Let's hear it for our children

A new research centre is finding out about youngsters by getting them to set the questions. Jane Matthews listens in
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The Independent Online

"You're not listening" may be the soundtrack to life in many homes. But "not listening" has taken on a new meaning since my 11-year-old son Paul was invited to participate in an initiative to teach children how to be researchers.

"You're not listening" may be the soundtrack to life in many homes. But "not listening" has taken on a new meaning since my 11-year-old son Paul was invited to participate in an initiative to teach children how to be researchers.

The Children's Research Centre (CRC) was launched at The Open University this year after a successful pilot. Since January, 16 Year Seven students, including Paul, have completed a course in research skills. They are now working on their individual projects. Underpinning the creation of the Centre is the conviction that children are the experts on being children - and as long as society limits itself to adults researching children's lives, we will only ever have an incomplete picture.

Proof came at the start of the project when the youngsters discussed what they might want to research. "Medieval kings," said one; "planets," another: their frame of reference being the type of projects teachers suggest in the classroom. Fast-forward a term and the children's focus has switched. Without prompts from staff at CRC (who, at the children's suggestion, are now styled "research assistants") the topics include whether classroom seating arrangements affect learning, the effects of parental pressure on children who have music lessons, and Paul's topic - children's experience of bereavement.

He has circulated a questionnaire to 145 nine- to 11-year-olds and reports that all but one have been through the death of a relative or pet. Last week Paul set out for Great Linford Combined School in Milton Keynes to do follow-up interviews. How did children feel about their loss and about death in general? Whom did they go to for support and what kinds of support helped them? "I just wanted to find out if having a death causes you to change," Paul explained when I asked where he had got the idea. "I don't think parents and teachers do listen to children enough. We have a lot of ideas adults don't know about."

CRC's founder Dr Mary Kellett, who has been both parent and teacher before joining the OU, says: "I have always been impressed by what children are capable of.

"The whole ethos of the Centre is about valuing what they can contribute. It's not just what children say; they think about things differently. We miss so much because everything we do is through adult filters. Children are used in research as participants but this is always adult-led. The barrier is not their age but their lack of research skills, so why not teach them?"

There is certainly a huge chasm between society's and CRC's expectations of what children of this age are capable. Paul can now use a camcorder and a voice recorder, design a questionnaire, listen, consolidate vast amounts of information, write a report and discuss research ethics. In one session I watched the children spend 45 minutes in total concentration learning how to use Powerpoint. It was hard not to draw a comparison with the National Curriculum requirement for the same age group to spend half a term making biscuits. Or school projects that, say these researchers, consist almost entirely of a swift Google search, then paraphrasing the results.

Letting children set research agendas not only tells us how they see the world, but such young researchers may elicit different responses from their peers. Paul's classmate Daisy Wooller, who is looking at the relationship between enjoying or loathing a subject and being good or bad at it, says: "Sometimes children do tell adults what they want to hear. Children listen to you more because you are one of them. You're not a stranger."

Eleanor Denny says she certainly found her peers opening up about their feelings of being pressured by parental expectation when they are studying music, feeling unable to quit in case their parents felt let down. Paul says children may also make things up to tell adults, so they can joke about it afterwards with their friends.

But back to not listening. These middle school years are a period which has been overlooked, Dr Kellett believes. For every text on toddler taming or surviving teenagers, there is a gap on the shelf between. "Few sections of society listen to this age group. They will listen to teenagers but few take 11- and 12-year-olds seriously."

This may no longer be quite true, for she and her CRC colleagues have been inundated with requests from teachers, policymakers and other researchers for more information and to provide speakers. Eleanor presented her findings to the Cabinet Office and a teachers' conference. Two students from the pilot group, Ben Davies and Selena Ryan-Vig, are talking to the FA and FIFA about their findings that their peers not only favour mixed-gender football and a mixed premier league, but think it would improve spectators' behaviour.

And in due course I would expect the British Board of Film Classification to be knocking on 12-year-old Alex Gifford's door to hear what young people really think about film certificates. I imagine the censors have already worked out that all those under-12s prohibited from watching Spider-Man saw it six months later on Sky Movies or on a DVD rented out by accommodating parents.

What they may not know, until they read Alex's report, is how universal is the ploy of children buying tickets for films they are permitted to see, then sliding into another screen in the same multiplex to watch a 15- or 18-rated movie. "I want the Board to change it so I can see films if my parents agree," says Alex. "I do think sometimes children know more about their lives than adults do."

Dr Kellett and the other "research assistants" would agree. The Centre is linked to the OU's Childhood Studies Programme, which itself broke the mould by drawing for its course materials on children speaking about their experiences of being children. "The longer I have worked with children, the more I learn how much society can learn from them," Dr Kellett says.

I come at it as a parent, conscious that even when I'm listening hard I can't climb into Paul's head and understand how it feels to be growing up now. But it strikes me that in homes like ours CRC may also play a significant role. Facilitating children talking to their peers about their experience might just close the gap of understanding a little - before teenage arrives and the bedroom door slams firmly in our faces.

Reports by the CRC's young researchers can be read online at childrens-research-centre.open.ac.uk. The OU runs a course on Research with Children and Young People (code EK310), which can be studied alone or as part of a Childhood and Youth Studies degree