Listening to children: environmental perspectives and the school curriculum

Project: Research council

Project Details


This study concerns how children perceive, and act within, their local environment. It draws on educational, geographical and environmental psychology perspectives. The study is set in Bristol, a city, like others, facing significant social, economic, environmental and educational challenges, and is concerned with the effect such an environment has on its young population. The study will be carried out over a 12 month period with 11-12 year old pupils in one school, using an innovative action research based approach to curriculum development relevant to similar urban settings. It will consider how children's environmental experiences can be incorporated into the curriculum through Citizenship and Education for Sustainable Development, exploring how participation in community based action research can help children to become environmentally conscious and active citizens, and so contribute towards more sustainable urban environments. The study aims to:

understand children's evolving urban environmental experience
increase the relevance of the school curriculum to children, theirfamilies and the local community
develop ways of involving children, families and community representatives in curriculum development
develop ways of involving children in sustainable environmental action in the local community
inform local environmental and educational policy.

Layman's description

Phase 1 revealed children’s detailed knowledge of their local community and how important the quality of the local environment is to them.¬ Despite this, the children feel that they have limited access to the community and restricted opportunity to make the most of their local knowledge.¬ In the community children are unable to take action to achieve their desire for a better environment.¬ In the school children’s local knowledge is mostly unknown – and hence unused.¬
A number of outcomes have arisen from phase 2.¬ These include the regular involvement of the South Gloucestershire Children’s Fund in the school, the production of a project DVD, and a Children’s Conference which gave all year 7 children an opportunity to reflect on their local community experience, and question a panel of school and local officials.¬ As a result, the police community liaison officer and the local authority parks committee representative have agreed to come into school to listen to children’s local community concerns.¬ The process of involving children continues, with evidence that developments will occur within the aegis of the Kingswood partnership which involves 6 local secondary schools and a post 16 college.¬ Its interests includes: globalisation, with a focus on citizenship within the community, a year 7 multidisciplinary curriculum project, and primary-secondary liaison.

Key findings

Children have an intricate knowledge of their local community, can operate safely in it, and view local environmental quality of great importance.Our findings suggest that this knowledge is mostly unknown by the school – and hence not used. The children have a strong desire to be involved in local improvement and feel that school could support their involvement . The opportunity for parents and community partners to be involved in community and curriculum discussion with children and teachers was pioneering for this school.
At the end of the project, the university researchers carried out semi-structured interviews with the research team, seeking to critically appraise [i] the project experience of those involved, and [ii] the impact of the project on the school, its curriculum and those involved.¬What follows draws on these interviews.¬
A school senior manager noted that the project had demonstrated how children could be involved in the curriculum in a new way – as researchers, team workers, and independent thinkers.¬This manager felt that this had been motivational and had built confidence, supporting the idea of bringing community experience into the curriculum.¬ The project had given children a sense of pride in their own community experience by using their own involvement in a relevant way, and by developing the confidence to share their experiences.¬Another said that the project had reinforced the school’s strong priority for connections between home and school and for learning outside school, contributed to the learning to learn agenda, and had brought other benefits through sharing the project experience within the Kingswood Partnership and with local primary schools.¬¬
The school governor noted that the project had caught the imagination of the teachers and senior managers, and had highlighted the problems with the usual notions of school councils; he thought that the main outcome was an opportunity for the school to rethink the way that it involves children, going beyond merely giving children information about various agencies which might impact on their lives, to providing a participatory insight into the nature of democratic processes.¬The teacher researchers
echoed this, saying that within this project, children have been viewed differently and that the project had addressed something that was missing from schools where pupils usually have no real ownership.¬ They stressed that the school has acknowledged the community more.¬
The teacher researchers said that the children had had a massive boost to their self-esteem, with individuals changing considerably and growing in confidence.¬They attributed this to participation, to the responsibility and trust children had been given, saying that what had been achieved was largely generated by the children themselves.¬They noted that, overall, the balance between children and teacher decision-making was around 70:30.¬ The managers saw a key impact on children’s capacity to learn; they cited opportunities to work with and relate to others in different ways, developing skills, and using ICT imaginatively.¬They said that children’s engagement and their pleasure in learning had been evident.¬Managers noted a broader benefit for children across year 7, and the year 12 mentors, through on-going engagement in the research itself, through assemblies and the Children’s Conference.¬¬
The teacher researchers described the project as one of the best professional experiences in many years of teaching.¬The school managers and governor welcomed opportunities for teachers to collaborate and develop their ability to progress a new idea, with access to new sources, new insights into how to engage children and new ways of thinking about the curriculum.¬¬
The most significant academic achievement has been that research has been successfully conducted in a secondary school where children have not only been able to play a leading role in determining the focus of the research, but have also been an integral part of the research team, designing research instruments, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, attempting change and disseminating the experience.¬ This approach is not typical in research relating to children, or in developing curriculum.¬Although children and young people are one of the most heavily researched groups in society, and despite attempts to report findings in children’s own words, the process still tends to be controlled by teachers and researchers.¬ This research was different; it drew on the experience of the participants and evolved through the shared involvement of adults and children in the project.¬The challenge for the research was to develop approaches that were sensitive to the personal experience of young people.¬We think that, when this research is more formally reported in the literature, it will have a major impact on how people think about research, children and curriculum
Short title27,870
Effective start/end date31/05/0430/05/05