Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education and Care—A Reader

Critical Questions, New Imaginaries and Social Activism, Second Edition

by Marianne N. Bloch (Volume editor) Beth Blue Swadener (Volume editor) Gaile S. Cannella (Volume editor)
Textbook XIV, 362 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Praise for Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education and Care—A Reader
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Reconceptualist Histories and Possibilities (Marianne N. Bloch / Beth Blue Swadener / Gaile S. Cannella)
  • Section I: Foundational Debates and Continuing Questions
  • Chapter One: Interrogating Reconceptualizing Early Care and Education (RECE)—25 Years Along (Marianne N. Bloch)
  • Chapter Two: Reconceptualizing the Early Childhood Curriculum: An Unaddressed Topic (Shirley A. Kessler)
  • Chapter Three: Anxiety, Theory, and the Challenges of Doing Early Childhood Research (Joseph Tobin)
  • Chapter Four: Through a Queer Lens: Recuperative Longings and the Reconceptualizing Past (Jonathan Silin)
  • Chapter Five: Still Waiting for the Revolution (Michael O’Loughlin)
  • Chapter Six: Social Justice, Risk, and Imaginaries (Susan Grieshaber / Felicity McArdle)
  • Section II: Diverse Imaginaries
  • Chapter Seven: Reconceptualising Evaluation in Early Childhood Education (Gunilla Dahlberg / Peter Moss)
  • Chapter Eight: Posthuman Childhoods: Questions Concerning ‘Quality’ (Marek Tesar / Sonja Arndt)
  • Chapter Nine: Black and Chicana Feminisms: Journeys Toward Spirituality and Reconnection (Michelle Salazar Pèrez / Cinthya M. Saavedra)
  • Chapter Ten: Affective/Effective Reading and Writing Through Real Virtualities in a Digitized Society (Liselott Mariett Olsson / Ebba Theorell)
  • Chapter Eleven: Bring Back the Asylum: Reimagining Inclusion in the Presence of Others (Gail Boldt / Joseph Michael Valente)
  • Chapter Twelve: Radical Theories of Presence in Early Childhood Imaginaries (Chelsea Bailey)
  • Chapter Thirteen: Our Story of Early Childhood Collaboration: Imagining Love and Grace (Denise Proud / Cynthia à Beckett)
  • Chapter Fourteen: Ki te Whai ao, ki te ao Marama: Early Childhood Understandings in Pursuit of Social, Cultural, and Ecological Justice (Cheryl Rau / Jenny Ritchie)
  • Chapter Fifteen: Situated and Entangled Childhoods: Imagining and Materializing Children’s Common World Relations (Affrica Taylor)
  • Chapter Sixteen: Posthumanist Imaginaries for Decolonizing Early Childhood Praxis (Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw / Fikile Nxumalo)
  • Section III: Social Action and Activism(s)
  • Chapter Seventeen: Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education and the (Im)Possibility of Racial Justice (Mariana Souto-Manning / Maisha T. Winn / Nicole McGowan / Jessica Martell)
  • Chapter Eighteen: None for You: Children’s Capabilities and Rights in Profoundly Unequal Times (Valerie Polakow)
  • Chapter Nineteen: The Costs of Putting Quality First: Neoliberalism, (Ine)quality, (Un)affordability, and (In)accessibility? (Mark Nagasawa / Lacey Peters / Beth Blue Swadener)
  • Chapter Twenty: Learning From the Margins: Early Childhood Imaginaries, “Normal Science,” and the Case for a Radical Reconceptualization of Research and Practice (Mathias Urban)
  • Chapter Twenty-One: [Im]possibilities of Reinvention of Palestinian Early Childhood Education (Janette Habashi)
  • Chapter Twenty-Two: Early Childhood Teacher Educator as Public Intellectual (Jeanne Marie Iorio / Will Parnell / Elizabeth P. Quintero / Catherine Hamm)
  • Chapter Twenty-Three: Social Activism: The Risky Business of Early Childhood Educators in Neoliberal Australian Classrooms (Kylie Smith / Sheralyn Campbell)
  • Chapter Twenty-Four: The Global Childhoods Project: Complexities of Learning and Living With a Biliterate and Trilingual Literacy Policy (I-Fang Lee / Nicola Yelland)
  • Chapter Twenty-Five: Critical Qualitative Research and Rethinking Academic Activism in Childhood Studies (Gaile S. Cannella)
  • About the Authors
  • Series Index

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This volume reflects more than twenty-five years of scholarship and dialogue focused on reconceptualizing research, practice, and policy related to early childhood. We acknowledge the role that the Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education (RECE) conferences have played over the past 27 years since the first conference held in 1991. We also would like to acknowledge the many people who have influenced our work in what is now a large global network. For all three of us, readings, critical scholarship, policy discussions, and critical work have informed this volume. As we’ve done our individual and collective work, dialogues and debates with a global network of scholars/teachers/policymakers, and members of different global and local cultural communities have played a very influential role in helping us to continue to ask: Why and why not?

This global network, including those in and out of academic contexts, has provided an environment for challenges. It has also provided each of us a space for sharing our work, questions, and diverse imaginaries. We especially thank all of the contributing authors for raising critical issues and sharing their work and thinking.

We deeply appreciate the support and patience of those who assisted us throughout the book editing process. Additionally, we want to acknowledge the help and long-term support of Peter Bloch, Daniel Swadener and Bert Cannella; this one and others could never have happened without that sharing of interests, and respect for each other’s work. Peter passed away too early in 2015, but he was thrilled to see the first edition published in 2014. This second edition then is also dedicated to our partners.

The editors—Mimi Bloch, Beth Blue Swadener, and Gaile Cannella—have worked together before. However, we had not co-edited a book together before the first edition of this one; now we are happy to be doing the second edition and continuing other work together. It has been an honor and privilege. We met as younger researchers, and now are grandparents. To all those ← xi | xii → doing the hard work as scholar/activists that have helped form the context for our work, and for scholar/activists who are beginning their work, move forward with new ideas, strategies for resistance and act with urgency and hope. We hope this book helps in some small way to illuminate important new issues, questions, and possibilities. We hope it illustrates the continuing need for interrogation of what seems to be “truth,” and the continued need for action at every level.

Finally, we wish to acknowledge the use of a cover photograph by University of Wisconsin-Madison Emeritus Professor of Early Childhood Education, Dr. Gary Glen Price. Dr. Price gave permission for the photograph to be used for the cover of this book, and also received written permission for its use from the adult whose photo was taken when he was a child. Dr. Price was a member of the host committees for three Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education conferences (1991, 1996, and 2005). The cover photo was used at the 2005 Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education conference as a poster, and one of two program cover photos. The title “Rapt child in spiral tunnel” draws on a reconceptualized perspective as it makes us think differently, interrogate the image, the child’s thinking, and our conceptions of what and how diverse childhoods are experienced and portrayed.

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Reconceptualist Histories and Possibilities

Marianne N. Bloch, Beth Blue Swadener, and Gaile S. Cannella

We are delighted to introduce the second edition of Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Care & Education—A Reader and hope that this edition brings new focus as well as new questions and debates to our collective discussions of ways to reconceptualize theory, research, policy, and pedagogical practices in early childhood education and care (ECEC). Within the 25 chapters, authors focus on a diverse set of current issues, new and diverse imaginaries, and social action strategies for change in the classroom, at the local, national, and global levels. Further, ways to re-envision goals and philosophies that would guide collective and individual activism are discussed. Throughout the reader, authors intermingle discussions of theory, research, pedagogical programs and practices, as well as global to local policy analysis.

The first edition of this book was published in 2014 to mark and review twenty years of reconceptualist “work” and dialogue related to early education and child care that took place in the spaces of conferences, other meetings, joint publications, or local to global collective actions. The book focuses largely, but not exclusively, on work done by those who associate with the “Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education” conferences and, what some call the Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education “movement.” In the second edition of the book, we again focus on the now over 25 years of reconceptualizing work, but add that many contributions are from those people who have added considerably to discussions about ECEC drawing from a diverse set of critical theoretical perspectives, but who are not directly associated with the reconceptualizing early childhood education conferences. Thus, in the second edition, we invite readers to look at the issues raised by contributors even more broadly as direct challenges to early education policies, practices, and research that purports to be “best” in telling “truth” about children, families, teachers and programs, as well as communities. ← 1 | 2 →

The first edition was published shortly after the 20th Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education conference. Since that time, the neoliberal capitalist global condition has expanded, further narrowing the dominant approach to childhood in ways that privilege and support measurement, judging others, profiteering and efficiency. Yet, even within this saturated, narrowed context, there have been counter actions in both academia and on the ground. In the second edition, authors re-examine continuing foundational questions, these new concerns, possible approaches and directions, and ways in which, at different levels and locales, the critical and reconceptualist work in ECEC, has facilitated/can facilitate social action. Further, the text of the second edition draws on several new contributions to add to the diversity of our knowledge base, and to increase our abilities to hone in on critical research, pedagogical, policy, and activist issues in early education and child care—across the globe.

The principle purpose of the volume is to demonstrate new directions for understanding and imagining childhoods as well as rethinking ECEC. Additionally, ways in which scholars in transdisciplinary fields are engaging in action and activism is considered of major importance. Pedagogical methods and policy directly and indirectly affecting access, affordability, and the enactment of ECEC as it impacts very young children, families, teachers, and caregivers in different contexts and around the globe are addressed. New authors for the second edition, as with the first, were asked to write chapters because the volume editors (in collaborative discussions) felt each had distinctly new and innovative ways to add to the dialogue and our “imaginaries.” While many authors contributed to the reader, no volume could include the many others whose work, knowledges, and voices might have been here. Yet, the reader may find that these influential others are actually present as ideas are discussed, in chapter content, and in references.

Among those who were unable to contribute, we again want to acknowledge a few colleagues whose contributions were enormous and significant in areas of ECEC policy, critical methodological and ethnographic studies, cross-national knowledge, and new theoretical ways of thinking about children, families, and policy. While Liane Mozere wrote a chapter for the first edition (Mozere, 2014), the book, sadly, was published after she died in October, 2013. She, along with colleagues Sally Lubeck, Leslie Williams, Jeanette Rhedding-Jones, and Judith Duncan, all participated actively in the Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education conferences (hosting the conferences, as well as serving as Program Chairs), and their germinal work has been important in so many ways through dialogues, publications, critical policy analysis, and mentorship of the next generation of scholars. In this volume, we celebrate their powerful legacies as well as the work of many critical others; we miss them, and continue to value their wisdom, scholarship, laughter, and friendship.

Reconceptualist Critical Perspectives and the Field of Early Childhood Education/Care (ECED): A Brief History

The Introduction of Critical Theory, Research, Policy, and Pedagogy

From the late 1970s into the mid-1980s, critically-oriented psychologists, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists most interested in early education and child care were asking questions about the narrow perspectives of the dominant empirical research in child development/ECEC. ← 2 | 3 → Critically oriented research in the U.S, and around the globe challenged these narrow universalist views. At the same time, others were involved in research that allowed us to recognize the value of qualitative/ethnographic research, and the diversity of childhood cultural contexts in which children lived and grew (e.g., Rogoff, 2003; Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989; Whiting & Whiting, 1975). Some were beginning to form a group examining the sociology of childhood (e.g., James, Jenks, & Prout, 1998; Jenks, 1982). While critical psychology (Burman, 1994) and anthropological studies of childhood helped illuminate the narrow view that “child development” promulgated as universal “truth” drawn from western contexts, research challenging the representation of the “other” also came to the forefront (e.g., Marcus & Fischer, 1986). While the 1970s and 1980s provided a foundation for many critiques of the role of science in determining what is legitimated as “truth,” the role of power relations (political/economic/social) in development and education (e.g., Apple, 1978; David, 1980; Pinar, 1975; Popkewitz, 1987, 1991) and the politics of cultural/racial/gendered identities, inclusions and exclusions, also became critically important in discussions (e.g., Ellsworth, 1989; Sleeter & Grant, 1987) and in political and educational research and actions.

In the U.S. especially, theory, research, policy, and curriculum were organized around positivist methods and, as Kessler and Swadener suggested, most research on children and childhoods was arrived at through quantitative studies using predetermined, and so called reliable and valid measurements of largely western, European or U.S. samples of children (Bloch, 1992; Kessler & Swadener, 1992a; Swadener & Kessler, 1991). This positivist research concerning the “truth” about children was often generalized from overly narrow samples and certainly without consideration for diversity. In early research in the U.S. by Bloch (1987), Hatch (1995), Lubeck (1985), Polakow-Suransky (1982), Tobin et al. (1989), Silin (1987), Ayers (1989), and many others, alternative methodologies, often qualitative and interpretive, as well as a variety of critical theories were used. These diverse contributions examined a variety of issues related to ECEC policy (e.g., Bloch, 1987; Lubeck, 1985; Polakow-Suransky, 1982), pedagogy and curriculum (Ayers, 1989; Kessler & Swadener, 1992a, 1992; Silin, 1987), and the ways in which dominant modes of inquiry and thought limited the types of questions that might be asked or the “evidence” found (Bloch, 1992; Hatch, 1995; Mallory & New, 1994; Swadener & Lubeck, 1995). The work illustrated the importance of new ways of doing research, the contributions of different theoretical frameworks, and the questions and practices in need of interrogation, or illumination. As many of these issues have remained “thorny” and complex over the past twenty-five years or longer, some are further represented throughout this volume.

The Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education (RECE) Group

In 1991, the first Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education (RECE) conference was held; at the time of the completion of this second edition, the twenty-fifth conference was just held in Toronto, Canada (October, 2017). These conferences were/are organized by some of the critical early childhood educators concerned with the complexities of power, culture/race/gender, inclusion, and exclusion. Over the years, centered on reconceptualizing early education and child care, conferences have been held in Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Norway, Palestine, Kenya, Canada, and the United States. Collectively and individually, those attending, and/or publishing their work have grappled with persistent questions and issues, including the following: What were foundational arguments and debates—and to what extent ← 3 | 4 → do they remain issues, and why? What are new imaginaries in our collective teaching, pedagogies, political action and research now? In what ways were our initial ideas of “reform and change” realized, and in which ways “are we still waiting for the revolution?” Have we tried to engage in different actions/activisms over the years—with what success? In which ways have we renarrativized or deterritorialized notions of developmental psychology or child development as a foundational way to construct childhood, children, and curriculum? But why has there been little apparent shift in reasoning, action, policy, or recommended “best practices” in curriculum?

Foundational Writings and Issues

Along with those already discussed, this volume focuses on initial critiques and debates that provided a foundation for the diverse critiques that emerged as part of rethinking and reconceptualist writings from the late 1970s onward in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and in the U.S. While some ideas drew from critical theories of the German Frankfurt School, others drew from western continental philosophers’ deconstructions of discursive language and practices and decolonizing/postcolonial theories, research, and indigenous knowledges. Ideas that drew from foundational and post-foundational, mixed methods/qualitative and post-qualitative methodologies, humanist/post-humanist theories and research methodologies are incorporated in chapters throughout the reader. Many also, as in the past, draw from diverse disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives beyond, yet including, critical psychology and developmental studies, sociology of childhood(s), new materialism, political-economic, historical, or anthropology, cultural studies, philosophy, visual/literary/performative arts, and diverse critical race, class, and feminist/gender studies perspectives.

Among many early critical childhood researchers, we highlight the early and influential work of Miriam David (1980), Valerie Walkerdine (1984), Erica Burman (1994), and Bronwyn Davies (1982, 1989), all of whom have published influential volumes critiquing childhood, children, child care and pedagogy through a variety of critical, post-structural, and feminist theoretical lenses. Another author, whose work is published in this volume, Valerie Polakow-Suransky (1982), in The Erosion of Childhood, provided early U.S.-based critiques of the dominance of child development as a foundation of truth about childhoods, using phenomenological and existential theory and research to shed light on “other” people’s children (Polakow, 1993). Jonathan Silin’s (1995) Sex, Death, and the Education of Children: Our Passion for Ignorance in the Age of AIDS, Gaile Cannella’s (1997) Deconstructing Early Childhood Education: Social Justice and Revolution, and Dahlberg, Moss, and Pence’s (1999), Beyond Quality: Early Education and Child Care in Post-Modernity were then and remain influential in the rethinking or reconceptualizing of early childhood education, child care “quality,” and the concepts of development, innocence, normalization, and childhood itself.

A variety of conference venues, including meetings of the Council on Anthropology of Education, the Bergamo Conference in the U.S. focused on curriculum theory, RECE from 1991 onward, and the Critical Perspectives in Early Childhood Education Special Interest Group at the American Education Research Association (that was begun in 1999 by several of the reconceptualist early childhood scholars) were influential. The University of Melbourne Equity and Innovation in Early Childhood Education conference started by Glenda MacNaughton and colleagues has also served a critical role. In France, Gilles Brougere, Michel Vandenbroeck and others have lead a French-language Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education conference. ← 4 | 5 → In addition, the Social Justice in Early Education conference and work by a large group of activist/scholars in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere have modeled new ways to bridge the scholar/public divide with significant impact on debates and policies in child care and early education. The US-based International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry has also included a variety of critical qualitative policy-oriented sessions on early childhood education over the past decade (for example, see Cannella & Wolff, 2014).

In a different way, a variety of publication opportunities allowed the discussions to grow; these included several books published in Teachers College Press’s Early Education series and the Peter Lang series focused on Rethinking Childhood and now named Childhood Studies (in which this book is published), as well as the two Routledge Press Series, Contesting Early Childhood and Changing Images of Early Childhood, as well as the Palgrave-MacMillan series, Critical Cultural Studies of Childhood. These new opportunities provided important openings for advancing discussions and the formation of a global network of scholars and scholarship.

In contrast, there have been few refereed journals over these years with a focus on critical theoretical perspectives in ECEC or childhood studies. But, new publications are emerging. The on-line journal Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood or CIEC, as well as several newer journals (e.g. Global Childhoods, the now RECE-affiliated International Journal of Critical Childhood Policy Studies) are expanding possibilities for the growing discussions and publication of open-access, peer-reviewed, theoretical arguments and research. Nonetheless, the continuing scarcity of refereed journal possibilities has been an ongoing issue, and may reflect the lack of resources tied to time and publication in the field. This was one of the arguments and one of the actions taken in 2015 for RECE to take over the on-line International Critical Childhood Policy Studies Journal.

