A Colourful Way to Listen to Children
In this post, researcher Awliya R. Hendaryanti writes in detail about a tool she and her research team used to gauge children's opinions while working on the RISE project in Indonesia.
The Need to Use Innovative Methods
As researchers, there are numerous methods to listen and understand people - each method comes with its advantages and disadvantages. Researchers need to be flexible and innovative in choosing which method to use, depending on the research aim, the participants’ age, and convenience. This is especially true for researchers working with children, as Robinson and Gillies (2012); White and Bailey (2004) emphasised that research practice with children should be based on understanding the need to work collaboratively and non-exploitatively, to challenge the unequal power relations between the researcher and children. This is in line with Horner’s (2000) findings that children and young people tend to restrain themselves when talking to an adult, moreover a stranger. Horner found that children are more relaxed and seem to open up more when the discussions are held amongst peers. That is why flexible and creative methods offer a wider perspective when listening to children, compared to more traditional methods.
This article aims to share my experience in doing research with children, using creative and colourful ways to ethically listen to their valuable insights. Back in 2017, I joined this brilliant research project, RISE (Research on Improving Systems of Education) in Indonesia. RISE is an international research programme investigating how education systems can overcome problems in seven developing countries. One of the research projects aimed to evaluate the Indonesian Government’s in-service teacher professional development programme. We selected three cities for our study location and selected three schools per city to get a deeper understanding of what happened at the grassroots level. This was a qualitative study where we used class observations, interviews, and focus group discussions to collect data. My focus for this article is to elaborate on our experience with the children’s focus group discussions. The reason why we did focus group discussions with children is that we wanted to hear the children’s experiences of being taught by teachers who had and had not, completed the in-service teacher professional development programme.
Permission, Consent, and Ethical Concerns
It is important to emphasise that the permission for study and consent were thoroughly sought and monitored throughout the research process. This was supported by Thomas (2009) and Bryman (2012) who said it is crucial in the implementation of social research to focus on ethical concerns such as access, consent, and approval. Clough and Nutbrown (2012) mentioned that ethical standards in research need to be ensured during the implementation of research studies as this makes certain that the study ‘(1) will provide the best possible protection for researchers and their participants, (2) ensure that data are collected with informed consent of participants, and (3) protect participants’ personal details, identities and well-being' (p.173)
At the start of the research, we obtained ethical research clearance and a research permit from both the national and local governments. Additionally, when we reach the schools, we explained our study aims and obtained permission from the school principal, teachers, and the children. For the children’s consent form, whether or not they understand the study aims, and wished to participate in the study were asked using the emoticon 😊 for 'yes' and 🙁 for 'no'. The next section of this article will elaborate on the focus group discussion process.
The Colourful Discussion
Before the discussion sessions, we prepared the room to fit our needs. We taped a large blank paper to one side of the room, prepared the table with lots of colourful post-its (crucial!) and colourful markers. During interviews and focus group discussions, it is important to build rapport with your participant (Greig & Taylor, 1999; Wilson & Powell, 2001). We started our discussions with an ice-breaker game which we called ‘connecting stories’. We prepared a deck of cards that have words associated with school such as pencil, friends, teacher, etc. Each person took one card and made a sentence out of the word on the card. Every person, including the researchers, had a turn, and together we made an interesting (and sometimes funny) story. We found that the children loved this game, and it created a more friendly atmosphere between children and researchers as if we were all playing together. After that, we went around and asked some neutral questions about hobbies and aspirations, to get to know each other better. Again, the researchers also answered these questions to build a more equal relationship between the children and the interviewer.
Next, we asked the children questions and they answered by writing their answers down on the colourful post-its and attaching them on the large blank paper. We found that children enjoy writing down their answers and seeing them posted on the large blank paper; most of the children wrote down their answers on numerous post-its. When we find some interesting answers, we probed the children to give more details. Even with this simple exercise, we found some interesting findings, some associated with our aim, some not so much – but that is completely fine because we can learn many things by listening to their voices. For example, from this exercise, we learn that some teachers may sometimes go outside during class sessions and leave the children without any supervision for some time. Additionally, we learned that class seating arrangements matter as students who sat at the back of the classroom sometimes feel teachers do not pay them as much attention compared to students who sat at the front of the class. We found that this method is very useful to give children a medium to say whatever is on their mind freely.
Secondly, we asked the children to rate some questions such as which learning method (using videos, storytelling, discussion, study outdoors, etc) they like the most, among others. We did this by giving them three coloured post-its; green symbolising ‘I like it’, yellow for ‘I don’t know or do not want to answer’, and red for ‘I don’t like it’. For example, we asked them who likes to learn outside the classroom and count from three to one. During the countdown, the children would have to choose which of their coloured post-its fits their feelings. When the countdown reaches one, they have to raise their hand, holding their post-its. We found that the children really like this process because it feels like they are playing a game and they would sometimes giggle with excitement while making up their minds and taking a peek at their friends’ choice. At the end of the discussion, we thanked the children for their participation and gave them each a set of stationery and stickers of their choice.
These methods of listening to children not only helped us answer our research aims but also helped the children have a more positive and relaxed interaction with researchers - who they just met. By making the children feel positive emotions and relaxed, they are more likely to share their experiences with researchers. We believe that using colourful post-its and markers makes the children feel like they are playing or creating something, instead of being a research participant. Additionally, it was an extremely fun experience for the researchers too!
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Awliya R. Hendaryanti is a researcher and has just finished her M.A. from The University of Leeds, United Kingdom.