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Living and learning during a pandemic: what can children tell us?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 14 October 2021

Yana Manyukhina.

Researcher: why did you want to take part in this interview?

Child: “Because nobody had listened to children”

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us important lessons about school education that we should never forget in a post-pandemic world. We have come to appreciate, as never before, the significance of teacher support, interactions with peers, and positive family environments for children’s learning and wellbeing. At the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (0-11 years) (HHCP), we have also become acutely sensitive to children’s voice and its importance in research. We know we cannot fully understand how to help children succeed at school unless we ask, and listen to, children.

Our Living and Learning during a Pandemic study spanning the autumn term of 2020 was designed to do just that – talk and listen to children. Conducted after the reopening of schools following the first national lockdown, the project aimed to offer young children an opportunity to share their experiences and feelings around homebound learning and life. We wanted to start filling the gap in the rapidly growing literature on the impact of the pandemic on pupils’ well-being and learning which at the time had been based primarily on large-scale surveys examining the perspectives of adults (DfE 2021; GL Assessment 2021; NFER 2021; RS Assessment 2021).

Using our existing network of schools, children’s charities, individual parents, and social network sites such as Mumsnet, we recruited 12 primary-aged children to participate in the study. We interviewed each child remotely via secure videoconferencing software for up to an hour. While all interviews were conducted in the presence of a parent in the interests of child safeguarding, our focus was strongly on children’s own feelings and views. We therefore asked parents to refrain from interrupting, correcting, or prompting the children – it is children’s own reality that we wanted to hear. We also chose to forgo any interview schedules – our conversations had an underlying theme of children’s life during the pandemic but were otherwise unstructured to allow the children to talk freely, focussing on what seemed most important to them.

Our key findings, outlined in detail in this working paper, can be summarised as follows:

    1. Children prefer learning at school to home learning due to opportunities for socialisation. The participants indicated “not being able to talk about your feelings” (Dennis*, 9) and “having to keep everything inside you” (Audrey, 8) as the hardest part of life under lockdown, emphasising the fundamental importance of social interactions for children’s wellbeing.
    2. Children prefer learning at school to home learning due to teachers’ presence and feedback. For instance, when asked about the disadvantages of being educated at home, 6-year-old Angela stated that in school, “teacher can give you a sticker when you do a good job”. On occasions where feedback was provided to the participants remotely, this helped them feel “as if you were in the classroom” (Audrey, 8), where teachers were at hand to “help if you had questions and doubts” (Stella, 7).
    3. The arts have been an important element in the participants’ lives during lockdown. They described art activities as “fun stuff” (Stella, 7) and “fun things you can do at home” (Angela, 6). When asked what made doing art at home so enjoyable, the participants emphasised the importance of having freedom to choose what activities to engage in, how much time to spend doing them, and what outputs to produce, thus pointing to the importance of agency. This is captured in the quote from 8-year-old Audrey: “it doesn’t matter if something isn’t just right, you can do it freely”.

We perceive these insights as especially valuable because we learned them from children themselves. Our overarching conclusion bearing relevance to all education research is this: children need more opportunities to have their voices heard, including and especially in times of crises that put their present and future life chances at risk. The insight is best reflected in the quote from a 9-year-old study participant who, when asked why she wanted to take part in our study, replied: “because nobody had listened to children”.

It is time that we do.

Please our centre webpage for more information about our research on agency and contact details.

Photo by Jill Carlson (jillcarlson.org) via Creative Commons

*All children’s names have been pseudonymised, with all pseudonyms chosen by the children themselves.




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