The Personal and the Political

For many of us, much of our work is personal, professional, and political, as we struggle with our continued concerns regarding those who are younger. Initially, the reconceptualist work was focused on critiquing what is put forward as “normal;” the initial topics for activism have varied over time, and by context. Certainly, we have found this work to be useful, transformative, and at times risky, dangerous, as well as marginalized by dominant or mainstream ideas and conceptions of practice and policy. But the critiques that began in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s also require continuing reflection and examination: what were (and are) the aims, successes, barriers, and contributions of this work? It is also important to ask—what, currently, are the macro-politics and micro-politics of our work, especially within the frameworks of global hypercapitalism, neoliberal economic policies, and a massive return to racialized, classed, and gendered wars against women, children, and families? We look at macro politics as well as what the minor politics of our writing, actions, policies, and daily work are (Dahlberg & Moss, 2005) How do, or could, our strategic alliances and actions work in different ways toward various notions of inclusion, social justice, greater equity, redistributive economics and social politics for young children, their families, and teachers/caregivers? In which directions might specific strategic actions move us further in fighting, resisting, or renarrativizing how truth is constructed, accepted, and influential in relation to children, families, and “good education and care?”

As we continue to confront assumptions about the standardized child, childhood, curriculum, teacher, and parent, what are our current actions? As we speak about inequities for early ← 5 | 6 → childhood educators’ wages and working conditions, or increasing global wealth gap, what are our current actions? When we do research that reinforces our knowledge of the savage distributions (Kozol, 1991; Polakow, 1993) of access to health care and child care, what are our current actions? Here, we reinforce the importance of the space of critical reflection and activism within an increasingly punitive political and economic global context that narrows possibilities, especially for poor children and their families around the world.

As individuals, but also as a collective, we examine ethical perspectives that we might envision—including, at the least, an ethics and responsibility toward children’s care/education, not only in the richer, western nations and the privileged communities within them, but globally and locally. What are our continuing responsibilities? Where have we excluded while intending to include, whether topic, political movement, or pedagogical/curricular moment? Currently as we face continuing assaults from global capitalism, and renewed efforts to standardize bad practices in the name of quality, what might be our responses or ways of acting together over the next year, five years, or twenty? What are activities or endeavors that we as individuals or within groups might consider as we move toward this possible “future?”

Have there been stories that have been possible to tell, that otherwise might have been omitted or excluded from collective knowledge? How have truth, knowledge, and power relations been affected—if at all? Have the individual and collective voices, ideas, and writings been heard; are we talking and writing to a broader audience or to ever narrowing discursively confined spaces? Where are the openings, new lines of flight? Where is the serpent lurking, closing down barely envisioned spaces or possibilities (Dahlberg & Bloch, 2006)?

In this collection, we explore how different narratives have been allowed to continue and new narratives have emerged that constrain as well as open possibilities for children/families/education and children’s care. Many of the chapter contributors discuss how our actions and/or new alliances might be used in new ways toward previously unthought ways of thinking and action? Again, can we speak truth to power in alternative ways as a collective voice, or through individual and collective contingent social actions (see Cannella, Perez, & Lee, 2016; Swadener, Lundy, Habashi, & Blanchet-Cohen, 2013). While the second edition continues to take a nonlinear approach for looking backward and forward—with attention to key questions and debates within the Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education “movement” and within and across different groups that examine ECEC, it also continues to use diverse frames to do so in order to provoke new critiques, actions, visions, and possibilities.

Through studies of “standards” and universal views of care that are far from universally accessible, from recognizing the continuing effect of neoliberal and cultural politics on and in the education of children, by acknowledging racism and violence and the colonization of minds, methods, and voices, we hope to continue confronting political, economic, and educational injustices. The contributors collectively highlight research, policy, and pedagogical challenges and directions that point to crucial areas of work—within the context of continuing global neoliberal regimes, societies of “control” and in an era of policing—but work that would generate possibilities and hope.

Further, in this volume, we represent a “post-reconceptualist” notion of a diversity of theories/methodologies—as well as diverse imaginaries for new pedagogical spaces, social justice action and activisms, peace, and an ethics of hope. We also acknowledge the privileges that many of us take for granted and recognize that the majority of others, particularly young children around the globe, engage in a diversity of educational and care contexts, and that far too many, ← 6 | 7 → within economically rich as well as poor countries, lack essential resources. Finally, many of the chapter contributors challenge us to engage with a sense of a planetary kindness and concern for all, whether human or more-than-human, an ethics of care for the “other,” and a sense of moving beyond human privilege in our practices to address a transspecies/more-than-human/environmental justice for all.

We pose the following questions as an impetus for action:

1. Why are developmental theory and quantitative/positivist research still dominant and dominating notions of truth in early childhood research, policy, pedagogy, curriculum, and theory? If not developmental theory and research, what other ways of thinking and acting can we envision or imagine? Why are we always compelled to have answers?

2. Are there individual/collective actions or activisms in different local, regional, and global locations that represent new possibilities, new ways to re-territorialize, that are outside what is taken as natural or normal?

3. How has reconceptualist work created new dialogues and ways to think about subjectivities, identities, and multiplicities?

4. What new approaches to theory, research, and methodology have been generated, and what new challenges are raised?

5. How is critical work regarding the body of the child reflected in our research and actions (docile, bodies without organs, performing or embodying diverse situated identities, multiplicity of subjectivities)?

6. Where are children in our discourses (is research on or about them, and with them?)

7. How do diverse theoretical and methodological frameworks add to our individual and collective intellectual work? In what ways have we also moved into a post-reconceptualist (Malewski, 2010) space, in which it is necessary to follow:
ethical commitments (to) the range of possibilities…That there be spaces for traditionalists, empiricists, and developmentalist discourses regardless of the extent to which such ideas need to be challenged, but that such work be displaced so as to break up sedimentary conjunctions, epistemological dominance, to open spaces where a thousand theories and stories are made and unmade, where alternative feasible readings proliferate. (Malewski, 2010, xiii)

8. Even as we also acknowledge the human impact on the more-than-human world, how do we avoid losing our focus on young children, their lives, care and education? Critical policy and critical advocacy remain central to the challenges we still face. So we ask, in what ways do our policies and practices still focus on pedagogies of inclusion/exclusion? How do the politics of accessibility/disabilities, minority/majority voices/spaces/geographies frame our actions and practices?

9. In what ways have our scholarship and actions helped to resolve critical curricular and policy issues related to (early) childhood, given globalizing capitalist patriarchy and neoliberal narrowing of possibilities? Which new actions are critical as we move toward unpredictable complex “futures?”

10. What are different and diverse imaginaries concerning children and childhood as pleasure and desire are considered? How has popular media, technology, and global and local practices surrounding children “in danger” been addressed, analyzed, or ← 7 | 8 → acknowledged in our actions? In which ways does violence in media, and violent actions in education, affect young children? Do we need different ways to focus our critique, research, action and activism?

11. More generally, with early childhood education and child care gaining even greater attention in global policy, how might we imagine new ways to do research, to write, to envision curriculum, or critical actions and activisms?

12. Are we/how are we making life better when young human beings are living with war, abuse, hunger, disaster, and death? What are ways that reconceptualist can address these issues?

13. How do oppression, injustice and violence imposed on younger human beings, people of color, and women interact with environmental injustice and human privilege imposed over the nonhuman other to create greater injustice for all? How can we act in relation to increased justice broadly? What does this action mean for reconceptualizing early education and care?

This Reader

While addressing all these questions is beyond the scope of this book, many of the concerns are represented in the themes discussed within the diverse contributions authors have made to the volume. Researchers from ten different regions of the world highlight questions, issues, and reflections for further debates in areas of critical childhood studies, curriculum and pedagogy, and policy analysis and implementation. Social and political actions related to global and local childhoods, as well as social, economic, cultural and environmental justice are highlighted. Authors call attention to global and local economic inequalities and power relations, as they call for more complexity in the ways we understand and, with an ethics of listening to others, do work with and in the name of others around the globe.

The volume contains three sections, although all content is related and could never be narrowed as addressing only one aspect of ECEC and childhood studies reconceptualization. The chapters in the first section, Foundational Debates and Continuing Questions address dominant perspectives and initial reconceptualist challenges to them as well as reactions to the lack of more just transformation over the years. In a sense, the authors challenge the results of the reconceptualist revolution. Chapters in the second section, Diverse Imaginaries explore possibilities for the future if we think the unthought through diverse lenses, imaginaries, and multiplicities. Finally, in section three, Social Action/Activisms, the chapter authors offer a collective call to action from diverse standpoints and approaches to activism.

Whether labeled critical perspectives, rethinking, or reconceptualizing, the aims of the contributing scholars have been to open up alternatives. Their work generates multiple, unthought (and relearned, revisited, and rethought) avenues for theory, research, policy, and practice in the fields of ECEC and childhood studies. They would continue to deconstruct the importance of child development and narrowed individualistic perspectives on ways of judging children, and childhood itself. They also continue to ask who makes decisions for children and their families and to generate ways to decolonize western research on/about/with children and families. Finally, reconceptualists offer possibilities for rethinking the world broadly with children, for listening to and being with their lives, as they help us to focus on justice broadly for the world all around us. ← 8 | 9 →

Foundational Debates and Continuing Questions

Almost every chapter in the first section of the book raises points concerning the initial debates and challenges that scholars brought to a rethinking or reconceptualizing of early education/care theory, research/methods, policies, and curricular/pedagogical practices. Across many of the chapters in the section, the initial debates about the reliance on psychology and child development (developmental psychology) as a way to guide research, theory, policy, and what was (and often still is) considered best practices for programs and curriculum are mentioned. Further, the authors address, not only questions about where “we are” in relation to initial dominant issues, but also describe and create avenues for new and diverse approaches being thought and used by “reconceptualists” in ECEC and childhood studies as we near the third decade of the 21st century.

In “Interrogating Reconceptualizing Early Care and Education (RECE),” Marianne Bloch presents a history of the RECE “movement.” She makes a point of reminding the reader that the history is from her own perspective, her rememberings of initial purposes, historical background, and new discursive contexts/texts that maintain or change beliefs, politics, policies, and pedagogical opportunities and openings. The reader can find a wealth of information on the literature used by early reconceptualists in ECEC tied to the original curriculum theorists and challenges to developmental psychology as well as feminist, poststructural, and postcolonial perspectives.

Shirley Kessler’s chapter, “Reconceptualizing the Early Childhood Curriculum: An Unaddressed Topic” draws on critical curriculum theory and historical perspectives, asking again: What values are embedded in the early childhood curriculum? The text provides a challenging argument that there are many ways in which values are in curriculum, and could be a basis for curriculum, but have still not been discussed. As a critical curriculum historian in early education, her foundational arguments (Kessler, 1991; Kessler & Swadener, 1992b; Swadener & Kessler, 1991) related to what counts, and who decides, leave us with many persistent questions, as well as feelings of urgency.

In “Anxiety, Theory, and the Challenges of Doing Early Childhood Research,” Joe Tobin expresses the concern that many progressive scholars appear to be retreating from conducting hands-on research. Further, he explains that this avoidance decreases engagement with those who are younger, as well as with their teachers and classroom environments. Tobin ascribes this problem to researcher anxiety regarding the unknown as well as to an over privileging of theory. He reminds us that “early childhood scholars have long been able to explain the complexity of life in early childhood classrooms and children’s penchant for creative resistance without using such concepts as lines of flight, tactics of the weak, and intra-agency” (Tobin, this volume). The rehabilitation of empirical research is called for as the reader is reminded that the term actually means knowledge that comes from the senses, and does not necessarily mean positivism. Finally, Tobin proposes that, while theory is not always an obstacle, there are multiple pathways to address matters of concern.

In Jonathan Silin’s chapter “Through a Queer Lens: Recuperative Longings and the Reconceptualizing Past,” the author proposes that we look to the past for its aspirational potential, especially the hidden histories of the past. In our current context in which the field of early education and care is in danger from an increasingly academic curriculum and insistence on quantifiable results, Silin suggests that we employ the reparative, recuperative possibilities of a fluid (and political) collective memory. Three original reconceptualist ideas that characterized ← 9 | 10 → RECE are believed to be sources for action in the present as Silin labels them, acknowledging that he uses the words of other critical scholars. These originating ideas include: (a) making a place for pleasure in early childhood education (Tobin), as focusing on “our unknowingness in order to enjoy new fields of play” (Silin, this volume) as well as engaging with unsafe scholarship; (b) advocating for lives on the edge (Polakow), theoretically storming the barricades erected by traditionalists; and (c) speaking Truth to Power (variety of sources), constructing intersecting, and direct challenges to dominant oppressions. These hidden histories (and others) serve as sites for action today.

“Still Waiting for the Revolution,” by Michael O’Loughlin, is a brief overview of his early critiques tied to a current, and urgent, call for a more liberatory imaginary. O’Loughlin states: “Do we have the capacity to stand up to the retrogressive influences that seek to roll back the gains in our field? I fear I’m still waiting for the revolution.” (this volume) Yet, his propositions in response to our lack of revolution are affirmative, as he proposes a third way that would focus on childhood subjectivity in ways that require teachers to conceptualize their work as challenges to normativity, as engaging practices that allow and encourage children to “imagine themselves otherwise” (O’Loughlin & Johnson, 2010). O’Loughlin challenges the reader to consider how reconceptualizations of subjectivity would trouble pedagogy, lead to a regenerative curriculum, draw evocative knowledges into the classroom, and allow children to express and name their own inner knowledges.

Finally, in “Social Justice, Risk, and Imaginaries,” Susan Grieshaber and Felicity McArdle, particularly discuss the Reconceptualizing Early Childhood group. The authors suggest that the original focus on social justice and equity that many of us felt our work embodied has not been realized—a point that most recognize, but that the authors describe very clearly. In addition, they suggest that at global, regional, and national levels, inequalities in caregiver/teacher wages in a field characterized as (women’s) gendered work, and the unequal access to reasonable child care or preschool programs for many of the world’s children continue and/or increase. Their chapter points toward a question: what are the priorities of and in our work? From the point of view of Sue Grieshaber’s work as editor of the Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood journal published in Australia, staying in place is not working. Understanding where we are and where we might be headed requires rethinking and redirection.

Diverse Imaginaries

As we explore the possibilities for the future as grounded in diverse imaginaries and multiplicity, the authors in the second section generate a range of directions for their own work, for research in the field, and even for childhood counter politics and public policy. To varying degrees, the chapters illustrate multiple locations within which the personal and professional are entangled. Examples range from: possibilities for future lives and work as conceptualized through notions of spirituality, love and grace (that does not emphasize patriarchal religion), counters to dominant notions of quality, and conceptualizations/performances of childhood using the work of boundary bending/breaking/busting scholars like Butler, Haraway, and Deleuze, as well as perspectives like posthumanism and the more-than-human as applied to childhood. Some of the chapters are more related than others. Yet, all are entangled with reconceptualist attempts to critique, rethink, reimagine, relate, to foster increased justice in all forms, and to take action. ← 10 | 11 →

Gunilla Dahlberg and Peter Moss open this section with the chapter “Reconceptualising Evaluation in Early Childhood Education.” Based on years of work with the notion of early childhood “quality,” the authors first describe what they had hoped to achieve by writing the book, Beyond Quality. The purpose was to shift the focus away from a modernist regulatory concept that could not, because of its modernist paradigmatic location, be rethought. The shift would be to “recognising that each one of us faces a choice, whether to work with the concept of quality or to choose some other concept, some other approach to evaluation, such as meaning making” (this volume). Dahlberg and Moss then propose that the Reggio Emilia practice of pedagogical documentation can potentially facilitate the needed paradigmatic transformation. While at the same time recognizing questions that must still be addressed, the authors describe the potential use of pedagogical documentation for evaluation, not only for group, classroom or school evaluation, but also at the school system and network levels.

In “Posthuman Childhoods: Questions Concerning Quality,” Marek Tesar and Sonja Arndt further this contemporary concern with, and reimagining of, the notion of quality. The purpose is to problematize and rethink what quality could mean in relation to multiplicities and uncertainties for both human and non-human subjects, as well as their entangled relations. The importance of intra-connections that both challenge the boundaries of human-centric theories/subjects and move beyond disciplinary restrictions is stressed. The authors call for a renegotiation of quality that is ultimately a reconceptualist revolt (Kristeva, 2000). This revolution would create quality as a state of change, transformation, entanglement, continuous probing, and always/already “elevate children and childhoods as powerful, talked about, invested into, and engaged with in locally, ecologically and relationally complex and meaningful ways” (this volume).

Inspired by authors like bell hooks to write “Black and Chicana Feminisms: Journeys Toward Spirituality,” Michelle Salazar Pèrez and Cinthya Saavedra describe their attempts at enacting feminisms within the intersections of their own personal and professional lives. The work provides stories of the often-undocumented insight into the theoretical and methodological influence of such feminisms on research. Traditionally marginalized feminisms are considered sights for the construction of unthought possibilities for childhood/s inquiry.

Liselott Olsson and Ebba Theorell describe a component of the Magic of Language research project in “Affective/Effective Reading and Writing Through Real Virtualities in a Digitized Society.” The project is funded by the Swedish Research Council with the purpose of exploring preschool children’s relations to didactic tools for language, reading, and writing. Their work focuses on the idea that preschool children are immersed in, and great users of, all sorts of digital devices. Most important, the children approach digital devices through a productive representational linguistic logic. These experimentations demonstrate that even the very youngest children are very familiar (and skilled) with digital devices. Their work, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas, among others, illustrates vividly the importance of children’s own meaning-making.

In “Bring Back the Asylum: Reimagining Inclusion in the Presence of Others,” Gail Boldt and Joseph Valente use the concept of asylum as discussed from the 1930s to the 1990s to consider the concept of place. They advance critical disability studies by asserting that to matter, the concept of place (and the asylum illustration) must be formed through the commitment to what it means to consider the presence of all participants living together in shared experience. The authors use the concept to assist in examining recent research at an inclusive French ← 11 | 12 → preschool, L’Ecole Gulliver, that unconditionally admits (subject to space) all children regardless of the nature or severity of their disability or chronic illness.

In “Radical Theories of Presence in Early Childhood Imaginaries,” Chelsea Bailey draws on stories from her ongoing work in China to examine how the unfamiliar exposes the uncertain, and how this uncertainty can lead us quite suddenly to a breakdown out of which the potential for tenderness arises. Rather than being a simple cross-cultural tale of difference and its failures and misunderstandings in the present, Bailey uses the lessons offered by these stories of lateral discontinuity to map a route to tenderness, a best version of what could possibly come next. The heart of this essay considers what happens after Western narratives of certainty have ceased to function and entertains possibilities for how the next chapter of what we currently call “childhood” could be written.

