This case study explores the use of photo elicitation methodology and children’s photography as a method of researching children’s early mathematical experiences and understandings. In the years 2008-2010, I undertook a PhD study which explored the experiences children have with, and understandings of, mathematics (specifically, measurement) as they transition to primary school. The study focused on the experiences children have in prior-to-school and out-of-school settings and how these experiences contribute to their measurement development. Children shared their experiences and understandings through drawings, photographs, and narratives which accompanied these visual representations. In this case study, I focus on the use of children’s photography as a research method to elicit children’s experiences and understandings. The case shares both the strengths and challenges of using this method, giving examples from the PhD study. Although the PhD study focused on mathematics specifically, children’s photography is a method which could be utilized to explore children’s lives and learning more generally. As such, this case study presents a general discussion of photography as a method for researching with children, taking into account both the methodological and ethical considerations associated with this approach.
By the end of this case, students should be able to
- Recognize children’s photography as a valid method within a photo elicitation methodology for undertaking educational research with young children
- Compare and contrast differing views of children as research participants
- Understand the relationship between the visual and narrative components in the process of photo elicitation
- Examine both the strengths and challenges of children’s photography as a research method
The study from which this case study is drawn was about finding out the experiences with, and understandings of, measurement which children possess as they commence school. Utilizing an ecological theoretical perspective (see, for example, Bronfenbrenner, 1974, 1979, 1988), this study considered the measurement learning which occurs in contexts outside of the classroom and the ways in which children were able to represent their measurement experiences and understandings in a meaningful manner. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory highlights the many socio-cultural contexts that influence children’s lives. The theory conceptualizes children’s development as being impacted by the different settings in which children participate and the larger contexts in which the settings are embedded (Bowes, Grace, & Hayes, 2009). This study was grounded in an ethos that educators must be respectful of children’s mathematical experiences and knowledge which result from everyday activities and interactions in a range of contexts. As such, I decided to use a photo elicitation methodology as a means of learning about contexts for children’s mathematical learning.
As the name suggests, a photo elicitation methodology uses photographs as its key visual element (Rose, 2012). Put simply, a photo elicitation methodology involves the production of photographs and the insertion of those photographs into a research interview. It may be the case that the researcher provides the photographs, but more commonly, participants take their own photographs during the research project, and these are then discussed with the researcher in a photo elicitation interview (Mitchell, 2011; Rose, 2012). During the interview, participants are encouraged to discuss what the photos show and talk about why they have taken them. The photographs act as a medium of communication between researcher and participant (Clark-Ibáñez, 2004). As Gillian Rose (2012, p. 311) explains, the photo elicitation interview “is vital in clarifying what photos taken by interviewees mean to them; by themselves the photos are meaningless.”
In my PhD study, I was very interested in learning about the out-of-school contexts in which children experience and explore mathematical ideas. Working within a photo elicitation methodology, I decided to use children’s own photography as a method of learning about these contexts from the perspective of the children themselves. By allowing the children to take the photographs and then later share and discuss them with me, I was given access to the contexts and experiences that the children themselves saw as important for their mathematical learning.
Children’s photography is certainly not a new method; indeed, many researchers have used children’s photographs within a photo elicitation methodology to seek children’s perspectives on their own lives. For example, Sue Dockett and Bob Perry (2003, 2005) have used children’s photography to seek children’s views on starting school, and Jóhanna Einarsdóttir (2005) has similarly used children’s photography to find out what children think about their playschool. Alison Clark and Peter Moss (2001) and Alison Stephensen (2009) have also used children’s photography to find out about children’s views of, and experiences in, their early childhood centers.
There is general agreement that photography has many advantages as a method for researching with children. For one, allowing children to take the photographs gives them the power to pick out things that are important to them (Clark & Moss, 2001)—they are in charge of the event, and they provide evidence of their own choosing (Einarsdóttir, 2005). In doing so, the children become the “experts” in the research because they are the ones who know about the photographs they have taken (MacDonald, 2012). The process of taking photographs is, for most children, an enjoyable one—and the children can take as long or as little time as they like to complete this process. By giving children control of the camera, the researcher helps to build a trusting relationship between themselves and the child. The children are positioned as competent participants in the project, whose contributions are valued and trusted.
