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  6. Using objects and visual images in an academic literacies study

Using objects and visual images in an academic literacies study

By Alison Tyldesley, head of the Department of Education, Childhood and Inclusion

It's very important for students or young people of any age to have a voice in literacy work. This can act as a catalyst to allow students' stories and understandings to emerge.

My study, part of my doctoral research, is focused on students' experiences of academic literacies (defined here as the reading and writing involved in studying at university level). I'm working with participants currently studying an undergraduate degree in the Department of Education, Childhood and Inclusion. I'm interested in the broader context of these students' academic literacies and how this relates to their personal histories and broader experiences.

Academic research might not seem relevant if you are now working in schools or the broader children and young people's sector. However, there are some connections that you might want to consider. Often, it can seem that there is a huge gulf between educational establishments and students' background and home life. It does seem that this isn't always taken into account during their studies. Allowing students to speak about their life histories and values and how these relate to their studies is not straightforward but can be invaluable. Students can develop ambivalent relationships towards 'home' particularly if they feel there is a gulf between education and their home circumstances.

My aim was to develop different and innovative ways to encourage students to talk and think about their studies, drawing on the idea of identity boxes from an earlier study by colleagues at Sheffield Hallam. In this study, pupils at two different schools created representations of their interests and identity by collecting objects in a shoe box to explain themselves to an unknown pupil from another school. David Gauntlett also discusses the use of identity boxes in research studies, noting that this is an interesting way of encouraging reflection on the meaning of one's own life at whatever educational stage. Click here for further details.

In addition, discussing significant objects can create connections between 'home' and the classroom in a way that supports more engagement and both emotional and cognitive links to classroom learning.

The study shows fascinating glimpses into students' lives. The objects discussed include:

  • special books from childhood
  • symbolic objects that represent some of the struggles they have experienced, such as a tissue to wipe away the tears of frustration or a chocolate bar as a reward for hours of studying
  • special pens or books
  • the Facebook logo representing the informal virtual support of friends and colleagues

The objects and images have led to important stories about the broader lives of these research participants. It would seem that studying cannot be separated from our identity and sense of self.

The research I have carried out suggests that discussing everyday objects and using visual images can be a helpful vehicle to enable the understandings and perspectives of students, children or young people to emerge.

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