There is something about doing research in primary schools that the textbooks never tell you about. Over the years I have watched hundreds of lessons in the pursuit of educational research. I have written books about research, including one on the very subject of classroom observation. Yet I have never properly addressed this vital topic. It is an omission I shall now repair.
The crucial point on which every potential classroom researcher needs to be properly briefed is that primary classrooms contain children.
There, I knew you would be shocked. You see, if you are in the classroom to teach, then you are unambiguously in charge and your role is clear. But educational researchers are visitors, and the unwary can be completely thrown by the presence of children. The younger the class, the bigger the pitfalls, so I offer the following tips and hints to those embarking on such research.
The first is known as "My rabbit's dead". The earnest researcher, eagerly clutching notebook, pen, stopwatch, checklists and any other trappings, has just got seated in a suitably discreet corner of the room, when the first of an army of five-year-olds, each keen to crawl a notch or two up the "Speaking and Listening" Attainment Target, heads eagerly over to the innocent newcomer.
Forget your stopwatch and checklist, your objectives and schedules, your research council grant, or your higher-degree thesis deadline. First you must hear the gory tale of the last death throes of Darren's pet rabbit, eventually consigned to the dustbin in a plastic bag, now at a thankfully unknown destination. By comparison with Darren, Roald Dahl is nowhere on the "gruesome" scale. Just remember not to have eaten breakfast in future.
Tip number two is: "Darryl has a bad cough." You know that familiar raking sound of a sack of coke being dragged over half-a-ton of ball bearings? Well get used to it, because it will be very close to your ear for the next couple of hours now that Darren has decided you are his lifelong sympathetic friend. Oh, and remember not to wear velvet or a thick ribbed sweater, as Darren never puts his hand over his mouth when he coughs, so as not to spoil the purity of its sound.
The third hint, for those still determined to carry out their research, if they have not by now forgotten both their topic and their proposed methodology, is: "A scab". The first time I went into a primary classroom to do research, a fresh-faced child came over to me and said: "Shall I show you something?" Intrigued, I foolishly answered in the affirmative, whereupon I was shown a livid scar of the kind that only six-year-olds knee-sliding on concrete acquire. "Miss has just told me off for picking it," he went on, pointing to the evidence, a hideously discoloured, half-hanging sleeve of deceased skin. Will I be wanting a school lunch? I think not today, thank you.
Hint number four is: "Locate the toilet". Normally, classroom researchers have no need for the little room, as the rigours of frantically noting down everything of significance leave little time for such luxuries as a widdle.
Researcher Ronald King, who spent many an hour in infant classrooms doing the fieldwork for his book All Things Bright and Beautiful?, once wrote an account of how, desperate to write up his findings and to avoid being quizzed yet again by the children, he would try to hide in the Wendy house. Even that was not a haven, however, so in the end he retired to the toilet, as it was the only available refuge. The staff were convinced the poor chap had a weak bladder.
The problems are usually worst during the first couple of visits. Children are very versatile, and they soon get used to someone who is happy to talk to them on some occasions, but is busy writing on others. In any case, if you are studying the behaviour of the class, then these little pieces of intimate sociology should have a legitimate place.
If familiarity does not do the trick, and you still need peace, then you can always try chewing garlic, or walking round the room carrying a large bag labelled "Extra work for children". As a last resort you might even try wearing a badge marked "OFSTED Inspector", but that desperate ruse will, I suspect, only work with teachers.