Archive for the ‘shyness’ Tag

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.

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Being a dominant force

Tonight I had dinner with some of the musicians from AYO (Australian Youth Orchestra) and the Cat Empire who have been working together this week on a collaborative improvisation and performance project. I worked with the AYO musicians on Sunday, and they will give a concert tomorrow night.

I mentioned to one young cellist what a great contributor he was in a group situation. I had observed him being very generous in his offers, as well as good at responding to the ideas of others. He was dynamic and full of energy and fun – a good ‘engager’ – and he was often a catalyst for getting things moving in his composition groups. He thanked me, but went on to say that he knew that he needed to be careful not to dominate other people in these settings, that there were others who might not be putting forward ideas, because he was so immediately forthcoming.

I think about this situation a lot. Sometimes it seems wrong that those who are the bright, happy, uninhibited ones – who have so much to offer a group situation, especially when working in a new area or outside comfort zones – should need to tone themselves down in order to not overshadow other quieter people. It is as if they must somehow take responsibility for others being shyer or less forthcoming. This certainly can happen in schools (I have very clear memories of teachers telling me that I should offer fewer suggestions in group tasks, so that others could ‘have a turn’ – even though those others never seemed to offer anything anyway! The indignation I felt!). But is it right? At what point should people expect others to keep making space for them, in a creative situation?

Group dynamics are never straightforward, but good collaborations contain input from all sources present, I think. Everyone is changed in some way by the contributions of the others. There is richness in ensuring a breadth of contributions from which everyone benefits, and this is an argument for creating an environment in which all voices can be heard. However, some responsibility must also lie with individuals, to be brave about piping up, making offers, recognising when they are holding themselves back out of habit, or long-held behavior patterns. In an educational setting it is right to make allowance for people to some extent, but what is that extent in reality? Is it right that a bright young thing should be holding back his incredible stream of creative ideas, simply to not make others feel bad?

I don’t think so. I told him to be as bright and brilliant as he wanted to be. The world has far less to gain from his mediocrity than it has from his brilliance. He should see himself as an inspiration and a guide for others, rather than a dominant presence. He can offer an energy that is infectious, that will give confidence to others, and momentum to the group process – sometimes intangible to those taking part, but always invaluable.