Another advantage of children’s photography as a research method is that it results in a tangible product which can be used as the basis for discussion (Clark & Moss, 2001). In my study, the children talked with me about each of the photos they had taken, explaining their reasons for taking each of the photographs and providing additional contextual information. In this way, the meanings of the photographs were co-constructed between the child and myself as researcher, starting from the child’s point of view. The photographs also provided stimulus for further conversation and for additional questioning from me. In this way, the photo elicitation interview varied greatly from a more traditional interviewing approach in that the photographs directed the interview. The focus was on the child’s perspectives, and the questions stemmed from those—rather than asking a set of pre-determined interview questions from the adult’s perspective, as is often the case in traditional interviews (Einarsdóttir, 2005). Again, this reinforced the important role—and power—of the children in the study.
This PhD project was carried out between March 2008 and November 2010, and the photography-based data gathering took place in March and April of 2009. The children who participated in the photography activity were 5 and 6 years old and had commenced primary school in January of that year. Researching with these young children required careful consideration of both methodological and ethical issues.
This study aimed to foreground children’s perspectives in the research. Virginia Morrow and Martin Richards (2002) have argued that in everyday social life, we tend not to be respectful of children’s views and opinions, so the challenge is to develop research strategies which are fair and respectful to the children with whom we are conducting research. Allison James (1995) has suggested that researchers’ ways of “seeing” children has a profound impact upon the way in which they undertake research with children. She has identified four ways of seeing children: the developing child, the tribal child, the adult child, and the social child. The developing child view typically utilizes research methods such as experimentation and observation. Consequently, children’s competencies may be undervalued, and when children’s voices are elicited, their words may not be taken seriously or trusted (Morrow & Richards, 2002). The tribal child view tends to utilize methods such as participant observation, taking the view that children inhabit a world separate from adults, with its own rules and agendas (Morrow & Richards, 2002). The adult child view sees children as competent participants in a shared but adult-centered world, with attention focused on children’s comprehension of an adult world in which they are required to participate (James, 1995). Methodologically, the assumption is that children are the same as adults in research, and thus, the same tools can be used with children as with adults. Finally, James’ fourth model, the social child view, sees children as research participants comparable with adults but recognizes that children possess different competencies and are skilled in different mediums of communication such as drawings, stories, or written work.
Taking inspiration from James’ social child model, I designed this study to draw on the communication strengths of children by utilizing research methods with which most children are familiar and confident (MacDonald, 2013). However, as with any research method, the use of children’s photography presented some particular methodological issues for consideration. For instance,
- Children’s responses to the photography task are likely to be influenced by their ability and willingness to take photographs and communicate about these;
- Children’s individual interpretations of the photography task will affect the responses received;
- Children’s photographs can be selective and on their own tell an incomplete story.
In this study, I allowed for these particular challenges by encouraging the children to comprehensively explain the intended meanings of their photographs through extended conversation and further questioning. Considering the photographs and their accompanying narratives as a unit reduces the likelihood of the photograph being misinterpreted.
Researching with children requires researchers to consider ethical questions that may be lessened, or altogether avoided, when the research is indirect or involves adults (Thomas & O’Kane, 1998). Four ethical questions that were considered in my study—access, consent, confidentiality, and ownership—are discussed here:
- Access. In my study, I needed to consider how I would access the children with whom I would potentially conduct my research. With the consent of the school principals and teachers, I became involved in the schools’ transition programs as a support teacher. This gave me the opportunity to get to know the children who would potentially be involved in my research and become a familiar person whom they trusted. That way, when I explained the research project to the children and invited their participation, they were already familiar with me and as such would view their involvement in my research as a non-threatening experience.
- Consent. As this project emphasized research with young children, I sought informed consent from both the parents/caregivers and the children themselves. I visited the children at school to explain what would be asked of them and to answer any questions they had. The children were also shown the information sheet and consent form which was sent home to their parents/caregivers, and I explained what these documents said and meant. The children were then given their own consent form which asked them to indicate whether or not they wanted to participate in the research. In accordance with relevant ethics guidelines, the children were not able to participate unless the parent’s/caregiver’s consent was also given. However, children were entitled to choose not to participate even if their parents/caregivers had given their consent for their child to participate.
