Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Childism at the Tate

I sat waiting downstairs in the Tate Gallery whilst my friend deposited our coats in the cloakroom. A teacher was supervising a group of about 18 children between 8-9 years old. The children were standing in line wearing a uniform that identified them as private school children: green tartan pleated skirts and green Blazers. As I watched the teacher directed half of the children to move in single file up the escalator and I overheard the following, which was delivered in a loud, cross and authoritative voice with accompanying hand gesticulation.

Teacher to the first group who were already on the escalator:

What did I say?
Already you're not listening
WAIT at the top of the stairs

Turning to the second group

Next group (loud voice)
(Pointing) Go, GO!

I wrote what she said down so I could think about it. As a researcher interested in discourse I see this extract of dialogue between a teacher and her pupils as indicative of wider social and cultural processes at play. Power is being exercised here. The words and the authoritative tone of voice reveal the power relations between the teacher and the children. There is an asymmetrical distribution of the right to talk and to direct behaviour.

In the context of a public space, her voice has an audience apart from the children. The teacher is performing authority for other adults in the Tate gallery who might witness the event. It says, ‘I am a good teacher. I can manage the behaviour of these children’. The space is important to the children as well; they are expected to perform the role of ‘good pupil’ through listening to and following the teacher’s instructions.

The words of the teacher indicate expectation of compliance and obedience, but I also detect fear that they won't comply and cause public humiliation. Her words have to be seen in this context, she is not just directing the children and ensuring they are safe, she is also producing social relationships and social identities.

This interaction between a teacher and her pupils is a situation I am very familiar with. Her talk was 'teacher talk' and monologic in that her charges were not expected to respond verbally, but only to indicate by their movements their compliance. Teacher talk is a particular way of using language designed to position children as pupils. By calling it 'teacher-talk' I see it as an example of the kind of discursive practice that goes on in schools, a practice that most people who have been pupils in the UK (and almost certainly elsewhere) would recognise. It is an example of a strategic use of language to get the children to behave in certain kinds of ways. It is also ideological as it seeks to maintain accepted social structures and relations between teacher and pupils.

This kind of talk disturbs me. I see this discursive exercise of power as an example of childism. The teacher is exercising structural power that comes from the way society is organized. She possesses power in virtue of her place in a wider network of institutional power held by schools. And with this power comes an expectation that she will use it to effect social control of the children in her care. So the structural power of educational institutions controls the actions of teachers and the teacher in turn exercises power over the child.

When the teacher asks the question, ‘What did I say?’ we know it is rhetorical. No one is expected to answer, it is an assertion of her right to be listened to and obeyed. When she says, ‘Already you're not listening’ she implies her right to be listened to. She would be unlikely to say this to a group of adults. It is the teacher who has the right to be listened to and to be treated with respect because she is a teacher. I suspect that few adults overhearing this discursive event would find any problem with it. Our society’s conception of children’s social identity as subordinate to adults is so widespread as to be almost invisible; it is part of the social imagination. Unless we can change the social imagination with regard to adult and child an event such as this one passes as unremarkable or may even attract praise for its success in controlling and managing the children ­– here is a ‘good teacher’ in action.

A key instrument to change the social imagination is legislation. We know that changes in attitudes are possible, consider how attitudes towards women, people of colour, homosexuality, disability and many other things have changed in the last few decades. It is clear that legislation to outlaw discrimination has been a necessary lever to change the lives of many men and women, but it is not sufficient. The instrument of change we have with regard to children is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). The UNCRC is expected to be a catalyst for changes in the organisation and culture of schools that is expected to lead to social and cultural change in the relationship between adult and child. Over time we might expect to see profound differences in the social relations and professional identities of teachers and adults working with children. New discourse practices that reflect respect for the child and values its voice should become evident and the authoritarian and punitive disposition of our teacher in the Tate should disappear.

Such change will not happen unless we promote awareness of how current teacher/pupil discourse is a barrier to promoting children's rights. We need to raise critical awareness among teachers of how their current discourse practices impact on children's rights and seek to change them. Legislation alone is not enough.

This leads me to wonder, if we could change discourse practices between adults and children would it contribute to a change in their social relationship? Could such a change impact on adults’ beliefs and understanding of children and vice versa that could lead to a change in the wider social imagination of what is child?

What about the teacher in the Tate? I doubt she would see the relationship between discursive, social and cultural change that I have read into her words. My analysis seeks to uncover the function of her words and show its dissonance as we consider it in the context of the UNCRC. Is the teacher even aware of the changes in her discourse that is required if we are to take children's rights seriously?

The teacher is enacting a discourse that is part of the wider society’s processes of producing social life, social relationships and social identities. If this is to change, we need to pay greater attention to how we speak to each other and seek to find, rights-respecting ways of managing the relationships between adults and children.


  1. I agree with you about child-rights and better teacher-learner dialogue. I do not think, however, that we should overlook the deeper social reality of the context - children are naturally restless, prone to wonder off, and vulnerable targets in increasingly unsafe public spaces. The adult escorting them could feel insecure in this situation. If the teacher-student ratio is small, say one teacher with a group of 10 or fewer children, then the body language, tone and pitch of the teacher could have been less indicative of 'crowd management'. As it was, she was probably trying to be more high energy and a focal point of attention to her group - in the best way she knew.

