The Critical

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The Critical – “it feels like work, but fun”

Near the end of the project I interviewed a group of three higher achieving girls, interested to know what and how they were learning. They were in the playground assessing my photographs taken during four days of observation and I videoed the first part of it and for practical reasons audio-recorded the rest. I had asked them to annotate the photos with any memories, comments or observations. See examples photos and their comments: Photo 1, Photo 2, Photo 3. This transcript picks up the latter half of the conversation and makes reference to various sections of the video:

Interviewer: Did you feel as though you were doing a lot of playing?

… this is how it looked to me because the input seemed like a seamless stream of linked fun activities, however as is often the case in qualitative research …

Sarah: No, I felt as though I was doing lots of working.

… one’s assumptions are challenged from the outset, thankfully. Sarah emphatically sets up a dialectic between working and playing and by repeating my sentence structure it is clear she has strong feelings about the project. From this and later comments, it strikes me that this is a girl who likes known parameters and for whom the fluidity of this project may not have worked so well.

Int: Really?

Milly: Yeah, so did I!

Milly’s agreement stems from an intensity of engagement in particular aspects of the project rather than from any negative feeling.

Jemima: It feels like work, but fun.

Jemima has nothing but praise for the Cultural Campus and is eager to redress the balance in favour of fun. At the same time, however, the dialectic is maintained with the word but. This same distinction is drawn by another child in the video, who looks at a photograph of their Maths lesson and comments: “That was when we were working” See @ 00:10 secs

Sarah: I think it feels like work, work, work, hard, hard, hard

Sarah maintains her position in the most rhetorical manner. Could it be that she is challenged by group work? dealing with change? making an extra effort or using her imagination?

Int: Yeah, but did you enjoy it?

Sarah: um… er….average…

Int: Average type…

Sarah’s disinterest is a refreshingly honest response and a testament to how young people’s responses are by no means homogenous. No matter how much adult time and effort invested, or opportunities or resources made available, Sarah reminds us that arts programmes of this nature are not necessarily the universal golden ticket and there will always be room for diversification and widening of appeal.

Jemima: It was fun work though, it was fun work though

Jemima is once again keen to make her voice heard and restore the positive. She was particularly enthusiastic most of the time. Indeed after a session recalling all the various creative and media-related activities that the children had undertaken over the previous weeks, she got up and exclaimed “Thank you world! This has been the best day ever!” See embedded video above @ 04:48 mins. She also wrote “I love life!” on one of the photos a couple of weeks later.

Sarah: But I prefer being at school sometimes because I’m tired

Sarah will not be swayed by Jemima’s optimism and perhaps the daily commute to the Southbank ‘to be put to work’ was just too much for her, preferring the predictable daily school routine closer to home.

Int: Do you think anything’s erm.. changed since you started the…?

The vagueness of the question is intended to generate as varied a response as possible, hopefully one that is personalised and heartfelt.

Jemima: Yeah a lot!

Milly: A lot

Int: What’s changed?

Milly: I’ve learnt so much about England

Jemima: and Indonesia

Both Milly and Jemima respond with a characteristic willingness to learn. What has changed for them is the extent to which they have become more knowledgeable individuals and their critical awareness is primed to make the most of opportunities as they arise. They even suggest the next one should take place in Paris because they know so much about England now.

Sarah: What do you mean what’s changed?

With a natural sense of pragmatism, Sarah asks for clarification, she does not accept the vagueness of the question and needs specifics.

Int: I mean is there anything different now to … the way you think about things?

Sarah: Do you mean like if I have learnt anything?

Int: Yeah

Sarah: Erm, yeah, about Indonesian instruments, the Southbank and the Festival of Britain and stuff

There’s a sense of reeling off a list here, of going through the motions. The CLC noted that some of the children were unclear about their ultimate aim i.e. to produce an art installation in Royal Festival Hall exhibition space, and that this objective needed to be explained on a number of occasions. Perhaps Sarah is a child who needs context in order to fully engage and perhaps more input as to why an art installation is considered a good thing in the first place.

It is a further reminder that children need to be regarded as individuals where possible and although for most people collaborative, immersive arts projects might be fun in and of themselves, other more critically engaged children may need contextualisation and a rationale. Indeed, just as History has us questioning the reliability of sources, we could all benefit from a focus on context in the Arts, the better to start making connections between cultural institutions and the education sector.

Int: … and what about the performing and all that, the poems, and the sketching, the photoshopping?

Milly: I know right now that I want to be a poet when I’m older

Recalling Simon at LA, here’s another unprompted, heartfelt and gratifying reference to future aspiration. This comment exemplifies Milly’s having reached Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky 1978:90). She has enjoyed being stretched beyond her comfort zone and has a thirst for more.

Sarah: Really? You want to be a poet?

This was the only time in the interview that Sarah responded with anything other than indifference. Her zone lies elsewhere. From her surprised tone, perhaps she’s more of a scientist and her needs might have been met with more of an end view in sight.

Benjamin Franklin:

"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn."

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