Denise Proud and Cynthia à Beckett present their friendship that spans three decades as an example of the way strong bonds grow through shared understandings of working with young children in early childhood settings in their chapter “Our Story of Early Childhood Collaboration: Imagining Love and Grace.” Whether there are differences or similarities in the various life circumstances of diverse early childhood educators, sharing the early childhood education/care experience is discussed as a relational starting point, a meeting place for connections to begin. The authors argue that working with young children is a position of grace (explaining what they consider to be the definition of “grace”), and further raising the question as to whether we fall from grace when we no longer work with those who are younger.

In “New Imaginaries Related to Authors’ Scholarly Work and Praxis Ki te Whai ao, Ki te ao Marama,” Cheryl Rau and Jenny Ritchie describe the decolonizing work they have practiced in New Zealand. Their work in collaboration with Maori scholars, activists, and communities of teachers and families provides a window into what could be imagined. Further, this work constructs positions from which conceptualizations of what might be done can be generated. Also included is a discussion of the ways that counternarratives and macro/micro-politics facilitate or prevent movement, new flows, and more socially and environmentally just education and care.

In her work that focuses on children’s common world relations, Affrica Taylor labels her approach as collectivist (rather than individualist), and positioned within a more-than-human (rather than exclusively humanist) framework. In the chapter “Situated and Entangled Childhoods: Imagining and Materializing Children’s Common World Relations,” she stresses that children are always already enmeshed within the “common worlds” that they inherit and inhabit along with a whole host of human and nonhuman others. As a cultural geographer, Taylor focuses on children’s “emplacement” within these common worlds, as well as the ways in which we think about children’s entangled relations with the nonhuman, “natural” world.

Finally, in their chapter “Posthumanist Imaginaries for Decolonizing Early Childhood Praxis,” Veronica Pacini-Katchabaw and Fikile Nxumalo provide an account of the potential of posthumanist perspectives for “decolonizing” early childhood education practices. Working at the intersection of postcolonial, Indigenous and posthumanist literatures, the authors engage with the following question: How can we conceive a politics for troubling colonialisms in which human individuals are not necessarily the central players, but players among nonhuman others? The chapter explores human and nonhuman entanglements to generate decolonizing early childhood practices providing three examples of reconceptualist practice. ← 12 | 13 →

Social Action/Activisms

Chapters in this section offer a collective call to action from several standpoints and draw from multiple theories and approaches to activism and critical scholarship regarding social issues and policies. Since the first volume was published in 2014, oppressions targeting women and minoritized groups including migrants and refugees, persons of color, and Muslims, among others, have been evident in many global contexts. The income gap continues to widen and neoliberal early childhood education and care policies are gaining ever wider reach—even in nations that have long had more inclusive policies and provisions for diverse children and families. The urgency of scholar activism and doing work relevant to addressing these worsening conditions is evident.

The section begins with a chapter by Mariana Souto-Manning, Maisha T. Winn, Nicole McGowan, and Jessica Martell, “Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education and the (Im)Possibility of Racial Justice,” addressing reconceptualization of early childhood education in the context of the “(im)possibility of racial justice.” The authors draw upon data from New York City and Detroit to unpack the nuanced ways in which young children make sense of endemic racist discourses which continue to position people of color as property. Using Afrocentric counter-storytelling as an analytic framework, the chapter foregrounds young children’s counter-stories (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002) as they make sense of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Young children and their powerful counter-stories are used to (re)center early childhood education—and its vision for the future and provides a powerful example for related intergenerational scholarship and activism.

In her chapter, “None for You: Children’s Capabilities and Rights in Profoundly Unequal Times,” Valerie Polakow calls for intensified focused, collective attention to children in poverty. Her chapter examines what it means to be a poor child in the second decade of the 21st century in the United States and engages several critical questions, including how do children see their own life worlds that are bounded by poverty, inequality, and social and educational exclusion? She also examines ways in which children cope with their daily lives of poverty and hardship, and how they assume active, rather than passive, roles in strategically marshaling resources. Polakow also emphasizes that all of these issues have been under-researched—and the reconceptualist researchers and activists should take a stronger role and focus on these issues, as well as methodologies. Counter to what she has illustrated in her own research throughout her career, she emphasizes that, in the poverty policy literature, children are typically constructed as passive recipients of support or stigma. She also points out that how children and adolescents confront poverty and the violation of their rights is vital to document as part of a growing literature on children’s rights and capabilities.

Nagasawa, Peters and Swadener add to these points in “The Costs of Putting Quality First: Neoliberalism, (Ine)quality, (Un)affordability, and (In)accessibility”, while drawing from a Gramscian analysis combined with contemporary theories. They look at the contradictory nature (common sense/good sense/bad sense) of neoliberal policies in ECE—including the current emphasis on quality and quality rating scales—while neglecting accessibility, affordability and cultural relevance to families and children. Similar to Polakow’s chapter, a case is made for direct engagement with community and policy shapers and makers to not just critique the “bad sense” but to build on the moments or elements of “good sense” in current early childhood systems and programs/initiatives. ← 13 | 14 →

In his chapter, “Learning from the Margins: Early Childhood Imaginaries, ‘Normal Science,’ and the Case for a Radical Reconceptualization of Research and Practice,” Mathias Urban makes a case for a radical reconceptualization of research and practice. As a public intellectual active in monitoring and critiquing global and national neoliberal policies (Moss & Urban, 2017; Urban, 2017; Urban & Swadener, 2016) and nuanced work on early childhood practitioners, Urban discusses what appears to be a paradigm shift in European Union policies regarding young children. At the center of Urban’s interrogation lies a critical inquiry into a mainstream research-policy-practice complex that privileges “normal science.” Urban asks, who benefits, who speaks, and who is silenced? Making the case for a radical paradigm shift very different from that proposed by the EU, the chapter aims at identifying and questioning narratives that are employed to justify policies and practices focusing on young children and on early childhood education and care. Such questioning, the author argues, opens a space for possible and necessary counter-discourses and renarrativization.

In “(Im)Possibilities of Reinvention of Palestinian Early Childhood Education,” Janette Habashi analyzes the roles and issues with early education and care non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the West Bank and draws from her experiences working with mothers and early childhood teachers on a collaborative project that has grown into an NGO—A Child’s Cup Full (ACCF). Her chapter articulates the progress and the steps taken to understand the role of NGOs in early childhood education in the occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT) and the lessons learned while conceptualizing ACCF’s plan for Palestinian early childhood education in Jenin Refugee Camp. To facilitate the achievement of such a dream, it is essential to scrutinize the Palestinian historical, structural, and political context that might or might not make it possible to realize this path, especially as relating to the challenges of NGOs’ external/internal funding and early childhood curricula. She argues that the contextualization and interrelation of these elements are cornerstones for ACCF to envision an example of the reinvention of early childhood education in the oPT, whereby the community is not contingent on external funding and therefore has a voice in the discussion of the curricula and local programming.

Jeanne Iorio, Will Parnell, Elizabeth Quintero and Catherine Hamm address issues of hegemonic neoliberal higher education and deficit-based public policy and the role of early childhood teacher educators as “public intellectuals” in making space for a practice of hope. The authors of “Early Childhood Teacher Educator as Public Intellectual” argue that hope provides a space in which “technical, conceptual, and the pedagogical come together to address and see beyond the consequences of neoliberalism as well as to create inclusive and ethical spaces where hope is the touchstone for students, academics, and administrators.” Each author provides a critical personal narrative using re-telling/storying that provides examples of ways in which they have acted as public intellectuals in confronting challenges in the neoliberal university and public policy contexts.

In “Social Activism: The Risky Business of Early Childhood Educators in Neoliberal Australian Classrooms,” Kylie Smith and Sheralyn Campbell’s focus our attention on teacher education and critical action research in relation to policy as approaches toward action and activism. Despite their illustrations of collective work with regional and national early education curriculum framework makers, they suggest change is easier at local levels than at larger levels. Within the new Australian Government Early Learning Framework (Australian Government, 2012), discourses and openness to new theoretical frameworks has been included; but regional and local school policies constrain or restrain teachers and programs from understanding what ← 14 | 15 → to use, why to adopt change, and little on-the-ground training has helped this. In addition, government at different levels requires new standards continuously, as in the USA, and has taken on new methods of assessment at early childhood programs, and for teachers, much as we see in the USA and Great Britain and Canada; therefore, suggested changes on paper fail to equate with change—thus far. Despite these discouraging signs, local critical action research with (not on) teachers suggests greater promise for understanding, a reconstruction of what it might mean to teach toward equity and social justice, and is illustrated in the chapter.

I-Fang Lee and Nicola Yelland draw from the larger project, Global Childhoods: Portraits of Learning and Living in Asia in the 21st century in their chapter subtitled “Complexities of Learning and Living with a Biliterate and Trilingual Literacy Policy.” The project has an overall aim to explore contemporary childhoods in Asia and is a collaboration involving academics and teachers from Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand who have come together to interrogate Asian childhoods in the 21st century. In the first instance, a focus has been to begin to understand children’s literacy learning and practices in their own cultural contexts. Seeking to understand contemporary Asian childhoods and children’s life worlds (both learning and living experiences), our analyses and discussions aim to move beyond the simple dichotomies of Western/non-Western binary constructions of childhoods and appropriate/ inappropriate pedagogical practices in an attempt to reconceptualize aspects of childhoods in the era of globalization. In this chapter, they describe the rationale and use of an ethnographic approach in an attempt to understand Hong Kong children’s contemporary literacy learning in the context of a biliterate and trilingual education policy in a non-profit kindergarten in Hong Kong. As in several other chapters in this section, Lee and Yelland critically analyze the paradoxical moments of children’s lives as the systems require a universal construction of best pedagogical practices in the era of globalization.

Finally, the activisms section concludes with Gaile Cannella’s chapter, “Critical Qualitative Research and Rethinking Academic Activism in Childhood Studies,” which draws from feminist theory and a version of Foucauldian analysis to argue that the majority of critical reconceptualist scholarship (from a range of fields, including scholarship in early childhood education/care/studies over more than 20 years) has not resulted in the elimination of patriarchy or intersecting forms of oppression. Echoing messages from some of the early chapters, she states that systemic and institutional oppressions/perspectives that continue to support injustices, as performed upon particular individuals, groups, nonhumans, knowledges/ways of being, and the environment, have intensified (Cannella & Lincoln, 2007, Ellsworth, 1989; Steinberg & Cannella, 2012). Further, reasons for the lack of transformative impact of critical scholarship are examined. A continued oppressive condition can be understood as embedded within backlashes against diversity (e.g., moves to discredit feminisms), reinscriptions of oppressive forms of knowledge/action (e.g., evidence-based discourse practices, movements toward exclusionary quality ratings and quantitative, positivist standardized assessment tools), and, last but not least, the corporatization of knowledge (e.g., transformation of higher education toward profit oriented managerial and entrepreneurial functions, curriculum profiteering). Her chapter calls for more research and policy analysis that goes beyond “neutral” and “scientific” or “rigorous” to ask tougher questions, and to respond more assertively to the crucial challenges we –as researchers, policy-makers, teacher-educators, and as local, national, and global participants—must, and can address. ← 15 | 16 →

A Closing, and an Invitation

In the end, we hope this book becomes an invitation to consider, and move toward, a world in which all children would experience fairness, justice, hope, and opportunity—a world that involves those who are younger in environmental justice and equity for themselves, as well as the more-than-human—a world that is fair, caring, and “yes” loving for/to/with all that is around them. While we value multiple histories and our relations to/with those histories as life companions, we hope the book is not seen as “history” with answers. Further, “history” could be another story for another day (see, for example, discussions of cultural history in Popkewitz, Franklin, & Pereyra, 2001) and history for the sake of history would perhaps always limit our understanding of possibilities. Rather, we would like the book to be read as a collection of responses to an old call—of rememberings and reparative interpretations of our forgettings, a gathering of possibilities, becomingswith unthought ideas/others/actions, and a performance of hope—as we continue to imagine what could be.


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Foundational Debates and Continuing Questions

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Interrogating Reconceptualizing Early Care and Education (RECE)—25 Years Along

Marianne N. Bloch1

While some of the history of the first Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education (RECE) Conference was initiated in 1991 as a tentative start for new discussions, critique, and presentation of then-marginalized approaches to research, theory, policy, and pedagogy, it was hardly the beginning of these debates, nor, of course, is it the end—as this volume illustrates well. In this chapter, I present a form of history of the RECE Conference, illustrate some of the key questions we asked, and, finally, continue to ask questions and interrogate where we’ve “been” and where we might move. Thus, this is a history that draws upon my memories and reflections, as well as events that, though incompletely discussed or illustrated, I have constructed as important.

A framework for reading this chapter: histories are not linear, nor are they “truth” (Foucault, 1980). They involve memories and forgettings, intentional and without seeming intention. In addition, following Scott (1991) and Butler (1993, 2004) “experience” as well as identity(es) are contingently situated and related or performed in the discursive moment in which “experience” or storytelling (in this case) happens. As I narrate this story, therefore, please see the narrative as nonlinear, with ruptures, and that different discursive moments may account in ways I or “we” (then and now) think, act, and write.

Brief Overview of RECE’s Early Days/Years

Therefore, drawing from my memories (and forgettings), I try to represent the work of other critical theorists in education and curriculum studies at different moments. My narrative begins with disciplinary, theoretical/methodological backgrounds of the early participants. ← 21 | 22 →

My Memories: As suggested in the introduction to this book, the attendees at the first few RECE conferences had different theoretical roots, diverse disciplinary affiliations and backgrounds in research. There was also a desire to stimulate new discussions, new research approaches and to search for more equitable policies and pedagogical practices in early care and education at a material level with families, teachers, and children. We/they were also primarily academic researchers and teachers focusing on curriculum, early- and elementary-level teacher education, and most of us were doing graduate education and research. Some of us were engaged in what we thought to be the initial debates about the dominance of psychology and child development “truths” about children and childhood. Many of us were concerned about the dominance of positivist research in determining what knowledge was considered valid and reliable about children, their families, and how good “quality” teaching and curriculum for young children was culturally, socially, historically, and philosophically constructed. We represented somewhat different disciplinary backgrounds, some with emphasis in anthropology, many with developmental psychology/child development backgrounds, some sociologists, others interested in critical curriculum theory, some coming with backgrounds in feminist/gender studies; some with historical, philosophical, or psychoanalytic interests and experience. We all shared an interest in early education and child care.

The dominance of psychology, child development and positivist, largely quantitatively oriented “Science” that was based on logical-empiricist or empirical-analytical principles had emerged in the United States particularly in the beginning of the 20th century (Bloch, 1991, 1992; Burman, 1994; Cannella, 1997; Rose, 1989/1999). In various publications from the mid-1980s onward, there had been questions about the dominance of psychology and child development as well as “empirical-analytic” or positivist research in early childhood education (ECE) and the ways in which these discourses of developmental psychology and positivist research paradigms governed ECE and child care and teacher education, as well as research on and with teachers, parents, and children (Bloch, 1987; David, 1980; Polakow Suransky, 1983; Polakow, 1992; Silin, 1987; Walkerdine, 1984). In addition, as suggested in the introductory chapter, many early-education-oriented researchers were beginning to draw from critical curriculum theorists and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory to question taken-for-granted approaches to curriculum development in education; Jonathan Silin (1987) asked whose knowledge should count in the curriculum? What knowledge is most valued for young children? Bernard Spodek (1980) also asked whether developmental psychology was the only framework that should guide the early childhood curriculum; what content matters in the curriculum, and who should decide? Others suggested that common, taken-for-granted precepts in ECE such as Piagetian theory or a child-centered curriculum may reproduce inequalities rather than provide a liberal space for learning (Walkerdine, 1984; O’Loughlin, 1992). King (1982) described how play and work reproduced class inequalities within the kindergarten curriculum, while Gracey (1975) called kindergarten academic boot camp by illustrating how the curriculum focused on regimented behavior such as learning to line up and be quiet and know who (the teacher) was in charge. David (1980) drew on critical feminist and neo-Marxist theory to examine the relation among the state, parenting, and education. Rather than focusing on “maternal involvement” in school as a neutral good, she suggested that maternal rather than paternal involvement was expected as part of women’s assignment to childrearing as their primary state productive labor. ← 22 | 23 →

Valerie Suransky Polakow’s (Suransky, 1983/Polakow, 1992) initial critique of our concepts of childhood and child development were also focused on gender and class inequalities and were published in The Erosion of Childhood. Lubeck (1985) in The Sandbox Society showed through ethnographies of children in low-income Head Start and middle-class preschools how class (and to some extent race) relates to curriculum and pedagogical practices for young children in the United States. Tobin, Wu, and Davidson (1989) in Preschool in Three Cultures illustrated how qualitative research and ethnography cross-nationally could be used to see things in ways other than the traditional positivist research had shown to date.2 Again, by 1989, Ayers’ The Good Preschool Teacher (1989) and Davies’ (1989) Frogs and Snails and Feminist Tales had been published and continued to illuminate the importance of critical, poststructural, feminist perspectives and how qualitative research could show how teachers’ and children’s experiences varied by class and gender and how the experiences of teachers and children could and should be represented in research. Attendance and joint discussions at the Bergamo Conference for Curriculum Theory and the Council on Anthropology and Education, as well as at the American Education Research Association meetings, helped us (all from the United States at that time) recognize a desire for a new conference, modeled especially after the informality and critical discussions of the Bergamo Conference as well as at the Anthropology and Education conference meetings, but with an emphasis on early education and child care.

The Reconceptualists

The foundations for the RECE Conference were varied. An early purpose of the RECE conference was simply to have a space to present academic research drawing on disciplines and theoretical and methodological frameworks that were marginalized within the broader field of academic ECE conferences and publications. From this amorphous intellectual desire, “we”3 formed other desires and made room for the pleasure of meeting in small conferences together to talk, think, and reinforce critical pedagogical and policy action. We wanted a “safe” space to engage in critiques of dominant paradigms, methodologies, policies, and pedagogical practices and to explore new theories and their meaning or implications for our research. We also wanted to support younger colleagues by forming a network in which we could learn from each other and support each other in our individual work. We used the RECE forum as a way to open up spaces to new ideas with a social justice and equity framework that drew from the diverse critical theories we were using.

