Imagine if we were to listen to children and their views honestly


For children, fairness matters. Children experience fairness and unfairness through the way they are treated, the resources and support they can access, and the extent to which they can simply be themselves irrespective of disability, gender, ethnicity, religion or socio-economic status. Children need to know that they can learn, play, create and access the resources and support they need. They also need friends to back them up, and to live their lives with a strong sense of self. When they don’t have these, they feel unfairly excluded. Equity means challenging exclusion. Inclusion for young people means that equity responses are visible and meaningful to them. Children have the right to have a say on matters that influence their lives. Even so, most decisions that create the conditions for them to grow, or to learn what and how they need to thrive in life, are often made by others. Children need us—family/whanau, teachers, researchers, specialist professionals, policy makers, all the adults in their everyday lives—to listen and to act on their views. When action is taken to support and enable the learner to be who s/he is, real equity begins. 

A dance towards equity 

Having the right equipment, the sportswear and gear to participate in sports, or for example,  ensuring children have corrective lenses can be crucial to determining whether children have equitable access to learning and living. Earlier this year, the UK Guardian newspaper reported on the introduction of black skin tone ballet shoes developed for dancers. Previously, some dancers would ‘pancake’ (i.e. cover in make-up) their pink ballet slippers to match the shade of their skin. As one dancer said, “Pancaking [my ballet shoes] is a tradition…but ballet is also about inclusion. And the pink tights are, you know, ouch!”  Once dancers had access to ballet shoes that matched their skin tones, they felt included because they were ‘seen’ as dancers and for who they were, without having to wear pink tights and ballet shoes that were not ‘them’. 

This equity message was raised again recently at the Glastonbury festival (June 29-30, 2019)—a major event in British culture, for music lovers and often a venue for political messages. Singers take their opportunity to perform, to politicize, and to just have fun. This year’s event was no different, and there were many examples of performers and audience alike creating an energy founded on their love of popular music, including grime and rap. Even from half a world away in New Zealand, I couldn’t miss the powerful messages sent through one of the key headliners, Stormzy, (Michael Ebenazer Owuo Jr) a black British rapper, who articulated equity issues throughout his set. Stormzy drew on the issue of ballet shoes, and started his performance showcasing what ballet shoes designed for all people means, with the words ‘ballet shoes have traditionally not been made to match black skin tones’ shining bright on stage. Simply by ensuring ballet shoes were for ‘all’, the world of dance would open up more freely for anyone who wanted to dance. 

Disabled people are also making clear statements that dancing is for everyone, and the right to dance and excel does not only belong to the abled bodied, as beautifully portrayed by David Toole of CandoCo Dance Company. Equity means we listen to young people about what matters to them, and together create solutions whenever anyone says ‘enough is enough’.

Listening to children’s conceptions of informal and formal learning

In everyday life, small but powerful changes are being made to include all young people. Inclusive schooling in New Zealand remains somewhat of an oxymoron. On the one hand, inclusion is about belonging, participating and enjoying one’s diversity and one’s identity. This is typically undisputed in theory, but institutionalised education practices still centre on normative understandings of what and how all children should be able to learn. Decisions around what is important to be learned within a school context are typically shaped by curriculum, assessment, and achievement accountabilities. 

Determination of what and how children are to learn by powerful adult groups serves as a constant reminder that inclusion is largely taken out of the influence of children themselves. When children talk about their learning outside of school, they include a holistic, broad and deep conceptualisation of learning, very different from what occurs in school. In a recent article, colleagues and I wrote about children’s conceptions of informal and formal learning. We found that children had clear views about their own learning across 6 dimensions (culture, relationships, identity, strategies, purpose and affect/emotion). This ‘CRISPA’ framework was derived from the data of nearly 150 Year 5-6 students. In this research we saw how children started to see learning ‘in a different way’ and how they could be supported to connect their out-of-school learning to what happens in their school environment.  One child practiced kapa haka in her home kitchen, and was part of a kapa haka group for her church and her school. Her cultural identity and the relationships she made were made visible using the CRISPA framework for learning. Another child linked making mistakes and having accidents in her roller blading, and making mistakes, to learning in other contexts. ‘I’ve had a lot of accidents and I’ve had a lot of scars. In our cul-de-sac there’s a really bumpy and sharp road and then it goes really smooth.’ She later stated that ‘it’s not that I like learning from my mistakes but it’s good to learn from your mistakes … I’ve learnt that learning outside of school is really good … you’re kind of learning more outside of school than you do in school.’ See full report Here

Imagine, then, if we were to honestly listen to children and their views, and create possibilities that they design, own and identify with. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) specifying  the rights of children, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 and ratified by the New Zealand Government in 1993. For equity to be realised, it is no longer just pedagogically useful to listen to children, but an inalienable basic right for children to be listened to and have their views acted on in meaningful ways. Positioning ‘student voice’ so that children enrich and lead their own learning can be conceptualised and conducted within the discursive framework of UNCROC, influenced by the concepts of rights and best interests. Why wouldn’t we?


Bourke, R., O’Neill, J., & Loveridge, J. (2018). Children’s conceptions of informal and everyday learning. Oxford Review of Education. DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2018.1450238

Bourke, R., O’Neill, J., & Loveridge, J. (2018). The impact of children’s everyday learning on learning and teaching in classrooms and across schools. Final report to the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative, May 2018.

Roseanna Bourke (photo).jpg

Dr. Roseanna Bourke is Professor of Learning and Assessment at the Institute of Education, Massey University, New Zealand. She is a registered psychologist and started her career as a classroom teacher. Her research explores how children and young people learn in inclusive formal and informal education settings. This involves a focus on sustainable assessment, student voice, children’s rights, and applied professional ethics. Her recent books include an edited collection ‘Radical Collegiality Through Student Voice’ (Springer, 2018), and ‘Ethical and Inclusive Research with Children’ (Routledge, 2018). She has published internationally in the area of children’s learning and assessment, self-assessment in school and tertiary education, and applied professional ethics. Her sole authored book, ‘The chameleonic Learner: Learning and self-assessment in Context’ (NZCER, 2011) explores learner identity and broadens the notion of what it means ‘to learn’. Roseanna has led a number of national research and evaluation projects involving children and young people within inclusive education, school-based mental health initiatives, and learning and assessment. Roseanna is associate editor of the International Journal of Student Voice, and section Editor of ‘Student voice and partnership’ for the Springer Encyclopedia of Teacher Education.

Dr. Roseanna Bourke