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Blog post Covid-19, education and educational research

Opportunities missed: Then the rains came down and washed the writing away

Liz Chamberlain, Open University

Discussion among researchers at the moment is mostly punctuated with references to Covid-19. From across the various fields that my research cross-sections – primary English, children’s participation, teacher education and girls’ education in development contexts – colleagues are considering what their academic response could or indeed should be. Inevitably, it doesn’t take long for these discussions to shift to the ethical implications.

‘I started to photograph and catalogue the children’s “found writing” observed during my daily excursions. What are these localised practices telling us about how children are choosing to participate in and represent their lockdown experiences?’

Professor Cath Larkins’ research on the lack of children’s participation in shaping responses to Covid-19 asks where the children and young people’s voices are (Larkins et al., 2020). The study’s title, Building on rainbows, resonates with my own Covid-19 research. In the initial weeks of lockdown, the satellite village where I live began to take on a new and more colourful identity. Writing – which for me sits within a multi-modal definition (Bearne, 2010) – includes the pictures, numbers, posters and chalk games (and of course rainbows) which began to appear on walls, pavements, in trees and at windows. Conversations within the network of United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) international ambassadors made it apparent that these activities were not confined to my six-mile radius in the south of England. My interest, however, builds on my previous work on children’s out of school text creation (Chamberlain, 2019). Specifically at this time, it lies in the ways in which children’s writing practices are being created – either intentionally or as an afterthought – for audiences found in publicly accessed spaces. So I started to photograph and catalogue the children’s ‘found writing’ observed during my daily walks, cycles or essential trips to the supermarket (I have to assume that these writings are by children). My key interest is the public nature of these multi-modal responses, which is a constant thread in the book that I wrote for teachers (Chamberlain, 2019). What is it specifically that the act of writing does for the young writer which means it is their only ‘go to’ reaction in response to a specific situation? And what specifically are these localised practices telling us about how children are choosing to participate in and represent their lockdown experiences?

And so to the thorny issue of the ethics. According to the Open University’s ethics policy, as I am not actually working with human participants – I’m not interviewing or observing, merely documenting what’s been put out for the world to see – I don’t need ethical approval. However, as co-director of the Open University’s Children’s Research Centre, I would always seek to find ways of obtaining approval from the writing’s creators. BERA’s Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research (2018) provide clearer guidance, and paragraph 12 reflects my concerns, stating that I should not assume consent for the use for research purposes of ‘publicly accessible data’, and that I should strive to seek permission from its owner. I have taken a pragmatic approach to obtaining consent to reference the ‘found’ writing: writing found in obviously public spaces like parks or on street pavements is photographed and included, but it can’t include names that might identify its owner. Obtaining consent to reference the ‘found writing’ through closed doors and windows is a challenge, but I have employed multiple means of seeking permission. Facebook is useful, as are local contacts who snowball my messages to friends of friends, which then find their ways into the inboxes of local teachers who send out messages to children and parents. I have also become adept at using the universal sign for ‘can I take a photo’ through windows. Then there was the lucky spot of the parent who lives in a less accessible location and who posted the picture of her son’s writing on the village Facebook page just for people to appreciate his work – a quick ‘Would it be okay to message you?’ later and her shared insights about why her son wants to respond in this way is already framing the study’s discussion. When it’s safe to do so, I will drop off a specially designed postcard (drawn by my nine-year-old nephew) to each carefully mapped house thanking them for their artwork and asking if it can be included in the research.

I’m not sure where you are, but it’s raining now and the writing is all washed away, and so begins the opportunity for a further month of data collection…


References

Bearne, E., with Bazalgette, C. (Eds.) (2010). Beyond Words: Developing children’s response to multimodal texts. Leicester: UK Literacy Association.

British Educational Research Association (BERA) (2018). Ethical guidelines for educational research (4th ed.). London. Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/researchers-resources/publications/ethical-guidelines-for-educational-research-2018

Chamberlain, L. (2019). Inspiring writing in primary schools (2nd ed.). Exeter: Learning Matters.

Larkins, C., Stoecklin, D, Milkova, R., Del Moral Espin, L. Crowley, A. Mort, M., Easthope, L., Schurmann, M, Crook, D., & Fernandes, N. (2020). Building on rainbows: Supporting children’s participation in shaping responses to Covid-19. Preston: Centre for Children and Young People’s Participation.