    1. I agree Sanjukta and this is my point. I have no wish to criticise that particular teacher but to raise ethical issues associated with managing children’s behaviour. The dialogue shows no respect for the children’s feelings and no recognition of their potential to contribute to negotiating the task of moving up the escalator. The teacher assumes it is her job to secure pupil compliance and seems to expect them not to comply and probably accepts that punishment will follow if they don't obey her. In the UK all this takes place against a rhetoric, largely media-fuelled about declining behaviour and calls for tougher treatment and she is definitely made vulnerable by these discourses. It would be deeply humiliating if she was unable to control the children. We therefore have to dig deeper to understand why she behaves like this. We live in times when children are considered as inadequate beings who are unable to manage themselves and therefore teachers will behave in this way. In Wales children's rights and views on school life, including how they are managed, have been actively promoted by focusing on the UNCRC, particularly Articles 12 and 13 concern children’s right to be heard and 28 and 29 concern the need to develop dignity and respect in their education. My view is that unless we can change the ways in which teachers/adults talk to children then this will remain merely rhetoric. And this won't happen until we reconceptualise adult/child relationships and help teachers make changes in attitudes towards children that need to be made if the rights of the child are to become a reality.

  2. Sanjukta makes a good point, although I too resonate with your analysis of how too often we assume children are incapable before giving them the chance. I guess I would want to know if this was how this teacher always treated the children or whether he/she was nervous (first time on a trip?), had already had a fright (child wandering off?) and was worried about losing them in a huge public space (classic nightmare in our times.) That said, I can agree with much you offer here.

  3. Sue, enjoyed your article and the subsequent exchange

  4. In my experience as an educator of 3, 4 & 5 year olds it is apparent how many "ism's" young children have already encountered and indeed replicate. Ageism -"you're only 4 , I'm older than you" Sizeism- I'm bigger than you , Sexism-that's only for girls to play with . The child's world is full of power issues and we owe it to them to make these visible and allow dialogue about equality.
    As you know Sue I am a hoarder of children comments in play and their social encounters, last week I collected this exchange between a girl of 3 or 4 to her younger sister at a car boot sale..."You want me buy you these nice things? Well you be nice to me. a couple of weeks be nice yeah? "
    The more we listen to and value the world of the child the more we can understand them not as pets, or servants but incredible human beings.

    1. Really good points Sara - all those 'isms' the young child has already imbibed! The key here for me is that children shape their environments as well as being shaped by them and make sense of their worlds as they try to negotiate their ways through it. What 'isms' are the children in the above example encountering?

  5. Thanks for this reflection! I will share it with other colleagues!

  6. I like your entry because it reminds me of this story:

    Because it's about how parents mainly police each other, and they police their children mainly because of that. Your comments about how the teacher was probably partially acting this way out of wanting to display control to the other adults, I think, were relevant.

    Also, what were 8 and 9 year olds doing at an art museum? 8 and 9 year old should be making their own art and playing with the concepts of art, not indoctrinated into stuffy museums. If they want to go to a museum, they should be able to do it more individually and be able to take their time. So accusation of children being restless, and so on, of course they're gonna be restless if they're somewhere they don't particularly want to be. You know, this is just spurious stuff.

    I think you should divide the issues of what's going on and how to solve it. I do agree we should talk about it, but I think that childism is a problem of which the vast majority of people are not even aware. Unfortunately we're still at the very first step, which would be awareness.

  7. BTW, keep doing this critical analysis. This is exactly what we need at this juncture because, as you say, people just see these kinds of actions as normal and there's not even an inkling of awareness that there's a hierarchical relationship going on. Most people just ignore it. So we need to bring this to the light. That even in our most mundane interactions with children there is a lot of childism that is brought to light.

  8. Hi Sue, so first question - is the Hepworth Exhibition worth seeing? have seen mixed reviews so far.

    Loved the post and your observations. I believe firmly that if we're going to really make child-centricity a reality, instead of a load of empty platitudes then we've got to examine things at this granular level and explore educators' motivations for why they do almost everything they do around and with children.

    Almost everywhere we turn we find examples of a controlling, behaviourist mindset - if we can just get a bit more zealous with our controlling rewards, punishments and fancy tools of stick and carrot discipline then we can have the classrooms we want and everyone will call us a 'good teacher'. Mr Skinner is alive and well in most teachers still today!!

  9. Dear Sue
    Been away and only just caught up with this new post. Thank-you very much. As always, I find much of value to reflect on in what you write. I entirely agree with you that too much should not be loaded onto the shoulders of this one individual teacher (although I, too,would have felt profoundly sadenned to have had to bear witness to such unattractive and unwarranted 'barking'). I would be intrigued to know just how the children themselves make /made sense of this play of authoritative 'management'. My sense is that they often have quite sophisticated readings of such nonsense and give it little credence....'this is just what teachers do because it somehow embodies 'teacherliness' whilst we can just get on and 'Be'..teachers are just soooo Stressy'. You may well say that this is entirely beside the point, and that such 'lazy' and inconsiderate behaviour becomes dangerously perpetuating and constitutive of all adult/child relations. I suppose that I am a little more uncertain myself about decreeing a 'norm' for the conducting of 'respectful' and 'rightful' relationships through the use of particular words and phrases between adults and children. Certainly, the ethnographic research that I conducted in one primary school where 'rightful' discourse was given hign credence did not - in and of itself - go on to generate a more equalised community in which children felt more valued. In fact, many of those most disadvantaged by it were those children NOT from middle-class backgrounds who found much of the nuance and subtleness of the Rights discourse bizarre and puzzling. That said, I entirely agree that your reflections on 'childism' are important and timely. We live in paradoxical and hypocritical times such that we obssess about 'protection' and 'risk' at the expense of attention to situated, relational and everyday interactions with all children and young people to all our detriments, whether young or old.

    Keep them coming Sue!