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Wendy Luttrell

Photo by Janet Smith


Home > Decisions through Data > Sometimes, pictures speak louder than words

Sometimes, pictures speak louder than words
HGSE Associate Professor Wendy Luttrell

The Children Framing Childhood Project investigates how children perceive and experience their environments by examining the photographs they take and their personal narratives of these photographs. An important goal of the project is to improve communication between teachers and their students. The project has its origins in the cross-disciplinary, case-based HGSE course Thinking Like an Educator, which was launched in the spring of 2004.

HGSE associate professor Wendy Luttrell, who played a role in creating this core course, transformed her work for the course into an on-going longitudinal study on children's changing conceptions of social difference and how they understand school culture, values, and success. In this interview, Luttrell explains the innovative concepts that inform the design and conduct of her research.

Q: Can you describe your research project – its origins and purpose – and the innovative methodology known as PhotoVoice?

Origins of Children Framing Childhood

My role in the Thinking Like an Educator course was to introduce questions about how cultural factors shape diverse students' experiences of schooling and views about achievement and success. I wanted to stress the value of inquiry into children's own perspectives about this, especially as the gap grows between the predominately white, female, middle-class teaching force and an ever-increasing multicultural and low-income student body in urban schools. My unit made a case for fieldwork and the use of observational methods (also called ethnography) as a way to understand the lives of children living in urban poverty, and especially children in immigrant, wage-poor families trying to make ends meet.

Like generations of fieldworkers who have gone before me, I advocated approaching "insiders" – in this case, the children themselves – to explore their life worlds, conditions, and multiple viewpoints. And, like the early sociologists studying immigration who used photography as a means to gather descriptive data, I decided to invite children to document their surroundings and then use the photographs to elicit further discussion – both between me and the children, and among the participating children – about what they noticed about each others' lives, most notably in the realm of family and "home" (including their home countries).

The project and its methodology

I first visited Columbus Park School, a K-6 public elementary school in Worcester, Massachusetts as part of the team of faculty members developing the core course. Out of discussions with the principal, Dr. Dolores Gribouski, about pressing concerns in her school, came several initiatives, including one that would evolve into my on-going research project. Dr. Gribouski explained that there were increasing numbers of immigrant children from Asia and Latin America coming to the school, and that she was looking to develop strategies for better integrating them (and their parents) into the school culture. I saw this as an opportunity to join interests, and designed a project that would bring the children's experiences and perspectives more fully into view, as "experts" about their own family, school and community worlds.

The school is located in a neighborhood that allows for a rich examination of racial, ethnic, and some economic diversity. Of the 370 students enrolled, 92% are eligible for free school lunch, 37% are White; 10% are Black; 18% are Asian; 35% are Hispanic. The principal's support of the project afforded unusual access to the school, the children and their parents. Her ability to broker relationships across social and racial divides smoothed the way and secured permissions that might otherwise not have been forthcoming.

Developmentally speaking, 5 - 6th graders seemed best suited for the exploration I had in mind. They are on the threshold between childhood and their teenage years – old enough to be treated as "experts" about their own upbringings and childhood experiences, yet still largely identified with and attached to their parents. Researchers have also identified this age group as keenly aware of social differences (specifically race, ethnicity, culture and gender), but also competent border crossers, able to sustain cross-racial and cross-gender friendships. Initially, twelve racially, ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse fifth-grade students – six girls and six boys – were selected to participate.

We drew on PhotoVoice, a research and educational tool that uses photography as a means to tap people's knowledge and expertise about their own lives. This tool was first devised by Caroline Wang, who asked rural Chinese women to take photographs of community and family life to document health conditions and then make recommendations for improvements. Taking photos served as a catalyst for the women to discuss and make their own assessments of the health needs of their communities. In this same participatory spirit, we asked the Columbus Park School children to photograph their everyday school, family and community lives, and to assess what matters most to them and what they most wanted to "show" public audiences (especially teachers) about their lives.

The process

The children were given disposable cameras and a series of prompts to guide their picture taking, including, "You have a cousin who is your same age and is moving to Worcester and the Columbus Park School. Take pictures of what you want her/him to know about your school, family and community." Each child had four days and 27 exposures. After the photos were developed, my research assistant or I met with each child and asked her/him to tell us about the photos. Individual interviews were conducted in the school and lasted between half an hour and an hour. The following open-ended questions guided the conversation: "Tell me about this photo. What's going on here? Why did you take it? What does it tell about your life and what is important to you?"

