. & Rudduck, J. (2004) Pupils as Researchers: the importance of using their research evidence.’ Primary Leadership Paper, (11): 31–34 Denscombe, M. (2007) The Good Research Guide. [3rd edn.] Maidenhead: Open University Press. Elliott, J. (2009) Building Educational Theory through Action Research. In S. Noffke and B. Somekh [Eds.] Handbook of Educational Action Research, pp.28–38. Thousand Oaks: Sage. Fielding, M. (2011) Student Voice and the Possibility of Radical Democratic Education. In G. Czerniawski and W. Kidd [Eds.] The Student Voice Handbook: Bridging the Academic/Practitioner Divide, pp.3–17. Bingley: Emerald. Flutter, J. & Rudduck, J. (2004) Consulting Pupils: What's in it for Schools? London: Routledge. Geertz, C. (1973) Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In C. Geertz [Ed.] The Interpretation of Cultures, pp.3–30. New York: Basic Books. Gunter, H.M. & Thomson, P. (2007) Learning about student voice. Support for learning, 22 (4): 181–188. Hart, R. (1992) Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship. Florence: UNICEF International Child Development Centre. Lincoln, Y.S. & Guba, E.G. (1985) Naturalistic Inquiry. Beverly Hills: Sage. Lodge, C. (2005) From Hearing Voices to Engaging in Dialogue: Problematising Student Participation in School Improvement. Journal of Educational Change, 6: 125–146. McNiff, J., Lomax, P. & Whitehead, J. (2002) You and your action research project. London: Routledge. Morgan, J. (2011) Students Training Teachers. In G. Czerniawski and W. Kidd [Eds.] The Student Voice Handbook: Bridging the Academic/Practitioner Divide, pp.225–236. Bingley: Emerald. Noffke, S (2009) Revisiting the Professional, Personal, and Political Dimensions of Action Research. In S. Noffke and B. Somekh [Eds.] Handbook of educational action research, pp.6–24. Thousand Oaks: Sage. Rudduck, J. & Fielding, M. (2006) Student voice and the perils of Popularity. Educational Review, 58 (2): 219–231. Taylor, C. & Robinson, C. (2009) Student voice: theorising power and participation. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 17 (2): 161–175. Thomson, P. (2011) Coming to Terms with ‘Voice’. In G. Czerniawski and W. Kidd [Eds.] The Student Voice Handbook: Bridging the Academic/Practitioner Divide, pp.19–30. Bingley: Emerald. Thomson, P. & Gunter, H. M. (2006) From ‘consulting pupils’ to ‘pupils as researchers’: a situated case narrative. British Educational Research Journal, 32 (6): 839–856. UNICEF [United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund] (1989) United Nations convention on the rights of the child. London: UNICEF.
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