In the course of studying different aspects of children’s environments, Dr. Roger Hart noticed that “a lot of supposedly participatory projects had a distinct air of tokenism. Children were being put on display, so to speak, as though they were actively participating, but they were not taken seriously.”
This became known as “Hart’s ladder of participation” after it was featured in a 1992 booklet promoting the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The globally popular convention (which was not ratified by the U.S.) prompted many high-level debates regarding children’s civil rights, and their right to participate in society. “The idea was that children aren’t being prepared for citizenship; they are citizens from birth,” Hart says. “That turns things upside down when people think about participation—it takes them from discussing ‘when should we give children a voice’ to ‘why NOT give them a voice?’”
Two decades later, "choice and voice" are some of the buzzwords used by educators seeking to help children develop into independent and responsible adults, making Hart's Ladder (which is better known outside the U.S.) worth a closer look.
Hart, who was born in England, says: “People think American children already have a lot of voice. I thought the same thing when I first came here. But having rights implies being listened to, as well as speaking, and being taken seriously. Being listened to is even more important than having the freedom to make a lot of noise.”
Hart's ladder has made an impact -- educators around the world are using it as a gauge. The ideal situation, Hart says, involves children operating at the highest level at which they feel competent and confident, as long as it’s above the bottom three rungs, which represent different levels of non-participation. “The fourth rung is where kids are mobilized to have a voice, so it’s okay to start there before moving up,” he says, as long as kids are given the opportunity to critically reflect on the subject matter and seriously challenge it.
Hart considers the top three rungs equally acceptable. “Whether the children or the adults initiate something, and whether responsibilities are shared—those distinctions are not important,” he says. And the top rung is not about children being in charge: “I don’t want children to always be in charge any more than I want adults to always be in charge.”
He also cautions against using the ladder to categorize people. “Someone can be on different levels at different times,” he says. “It depends where they are in the project.” The ladder also needs to be adapted to account for different cultural contexts, such as the collectivist sensibilities prevalent in Asia.
IN PRACTICE AT SCHOOLS
Hart says his ladder has most commonly been applied to non-school activities, because schools are a “special kind of institution”—they require attendance and typically have hierarchical power structures that place teachers themselves on the lower rungs of the participation ladder, with little leeway to grant greater freedom to others. Students’ participation in school governance is therefore greatly constrained. And students tend to be either completely left out of broader school-reform debates, or only represented by one or two “star” students. “It’s a system that is not about inclusive, participatory decision making,” Hart says.
He’s intrigued by the exceptions — democratic schools around the world that operate on the ladder’s highest rungs — and how such school cultures can reverberate throughout communities. Research on Colombia’s very inclusive Escuela Nueva schools (which started in low-income rural regions and have been replicated elsewhere) showed that communities with such schools became much more democratic and developed more social capital, with deeper and more caring bonds developing among community members. (The effect was less profound in less homogeneous urban settings, but Hart considers it a valuable model nonetheless.)
Even at more conventional schools, the ladder has sometimes been used to assess projects and identify opportunities for greater participation. Most school projects, he says, are conceived and designed by teachers, representing lost opportunities for more engaged and profound learning.
That was the approach taken at one school in England. Rather than giving explicit instructions on a project, a teacher operating on a higher rung asked students to reflect on what aspects of their neighborhood could be improved, discuss their ideas, settle on one, and find ways to improve it. Students decided that dog excrement was the biggest problem in their environment. With the support of teachers, they mapped the problem areas, designed a pooper scooper, and devised ways to discuss the issue with the community. They intercepted dog owners, sold them scoopers, and convinced stores to advertise them and journalists to write about them.
“After two years, the neighborhood was free of dog poo,” Hart says. “That’s a project kids will recall for the rest of their lives, knowing they can see a problem and do something to change it." That's a much more powerful way to learn about environmental issues than simply following a teacher's instructions to collect and test water samples, and it promotes the kind of thinking that will be needed if humanity is to learn to live sustainably on this planet, says Hart, who also wrote a book called Children’s Participation: The Theory And Practice Of Involving Young Citizens In Community Development and Environmental Care.
HOW TO CLIMB THE RUNGS
The key to moving up the rungs, Hart says, is to ask groups of adults and children to reflect on examples of the rungs from their own lives. “A lot of adults are genuinely trying to be helpful,” Hart says, “but they don’t maximize a child’s chance to contribute in a way that allows the child to prepare and be confident and give an opinion that is really likely to be listened to. They don’t involve them, because they don’t think the child will contribute anything serious that will really make a difference."
For many years, the higher rungs were more evident in early childhood education, Hart says, “where teachers were trained to observe and listen to children while they’re playing, and to build on that. It’s a very child-centered and respectful way of working with people.” But the encroachment of standardized testing and curricula into the youngest classrooms has introduced a rigidity that is not compatible with such approaches.
Hart is inspired by innovative programs at schools that are free of such restrictions. In Bogota, Colombia, city leaders began allowing teachers to experiment with ideas for developing citizenship, starting in preschool. Hart saw the process unfold when he dropped in on a classroom unannounced. “The teacher told the kids: ‘We have a guest. Shall we ask his name and why he’s here?’” he recalls. “She then asked them what they do when they have a guest in their home, and each kid answered. She then told them, ‘So you’ve heard everyone’s idea; what would be good for us to do with our guest?’ They then created a whole script of what to do with a guest, built on what children liked from their own experience, reflected on, and chose. … It was such an obvious yet unusual kind of preschool program, with four-year-olds being talked with as part of an intelligent, democratic community.”
Some teachers are resistant (at least initially) about moving up the ladder’s rungs, because they worry about losing their familiar roles, and about feeling ignorant for not knowing the answers to children’s questions. Hart says these challenges can easily be overcome. For example, Escuela Nueva made its teacher training “horizontal,” engaging teachers from existing Escuela Nueva schools to educate newer colleagues and put them at ease. The schools also established well-stocked libraries to which the teachers could refer the children when they didn’t know the answers.
“It sounds simple,” Hart says, “but it made a big impact.”
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