- Confidentiality. To maintain confidentiality, my original intent was to apply pseudonyms to all the children who participated in the research. However, the children in the study were proud of what they had produced and wanted to be credited for this work. In response to this, I ensured that only the child’s first name was used, and the setting of the research remained confidential. Heather Conroy and Deborah Harcourt (2009) have questioned whether researchers should pursue the issue of anonymity or instead begin a new dialogue which reflects the notion of collaborative research with young children. It can be argued that a lessening of the use of pseudonyms allows children to feel a sense of presence and pride in the research process and subsequent dissemination. However, as Sue Dockett, Jóhanna Einarsdóttir, and Bob Perry (2011) caution, researchers must also consider how these same children might feel in years to come when reporting of the data remains accessible. This debate around the use of pseudonyms should be taken into consideration in future studies with young children.
- Ownership. I felt it was important to acknowledge that the data generated in the study belonged to the children, not me. Therefore, I took deliberate steps to allow the children to retain ownership of all of the work they had produced during the study. I made copies for my own use, and then the children were given a portfolio of all their original work to keep.
My PhD project was a longitudinal study of a cohort of children as they entered and experienced their first year of school. The children in this study attended two primary schools in the same regional town, with the schools selected to represent the typical variance of the town’s population. At the start of the study, the children were in their prior-to-school year, and during the course of the study, these children were followed through their transition to school and their first year of formal schooling.
The data-gathering methods for the study centered on children’s representations of their measurement experiences and understandings as they started school. The primary method of gathering data was through children’s drawings and their accompanying narratives, and the full cohort of 97 children participated in these data-gathering activities.
A small sample of children from the larger cohort were selected to also participate in the photography-based data-gathering activities. Eight children were chosen, based on the earlier data-gathering activities, to represent a diversity of understandings and socio-cultural backgrounds. These children were each provided with a digital camera to take home for a 2-week period and were encouraged to take photographs of the occasions in their lives outside of school during which they used or encountered measurement. Although a controversial decision at the time, I decided to use digital cameras (rather than disposable cameras, which were more commonly used at the time) as I wanted the children to feel I trusted them to use quality equipment. I also wanted them to have the freedom to take, re-take, and delete photographs at will, giving them complete control over the images produced. The children’s parents and caregivers were instructed not to assist with the activity unless asked to do so by the children.
At the conclusion of their time with the camera, I met with each child individually to look at and discuss the photographs. During this meeting, the children explained their photographs to me and talked about the circumstances surrounding the taking of the photographs. In some instances, I needed to ask prompting questions such as “Why did you take this photo?” and “Can you tell me what is happening here?”; however, many children freely provided narratives to accompany each photograph. The children also described the particular locations shown and identified any other people who appeared in the photographs. In this way, the child and I were able to co-construct the meaning of each photograph, and the children were able to ensure that the photographs accurately represented what they had intended (MacDonald, 2012).
Children’s Photography in Action
The children’s photography revealed a range of insights into the mathematical experiences children have outside of school and how these experiences contribute to children’s developing mathematical understandings. In addition, the use of the photography methodology generated new knowledge about children as research participants and the ways in which children’s power can be both asserted and impeded. For the purpose of this case study, I have chosen to share some examples of children’s photography “in action” which demonstrate three key issues that arose during the research: children’s competence, differing perspectives, and adult intervention.
When presented to the University’s ethics committee, this study was met with concerns about the children’s ability to use the digital cameras. However, I found that all of the children were experienced at using a digital camera and were comfortable operating the particular model of camera they were given. When the children shared their data with me, I learned that in addition to capturing still images, some children had also discovered how to use the video-recording function on the camera (I had not shown them this). For example, one child filmed himself pulling items such as measuring cups and spoons out of the kitchen drawer, and explaining their purpose. In this way, the child was able to both create and interpret his own data (MacDonald, 2013). Not only does this demonstrate children’s competence with the research equipment, it demonstrates children’s competence in contributing to the research process itself.
