Abigail Hackett and Eve Stirling
The kids strike on 3rd May was an unprecedented event, organised by a small groups of anonymous parents via social media, including Facebook Page ‘LET our KIDS be KIDS – TUES 3rd MAY’. The Facebook Page had, on the day of data analysis, 24,091 Likes (people following the Newsfeed from that Page) and the organisers posted to the page estimating that 8000 children across the country were withdrawn from school on 3rd May in protest at the assessment orientated and narrow curriculum being imposed on schools by the current government.
On one single Facebook thread, viewed on the Facebook Page ‘LET our KIDS be KIDS – TUES 3rd MAY’ the organisers of 3rd May strike invited families to write or post photos demonstrating how they were spending their strike day. In total, 132 new Posts were made to this thread, and the content of these were a mixture of photographs and descriptions of what activities were taking place. The images shared showed how children were learning and depicted the products produced as a result of learning during strike day.
Why analyse this data?
We were intrigued by the idea that parents were showing the government and the public, through actions and photographs, what they felt learning should look like for their children, and what the problems were with the current curriculum and approaches to assessment. The comments made on this thread are of course performative, in the sense that parents chose and curated a range of images and words about their day, to share with a wide public audience. Many of the posts showed this awareness of audience explicitly, with comments directed at Nicky Morgan (Education Secretary), comments thanking other parents for striking, and this comments from a supportive, but non-striking parent;
So, if anyone is in Central London enjoying their day of fun learning, please give me a shout and I will come grab some photos of how learning SHOULD look!
Wall Post 3 May 06.11
We decided to analyse the comments on this single thread in order to understand more about the messages around aspirations for their children’s learning that these parents were communicating through Facebook.
So what did families do on 3rd May during the strike?
In order to analyse this data, we focussed on the comments on the thread which were about what children and families were doing during strike day (rather than general messages of support or critique). We thematically analysed this data, looking for key categories, patterns and trends in what was being posted.
Overwhelmingly the most popular category was nature: 61 posts showed children in parks, playgrounds, at the seaside or playing near water for example. Also strikingly popular were museums, heritage sites and art galleries, locations from which many of the participating families chose to post on the Facebook thread. The posts were also replete with activity and industry; children were drawing, writing, making, baking and photographs and comments both describing these activities and illustrating the end products were well represented on the thread.
Nature was a massively popular theme on the thread, with 66% of the posts mentioning some activity related to the natural environment. Sub themes within the posts that connected children’s learning with the natural world included learning science through being in nature, building dens, being near water, playing in parks and playgrounds, and visiting or interacting with animals. In some cases (including Sheffield, where we both live) parks became a focussed gathering place for protestors
700 in our local park!
Wall Post 3 May
“Today’s classroom”: the importance of place
Place seems to be of huge importance to the parents. The majority of parents posting seemed to have left their homes and ‘gone somewhere’ for strike day, most commonly outside, natural places or museums or heritage sites. Place was also central to a lot of the learning activities that went on during strike day. Learning about a castle or from museum displays, building dens, pond dipping, or observing animals are all examples of place-specific kinds of learning
A couple of posts commented “today’s classroom” with a photograph of a beautiful, natural location, encapsulating the sense of importance parents placed on location and environment for learning. The strong representation of museums and heritage sites in the thread is an encouraging sign for a sector which is facing significant funding cuts and sustainability challenges. Museums still appear, from this data, to be absolutely central to these parents’ thinking in relation to child centred, positive learning experiences, with 32 museum or heritage sites named specifically – from Lullingstone Roman Villa to Mayflower Museum in Plymouth.
“Learning fractions through pizza”: re-imagining the school curriculum
A strong theme emerging from our analysis was the way in which, through actions and images, the parents and children were re-imagining the school curriculum. Frequently parents did this explicitly in their posts, by labelling the activities as a school subject or topic. This included, for example, teaching fractions through cutting up pizza, learning about tessellation and multiplication by sewing fabric squares or pot painting to learn about kiln firing processes. In a sense then, these posts are not particularly radical, in that parents were not asking for a change in what or if children are taught through school subjects. Rather parents seem to be asking for the same school subjects to be taught but in more inspiring, creative and applied ways. As one parent commented “Our children are not robots”. In some ways, this is a powerful request, because it is sensible, achievable and doable, in a way that an entire reimagining of the school system might not be.
Literacy, one of the most contentious aspects of the current school curriculum, was well represented in the thread. Literacy activities tended to fall into two categories; either literary activities such as poetry, book reading or visiting the library, or applied ‘writing for a reason’. Examples of this ‘purposeful writing’ included writing down things of interest discovered in the museum, or making ‘nature notes’ in the woods. This purposeful writing, inspired by things that interested the children, stands in contrast to the current curricular focus on grammar and sentence structure, often following obscure or unrealistic rules. The contrast is therefore between literacy as a fixed set of autonomous skills to be taught by rote (as in the current curriculum) and literacy as a social practice to be adapted for context. This contrast mirrors the work of literacy scholars such as Street and Street (1991) who have argued that literacy is a social practice, contrasting schooled literacy practices with home literacy practices which are context specific. Street and Street (1991) write about how schooled literacy practices can infiltrate home lives; here we see parents quite explicitly fighting back against that.
A few activities were surprisingly under-represented in the thread. These included sports or physical activities (though there were some exceptions, most notable biking). Commercial toys didn’t tend to feature much either, there were few examples of play with Lego, small world figures, or even dressing up and socio-dramatic play. The digital, including television, computer or gaming was almost completely absent from the thread. So too were examples of charitable work or helping those more needy than themselves. This is not to say that these things did not happen during strike day, but it is interesting that what parents chose to represent ‘a day of learning’ or ‘what learning should look like’ on the thread fell into such specific categories.
Children as active agents in their own life-worlds
The idea that young children are “active agents in their own life-worlds”, with their own perspectives on the world, and that if we want to understand children’s lives we should ask children themselves, comes from social studies of childhood (James and Prout, 1997). It also comes strongly from the comments on this thread. There is a strong sense of the political on the thread, and engagement with the issues from both parents and children (rather than the day just being a chance for a ‘jolly’). A significant minority of posts to the thread were about children’s own involvement in the protest, including making banners and t-shirts, writing to the government, and “digging a hole to bury the SATS”. These posts numbered 10 in total.
In addition, a theme emerging from the analysis was a sense of letting children have more autonomy during strike day then they would at school; for example, children choosing how to spend the day, and allowing things to unfold in time rather than pre-planned with a defined goal. As one poster wrote;
My 3 primary aged children are preparing themselves for a day of craft, i have no idea what they are going to make because i am just going to #letkidsbekids
Wall comment 3 May at 08:43
Again this sense of autonomy and going with the flow stands in contrast to the current perceived restrictive view of learning which the parents on this thread feel is negatively impacting on their child’s learning.
As two researchers who are also parents of young children, we have followed this campaign and been fascinated by how it has mobilised and inspired people. We have spent less than a week doing some quick, initial analysis of the intriguing data from this one thread; the insights shared here are our first impressions and early emerging themes. There were over 120 photographs shared on this thread alone and we are currently undertaking more in-depth visual analysis of these. We shall blog about this in a future post.
James, A. and Prout, A. (eds) (1997) Constructing and reconstructing childhood: contemporary issues in the sociological study of childhood. 2nd edition. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Street, J. C. and Street, B. V. (1991) The Schooling of Literacy. In: D. Barton and R. Ivanic Writing in the Community. California, Sage. p.143-166.