The term “reconceptualizing” the curriculum, however, came from key curriculum theorists who had used that specific term initially to critique traditional studies of curriculum (e.g., see Pinar, 1975a, 1975b) with chapters or references to work by Huebner, Schubert, Pinar, Apple, Grumet, Miller, and Greene among others where they drew on this phrase or title initially. According to Kessler (1991) and Kessler and Swadener (1992b), Pinar’s (1975a) edited volume called for the reconceptualization of curriculum studies in education and his critique of the Tyler Rationale (e.g., especially see Kliebard, 1975, for this argument) with its focus on objectives, lesson plans, and prescribed evaluation of outcomes and testing, and this formed a foundation for their critique of early childhood theory and curriculum. In addition, Kessler and Swadener (1992b) focused on other critical curriculum theory questions, which Shirley Kessler’s chapter in this volume repeats again—20 years later: What knowledge counts? Whose knowledge is represented in the curriculum, and whose is excluded? How do we decide what is ← 23 | 24 → valuable to teach? How does the reproduction of an exclusionary or privileged and incomplete knowledge relate to power and the reproduction or production of inequalities?

By 1990, a small group initiated the first RECE conference, and the call for “reconceptualization” of early childhood curriculum and critical childhood studies more broadly. Amos Hatch, in a separate conference, focused on Qualitative Research in Early Education in 1989 that illustrated exceptional qualitative/ethnographic research focused on early education and child care, most done in the United States. This group, represented by those in the edited volume by Hatch (1995), and new significant research by Graue (1993), and Leavitt and Powers (1994), joined in the effort to reconceptualize early education research—illustrating new theories and methodologies, and pushing for recognition of nonpositivist research in the broader field of early education research.

In 1991 the first conference was held at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, using the title “reconceptualizing early childhood education.” The word “reconceptualizing” early childhood education (RECE) designated the very specific history within critical curriculum studies in the United States at the time. The push to examine power relations and structures that reproduced or produced inequities within schooling, early education, and child care settings and within broader social institutions affiliated with education and care came from this foundational background. Those in attendance drew from feminist, critical, and poststructural theories, and did research in sociology, psychology, anthropology, political economy, history, and philosophy. The word “reconceptualist,” therefore, was particular and specific to discussions at a specific time and place, drawing first from the published work and scholarly debates in Swadener and Kessler (1991).

Trying to Rupture Theory, Methodology, Curriculum, and Policies in Early Childhood Education: 1991–1997

Primary themes in the first years of RECE were critiques of the universal claims about childhood made by the dominant discourses of developmental psychology and the pedagogical framework that informed notions of “quality education” in the widely used Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) guidelines (Bredekamp, 1987; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Kessler, 1991). In the U.S., these dominated concepts of “best quality” in early education/care programs; by the mid-1990s, these ideas were spreading elsewhere (e.g., see Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 2007).

As suggested earlier, critiques also focused on the privileging of positivist research/theory/methodologies as “best evidence” and the use of and importance of different types of qualitative research methodologies, as well as critical, poststructural, and feminist theories and methodologies in research (Ayers, 1989; Bloch, 1992; Burman, 1994; Cannella, 1997; Davies, 1989; Graue, 1993; Hatch, 1995; Kessler & Swadener, 1992a; Leavitt & Powers, 1994; Lubeck, 1994; Mallory & New, 1994; Silin, 1995).

Other work in the early conferences focused on exclusions and reproductions of class/gender/racial/age/ability inequities based on the centuries-long assimilationist/colonizing forms of education that prevailed (Bloch, 1987; Cannella, 1997; Polakow, 1993). We focused on the need for more attention to multilingual/multicultural and a social reconstructionist/social-justice-oriented early childhood education and the politics of early childhood education. ← 24 | 25 → While far from inclusive, several well-known examples of this 1990s work include: Deconstructing Early Childhood Education: Social Justice and Revolution (Cannella, 1997); Language, Culture, and Power (Soto, 1996); The Politics of Early Education (Soto, 2000); Lives on the Edge: Single Mothers and Their Children in the Other America (Polakow, 1993); Children and Families “At Promise”: Deconstructing the Discourse of “At Risk” (Swadener & Lubeck, 1995); and Sex, Death, and the Education of Children: Our Passion for Ignorance in the Age of AIDS (Silin, 1995). Different attendees at the early RECE conferences also focused on cross-national policy (Cannella & Kincheloe, 2002; Swadener & Bloch, 1997), different ways to understand inclusions and exclusions in pedagogies around sexuality and cultural identities (Greishaber & Cannella, 2001; Silin, 1995; Tobin, 1997), and deconstructing the concept and evaluation of “quality” (Dahlberg et al., 2007).

Rupturing Dominant Discourses in Theory/Research/Pedagogies/Policy in the Early 21st Century: Again—Scientific Rigor, Standards, and the Universal Child

Since the mid-1990s, new themes and different approaches to research have emerged rhizomatically (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) within, around, and before and after different conferences related to groups and ideas from those who had been and from those who were not part of earlier discussions. Continuing critiques by sociologists of childhood from the new sociology of childhood researchers (e.g., James, Jenks, & Prout, 1998; Jenkins, 1998) as well as continuing work by Valerie Walkerdine (e.g., 1998), Joe Tobin and colleagues (2000) pushed at the borders of foundational arguments about the truth and constructed knowledge base in early education and child development. Despite this, growing neoliberal counter-discourses calling for “scientific rigor” and “evidence-based” (read this as: largely quantitative, positivist/empirical; non-qualitative) in the social sciences and in education held many critiques at bay, or reinstated them in the “margins.” Most critique, now related to a new constellation of discursive events, were now (again) against mainstream policy, pedagogy, research, and teacher education. This, however, was not only true in early education/child care fields, but also within educational research more broadly (see Cannella & Viruru, 2004; Steinberg & Cannella, 2012). Critical scholarship, critical qualitative research and policy analyses were increasingly done, and of interest to many, but still marginal in terms of funding, and still rarely published in “high-status” early education and child care journals, necessary for tenure and promotion for many junior faculty.

Nonetheless, calls for more critique with political action (for example, Soto, 2000), inclusion of more diverse groups (more teachers especially, more diverse representation of different cultural groups, and less attention to “minority world” research and researchers—see Pence & Hix-Small, 2009) were important in RECE conferences and publications. Themes that more actively use decolonizing/anti-colonial perspectives in research were made. More of the RECE and critical ECE researchers moved toward a call for more marginalized voices to be heard in curriculum, including a focus on children’s voices and experiences (e.g., Soto & Swadener, 2005; Mutua & Swadener, 2004; Polakow, 2007; Tobin, 1997, 2000) and more feminist, poststructural, and postcolonial and decolonizing theoretical framings of research (e.g., Rhedding-Jones, 2005). In conferences held at the University of Hawaii–Manoa (1997), the Queensland University of ← 25 | 26 → Technology (2000), Bank Street College, NYU, and Teacher’s College, Columbia (2001), at Arizona State University (2003), at the University of Waikato (2006), at the RECE conference held in Palestine (2008), and at the 2013 conference at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya, a focus on the global and local and recognition of indigenous knowledge and decolonizing research have been strong and important parts of debates and discussions. Perhaps because of the growing international group of presenters, even the pattern of holding RECE in the United States every two years (as it was founded in the U.S.) has been quite legitimately questioned. These questions raised new questions—whose voices are heard in most reconceptualist publications? How can diverse global and local critiques, theories, knowledge bases, policies, and pedagogical practices be included (Brougere & Vandenbroeck, 2007; Cannella, Swadener, Che, 2007).

By the late 2000s, these conferences, individual presentations, new publications, and appropriate self-critique were leading to new approaches to research, greater experimentation with poststructural and postcolonial/decolonizing, feminist/gender/queer studies, and posthumanist research than had been represented in the early years of the conferences (e.g., Blaise, 2005; Bloch, Holmlund, Moqvist, & Popkewitz, 2003; Cannella & Viruru, 2004; MacNaughton, 2003, 2005; Mutua & Swadener, 2005; Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2010; Taylor, 2013).

In 2004, in Oslo, Norway, the theme focused on language and power. In more recent years, Dahlberg, Moss, and Pence’s (2007) work, drawing on both Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari’s theoretical work with the rhizome, has been used to discuss a continued critique of the neoliberal naturalness of discourses of “quality,” the circulation of discourses of efficiencies, privatization, standards, and outcomes-based assessments. The call for new macro- and micro-political analyses of programs and pedagogies in early childhood care and education, and an ethics of listening to the other (Dahlberg & Moss, 2005) spurred new research that focused on different ways of working with teachers and children, new pedagogical openings (Ryan & Grieshaber, 2005; Lenz-Taguchi, 2009; Olsson, 2009). These ideas, represented in diverse research, publications, and experimentation with new pedagogies in teaching have led to even greater attention toward critical action research in classroom pedagogies, opening up new spaces for children’s and teacher’s thinking in conferences and in some teacher preparation programs and curriculum texts. Nonetheless, increasingly, and despite the prominence of some of these authors, researchers, and teacher educators, teacher education and curriculum seems to continue to be dominated by the (re)new(ed) emphases on developmental approaches (DAP as now represented by Copple & Bredekamp, 2009), literacy, math, and science, and universal assessments and standards.

But whose voices and knowledge count? Whose values are embedded in what we think is appropriate curriculum, and for whom? Critical questions and some responses are illustrated in Soto and Swadener (2005), Mutua and Swadener (2005), and in the critically significant work of the Maori/non-Maori researchers participating in the development and continued critique of the Te Whariki early childhood curriculum (originally published in 1997; Ritchie & Rau, 2007, 2009). These ideas have moved some toward a new approach (rupture4) in thinking. The focus on the politics involved in decolonizing/doing anti-colonial and posthumanist, environmental research (Pacini-Katchabow, 2010; Taylor, 2013) that has allowed for the imagining of the “natures” of child with/in his/their ecological and cultural context has added powerful dimensions to possibilities for curriculum theory and pedagogy.

From a different theoretical framework, continual examinations of childhood voice, subjectivity, and imagining children otherwise (e.g., O’Loughlin & Johnson, 2010) also facilitated ← 26 | 27 → the intertwining of Lacanian and other psychoanalytic theorizing to be used in resistance of what some perceived as overly constraining structural and poststructural theories that overlooked self and subject. The reduction of the subjective self to discursive or structural constraints and analyses is also an important part of Jonathan Silin’s continuing research and writing (e.g., see Silin, 1995, and his contribution in this volume).

RECE Turns Almost Twenty and Some of Us Are Getting Old(er)

Reform That Aims to Rupture Thinking and Action

In revisiting some of the early goals, values, and purposes of RECE, I ask what thinking or actions did we “cut open,” rupture, or change? Which of the initial purposes, goals, and values seem to have been “achieved” even partially, while others appear to remain locked into place by new forms of dominant discourses, and/or to be rhizomatically shifting in unpredictable ways? For example, in the 1990s, we (speaking from my memories and reconstruction) hoped to “dismantle,” or find alternatives to:

discourses of child development, developmental psychology, and educational psychology, discourses of the child as innocent, developing (primitive innocent unknowing) child to developed (mature sophisticated rational/logical thinking) child/adult. (My memories, italics used for emphasis)

Yet recently, in a talk I gave at the 18th RECE Conference in Georgia (October 2010), I stated:

In the USA, the majority of state standards for early learning remain tied to child development ages/stages and research as a dominant guide for teachers and teacher educators, as well as for state and federal policies about which information represents “best knowledge” about children. (Bloch, 2010, also see Bloch & Kim, 2012)

In addition, best practices in pedagogy are still tied to “Developmentally Appropriate Practice” guidelines, in much the same way they were (or more so) in 1991 and 1992 when the RECE conferences (held respectively in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Chicago, Illinois) first critiqued these. Yet, key and mainstream researchers are writing to keep critiques available; more linkages and network alliances may be necessary for new times, for renarrativing, and reterritorializing discourses and reasoning of the present (see, for example, Cannella, in press; Ryan & Grieshaber, 2004, 2005).

In the 1990s, we hoped to break open:

Discourses of disciplinary expertise within the psychological sciences—especially child development, developmental psychology, and educational psychology—with a call to open up spaces to interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary studies of childhood (e.g., the fields of sociology of childhood studies, anthropological studies of childhood and education, historical studies of early education and child care). Discourses related to rigorous “evidence”-based, experimental design, and positivist/logical-empiricist assumptions about what research is best, and produces legitimate truth. In contrast, we wanted to open up new spaces for examining early education/child care as a critical theoretical space—drawing on the emerging work in critical structural and poststructural theories, including diverse feminist theories and gender/sexuality/queer studies. (My memories, italics used for emphasis) ← 27 | 28 →

Indeed, the RECE network focused a great deal of attention on opening up to new ways of doing research, different ways of thinking about “best evidence” or what some now call the “gold standard” of educational research (randomized and/or quasi-experimental design, rigorous, cause-and-effect studies, taking off from the natural science model of research, positivist, statistical, objective, replicable, and generalizable searches for truth).

Our “discourse communities” (Kittler & Meteer, 1992) have been special to those of us who attend (Tobin, 2007), but also isolated from many—with some intentionality in so doing. This intentional decision to keep the conference small may have limited its ability to be heard by others. Having it be larger, however, may have led toward the politics of co-optation, as some argued, and made it less intellectually fruitful.

The publications and discussions that have emerged suggest some success at diversifying theory/methodologies and a move toward what Malewski (2010) calls “post-reconceptualist recognition of the diverse approaches. Moreover, despite the small number of those in RECE at any given conference, the diverse perspectives and international backgrounds of those attending RECE have pushed individuals toward new methodologies and ideas, new theories, different ways to read and use theoretical frameworks in our work, and certainly opened us up toward different ideas about policy, pedagogical practices and research methodology. The RECE network, over the years has published work—for some of us still new—on decolonizing research, polyvocality in research, studying children’s or parent’s voices, using critical ethnographic, narrative, life history, critical and poststructural action research, strands of feminist theory laced with different methodologies (collaborative/teacher, parent, children as researched and researching), various forms of critical discourse analyses (e.g., MacLure, 2003), and, as suggested, diverse qualitative theory/methodologies (e.g., Rhedding-Jones, 2005; Steinberg & Cannella, 2012). We have pushed each other, answering the initial calls for “difference” in regimes of truth, different traditions of research, allowing different knowledge formation, policy ideas, and political action to take place (see diverse contributions in this volume).

In the 1990s, we also hoped to:

Develop a social network of researchers and teacher educators and graduate students as a very important early goal (drawing on Bloch, 1992); a longer-term goal was to increase the number of faculty hires with a reconceptualizing ECE or critical/poststructural and feminist theoretical background and ECE background and interest in research at universities across the nation (first described explicitly in Bloch, 1992). This was important in terms of not wanting to continue to reproduce dominant discourses in teacher training and research. We wanted to be open to new paradigms of research, multidisciplinary research beyond the psychological sciences and child development, and, especially, to allow for critical theoretical research that would enable different ways of thinking and acting related to “dominant” or “normative” pedagogy and policy in ECE and child care. (My memories and words; italics used for emphasis)

Over the past 20 years, we have certainly created new spaces for publications, conferences, and networks of support. Many young graduate students have been hired at major universities in the U.S. and elsewhere—despite the fact that their research may still be considered “different” or “abnormal.” Nevertheless, it has still been difficult for many new lecturers and assistant professors without tenure to publish in peer-reviewed journals, at least in the U.S. Along with the Australian on-line journal Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood (CIEC), new journals are appearing that open up spaces for conversation and critique. The International Journal on Critical Policy Studies of Childhood and Global Childhoods have emerged as sites for publishing and discussion; they are also open access and globally available. ← 28 | 29 →

Last, but I’m certain not least, over these past 20 years, our initial goals included the following questions: Whose voices were privileged or excluded; which values, knowledge, and truths guided curriculum choices in ECE; what and whose theories and knowledge were included in, as one example, the U.S.-published “Developmentally Appropriate Practice” guidelines (Bredekamp, 1987; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Copple & Bredekamp, 2009); what and which theories framed constructions of childhood as well as “best” policies and pedagogical practices for children, teachers, and families? Here, in light of tightening discourses of standardization and testing of young children, increasing push-down of academics into the preschool years, and relentless assessment of “quality” of programs that, if lucky, rely on NAEYC Developmentally Appropriate Standards criteria, the RECE discussions have had, in my experience and review (e.g., Bloch & Kim, 2012; Perez & Lee, in press), limited impact.

The response to our initial aims and purposes, and the values we espoused in our search for what and whose values count in the curriculum have been important and yet small at the same time. Since at least the 1980s when global and neoliberal/conservative policies in education and research have resulted in more emphasis on testing, standardized curricula, and even universal standardized childhoods, the research, writing, and openings of new ideas in teacher education that have occurred have been both discouraging and encouraging (and/but). In New Zealand, the Te Whariki curriculum and new assessment tools provide an example for many of us that shifts and ruptures can occur. In Australia’s new Early Years Learning Framework (Australian Government, 2013), there are subtle shifts in wording that provide a lens into the important work Australian early childhood educators have been able to do in these past years—through being at the “table” for policy development, they have, with difficulty and perseverance, begun to make important changes in the framework policy documents (e.g., Sumsion, Barnes, Cheeseman, Harrison, Kennedy, & Stonehouse, 2009; Phelan & Sumsion, 2008). In the recent Australian Government Early Years Learning Framework (Australian Government, 2013), we see a statement of values about what we should care for, which ethical commitments are important, responding perhaps to Shirley Kessler’s call for examining “What knowledge counts, who decides” (Kessler & Swadener, 1992a; Kessler, this volume). In Canada (Early Learning Advisory Group, 2008), Sweden, and in the OECD documents (e.g., Starting Strong: Early Childhood Education and Care, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2001), we see a movement in the curriculum frameworks of postmodern theory as one of the guiding theories for the written documents. In many cases, critical researchers, many who participate in RECE as well as other critically oriented research, teaching, and writing, have helped to frame and insert these changes in government documents (Dahlberg & Moss, 2005; Sumsion et al., 2009).

These are important changes—in language, in the policy discourses that have begun to rupture, shift, and open up new possibilities for thinking and action. But, as suggested earlier, in the United States and elsewhere, we still see little change, small ruptures in politics, some changes that are, in my opinion (and of many others in this book), worse than what we initially worked against in the 1980s and 1990s. We can attribute some of this to increasing globalization, new counter-balancing networks of “control” and “discipline” (Deleuze, 1995; Dahlberg & Bloch, 2006), as well as new ways of “governing our souls,” as Nikolas Rose (1989/1999) has so aptly phrased things. I would counter that our network society (Castells, 2009/2011) and alliances could act more strategically, more micro-politically (see Dahlberg & Moss, 2005), and with greater action/activism to open new spaces and recognize rhizomatic possibilities that ← 29 | 30 → are opening every day in local and global arenas. While some things have been done, so very many things appear to be worsening, for so many families and young children across the globe; important, and more challenging fights lay ahead.