At the end of each interview, we also asked if there were any photographs the child wished s/he could have taken but didn't or couldn't. These interviews were audio- and video-taped and transcribed. During individual interviews we asked each child to select five photos for public viewing – photos that they would discuss with the other children participating in the project, show to their teachers and to a larger public audience. We explained that at the end of the year they would select two of these photographs for a public exhibition. We then conducted focus-group interviews (six children at a time) where the children looked at each other's photographs and discussed what they noticed, what grabbed their attention and why. These sessions were also audio and video-taped and transcribed.

After participating in the 5th grade, the children were invited to continue in 6th grade. In 6th grade, the participants were told to take whatever pictures they wished about their school, family and community lives. The same process was followed, conducting individual and focus-group interviews.

I call this a "visual voice" approach, combining photo-elicitation interviews with "photovoice" strategies. Whereas some researchers have taken photographs of home settings and then assembled a "photo-interview kit" to discuss with children, I have turned this process around, asking the children to take their own photographs from which they can speak about themselves, their views, values, and upbringings. Researchers using photographs with children have noted that photos can introduce content and topics that might otherwise be overlooked or poorly understood from an adult viewpoint.

At the end of this academic year (2007), three cohorts of twelve children, followed from 5th through 6th grade, will have participated, for a total of 36 children. As participants in the project, the children have taken over 1,600 photographs, and each year have "curated" an exhibition of their work. By putting the children in charge of representing themselves and their surroundings through photography, they have been given an opportunity to regard themselves and each other in new ways. Similarly, as viewers, we are afforded glimpses into the children's worlds that only an "insider" could provide.

The children's photographs

The children's photographs provide clues to their everyday lives, concerns and identities. The photos are a starting point in learning what is important to them. The pictures they take are evocative of memories, valued possessions, and things and events they take pride in. What the children have to say about their photos provides a layer of insight into their shared values, beliefs and knowledge about the world and their place in it—including what it means to be an educated person. There are some fascinating patterns across the children's photographs in terms of how they compose their family, school and community worlds, especially in terms of gender and immigrant status.

Q: If we think of the children's photographs as data, how can this type of data be used to inform and potentially improve instruction?

Challenges facing public school educators

I want to start by saying that public school educators face increasingly complicated demands on their time that restrain them from explorations that could deepen and complement their understanding of children's learning needs. A central goal of my research is to provide educators with insight and reflections – visions – of what children bring with them to school, to support teachers' efforts to reach diverse student bodies. 

Educators see their students in new ways

The children's photographs bring to light aspects of their lives that are not always visible to teachers or part of school life, telling us something about a child's surrounds, her/his particular way of seeing the world, his/her valued aspects of identity, and his/ her part in cultural processes, such as immigration and acculturation. Clues about these things are conveyed through the content of the photographs and what the children have to say about them.

For example, seeing and learning about a treasured doll – brought from Puerto Rico when Valerie was three years old – offers her teacher an entry point for communication and connection that might not otherwise be forthcoming. "Seeing" students outside the confines of the classroom, doing household chores or going to church, for example, stretches teachers' own imagination of who their students are. 

Educators see themselves in new ways

At the same time, what teachers learn about themselves when they view and make meaning of the children's photographs, is also data that can inform their instructional practice. Do they make unwarranted assumptions or judgments about what's going on at home? Are they surprised to learn that a family member figures so prominently or is absent from a child's set of photographs? What is the scope and breadth of the knowledge upon which a teacher draws to make sense of these pictures?

Instructional opportunities provided by children's photographs

On yet another level, when children examine each others' photographs and talk about what they notice, more instructional opportunities arise. As one boy recently put it, "I see different cultures, no offense, there are Chinese people ..." and other children joined in naming the varieties of racially and ethnically diverse people represented in the photographs. What did he mean, no offense, I asked? This jump-started a conversation about whether it was "rude" or "mean" to talk about racial and cultural differences. Mapping the development of children's civic minds, including their changing capacities to talk across social differences from the 5th-6th grade, is yet another form of data that emerges from this project and can be used to enhance instruction.

This article was developed by Katie Davis, doctoral student in Human Development and Education at HGSE. Portions of the interview were conducted by Greer Bautz for HGSE News.

More information about Photovoice is available from the Web site


Chabely's pictures

Chabely shows Professor Luttrell a picture of her mother's first communion in the Dominican Republic. Why do you think Chabely wants her own first communion to be just like her mother's?


Tina's pictures

Tina refers to her friends as her "groupies." Without knowing anything else about Tina, what assumptions does this piece of information lead you to make about her? After listening to Tina describe her friends, are your assumptions correct?


Ting's pictures

Ting moved from China and entered first grade in the United States. What country does she identify as her home?


Valerie's pictures

Valerie tells Professor Luttrell about returning to Puerto Rico for the first time since she moved to the United States, her feelings about her mother, and her experiences in Tae Kwon Do. How have these experiences shaped Valerie's identity?

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