Classroom matters: Children as ethnographers in the classroom

A new laptop in the classroom led to ten months of diaries written by children. The diaries are the important data of JustEd member Riikka Hohti’s doctoral dissertation.

“I used to teach on the third grade in elementary school. I wanted to listen to the children, but there were no time, no space. There were 30 pupils in one class,” Riikka says. “One day I brought a brand new laptop into class, which the children were very keen on trying. I thought, why not?”

This was how it all started. Riikka asked the children to write on the laptop about what was happening in the classrooms – their views and observations, their thoughts and stories. There were two classroom diary writers per day, who had no other duties except for writing during the whole day. This practice went on for ten months until Riikka became a full time researcher at the University of Helsinki.

The object of Riikka’s thesis is everyday life in the school classroom with a focus on what matters to the children. In her research, the classroom is understood as a more-than-human context consisting of combinations and gatherings of material things, bodies, time, space and ideas.

Riikka Hohti

Riikka Hohti’s doctoral dissertation takes place on 4 May at the University of Helsinki.

Space, time and small things

Right from the beginning, the classroom diary writing involved no strict rules or guiding questions. This was why a range of very different writings were produced: in addition to more conventional descriptions, there were rich, fragmented and controversial writings. They offered an alternative perspective to a school classroom to that of an educational professional. The classroom diary data challenged Riikka to think about how to approach them without diminishing their complexity, which seemed valuable.

“I found that when children were given no strict instructions, they produced rich knowledge. There were many kinds of writings, but they all provoked my thinking, they had a lot to tell. My argument is that this unregulated space for writing allowed me to grasp things that mattered to the children”, Riikka says.

Furthermore, the data eventually led her to seek for alternative, non-representational ways of engaging with data. In the analysis she uses various retelling and writing techniques.

She describes and talks about the children’s writing with great respect and warmth.

“I realised that what mattered a lot to the children were often the small and material things. There were observations about people touching their hair, football cards, food, small items hidden in the pencil case …”

“Joy is an important part of the school day”

“My project was part of a Finnish Academy project TelLis, which was about well-being. I would say that children are really good at noticing fun and making fun. It seems that for them fun and joy is an important goal of the school day,” Riikka observes.

If she were to give advice to fellow teachers, she would encourage them to stop and listen to the children.

“The main message could be to listen to anything that the children want to tell and to stay with it before making quick explanations. The child lives her everyday life as part of complex webs of happenings. The space of complexity that children are offered in the school, it is quite narrow and limited.”

And if she had a group of decision makers before her, what advice should she give them?

“Especially when resources are limited, children should be listened to carefully, and their views should be taken as knowledge about education. Even small decisions have far reaching and sometimes unpredictable consequences”, stresses Riikka.

Her study suggests that open-ended narrative spaces, such as the approach ‘classroom diaries’, can be useful for educators to encounter children in an alternative way, to follow their thoughts to things that matter to them, and for intervening in educational practice in joyful and playful ways. Also, by highlighting participatory research as entanglement, the study suggests engaging with children’s views in non-reductive and non-linear ways that leave space for unpredictabilities.

On Wednesday 4 May Riikka will defend her doctoral dissertation entitled “Classroom matters: Research with children as entanglement” in the Faculty of Behavioural Sciences, University of Helsinki.

The dissertation is available here: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-51-2069-4

Riikka is writing blogposts (in Finnish) on her subject here: https://lapsinakokulma.wordpress.com/

 

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About the Author

About the Author: Journalist currently working as Communications Specialist at the Nordic Centre of Excellence "Justice through Education in the Nordic countries" and in NordForsk's programme "Education for Tomorrow". .

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