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Look who's asking

Researchers beware: pupils are quizzing their peers and writing quality research papers. Diane Hofkins reports

Lots of other people have done research about television but this is often about popular programmes and hours that children watch." So begins a research paper by Simon Ward, aged 10, which is expected to appear in the academic journal Children and Society. He continues: "But I was more interested in how children watch TV rather than what or why. In other words, who they like to be with when they watch TV, whether they like to watch in a noisy or quiet environment, how they react socially to the programmes and how much they think and talk about them."

As Simon says, lots of people have done research about children and TV - but not many of them are in primary school. Simon is one of three pupils at Dunmore county junior school in Abingdon whose work has been accepted (subject to minor revisions, as is usually the case in peer-reviewed journals) for publication.

Mary Kellett, their supervisor, who has written an introduction to their work, is interested in empowering children. She is based at the Centre for Childhood Development and Learning at the Open University, and will soon be setting up a children's research centre on the Milton Keynes campus. Seven able nine and 10-year-olds at Dunmore took part in the pilot phase a year ago in her project to "empower children as active researchers".

Dr Kellett says: "I have learned so much from the kids themselves. We're trying to get a window on their worlds."

During eight weeks of lunch-hours, she taught the participants about research methods, and the difference between empirical research and other types of reports. They also discussed ethics and how to isolate dependent and independent variables. Then they began their projects, gathering information through questionnaires and observation.

It is not just the children's insights, but the things they choose to research that provide that window. Two girls, for instance, became interested in what it is like to look much younger than your age (see box).

Meanwhile, Naomi Dentand Ruth Forrest, whose joint paper on children's attitudes to their parents' jobs is also being published, were surprised by their classmates' realism. They had expected the Year 5 and 6 children they surveyed to complain that their parents were never at home.

"They accepted that their parents had to work and earn money," said Naomi.

"They were a lot more grown up than we thought they would be."

The two young researchers bent over backwards to be sensitive in their questions, making sure there were no assumptions that parents were not single or gay.

Simon's report on TV-watching, packed with bar charts, contains some pretty sophisticated analysis.

He writes: "Looking at figures 2 and 4 there seems to be a disagreement in what the graphs are showing. About 85 per cent of people don't like watching TV with noisy people and about 82 per cent of children like watching TV without any interruptions, but about 54 per cent of children like talking while watching TV.

"This means either that they only like it when they themselves are talking about the programme and not other people they are watching with, or more likely, they don't mind people talking about the programme as long as they don't distract them from it by making a lot of noise or talking about something else."

He concludes: "Overall, watching TV encourages children to communicate with their peers, because it gives them something to talk about and they tend to watch similar programmes."

This term, the project has been extended to five primaries in Bicester.

Although it has been an excellent way to capture the enthusiasm of able children, and extend their thinking, Dr Kellett wants pupils of all abilities to have opportunities to do research. She believes that plenty of children are capable of it; they just need different amounts of support.

"This is a beginning for me", she says.

She hopes the Open University children's research centre, due to open in January, will reach out to more disadvantaged schools.

"We constantly underestimate children", she says.

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