1. This chapter is a shortened version of a keynote presentation at the Centre for Equity and Innovation in Early Childhood annual conference held at the University of Melbourne, Australia, in November 2011. This article is a shortened and adapted version of: Bloch, M. N. (2013). Reconceptualizing theory/policy/curriculum/pedagogy in early child (care and) education: Reconceptualizing early childhood education (RECE) 1991–2012. In the International Journal of Equity and Innovation in Early Childhood, vol. 11, No. 1, 2013, (pp. 65–85).

2. A conference sponsored by Amos Hatch (1989) focused on qualitative research in ECE in the U.S. (see Hatch, 1995).

3. The use of “we” is a metaphor for my own portrayal of what I remember, and what I have never known, or forgotten. Given that there is no one correct representation, my memories and my forgettings and exclusions are part of my understandings of shared memories and a collective historical narrative. Of the initial people at the 1991 RECE conference, Beth Swadener, Shirley Kessler, Sally Lubeck, Joe Tobin, Jan Jipson, Daniel Walsh, Bernard Spodek, Gary Price, Chelsea Bailey, Beth Graue, and I had been instrumental in formulating the idea of the conference. It was hosted at University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1991 because much of the early work had initiated with the faculty and alumni of the critical-theory-oriented Department of Curriculum and Instruction. A list of those who attended the first conference is available upon request.

4. Rupture is used in a very significant way in Foucauldian histories of the present, or genealogical work; it signals a significant break in discourse—one that isn’t evident “in the present” of this 20-year examination; so I use the word “lightly” but with significance here.

Selected References

Australian Government. (2013). Early Years Learning Framework, National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care. http://deewr.gov.au/early-years-learning-framework

Ayers, W. (1989). The good preschool teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.

Blaise, M. (2005). Playing it straight: Uncovering gender discourse in the early childhood classroom. London: Routledge.

Bloch, M. N. (1987). Becoming scientific and professional: An historical perspective on the aims and effects of early childhood education. In T. S. Popkewitz (Ed.), The formation of school subjects (pp. 25–62). London: Falmer.

Bloch, M. N. (1991). Critical science and the history of child development’s influence on early education research. Early Education and Development, 2(2), 95–97.

Bloch, M. N. (1992). Critical perspectives on the historical relationship between child development and early childhood education research. In S. Kessler & E. B. Swadener (Eds.), Reconceptualizing the early childhood curriculum: Beginning the dialogue (pp. 3–20). New York: Teachers College Press.

Bloch, M. N. (2010). Languages of power: Which ideas are governing current programmatic and curricular policies for programs for 3–4 year olds in the USA? Paper presented at the 18th International Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education Conference, Dalton, Georgia (U.S.).

Bloch, M. N., Holmlund, K., Moqvist, I., & Popkewitz, T. S. (Eds.). (2003). Governing children, families, and education: Restructuring the welfare state. New York: Palgrave.

Bloch, M. N., & Kim, K. (2012). Governing young children’s learning through educational reform: A poststructural analysis of discourses of best practice, standards, and quality. In S. Steinberg & G. S. Cannella (Eds.), Critical qualitative research reader (pp. 257–275). New York: Peter Lang.

Bloch, M. N. (2013). Reconceptualizing theory/Policy/curriculum/pedagogy in early child (care and) éducation : Reconceptualizing early childhood éducation (RECE) 1991–2012. In the International Journal for Equity and Innovation in Early Childhood.

Bredekamp, S. (1987). Developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood education. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood programs (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Brougere, G., & Vandenbroeck, M. (2007). Repenser l’education des jeunes enfants. London: Peter Lang.

Burman, E. (1994). Deconstructing developmental psychology. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “Sex.” London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. New York: Routledge.

Cannella, G. S. (1997). Deconstructing early childhood education: Social justice and revolution. New York: Peter Lang.

Cannella, G. S. (In press). [Special issue]. International Review of Qualitative Research. ← 30 | 31 →

Cannella, G. S., & Kincheloe, J. (2002). Kidworld: Childhood studies, global perspectives and education. New York: Peter Lang.

Cannella, G. S., Swadener, B. B., & Che, Y. (2007). Reconceptualizing early childhood education. In R. New (Ed.), International encyclopedia of early childhood education (Vol. 4). Westport, CT: Praeger.

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Reconceptualizing the Early Childhood Curriculum: An Unaddressed Topic

Shirley A. Kessler

Many years ago, I was intrigued by comments made by Herbert Kliebard during a graduate seminar at the University of Wisconsin (Kliebard, 1980). He said, “Curriculum making is utopia building,” and “all curriculum is made with a view of the future in mind, a utopian vision.” I take these remarks to mean that when we plan a curriculum we have a vision in mind of what we want the future to look like. Additionally, we have a vision of what we want the children we teach to become. While I wrote earlier about “utopian visions” (Kessler, 1991; Kessler & Swadener, 1992), I did not elaborate or further articulate what this idea might mean for the early childhood curriculum and, henceforth, set aside any further research and writing that addresses this important question with regard to curriculum planning. Then, I and others called for a reconceptualization of early childhood education, but not a reconceptualized curriculum. In this chapter I want to return to the question of what a reconceptualized curriculum in early childhood might entail by focusing on four questions curriculum planners must address:1

What vision of the future and the “good life” guides curriculum planning in early childhood?
What should be taught and what is the justification for decisions made?
Who is taught; that is, do all students receive the same curriculum?
What is the relationship between teaching and the curriculum?

Responses to these questions should lead to further discussions among reconceptualists and others and begin a dialogue about what is meant by a reconceptualized approach to early childhood curriculum planning and the ways in which an alternative curriculum might be enacted. ← 35 | 36 →

What Vision of the Future Guides Curriculum Planning in Early Childhood?

Those of us who suggest or plan programs for children must ask ourselves: What vision of the future guides our thinking about the curriculum we plan for young children, and whose vision prevails? Froebel expressed an idealistic view of kindergarten education when he stated that the purpose of the kindergarten was to “lead man to [an understanding of] the inner law of Divine Unity…attained through nourishing good tendencies and learned through symbols” (Weber, 1984, p. 43). William T. Harris, then superintendent of schools in St. Louis, wholeheartedly supported Froebel’s kindergarten to promote social harmony as well as educational goals: “Society would benefit by providing rational kindergarten training…. Poor children would be kept out of the streets where they developed evil associations; rich children would be kept out of the hands of unskilled servants who ruined them through self-indulgence” (Weber, 1969, p. 29). Margaret Naumburg, a socialist, was critical of what she saw as a “herd psychology” promoted in schools that required conformity to social norms. She founded the Walden School in 1915 during the Progressive Era, where the curriculum was based on creative self-expression that she thought led to strong individuals and diversity of thought. She claimed, “Without the expansion of many-sided individuals, there can be no vital and varied social group” (Naumburg, 1928, p. 122) and/or the expression of alternative perspectives necessary for social progress. Much more recently, Bill Ayers (2013) called for the president to rethink his ideas regarding education and instead promote a system that does not treat education as a commodity. Ayers’ utopian vision was a strong, vibrant democracy, but he saw the current school reform movement as anathema to a democratic form of government, as it advocates such practices as “reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score.” Recently, I learned about a private school in New York called The IDEAL School of Manhattan that states unequivocally on its website its utopian vision: The school “is an inclusion school dedicated to creating a diverse community that affirms and accepts the full identities of all people, while inspiring academic excellence, creative leadership, and a desire to build a more just and equitable world” (2013).

Another vision could resemble, for example, President Roosevelt’s four freedoms, where freedom of speech and freedom of worship were joined by two additional freedoms: freedom from want and freedom from fear (Roosevelt, 1941). What role would education play in the realization of these four freedoms? President Obama’s view of the future as stated in his 2013 State of Union address is a future where a “smart” government can foster a prosperous middle class, economic opportunity, a cleaner environment, and health care for all; in essence, a future “where government works on behalf of the many.” Also in his vision, “doors of opportunity are available to every child” by making “high-quality preschool available to every single child in America” (2013). What implications for curriculum planning follow from this view of the future? Obviously, the visions expressed previously are those of privileged individuals and not those of the working poor or individuals from differing religious, cultural, racial, or ethnic backgrounds. We must seek to understand and include views of individuals from these groups, and others, as we develop a reconceptualized early childhood curriculum.

Clearly, one’s utopian vision is solidly grounded in one’s personal values and political ideology. I believe we must ask ourselves how one’s vision relates to the early childhood curriculum that one plans and enacts. In addition, we must ask ourselves whose vision of the ← 36 | 37 → future should prevail when we plan programs for young children. Both questions raise issues of power and influence on the curriculum. A discussion of these questions should attract all early childhood educators, not just the reconceptualists.

What Should We Teach in the Early Childhood Curriculum?

This question is fundamental to curriculum planning and follows from one’s utopian vision. As I argued earlier, “curriculum decisions are based on beliefs about what school leaders think is important to know and what the child and the community need” (Kessler, 1991). Obviously, not everything one would like can be taught in the early childhood curriculum, so choices must be made. Kliebard maintained in his 1980 seminar that “certain things are drawn from the culture to influence teaching.” Ralph Tyler (1949) recommended that objectives for the curriculum (the “things”) be selected from an examination of the child’s needs, the needs of society, and subject-matter experts. These objectives were to be passed through a philosophical screen to determine their compatibility with local schools’ philosophies, as well as through a psychological screen to determine their compatibility with children’s developmental levels. Kliebard’s critique is brilliant: One’s philosophy precedes the selection of content, as well as the determination of the needs of society and the needs of the child. For example, he argued, the interests of students are not legitimate until they are compared with what is desirable. Likewise, the recommendations from subject-matter experts and from studies of contemporary life are similarly value laden (Kliebard, 1975). Nevertheless, Tyler’s approach to curriculum planning is very attractive to many educators. This so-called “rational approach” has had much influence on curriculum planning: it is logical and does not deal with the messy business of talking about values and priorities where difference would no doubt emerge and conflict ensue.

Critical perspectives on the selection of knowledge to be included in the curriculum claim that knowledge is not neutral, but is socially constructed by influential groups, varies in status, and is distributed unequally (Kessler, 1991; Kessler & Swadener, 1992). Jan Jipson and Nicholas Paley (1991) highlighted the concept of the “selective tradition” in teachers’ choices of literature to use in their classrooms. They wrote, “Books are not ideologically neutral; that is, they both reflect and convey certain sorts of sociocultural values, beliefs and attitudes to their readers…teachers ‘select’ for or against…certain…cultural values in their classrooms” (p. 148). In their study of 55 teachers’ choices of literature to use in their classroom, they found that only 15% of the rationales given for choosing particular books included race, gender, and ethnicity as factors that were considered. The extent to which such practices exist today is an open question.

Further, if critical theorists are correct, curriculum knowledge is not determined by minority groups or the poor and hence may have little relevance to them. Lack of meaning associated with “official knowledge” among poor and minority students can help explain their low scores on tests. William Pinar (1975) addressed the importance of examining the meaning the curriculum holds for individuals by introducing the concept of “currere,” turning the noun, “curriculum,” into a verb. “Currere, historically rooted in the field of curriculum in existentialism, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis, is the study of educational experience” (Pinar, 1975, p. 400). ← 37 | 38 →

Nancy King (1992) provided an example of currere in kindergarten. Many teachers believe in the importance of play to promote the development of creativity, intentional behavior, concept development, language development, social interaction, and so on. However, as Nancy King’s early research indicates, children learn attitudes toward work and play by the way teachers structure the environment. Children in this study did not regard all kinds of planned play activities as “play,” only those activities that were freely chosen and not held to any standard.

Today, many early childhood educators teach the traditional school curriculum that focuses on skills, such as reading readiness and concepts of quantity and numeration, among others, in answering the question of what to teach. One school in DuPage County, Illinois, where I live, posted its objectives for kindergartners that include: “Makes predictions based on illustrations”; “Isolates beginning and ending sounds in words”; and can perform “Addition of two groups using manipulatives” (Schafer Elementary, 2013). I don’t think the objectives for kindergarten education in this school represent an isolated case. Further, this orientation toward curriculum is evident in preschool education as well. A friend of mine said she had to look hard to find a play-based preschool program for her daughter; most parents in her cohort group wanted an academically oriented educational experience for their child.

Bredekamp’s (1987) work that addressed the inappropriate “academic” curriculum in early childhood classrooms has had little influence on current practice despite her authorship of a strong position paper (1987) published by the nation’s largest association of early childhood educators, a publication that many refer to as DAP, that called for practices (a curriculum) more in tune with children’s developmental level. (Curriculum theorists believe that when you change the methods to teach a particular concept or skill, you essentially change the curriculum, a view that will be highlighted in a later section of this chapter.) Nor have 20 years of our work as reconceptualists had any influence on the curriculum in schools in DuPage County, Illinois, and probably elsewhere, as indicated by posted objectives. It is significant that Bredekamp (1991) later claimed that the DAP document was written to counter the pressure educators felt for the skills-oriented curriculum and indicated that this response was in part a political one. Is the DAP publication, therefore, a political document? Does it advance a particular view of what is good? To what extent are all curriculums essentially political documents? As Mary Hauser and I wrote earlier (Kessler & Hauser, 2000):

Early childhood educators are not accustomed to viewing the curriculum politically…. [But] in order to educate its young members, individuals in a particular social group must collaborate to ensure that their children are educated in such a way so as to perpetuate the interests of that particular collective…. [which] leads to different perspectives as to how education should be accomplished. Furthermore, it is natural for individuals to form alliances with those who share their views in an attempt to influence others to see this project as they do and to exert pressure on others in order to accomplish their agenda which is rationalized as the best way to proceed. (pp. 60–61)

We must ask ourselves why, today, have basic skills been selected for emphasis in early childhood? What political forces are at play that foster this curriculum orientation?

In addition, some (most?) rationales for early childhood education provide evidence for a “preparation for the future” orientation. For example, another nearby early childhood program, the Jefferson Early Childhood Center for preschoolers in DuPage County, Illinois, proclaimed its purpose was to “offer a dynamic and fun learning environment to help prepare ← 38 | 39 → your child for a successful kindergarten experience” (Jefferson Preschool Registration, 2013). This “preparation for the future” orientation was best expressed almost a century ago by Franklin Bobbitt who wrote the first book on curriculum (Bobbitt, 1918). To Bobbitt, the purpose of education was to prepare students for adult life. Further, he stated, “human life…consists in the performance of specific activities. Education that prepares for life is one that prepares…for those specific activities” (p. 42). This so-called scientific approach to curriculum planning meant that educators would study “scientifically” the world of work to decide what skills needed to be mastered to meet the needs of the then-current workforce; those skills would become the objectives of the curriculum. Bobbitt’s “utopian vision” assumed a stratified society where those engaged in menial labor would be educated to have the right attitude about their work so that they would realize the importance of their endeavors for the good of the collective and thereby not only accept but appreciate their place in society. I doubt if early childhood educators today want to educate their students for a future where social class is assumed and individuals must find their place within it. Yet, aren’t we doing just that? Preparing a child for his/her future begs the question of what kind of future? Do curriculum planners today see the future as relatively static, in need of little modification? Who are these planners and what is their relationship to a curriculum based on preparation for the future as they see it?

Some educators have added to the previously-mentioned versions of the early childhood curriculum by articulating and promoting the “anti-bias curriculum” intending to promote understanding, tolerance, and appreciation of people who are “different” (Derman-Sparks & The A.B.C. Task Force, 1989). Early on, the emphasis was on the sexual, racial, and cultural differences among children that should be addressed in order to promote understanding of others and social equality in the classroom and beyond. Jonathan Silin (1995) added to these categories by raising sexual orientation as an important distinction among groups whose members need to be understood and who should be treated fairly in school and beyond. The anti-bias curriculum can likewise be viewed as a political document.

Those educators who value an anti-bias curriculum are promoting a social-reconstructionist orientation toward curriculum, articulating the belief that the school curriculum should address social problems, particularly social and economic inequality, and become an agent of social change. The social-reconstructionist orientation toward curriculum has a long history, and was most clearly articulated by George S. Counts in 1932 in a well-known piece titled Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order? (Counts, 1932/1978). In this work and other writings, Counts set forth his belief that the role of schools was to correct the ills of society. Writing during the Great Depression, Counts’ main criticism was directed at the economic system: “Unless the democratic tradition is able to organize and conduct a successful attack on the economic system, its complete destruction is inevitable” (p. 41). Counts believed schools could bring about change by formulating an ideal American society, communicating that ideal to students, and encouraging them to use the ideal as a standard for judging their own and other societies.

Building on Counts’ ideas, Harold Rugg (Kliebard, 1986) wrote a set of social studies textbooks beginning with the identification of 300 important problems facing American society that became the backbone of a new social studies curriculum.2 Rugg’s textbook series was short-lived (1929–early 1940s), arguably due to his focus on the weaknesses of capitalism, his leaning toward collectivist views, and additionally, his support of the labor movement, ideas that ← 39 | 40 → were viciously attacked by social conservatives then and now. Rugg’s curriculum was clearly making a political statement.

This example of the realization of a social reconstructionist orientation in a well-developed curriculum has much to teach us. Those of us who want the curriculum to address social problems are very much constrained by the social values and mores currently held by the majority culture and its support of privilege and power. If we go too far in criticizing unjust governmental and economic policies and practices that contribute to social inequality, we risk ferocious attacks on our work and eventually, I believe, we could become irrelevant and forgotten, like Counts and Rugg. Likewise, Froebel’s curriculum disappeared from use when it was outlawed after the revolution of 1848 in Germany, when liberal thought “favoring the natural rights of man, individual freedom, and humanitarian and democratic ideals” (Weber, 1984, p. 34) was defeated and a return to authoritarianism prevailed. Addressing opposition to his ideas, Froebel lamented, “I only wanted to train up free, thinking, independent men” (Brubacher, 1947, p. 622; emphases in original). Wrote Brubacher, “[T]he governmental bureaucracy was not mistaken in the idea that schools imbued with Froebel’s pedagogy could not be contained within the existing social order but must necessarily revolutionize it” (Brubacher, 1947, p. 622).3 As an aside, the failure of the 1848 revolution in Germany led to the immigration of Carl Schurz, a leader of the failed revolution, and his wife, Margareth, to the United States and eventually to Watertown, Wisconsin, where Margareth, who studied with Froebel, opened the first kindergarten in this country.