When undertaking research with young children, it may be the case that the child’s interpretation of a situation is quite different from that of the adult. An example of this was a photograph of two chairs taken by 5-year-old Ben. The chairs were positioned side by side and were quite different in style and size, with one chair much larger than the other. If I had just looked at the photograph by itself, I could have assumed that the intention of the photograph was to show the differing sizes of the two chairs. However, when I discussed the photograph with Ben, I learned that his reason for photographing the chairs was not to capture their differing sizes, but rather their differing masses:
Amy: In this picture you’ve got some chairs. Why did you take this one?
Ben: Because that’s lighter and that’s heavier.
Amy: How do you know that chair is heavier than the other chair?
Ben: I know that one’s light because I can carry that one.
This example clearly demonstrates the importance of gaining the child’s explanation of their photograph. This is supported by Tina Cook and Else Hess (2007, p. 41) who, in critiquing their own use of photography as a research method, acknowledged that “an exploration of what meaning the children might have attached to the process of taking photographs could have strengthened the validity of the interpretations made by the adults.”
Adult intervention is a risk to be considered when employing research methods in children’s home environments. In my study, there were a few occasions the parents decided to intervene, despite being informed that they were not to assist their children unless the child specifically asked them to do so. An example of this was a photograph of a recipe taken by 5-year-old Ethan. When looking at the photograph, it could have been assumed that Ethan had taken it to show the different measurements listed on the recipe page. However, when I talked to Ethan about the photograph, he explained that his mother had in fact asked him to take the photo. Ethan had his own theory as to why she had done so:
Ethan: Mum wanted me to take a picture of the recipe.
Amy: Why do you think Mum wanted you to take a picture of the recipe?
Ethan: She might have thought you wanted to make it.
Another risk associated with adult intervention was parents deciding whether or not the photographs their child had taken were “relevant” to the study. For example, one parent looked at the photographs their child had taken so far, decided that they were “not relevant,” and deleted them. When I later met with the child, he told me about the deleted photographs and his confusion about this because he believed he had indeed taken photographs of “measuring.” This example demonstrates that while a photograph may not immediately appear to be relevant to us as adults, when the child is given the opportunity to talk about their photographs, we are able to see the meaning and relevance to them.
Practical Lessons Learned
In light of my experiences during my PhD study, I can offer the following practical advice to researchers intending to use children’s photography as a research method:
- Trust the children with the equipment. Children are usually much more capable than they are given credit for. Trust the children to use quality equipment—they will recognize and appreciate the trust you have placed in them. Don’t presume they need help using this equipment—but offer assistance if it is sought.
- Give the children autonomy. Trust children’s ability to take their own photographs and respect their opinions about what they do and don’t want to photograph. If you are genuinely interested in children’s perspectives in the research, then the children need to be given the opportunity to share their perspectives without unwanted influences from the researcher or others.
- Respond sensitively to the photographs. The children—and the people around them—are giving you access to their personal lives. It is important to value this and treat this access with the respect and sensitivity it deserves. At no point should the participants feel judged on the basis of what they have shared about their lives.
My PhD study demonstrated that children’s photography is a powerful tool for accessing the knowledge and experiences of young children. Importantly, photography is not just a procedure by which children record what they see; it is also a process through which understandings can be constructed, re-considered, and shared in new ways. In this way, children make valuable contributions to the research process and the subsequent reporting of the results. Of course, it is important to recognize that there are inherent methodological and ethical issues which must be considered and addressed. However, sensitivity to these issues can allow researchers to work with young children to co-construct meaningful representations in educational research.
Exercises and Discussion Questions
- Children’s photography was a key method in my PhD study. However, what limitations or criticisms, if any, of this approach can you think of? What do you suggest for mitigating or addressing such limitations and criticisms?
- In this case study, I talk about “trusting” young children as research participants. What is your reaction to this? What might your reaction reveal about your views of children?
- What, in your opinion, are the advantages and disadvantages of photo elicitation in comparison with more traditional interviewing?
- Why is the narrative component critical when implementing a photography methodology?
- How would you implement a photography methodology with research participants other than young children (e.g., adults, teenagers)? What would need to be considered or adapted?