Reflections on interviewing children

I interviewed three children for my Masters Research project. There were a number of challenges with this:

  • They are all ESL students; that is, they are only just learning English. Some are not literate. Each has a different level of confidence with spoken English.
  • This meant I decided to include interpreters in the interviews. Two of the interpreters were already present in the school, as Teacher Aides, so are familiar to the students. One student had to work with an outside interpreter that I hired for the project.
  • Despite the presence of the interpreters, I wanted to engage the students as directly as possible with my questions, so tried to develop interview designs that incorporated visual elements, and put less emphasis on spoken language.
  • One student spoke several languages already – one at home with her family, and another that she had used in school, in her second country. Her spoken English is apparently now more comfortable to her than her ‘school’ language. (According to the literature I have read, this is not uncommon – there is a point in language learning for children where the new language that is typically used everywhere except in the home, becomes more comfortable than the mother tongue, used only in the home). However, the language she spoke at home is still apparently her most comfortable language. Therefore, I arranged for her to have an interpreter for her ‘home’ language present. In the end though, she spoke mostly in English in the interview. The interpreter was very helpful in ensuring she understood the questions.
  • The child who worked with the outside interpreter was incredibly nervous in the interviews – so much so that sometimes her whole body trembled. She smiled and laughed the whole time and was happy to continue, but she was clearly nervous. I don’t know if this was because of the outside interpreter, or because of the interview context, or becuase of something in the way I had set up the room, or simply that, as quite a shy girl who is quite quiet, she was just reacting to the strangeness of it all. If there had been more time between interviews, I think I would have been able to process this discomfort more, and perhaps explored some other options that she might feel more comfortable with. But the relentless time-span I had to work with made any kind of reflection very difficult. This is probably a significant weakness in my research design, but one I had very little control over.

Not all of my visual tasks worked well. Some took a little too long, for example. Here is a summary:

In the first interview, the children came with a drawing they had prepared earlier, that showed a music lesson here, compared with amusic lesson in their home country. We used these picures to compare their experiences, and to help me get a sense of the context in which they would speak about the music activities they do with me.

Their pictures were quite factual, and really just showed pictures of the instrumets they played. that was fine. The point of the task was to get the conversation flowing, and give me concrete information to work from. All of their pictures were unfinished, but each said they intended to finish them. (Incidentally, as I write this, I realise I haven’t followed that up! I will ask them next week if they have finished the pictures).

The next visual task involved the students taking digital photos of ‘learning’ in their classroom, or anywhere else in the school. They each took three photos (although I had imagined they would take more). We then looked at the photos together, discussed the kind of learning that was shown in each photo, and whether this kind of learning also took place in music.

They said some very interesting things about the learning shown in the photos, but sturggled to then connect the ‘kind of learning’ (eg. reading, thinking, discussing, inventing) to the music classes. I think they wanted to interpret the learning in the photo very literally (eg. ‘reading from a book’ as opposed to just ‘reading’). It was hard for them to distil the image down to the learning mode and then transfer it to a different setting.

I think three photos was plenty, as each showed a different kind of learning mode. However, the discussions around each photo were quite lengthy. Perhaps I should have been careful to limit this. I think I dug too hard, and approached the photo discussion from too many different angles.

Next I asked them to watch some footage of their music class in action. I chose different segments of the lesson that showed different kinds of interactions, and actions. I then asked them to describe what was taking place in the segment, if it was easy or difficult, and if it was important. They coped well with the descriptions, and the labelling of ‘easy or difficult’; but unsurprsingly struggled more with the reasons why a task was easy/difficult, and whether or not it was ‘important’. I think the last question was too obscure. I was curious about what they would say but I think even lots of teachers, or adults, would struggle to articulate why a particular segment of a music class was ‘important’ or not!

Next I wanted to get an idea of how they feel in the music class. (I was curious about whether music is a social event for them.. or something else). in the University library I found a set of large photographs depicting children showing different emotions. So I asked the students to pick out a card that showed:

  • How they felt in music on their first day in the school;
  • How they feel in music now;
  • A feeling they might have had one time in music, on another day (an exception, in other words, something specific to a particular class)
  • How they think another student in the class might be feeling in music.

I felt that these ‘feelings’ cards worked brilliantly. Each of the three students really sifted through the cards to find the right image for themselves. I chose not to question their choices of cards, but to just accept them. I hope this was the right decision. I wanted the visual nature of the exercise to have the chance to work for itself, not be further examined with yet more words.

One child chose this photo to show how she felt at the beginning:

Another child said this photo shows how he feels in music now:

This photo was chosen by one to show how she felt one time, in music:

And one student nominated this photo as showing how another student (or students) feel in the class:

I really liked using these images, and getting students’ responses.

Finally, for the girl who had been very nervous in all of her interviews, I asked her to choose a photo that showed how she felt doing these interviews. (This wasn’t a planned question, and I didn’t ask it of the others; I felt I needed to get some kind of confirmation of what was going on for her in this process). She chose this image – very revealing:

I thanked her again, and told her that she had been particularly good to help me in this way, if this was the way she felt. She beamed at me (always a big smile – this was one of her confusing signals) and left the room, probably with a certain amount of relief.

I have one more task to do with the three students – I am going to ask them to work together and use the equipment in the music room to show me (a) a music lesson like the ones they have at this school, and (2) their ideal music lesson. I am hoping this group work will be less confronting for the shy girl, and am curious to see if she has more to say when the interpreter is not there.


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