Margaret Naumburg gave up trying to promote individualism and creative ways of learning school subjects. In an interview I had the privilege to hear, she later stated that “The whole system should be bombed” (Hamilton & Hamilton, 1971). In contrast, the goals of The IDEAL School of Manhattan have not been challenged, no doubt because it is a private organization.

The recommendations of curriculum planners for an anti-bias curriculum for young children can address some issues, such as fair treatment in the classroom for all, but cannot change structural factors that support the status quo. Those of us who believe that schools should address social problems would do well to understand that our prescriptions for practice could be overly ambitious. We must ask ourselves if the programs we are developing or the research we are conducting have any chance of being implemented or influencing the field. Bredekamp’s (1987) work represents a failed attempt to influence the curriculum by issuing prescriptions for practice based on the beliefs of professional early childhood educators. What forces worked against the acceptance of DAP? Are we out of touch with the realities of early childhood education as it exists today? We must ask ourselves if the articulation of a curriculum that enhances social and economic equality is the best way to bring about a reconceptualized early childhood curriculum.4

Who Is Taught?

This question addresses the issue of the ways in which children are organized and/or grouped for instruction. The most common way to group students for instruction is by age. Kindergartners are typically 5 years old; first graders are usually 6. The question arises, should 5-year-olds be excluded from kindergarten because their birthdays fall after a certain cut-off date? Is it fair that my great-nephew, age 4, cannot participate in a classroom of other ← 40 | 41 → 4-year-olds simply because he misses the cut-off date by a few days? Whose interests are served by this approach to grouping children for instruction?

Furthermore, criteria based on other demographics have come into play. Income level might determine eligibility for a particular program, such as Head Start, or when some school districts charge an additional fee for children to attend preschool. For example, one preschool program in Wheaton, Illinois, charges parents $235 per month for their child to attend a half-day program (Jefferson Preschool Registration, 2013), a cost that represents a substantial addition to the family budget of the average worker whose wage has grown little since the 1960s (Krugman, 2013). Neighborhoods, likewise, serve as a way children are organized for instruction. Children in poor neighborhoods attend local schools where they have traditionally performed poorly on achievement tests. Recent studies indicated that family income is now seen as the largest determining factor in student achievement, larger than the educational level of parents (Reardon, 2011).

Another common practice in many classrooms is to group children by ability. The NEA is against ability grouping (NEA Resolutions, 1998, 2005), but their resolutions seem to have had little effect on current practice. District 200 in the county in which I live has a program for gifted students. Critical theorists would view such grouping practices as examples of high-status knowledge (academic knowledge) made available to a rather elite group and thus distributed unequally. The rationale for ability grouping must be examined. Is such grouping fair? Is it based on reliable measures of ability? Is it linguistically and culturally sensitive? Whose interests are served by the practice of grouping children by ability?

Another criterion used to group children in early childhood classrooms is “readiness.” The early work of Elizabeth Graue (1992) illustrated the way in which this concept is socially constructed in two different schools by teachers and community members. The concepts varied widely, with socially constructed and shared definitions enabling some parents to have a greater voice in determining meanings of “readiness for kindergarten” in their child’s school, whereas parents with less cultural capital left decisions about their child’s readiness up to the school. Thus, readiness is not seen as a characteristic of children, but a construct developed by members of influential groups; a claim made by critical theorists of the curriculum that in Graue’s study had important implications for the curriculum taught to children seen as “ready” and those seen as “not ready.” Graue’s later work (2006) maintains that readiness is an ethical responsibility we all have for our children, one that “encompasses coordinated systems of early care and education and receptive schools” (p. 43).5

What Is the Relationship Between the Curriculum and Teaching?

Earlier, I stated that Kliebard claimed that the items or content selected from the culture (literacy, problem solving, and the like) were intended to influence teaching. This concept is important because it sets forth the assumption that teachers influenced what was taught. They were seen as active participants, not robots teaching uncritically the prescribed content. In fact, conceptions of curriculum, such as the “curriculum-in-use,” the “enacted curriculum,” the “emergent curriculum,” the “hidden curriculum,” and/or the “experienced curriculum” were developed to account for the variations between what teachers planned, what they actually taught, and what students learned. ← 41 | 42 →

Many factors influence teachers’ decisions about what to teach. In fact, in one study, teachers rated 28 “influences” that they considered in their decisions about what to teach, including students’ ability. Shavelson and Stern (1981) found that “students’ achievement level and ‘participation’ are significant influences in teachers’ planning and the decisions they make even while in the act of teaching.” However, teachers’ stated beliefs about teaching may not be evident in the enacted curriculum. Wen and Elicker (2011) studied the relationship between teachers’ beliefs about developmentally appropriate practices and their classroom interactions with children and found that there was little correlation between teachers’ stated beliefs and the curriculum-in-use. Other factors such as the way in which teachers structured the environment and interacted verbally and nonverbally with students taught a curriculum—in this case, cultural values and attitudes—of which teachers were not aware (Lubeck, 1985); this is an example of what Phillip Jackson (1968) called the “hidden curriculum.”

Furthermore, while teachers today may be less able to make decisions about what to teach due to the influence of state standards on the curriculum and the influence of achievement tests in reinforcing the teaching of those standards, the methods teachers choose when teaching standard content influence the curriculum-in-use, or the experienced curriculum. I found that the teaching methods employed in one kindergarten classroom, what we would call “developmentally appropriate,” enabled children to be more influential, as defined in this study; but the result was a curriculum-in-use that enabled boys to be more influential than girls and reinforced gendered roles (Kessler, 1989). Here, boys had an edge in determining the experienced curriculum, an outcome the teacher did not intend, and I believe would have been horrified to learn. Likewise, the curriculum in one Head Start classroom (Kessler & Hauser, 2000) led to similar results. The teaching methods determined by the program adopted a “hands-off” approach to the teachers’ role during free play. Left on their own, girls reinforced gendered roles; the curriculum-in-use led to outcomes or children’s experiences not planned by the teachers or programs. Further, observations of some children in this classroom indicated ways in which they resisted teachers’ attempts to redirect their play to accomplish academic goals by ignoring teachers’ suggestions, and thus creating experiences for themselves that countered teachers’ priorities for learning.


What is the takeaway from a focus on the four questions posed at the start of this chapter? I believe we must first acknowledge the extreme complexity of the school curriculum. Selection of content is influenced by the world views or utopian visions of educators and school leaders right from the start, a vision that is largely influenced by one’s political ideology. The selection of content and the ways in which children are grouped for instruction are undoubtedly influenced by the political interests of educators. Finally, complexity is enhanced by teachers’ interpretation of curriculum content, the methods chosen to teach that content, and students’ ability to influence teachers and the curriculum. As we plan curricula that represent our version of the good life, we must first realize that it may undergo many translations and/or transformations before and during its implementation and be experienced by students differently. Also important, though not dealt with in this chapter, is the necessity to understand the school as a bureaucratic organization, where today the top-down nature of decision making about what to teach leaves less room for teachers and children to influence what is taught. In addition, ← 42 | 43 → powerful groups that develop state standards and evaluation procedures must be examined for their personal and political investment in the curriculum they advocate.

However, we cannot simply study children and the process of schooling and develop new programs, although important understandings can result from such efforts.6 Research, though well intended, or position papers such as DAP, have little chance of leading to reconceptualized early childhood curriculum unless we become politically active. We might form a forceful interest group ourselves and advocate, after much deliberation, for the utopian vision we might all share and a school curriculum that would support such a vision.

Postmodern theories have made a great contribution to our thinking about education when they warn us about the hegemonic possibilities of communal deliberation that evolves into a meta-narrative that excludes the voices of others in particular situations. Our search for a shared vision of the good life must include an analysis of “the particular” as well as “the general,” a dialectical relationship, if you will: “the sense that the local can illuminate the more general, and that the global can heighten our sensitivity to the more particular” (Beyer & Liston, 1992, p. 375). In addition, political action requires some form of communal identity that does not have to lead to a rejection of outside interests. Further, the awareness that knowledge is personal and contextualized should not lead us to reject all knowledge claims, per se (Beyer & Liston, 1992).

Deliberations in the moral realm, including the representation of particular voices, as well as theoretical ideas as to what is “right” and “good,” are a necessary prelude to effective action necessary for social and educational change. Moral deliberation and political action provide the only means for changing early childhood education to reflect what I believe we agree would be an emancipatory pedagogy, promoting justice and fairness and a vision of the future that has potential for improving our democracy and the world. An endeavor such as this contains within it the possibility of developing a reconceptualized early childhood curriculum.


1. Kliebard (1980) stated four questions should be addressed by curriculum planners: What is taught? Who is taught? What is the influence of the curriculum over time? How is the curriculum organized and integrated? I included two of these questions in this discussion.

2. For example, one volume included a description of the disparity between the rich and the poor. Another volume considered the atrocities of the slave trade. One might imagine a series of textbooks today focusing on problems of income inequality and the unscrupulous practices of major banks in contributing to the economic downturn we are currently experiencing.

3. In contrast to Froebel’s curriculum, Johann Fichte, German philosopher, set forth an alternative view of educational goals in several lectures he gave in Berlin beginning in 1806 (Fichte: Addresses to the German Nation, 1968, New York: Harper & Row). Fichte was a major figure espousing a German form of idealism at the University of Jenna when Froebel was a student there. Fichte proclaimed the need to recover and strengthen a true German identity through education, an identity that was shattered by the French occupation under Napoleon. Students were to be molded into a “corporate body” (p. 12) where the selfish interests of the individual were to be subordinated to the idea of the community (p. 150).

4. One way is to integrate social justice themes into current educational programs, as do the anti-bias curriculum, the teaching of literacy that Roxanne Henkin (1998) describes, and the guidelines set forth for integrating themes and methods found in Indigenous cultures into K–12 education (Jacobs & Mann, 2013).

5. Ability/disability also determines eligibility for some programs within schools. Gender likewise is a means for selection.

6. Classroom research has great potential for achieving a more complete understanding of schooling; though time consuming, laborious, and replete with the need to address traditional issues like establishing validity and reliability, interrogating our own interests, gaining access, etc., we must do this hard work. ← 43 | 44 →


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Anxiety, Theory, and the Challenges of Doing Early Childhood Research

Joseph Tobin

The problem I focus on in this essay is a tendency I see in the Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education (commonly referred to as RECE—see receinternational.org) community and other progressive scholarly organizations I interact with to retreat from conducting hands-on research, a retreat that leads to an avoidance of engagement with young children, their teachers, and preschools. In this essay I ascribe two chief causes for this problem, one having to do with the anxiety researchers experience in the face of ambiguity and the unknown, the other with the way theory gets used to avoid this anxiety.

Research and Other Intersubjective Relationships

In RECE talks and writings, anxiety is often expressed about the power we wield as researchers and the harm we researchers may visit on the children and teachers we study. I acknowledge that the researcher/researched relationship is asymmetrical and that research can be self-interested and even abusive. However, I am also concerned that the attention we put into critiques of the power that we as researchers wield over children and teachers has the unfortunate result of leading some of us to the conclusion that it’s better for us not to do research with children and teachers at all. The problem can seem so intractable that we give up, leading to a withdrawal of engagement with teachers and children. There’s good reason to be anxious about the power we wield and harm we might do. But, there is also reason to be anxious about not being sufficiently engaged in research with children and teachers.

To think through the ethical complexities of conducting research in early childhood education, I find it helpful to de-exoticize the conducting of research by conceptualizing the relationship of ← 47 | 48 → researcher and researched as just another form of interpersonal relationship and intersubjective meaning making, one governed by the same emotions and communicative, ethical, and epistemological challenges we face in our everyday lives as teachers, colleagues, citizens, and parents. Researchers sometimes mistreat those they research; parents sometimes mistreat children; and teachers sometimes mistreat students. But, we do not use this logic to call for an end to parenting or teaching. In research, as in teaching, parenting, and friendship, despite the possibility or inevitably that we will fail to understand and meet each other’s needs perfectly or even adequately, we need to take a leap of faith and engage.

I view research as involving two intersubjective relationships. The first is a search for connection with the children and teachers with whom we do research. The second relationship is with the people to whom we talk and write. We fear failing at each, for good reasons. Anxiety in research with children and teachers is produced by the possibility, even the inevitably, of falling short, of failing to adequately understand the other and to achieve an adequate level of shared understanding.

The other core anxiety of conducting research arises from the fear that we will not be up to the task of communicating something meaningful about those we study to those to whom we write. We are anxious our readers will find something in our work lacking. As I write I am anxious (in both the sense of worried and eager) about how you, who are reading my words now, will respond to this paper. Faced with these anxieties, often we err by writing either too simply or too complexly. Anxious that we will not be perceived by our readers to be as intelligent and sophisticated as we wish to appear, we compensate by writing with too much complexity and citationality. The problem with this strategy for staving off anxiety is that it creates a barrier to intelligibility. No matter how brilliant your analysis, if you don’t present it in a way that creates connection and engagement with the particular audience you are addressing, you have achieved nothing of significance (other than to underscore your position as an elite practitioner of a certain discourse).

My premise is that doing research should make us anxious. If it doesn’t make us anxious, we are doing it wrong. We are either asking easy questions or hard questions to which we already have the answer. The goal of research should be to defamiliarize and destabilize; or to borrow a phrase Robert Penn Warren used to describe Walker Evan’s photographs (quoted in Rathbone, 1984, p. 284) to “tear aside the veil and wake us from the torpor of the accustomed.” As George Devereux (1967, p. 12) writes: “Anxiety is not something to be avoided but is the driving force which propels our intellectual questings.”

Tolerating Ambiguity

In conducting research we inevitably find ourselves face to face with things that are hard to understand, a situation which produces anxiety, which in turn produces a desire for certainty and closure, which in turn can lead us to be satisfied with conclusions that are not adequate to the complexity of the phenomenon we are studying. This leads to presenting to the readers of our research conclusions that are insufficiently nuanced and too pat.

What’s needed, then, is to discipline ourselves not to be satisfied with answers to our research questions and interpretations of others that are pat, easy, and rushed. We need to discipline ourselves to tolerate ambiguity as long as possible before deciding that we know what someone means, or that the research is ready to be reported. To be a researcher means having ← 48 | 49 → the ability and willingness to live with the anxiety produced by ambiguity and uncertainty. The longer this anxiety and ambiguity can be tolerated, the closer you can get to understanding.

A key to being a good researcher, like being a good teacher of young children, is learning to manage anxiety and to forestall the tendency to seek premature closure. This is a lesson I learned through decades of engagement with early childhood educators in Japan. I’ve learned over thirty some years of living and doing research in Japan that the Japanese have an everyday term for holding back when faced with situations that produce affective responses in us that make us anxious and not giving in to the impulse to reduce this anxiety by acting precipitously. I’ll explain by making an autobiographical detour.

Mimamoru as Pedagogy

In 2014, on a family trip to Japan, we visited Senzan Yochien where our son Sam had been a student thirty four years earlier. Sam struggled the first month or so in his Japanese school, often getting into fights with other children. In those first few weeks I would often go to school to discuss my concerns with his teacher and the school’s director, Ritsuko Kumagai. Each time Director Kumagai would reassure me that Sam was making a good adjustment and I should stop worrying. After a month or so, once Sam learned enough Japanese to engage in social play with his classmates, he started loving going to school.

As we reminisced about Sam’s time at Senzan with Sam’s old teacher and the director Mrs. Kumagai, the conversation turned to memories of his first few weeks and Mrs. Kumagai laughingly commented: “Sam was fine, but (turning to me) you were so worried, so anxious. We referred to you in those days as a ‘monster parent.’”

What made me monstrous? The source of my anxiety at the beginning of Sam’s school year is easy to identify: Would Sam be OK? What were we doing to our four-old son in sending him to a school where he did not speak the language? My anxiety at the time was mixed with guilt, as I had disrupted our life in Chicago, where Sam was a happy preschool student, to move our family to Japan for the sake of my career. But there’s another level of anxiety here, one that would become the primary research question of my career: Why weren’t Director Kumagai and Sam’s teachers doing something to protect him from problematic interactions with his classmates and to ease his entrance? What was the logic behind this non-action, this hesitancy to intervene in children’s interactions and help them overcome problems?

After that year of living in Japan in 1982, we moved to Hawaii, where I had post-doctoral fellowship at the East West Center. Based on how different Sam’s year in a Japanese preschool had been from his experience as a preschooler in the US, I decided that my new research project would be to compare Japanese, Chinese, and US preschools. I returned to Kyoto a year later to videotape a day in a Japanese preschool for the study that would become the book, Preschool in Three Cultures (Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989). The key scene we describe in the book is a physical altercation we filmed between two four-year-old boys, Hiroki and Satoshi. What anxieties does watching the scene of one child stepping on another’s hand while no adult intervenes produce in us? Watching children fighting produces in adults feelings of a failure of en loco parentis, of the responsibility we feel to protect children from hurting others. The scene provokes associations to Lord of the Flies (Golding, 1954) and other narratives (written by adults) of scenarios in which unsupervised children go wild. I suggest that such reactions are a kind of a primal scene, a scene uncanny in being simultaneously distant and familiar, a scene ← 49 | 50 → that awakens deep memories of what it felt like as a young child to physically fight with other children, to yank back and forth on toys, push and be pushed, and even to pinch and pull hair.

This scene also provokes anxiety that is less personal and more intellectually challenging. The scene asks a puzzling, provocative question: Why is the teacher here, Fukui-sensei, not intervening? If Fukui were not aware of the fight, this would present no intellectual problem—a teacher missing something going on in her classroom presents no challenge to our taken-for-granted assumptions about what can and should happen in preschools. But when I interviewed Fukui the day after videotaping she told me that she had been aware of the altercation between the two boys and that she had chosen not to intervene. Why would a caring teacher choose to not intervene in children’s physical fights? This became my key research question, the source of positive anxiety in my research. I saw a clear connection, between this teacher’s non-intervention in the boys’ altercation and Director Kumagai telling me that she and the teachers were aware of Sam’s fighting with the other children, that this was normal, no intervention was necessary, and he (and I) would be fine.

In my years of interviewing Japanese early childhood educators, I learned that there is a Japanese word for this pedagogy of minimal intervention. The research method of preschool in three cultures study uses the twenty-minute edited videos shot in classrooms as cues for interviews with preschool teachers and directors. In 1984, when I showed the Komatsudani fight scene to the staff at Komatsudani, the teachers and directors explained that not-intervening is a pedagogical strategy called mimamoru, an everyday Japanese word which means something like: “watching and guarding without intervening.” Fukui-sensei explained that she restrains herself from intervening in such disputes because to do so would be to give children the message that they can’t handle their own disagreements (Tobin et al., 1989, p. 23). Director Yoshizawa lamented that contemporary Japanese children’s lives have become too narrow and constrained, and therefore that an important function of preschools is to give children opportunities to interact without adult mediation (Tobin et al., 1989, p. 33).

When I told Mrs. Kumagai about Director Yoshizawa’s comments, she told me that the same logic had guided the way Sam’s teachers had held back from intervening on his behalf during his difficult first few weeks:

Of course our hearts go out to children, like Sam, who struggle to form relationships with classmates. The other children weren’t being malicious. They were curious, and were trying to relate to Sam as best they could, without a shared language. If we were to intervene as you wanted us to, we would have made things worse by suggesting that Sam was different from them, and needed special treatment.

In our current study on preschool teaching expertise, Akiko Hayashi and I are discovering that a characteristic of experienced preschool teachers in China and the US as well as Japan is that they become better at such holding back from intervening. They are slower to intervene because they can tolerate more tension. Young teachers tend to intervene quickly and aggressively in part because they cannot tolerate the tension they experience in witnessing children’s struggling, whether with putting on a shoe, writing their name, or resolving a dispute with a classmate. We can see this dynamic in quotes from US early childhood educators my colleague Akiko Hayashi and I interviewed for our current study of preschool teaching expertise, as they reflected on the difference between how younger and more experienced teachers interact with children who are struggling: ← 50 | 51 →

Joe:When teachers are beginning, what do you think makes it hard to wait?
Joanne:I was afraid of kids crying, so I felt like I had to run over and assure them that they were OK. I don’t like to hear children crying. I don’t want them to be upset. But I know now how to proceed without trying to hush them, which I was really doing.
Allie:We go into this field because we are nurturers. We need to learn to let kids struggle, to suffer, which is hard for us.
Jane:We get anxious.
Faith:Just wanting to help. We’re helpers at our core. That’s why we do this work. It’s because we’re caregivers.

It takes years of experience to come to the realization, consciously or intuitively, that intervening too quickly when a child cries or is sad or angry is more about the teacher reducing her tension than about responding in a way most helpful to children. Even after coming to understand that it is normal and even desirable for children to experience crying and strong emotions in preschool, it takes years for most early childhood practitioners to be able to control the impulse to intervene. I suggest a parallel with doing research.

Holding Back in Research

The way experienced teachers in Japan and elsewhere deal with the ambiguity and anxiety that arises in working with young children has implications for research in early childhood education. Letting ourselves be present to the challenge of making sense of problems raised in our research confronts us with ambiguity, which in turn produces anxiety. The temptation is to resolve this anxiety by seizing on the readiest of explanations. I often tell my graduate students that the key difference between very good and not so good researchers is less one of intelligence than of a willingness to entertain ambiguity and to be able to tolerate the tension of not knowing and forestall intellectual closure as long as possible. The longer you can forestall interpretation and stay uncertain, the richer the research can be.

What do you do, as a researcher, in this as-long-as-possible interval between conducting the research and writing it up? What do you do instead of moving too quickly to closure? What is the research equivalent of the experienced preschool teachers’ watching and waiting before acting? When faced with this situation, I remind myself of Bruno Latour’s advice: “Don’t try to shift from description to explanation: simply continue the description” (2004a, p. 69). Latour, here and elsewhere (1996, 2004b), suggests that the urge to move to interpretation takes the researcher away from staying engaged with the phenomenon under investigation.

Bakhtin also gives me encouragement to engage as deeply and for as long as possible with the utterances of my informants before answering them with an interpretation. In Art and Answerability (1990) Mikhail Bakhtin argues that we have an ethical obligation to answer the utterance of another. In the conversational flow of everyday life, it is challenging to come up with an adequate response to the utterance of another because we have only seconds to reflect before answering. Research, in contrast, allows us the luxury we rarely have in everyday life of allowing us to delay our response, if that is, we can tolerate the tension of temporarily leaving an utterance, in Bakhtin’s term, “unconsummated.” ← 51 | 52 →

Uses and Misuses of Theory

Theory giveth and taketh away. If theory leads to new questions or to questioning the adequacy of old answers, a use that produces productive anxiety, it’s a good use of theory. If, on the other hand, theory serves to reduce anxiety, or to get between us and being present to those we research, it’s a bad use. Theory can produce destabilization, shake us to our epistemological foundations, and thereby push us to see things in a fresh way. Or it can be a tool for avoiding the inherent anxiety of doing research by providing a template for assimilating what we encounter in our research into the drowse of the theoretically familiar. As we conduct research we need continuously to ask ourselves: does our use of theory in this project interfere with our presence, get between us and the children, teachers, and preschools we study? This can be as true for a theory of Piaget’s as with a theory of Deleuze and Guattari’s. Both carry risks of what Piaget (1954) would call assimilation and Deleuze and Guattari territorialization (e.g., Deleuze & Guattari, 1987), two ways of describing avoiding the emergence of something new when we are in the presence of the unfamiliar.

Lately, when attending presentations, or reading papers and books authored by members of RECE and kindred organizations, I too often find myself encountering findings that are too predictable. Little in these accounts contradicts, challenges, extends, or reconceptualizes the theories these authors employ. This, I suppose, is to be expected with Piagetian studies. But somehow I would hope it would be less true for the critical, poststructuralist, new materialist, or posthuman theories with which (we) RECErs are lately enthralled, theories that claim to embrace a sense of newness and emergence and unsettledness. And yet too often in these theory-based papers, we find not a challenge or extension of the theories being used, but just confirmation and homage. Some of these papers have the feel of authors who are following a recipe or painting by numbers. For example, employing Deleuzeguattarian theory to study children’s play in a nursery setting, they find a line of flight here, a deterritorializaition there. If they use Michel de Certeau (1984), they inevitably find children employing weapons of the weak; if Karen Barad (2007) evidence of intra-agency; if Jane Bennett (2010), vital matter; if Donna Haraway (1991), evidence of cyborgization or companion species communion. Reading such arguments leaves me feeling that early childhood education scholars have long been able to explain the complexity of life in early childhood classrooms and children’s penchant for creative resistance without using such concepts as lines of flight, tactics of the weak, and intra-agency. If all you do with Deleuze and Guattari is to uncover rhizomes and lines of flight, or with Foucault, as another example, is to point out panopticisms (e.g. Foucault, 1977), or with Bakthin is to show that the talk of children and teachers is dialogic and citational (Bakhtin, 1981), you are using theory to avoid the anxiety of engaging with something not yet well known or understood. Such uses of theory don’t help awaken us from the drowse of the familiar.

A related problem is a mood of progressivism and a relentless desire to be cutting edge or, more tellingly, to not be perceived as being behind the times intellectually. The dominant trope is that something new and better is replacing something old, as reflected in such unfortunate phrases as “Qual 2.0,” as if the mistakes of buggy earlier research programs have been solved by the newest epistemological software patch. Proponents of post-qualitative methods (as defined, for example, by Lather & St. Pierre in their introduction to a 2013 special issue on this topic) raise some important and challenging epistemological points and suggest some innovative methods. But I worry that the post-qualitative turn is having a deleterious effect on the ← 52 | 53 → motivation of researchers to conduct rigorous, field based studies in early childhood education settings. Rather than conduct studies using a rigorous method, many scholars are drawn to a form of research that is not a method, as it rejects the value of beginning a research project with any single research plan and instead embraces the metaphor of nomadism, and the following of rhizomatic pathways.

As I re-read the above paragraphs I have written warning against the misuse and overuse of theory and the lack of rigor in method, I experience a sense of discomfort, regret, anxiety, and hypocrisy. A chastising voice in my head reminds me: “No one sets out to use theory in a reductive manner” and “Where would we be without theory?” and “All research plans should be up for revision in the field.” Using concepts such as lines of flight, weapons of the weak, intra-agency, vibrant matter, Actor Network Theory, panopticism, dialogism, and interpellation can serve to animate our research, and not only or primarily to function as a defense against anxiety or an avoidance of being present. Our engagement with theory can and should lead us as researchers and writers and, in turn, our readers to see something familiar in a new way.

In her critique of the effects on students of what she calls “conventional humanist qualitative methodology” Bettie St. Pierre writes:

I’ve watched many students become trapped in its pre-given “process” and then produce what Kuhn (1970) called “normal science” (p. 10), perhaps aiming for more elaborate and precise methods and richer and thicker descriptions with alternative representations aimed at getting closer to the authentic real. For me, that work has become repetitious and predictable. Our dutiful doctoral students learn what we teach and then teach it themselves, thus passing down beliefs….It doesn’t take us long to latch onto something we can understand fairly quickly, to a process that is easily repeatable, to a prescriptive methodology that more or less resolves confusion. (2017, pp. 41–42)

St. Pierre here is diagnosing and offering a cure for the same disease I am concerned with in this paper: namely the repetitiousness and predictability that comes from research that is constrained by the researcher’s a priori assumptions. Where I disagree is with her solution: namely that post-modern theories and method-less modes of conducting research offer a way out. At academic meetings I have attended the last few years I have heard many papers that use the theories and anti-methods St. Pierre is endorsing to arrive at entirely predictable conclusions. Any theory, including ones that claim to be iconoclastic, can become doxa. Any method, including ones that claim to not be methods, can become recipes to be followed. The idea that the latest, coolest, most cutting-edge theory will save us from the torpor of the familiar is a comforting fantasy.

I agree with Bruno Latour’s position that theory often gets in the way of being engaged as a researcher with the problems we study and with his argument that the core of good research is not the brilliance of the theory, but the adequacy of the description. Latour wrote: what he subtitled “a somewhat Socratic dialogue” between a professor and a doctoral student in which he explains how to do research:

Professor: I’d say that if your description needs an explanation, it’s not a good description, that’s all. Only bad descriptions need an explanation. It’s quite simple really….I have never seen a good description in need, then, of an explanation. But I have read countless bad descriptions to which nothing was added by a massive addition of “explanations”….I feel like an old bore always repeating the same thing: “Describe, write, describe, write.” (2004a, pp. 67–69 passim) ← 53 | 54 →

What Latour here calls “explanations” is what I have been calling “theories.” What he calls “description” is what I call rigorous, empirical, field-based research.

When we think of our favorite studies of early childhood education and care settings, I suggest it’s most often not the brilliance of the theories they employ but rather the acuteness of their description that makes them stay with us. This is true, for example, for the writing superheroes memorialized by Anne Haas Dyson (1997); the children who befriend “Big Bill” (aka William) Corsaro (1985); the little girl Beth Swadener (1995) so vividly described as being so proud of her soiled dress; the strict seeming but loving staff at the Martin Luther King Childcare Center brought to life by Valerie Polakow (1992); and, I suggest immodestly, Hiroki, the exuberant, misbehaving Japanese boy whose antics we described in Preschool in Three Cultures (1989). These studies are informed by theories of Foucault, Bakhtin, and others, but they do not lead with theory.

These classroom ethnographies capture and reveal much about life in preschool classrooms; however they cannot capture life in preschool classrooms in all its complexity, for this complexity is infinite, fractal, each day composed of thousands of moments, each moment composed of the experiences and embodied interactions of each child and teacher, interacting with the materiality of the classroom and the social and cultural dimensions of the setting, each second full of nuance within nuance—a slight smile, a brush of an arm on a back, a dip in posture, a chubby hand grasping a stub of a crayon, a box fully of teddy bears, moveable shelves high enough to create cozy spaces for the child but low enough to provide sight lines for the teachers. No empirical study can describe it all, but by proceeding methodically, but not rigidly, informed by but not dominated by theory, we can hope to capture glimpses of this nuance and complexity.

In RECE and kindred environs, I often hear the term “empiricism” being used as a synonym for the terms “positivism” and “naïve empiricism,” as if all empirical research is epistemologically naïve. If we are to do research that has the potential to reconceptualize and defamiliarize we must steer a course between dangers on two sides; on one hand, the danger of proceeding without a method, which leads to researchers following their own intuitions, which is another way of saying their unconscious a priori assumptions about what counts, what is interesting, and what is worth describing; on the other side is the danger of being too rigid and shackled by one’s method, and too quick to domesticate the complexity we encounter in the field. As Kemper and Royce write:

Neophyte fieldworkers rarely are comfortable with the dynamism and unpredictability of ethnographic situations. Swinging between the drowse of the accustomed and the chaos of the unexpected, researchers feel a need to restrain and contain. We may not leave out all the wildness and unpredictability, but, when we return home from the field, often we write in ways that “tame.” (2002, p. xv)

I’m calling for a rehabilitation within RECE and other research of the term empirical and more generally of the status of empirical research. “Empirical” literally means knowledge that comes from the senses and experience. Recalling this definition makes rehabilitating empiricism timely (St. Pierre, Jackson, & Mazzei, 2016). Contemporary interest among scholars in new materialist theories and perspectives calls for empirical engagement. These theories draw on insights arising from a deep engagement of these theorists with physics, primatology, ecology and other empirical sciences. It is wrong-headed to read the new materialist theories of Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, or Bruno Latour as justification for a move away from empiricism or for a critique of science. ← 54 | 55 →

I have no simple solution to offer about how to use theory in ways that giveth more than taketh away. One possible solution is to start research not with a theory, but instead with a problem or with what Latour calls “a matter of concern,” and then to employ a theory that can help, rather than the other way around (starting with a theory and looking for a problem that illustrates it). But I’m not so sure that starting with theory is necessarily or always an obstacle to making a useful contribution. Perhaps all I can really offer here is the old adage: “the proof is in the pudding.” What makes the use of a cutting-edge theory cutting edge is in the execution, not the intent. There are multiple pathways to the same end point, which should be to make things new, to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions, and to make the familiar strange. Whichever concepts and terminology we use, the criteria for judging the adequacy of the research should be the same: Does the research produce something new? Does it have the potential to destabilize us? And, if so, can we embrace the anxiety it produces in us?


Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays. H. Michael (Ed.). (C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Trans.). Austin and London: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M. (1990). Art and answerability. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Corsaro, W. (1985). Friendship and peer culture in the early years. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

De Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Devereux, G. (1967). From anxiety to method in the behavioral sciences. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter.

Dyson, A. H. (1997). Writing superheroes. New York: Teachers College Press.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Pantheon.

Golding, W. (1954). The lord of the rings. London: Faber and Faber.

Haraway, D. (1991). Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge and London: Free Association Books.

Kemper, R., & Royce, A. (2002). Chronicling cultures: Long-term field research in anthropology. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Lather, P., & St. Pierre, E. (2013). Post-qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), 629–633.

Latour, B. (1996). On actor-network theory: A few clarifications. Soziale Welt, 47(4), 369–381.

Latour, B. (2004a). On using ANT for studying information systems: A (somewhat) Socratic dialogue. In C. Avgerou, C. Ciborra, & F. Land (Eds.), The social study of information and communication technology: Innovation, actors, and contexts (pp. 62–76). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Latour, B. (2004b). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry, 30, 225–248.

Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books.

Polakow, V. (1992). The erosion of childhood. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rathbone, B. (1984). Walker Evans: A biography. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

St. Pierre, B. (2017). Post-qualitative inquiry: The next generation. In N. Denzin & M. Giardina (Eds.), Qualitative inquiry in neoliberal times (pp. 37–47). New York: Routledge.

St. Pierre, B., Jackson, A., & Mazzei, L. (2016). New empiricisms and new materialisms: Conditions for new inquiry. Cultural StudiesCritical Methodologies, 16(2) 99–110.

Swadener, B. B. (1995). Children and families “At Promise”: Deconstructing the discourse of risk. In B. B. Swadener & S. Lubeck (Eds.) Children and families at promise: Deconstructing the discourse of risk (pp. 17–49). Buffalo: State University of New York Press.

Tobin, J., Wu, D., & Davidson D. (1989). Preschool in three cultures: Japan, China, and the United States. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ← 55 | 56 →

← 56 | 57 →



Through a Queer Lens: Recuperative Longings and the Reconceptualizing Past

Jonathan Silin

The invitation to contribute to this volume appeared in my in-box as something of a surprise. For the last decade, I’ve been writing about topics—aging, grief, and the displacements of time—that would, at first blush, have little to do with early childhood imaginaries. But it also arrived at a moment when I’ve been making a practice of saying “yes” to who and what shows up, letting go of my usual circumspection about taking on new assignments. Soon enough I realized that two events were also conspiring to rekindle my interest in both the past and future of the field. They would ultimately come to weave their way through this chapter. For one, a recent trip to San Francisco prompted me to reflect on the ways that social amnesia shapes our understanding of activist movements and our ability to draw on their histories to imagine the future otherwise. For another, the 20th anniversary of Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education (RECE), in which I was an early and energetic participant, had prompted me to consider how, if at all, this particular movement might have succeeded in reframing the theory and practice of early education.

The birth of the reconceptualizing movement was attended by growing numbers of early childhood educators who, in the late 1980s, felt estranged by the growing conservatism of the field. Identifying early childhood as theoretically barren and socially irrelevant, we sought to resuscitate what we perceived as a moribund field by storming the epistemological barricades established by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), engaging in a new theoretical promiscuity, and making our work responsive to the social and political realities of late industrialized society.

Today, early childhood education is again an endangered field. Then, intellectual stagnation and an entrenched leadership inside the field allowed little room for change and innovation. Now the threats are coming from outside: the demand for an increasingly academic curriculum by politicians and policymakers, the insistence on easily quantified and measurable results, and the ← 57 | 58 → incorporation of early childhood classrooms into elementary schools. These trends, which belie the special qualities of young children and all that can be learned from them, make the future of the field as a discrete arena of theory and practice uncertain.

The 20th anniversary of RECE (2012) was an opportunity to identify the themes that characterized its first years and to suggest how this history might shine a light forward in these dark times for early childhood educators. It is also an opportunity to reflect more broadly on how social change movements are remembered and how this remembering functions to serve some interests and thwart others.

My curiosity about the uses to which we put the past was sparked this past winter when my partner, David, and I visited San Francisco, a city that we both know and love. Upon our arrival, we were surprised by how much the Castro, the iconic gay village, had changed. Most striking on our frequent neighborhood walks: the absence of gay men. The streets, once thick with handsome, bearded men in 501s, plaid shirts, and leather jackets, who smiled so easily and eagerly, seemed deserted. For us then, it was as if everyone knew you, and you unquestionably knew them. Now there are few such acknowledgments of public camaraderie and shared experience.

We meet Stephen, a close friend and long-time Castro resident, in the once popular Cafe Flore. No need to stand in the middle of the terrace anxiously looking from table to table for a place to squeeze in among groups of chatting friends catching a few rays of precious afternoon sun. There are plenty of seats, most of the tables occupied by solitary men and women, gaze fixed on laptop or smart phone screens. Life happens online, virtual communities and cyber connections taking their place alongside brick-and-mortar neighborhoods and face-to-face interactions. Stephen explains that young men from elsewhere can no longer afford the rents in the newly gentrified Castro. They alight in different parts of the city and make only occasional visits to this and other neighborhoods once replete with queer life.

David and I adjust to these new realities brought about by economic and social trends combined with the long-term impact of AIDS. We acknowledge that not all gay people felt as welcome in the Castro as we once did and that for some, cyber connections are more liberating than alienating, opening previously unthought possibilities for creating and sustaining queer lives. We also tell each other that vibrant urban centers are constantly changing and take heart in the fact that lesbians and gay men feel comfortable living everywhere rather than congregating in concentrated communities.

Our conversations are filled too with talk about individuals gone missing—Michael the Zen practitioner, Eric the teacher, Maurice the political strategist—all activists of my stripe or another. Their memories elicit within me the exhilaration that came with resisting social norms as we sought new ways of living together, and ultimately, the crazy courage necessary to fight the medical and political establishments in the face of AIDS. They are about individuals and they are about the ideas of social transformation embodied in their unique lives. On this particular trip, at this moment in history, I reexperience the loss of an entire way of life.

Now when I pass the Hartford Street Zen Centre, where I lived while crafting what was to be a seminal article on AIDS and education for the Teachers College Record (Silin, 1987), I take heart in the story of how a small, struggling spiritual community temporarily transformed itself into the Mitre Hospice during the worst of the epidemic. With much goodwill and very little professional assistance, with some practitioners turned patients and others caregivers, the community responded when many larger institutions did not. For me, the building—returned to its ← 58 | 59 → former use, spruced up with fresh paint, new signs, and schedules for regular practice periods—has become emblematic of successful grassroots initiatives and organizing.

While the current political climate has supported stunning successes for gay people—marriage, military service, family rights—reflecting a conservative and normalizing social agenda, the commitment to more inventive, imaginative, and relational possibilities that shaped the early gay movement has largely been erased (Halberstam, 2011; Schulman, 2012). So too have the critical successes of our AIDS organizing: the rethinking of double-blind drug trials, the creation of innovative home care options, the growth of harm reduction programs (Weber & Weissman’s We Were Here, 2011; Cogan & David’s How to Survive a Plague, 2012).

In discussing this concern about the hidden history of AIDS activism, indeed of gay life before AIDS, I am reminded that many of my female graduate students take for granted the opportunities available to them now only because of determined struggles of earlier generations of women with which they are largely unfamiliar. They do not identify as feminists. They do not understand the need for sustained vigilance to retain and expand the rights that have been achieved.

I think here of another unremembered past as well: that of the pedagogical progressives in the first half of the 20th century. Again, my students assume that any environment that is humane, that takes for its rationale developmental psychology and the rhetoric of “the whole child,” is consistent with the progressive cause, but progressive educators wanted something more: a curriculum that focuses on the workings of the social world, the effort to right social wrongs, to allow time and space for participatory democracy in the classroom (Counts, 1932/1978; Krakowsky, 2010; Vascellaro, 2011). The radical political ideas of our educational foremothers and fathers are now hidden from view, papered over by an ethic of individualized instruction and care. The sharp social critique that propelled the reformers to explore the world with their students has been lost to scientific studies of the child that were more palatable to government funders in the 1960s (Silin, 1992), buried in the 21st century under stacks of tests and core curricula that are touted as producing more competitive workers for the new global economy.

How are we to understand these various forms of social amnesia? Whose interests are served, and whose interests are constrained? And, are there lessons for early childhood educators in these stories about the pitfalls and promise of collective memory?

As a gay liberationist, AIDS advocate, and progressive teacher, I know that social change is both a top-down and bottom-up process. Most frequently, it is the former that is highlighted in texts we are given to teach and the latter that is shortchanged. The charismatic leader is always more glamorous than the work of picket lines and protest movements. Without images of grassroots activism, it is easy to believe individuals and marginalized groups have no agency, no ability to tell their story and to effect change.

Here I want to argue that if memory arranges itself around imaginative reconstructions of the past, reconstructions that suit our present needs and validate the world view we wish to perpetuate, then an intentional investigation into what is forgotten and what is remembered can become a source of reparative interpretations as well, a recuperative project for imagining the future otherwise. This is to resist the nostalgia that mistakes the present for an imperfect, failed copy of the past and to appreciate the fluid, political nature of collective memory.

In my work with new teachers, I have argued that childhood memories can become a rich resource for pedagogical understanding (Silin, 2000). More recently, I have drawn on the ← 59 | 60 → experience of becoming a photographic archivist to describe the work of building curriculum and community in the classroom (Silin, in press), and I’ve written about the ways that painful individual losses often have within them the potential for generative acts, for moments of creative self-renewal (Silin, 2013). Trolling the streets of San Francisco last winter, I recognized that collective losses may hold similar opportunities. Reviewing the history of AIDS, Castiglia and Reed (2012) argue:

Loss is not synonymous with silence or absence or defeat; loss can be a starting point, an invocation, an inspiration, a rallying cry. Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention, and needs are never greater than in times of loss. (p. 26)

They go on to suggest that memories—“suspended between responsibility for the spectacular realness of the past and collective inventiveness of the present”—can fund contemporary activism. This is to say that hidden histories can be mined for aspirational images to guide the present. What was it that AIDS activists dreamed and achieved? How did early gay liberationists imagine their work, and how did they live their lives? How did politics and pedagogy come together for progressive educators in the classrooms they inhabited and the schools they built?

Especially in this era of evidence-based learning, when everything pedagogical must be recorded and remembered, I do not want my curiosity about the past to be mistaken for yet another project to fix history and to ensure an unensurable certainty about what was and what might be. In the classroom I continue to argue the pleasures and generative possibilities of forgetting (Silin, 2005). Lost in the present, unshackled by the past, children can play and create with the intensity and abandon that allows them to imagine the new and unrehearsed (Doty, 2010; Halberstam, 2011). When students of any age surrender, by choice or circumstance, the coherence of the familiar, they may be at a loss, the world kaleidoscopically fragmented. At the same time, it is the willingness to explore this very fragmentation that holds the promise of a viable future (Silin, 2013).

Here, however, I am curious about how our partially achieved forgetting allows the past to haunt us and limit our hopes for the future. I do not refer to the kind of psychodynamic haunting that Judith Butler (1997) takes up in describing the heterosexual culture of melancholy in which we are constrained to lose our loving attachment to the same-sex parent and disavow it even as possibility. Then, the loss is unacknowledged and it haunts us exactly because it is unnamed and therefore, ungrievable. Rather, I refer to losses that are recoverable, within the zone of “proximal development” if you will, not ones that are buried so deeply within us and within the culture that they cannot be recuperated. I am after what can be reasonably recognized as opposed to that which would require a new insight of an entirely different order.

Such projects of recognition are supported by recent modifications in the theoretical apparatus of queer time. Initially impelled by a sense of imminent mortality, queer theorists valorized the present as the moment in which past and future can be most fully understood and realized. Impelled as well to examine the meaning of time in lives often unscripted by traditional models of family life, the nurture of children and generational succession, queer theorists rejected a middle-class logic of “reproductive temporality.” This logic, they pointed out, was future oriented, assuming a progression from immaturity to maturity and from dangerous, ungovernable desires to safe, stable, and properly disciplined lives (Halberstam, 2005). In contrast, queer time was understood to be nonlinear, discontinuous, and disruptive of the orderly progress assured by traditional temporal rationalities. It was and is rich in possibilities ← 60 | 61 → for reconsidering the complexity of lived lives and the scholarship that might comment on them (Dinshaw, 1999).

Recent attempts to recuperate the GLBTQ past, in theory and political practice, might be read as a response, a corrective if you will, to the ideas about queer time that first appeared in the wake of AIDS. Now there is a renewed interest in how the past not only lives in the present, but also how it might best be mined to fund the future. Archives of fact and figures, emotions and affects, and words and images, are valued resources for identifying the way forward as well as for illuminating the road already taken (Cvetkovich, 2003). This is the past imagined more expansively, not as determinative of or constraining the present, but as a place for generating ideas about an unrealized future.

In retrospect, the inaugural desire to imagine a temporality that more accurately reflected the phenomenological realities of GLBTQ people who inhabited the social margins, who would never achieve “heterosexual maturity,” and whose lives might only be accounted for in unruly narratives (Stockton, 2009), was not so very different from the goal of early childhood reconceptualists who critiqued stage theories of development in the 1980s (Silin, 1995). We too sought to resist the normalizing effects of linear modes of reasoning that identified some people—notably children, queers, and women—as undeveloped, lacking in “adult” attributes. We too sought to recognize expanded opportunities for pleasure and modalities for respectfully representing lived experience.

Taking my lead from those who look to the past for its aspirational potential, I propose for consideration three ideas that characterized RECE in its first decade and a way to understand these in the context of cultural work more generally.

Making a Place for Pleasure in Early Childhood Education

I baldly appropriate the title of Joe Tobin’s edited volume (1997) to identify the first big theme in early reconceptualizing discourse: transforming the field into a site of pleasure for adults as well as children. Despite its radical roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, by the 1980s, early childhood had become a conservative field concerned with protecting vulnerable children from imagined threats—interior and exterior—to the child, the former lurking in and amongst unsettling emotions and desires and the latter contained in difficult knowledge or predatory individuals. Echoing this protectiveness toward children, many early childhood educators shielded themselves as well from new social and literary theories that threatened the developmental canon upon which they relied.

My own and other contributions to the Tobin volume sought to bring new theoretical apparatuses to bear on what was and wasn’t happening in early childhood classrooms (Silin, 1997). As a group we advocated a curriculum that trusts children, eschews intensified forms of surveillance, and embraces the child as a desiring, often transgressive agent. Consistent with the belief in childhood competency was the commitment to the socially relevant classroom, a place where the child’s existing “funds of knowledge” were to be welcomed, deployed, and expanded. Rather than sanitize the curriculum, reconceptualists sought a more complex, dare I say “real,” representation of the world that would reflect the children’s lived experiences. Explorations of difficult topics and the emotional discomfort they may bring in their wake encourage children to value multiple perspectives, to tolerate uncertainty, and to recognize that some questions defy final answers. ← 61 | 62 →

Equally important, and perhaps even more radical, was the RECE commitment to a field where adults too might find pleasure and explore desire. The classic early childhood watchwords—“only in the best interests of the child”—did not leave space for the adult as an agentive presence in the classroom, let alone in research and in writing. Reconceptualists deconstructed images of the facilitative female who lived and worked to support the growth of others, most often assumed to be boys, and the potentially predatory image of the male teacher whose intentions were always in question.

Desire makes us, child and adult, vulnerable. It is a potential source of danger as well as pleasure, risk as well as reward. Educators who encouraged children to strike out in new directions in order to learn and grow wanted no less for themselves. This is to say that we were willing to acknowledge our unknowingness in order to enjoy new fields of play. This exploration of postmodern, postcolonial, feminist, and queer theory changed not only what we said, but how we said it, the questions we asked and the strategies we took up to answer them.

We were a theoretically promiscuous group, tired of safe scholarship, and willing to engage many partners in what amounted to little more than one-night stands while seeking our place in a larger world of cultural endeavors. Willy-nilly, this curiosity about other disciplines and modes of theorizing implied a complete role reversal for early childhood educators. Immersing ourselves in new ways of thinking and willing to be surprised by theory, we were willing to own our uncertainty and the provisional nature of our knowing (Gallop, 2002). At the same time, we increasingly understood that young children entered the schoolhouse door already knowledgeable, competent, and capable in ways that belied earlier concerns about needing to protect their innocence and purity from the intrusions of unwonted information and ideas.

Advocating for Lives on the Edge

People came to the reconceptualizing movement with very different histories and needs. Those who primarily sought intellectual stimulation came from work situations in which they were long isolated, frequently the only early childhood instructor on a college faculty, or newly minted PhDs experiencing the stressful transition from being part of a lively, challenging cohort of early childhood doctoral candidates to being alone in a department focused on elementary or secondary education. Among those seeking intellectual community were also scholars who had already moved into previously unexplored realms and desired forums for pushing their thinking further afield.

On early RECE program committees there was often disagreement between those who would accept proposals that reflected best practices but were under-theorized or did not expand the boundaries of our thinking and those who championed proposals that brought forward new ideas or theories previously unexplored in relationship to early childhood education.

RECE also attracted scholar-activists whose primary interest was in building a movement immediately responsive to lives lived on the edge, as Valerie Polakow (1993) described the struggles of single mothers and children surviving in deep poverty. They were eager to engage in projects of direct action that would influence legislative decision making and public policy. The goal was to assure that all families had access to essential practical and social supports to enable their children to survive and thrive. These reconceptualists advocated for protection of the young but in the interests of social equity rather than in the interests of cognitive or emotional immaturity as traditionalists argued. ← 62 | 63 →

Wanting to seize opportunities as they presented themselves at each conference to engage with the struggles of local early childhood educators, scholar-activists also brought a keen desire to include people working in other countries. They understood that the RECE Conference could offer critical support and legitimation, theoretical and practical, for social justice efforts around the world, and they grappled with the constraints of time and money that made such participation more challenging.

These distinct, not necessarily antithetical projects—storming the epistemological barricades erected by early childhood traditionalists and focusing on direct action and public policy—sometimes pulled conference planners and participants in different directions. Needless to say, the desire to be practically relevant and immediately responsive to the issues facing teachers and families, as well as the desire to engage in new conversations about our theoretical grounding lived within individuals as well. And, rather miraculously, RECE has managed to accommodate the productive tension resulting from these diverse commitments.

Speaking Truth to Power

I attended my first RECE conference in 1992 after having completed a decade as an AIDS educator and advocate and with a certain weariness with respect to questions of strategy and tactics. In my experience, speaking truth to power through public protest, political advocacy, and critical journalism sometimes brought important successes. In other situations, a more effective strategy was to turn our collective backs to power in order to create small, innovative services and educational initiatives that government and private foundations did not immediately understand.

At the RECE Conference in Chicago, I was immediately aware of a similar kind of strategic challenge faced by reconceptualists. At the time, NAEYC, with its full-time staff in Washington, more than 43,000 individual members and 300 affiliate groups, an annual conference that attracted upwards of 20,000 people, and a full roster of publications including Young Children, the most widely read journal in the field, seemed an immovable force blocking change. There were some among us who directed our attention to getting NAEYC to see things otherwise, and there were some, including myself, who took the position that our limited resources would best be utilized in creating interesting events, pursuing a different kind of scholarship, that would ultimately attract new adherents. In time, we reasoned, NAEYC would of its own accord come calling.

Although Sue Bredekamp, editor of the first NAEYC position paper on developmentally appropriate practice published in 1986, accepted an invitation to participate in a conference “conversation,” she clearly had not come calling of her own accord nor was she interested in real dialogue. An exact description of the format of this meeting fails me, however my memory of the angry, frustrated emotions generated at the time are all too clear. Our effort to speak truth to power was something of a catastrophe although, as often happens in such situations, a visible opponent in view did strengthen our resolve.

To be clear, there are no villains or saints in this story but people with very different political and social perspectives. In reality, many were active in both RECE and NAEYC, produced fine publications for the latter, and argued that only through participation can you wield influence and promote change. At the same time, NAEYC itself was far from a monolith. There were many who participated in a range of organizational projects—Millie Almy, Barbara Biber, ← 63 | 64 → Bernard Spodak—and who also held strong social commitments and more generous intellectual visions that belied NAEYC’s public positions. With its singular focus on clearing new ground, RECE did not acknowledge the contributions or build alliances with those who held minority positions within NAEYC.

From my own perspective, the NAEYC agenda in the 1980s and 1990s—professionalization of the field through career ladders, certifications, and institutionalization of a scientific knowledge base—felt wrong-headed, and the possibility of a productive, public dialogue was foreclosed by the organization’s intractability. Implicit in the absolutist manner in which NAEYC held on to the developmental canon was an unspoken fear that without this body of knowledge, a field that was viewed by many as little more than organized child minding would be increasingly marginalized. As in other fields with an overwhelmingly female workforce, such as nursing and social work, salaries would remain extraordinarily low, benefits few and far between, and its professional status problematic. The identification of early childhood education and developmental theory was so complete in these years that NAEYC president Bettye Caldwell (1984) could confidently proclaim: “Our field represents the applied side of the basic science of child development” (p. 53).

In contrast, with a more open disposition toward shifts in other disciplines, reconceptualists were ready to ask: What, if anything, makes early childhood a discrete field of theory and practice? How permeable can we become to other disciplines without losing our identity, and would such a loss be a bad thing? Ironically, these questions of disciplinary coherence are now being forced upon us from the outside by the increasing downward pressures for academically oriented programs that are in turn leading to new certification regulations that minimize, even erase, the utility of distinct early childhood qualifications.

Undoubtedly, there are many ideas other than the three I have identified here—making a place for pleasure, advocating for lives lived on the edge, and speaking truth to power—that catalyzed RECE during its formative years. In trying to tell our story, to find an overarching narrative, a through-line that holds it together, I am struck by the heuristic power of adapting Melanie Klein’s distinction between a paranoid/schizoid position and a depressive position to describe critical reading practices. Eve Sedgwick (2003) explains that, originally posited by Klein as a “characteristic posture that the ego takes up with respect to its object” (p. 128), these positions may also be interpolated as different ways of knowing and contrasting interests in what is known. The paranoid/schizoid position leads to strong, universalizing theories that eschew surprises, the potential humiliation that may come with exposure, and more free-ranging exploration of the world, whereas the depressive position leads to a loosely connected web of local theories that enjoy contingency and offer reparative readings to restore relationships. The former, built on the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” is grounded in a search for certainty, propositional knowledge, and the avoidance of error, while the latter seeks to maximize pleasure and care of the self while opening an ethics of possibility based in fuller recognition of the other.

In Klein’s formulation, positions are not linear developments, the one closing down the other, but rather tendencies that co-exist within every adult’s stance toward the world. The schizoid/paranoid position is one in which we seek to avoid pain through remaining hyper-vigilant to potential sources of danger. In the depressive mode, no longer prompted solely by fear and anxiety, we are better able to receive comfort and nourishment from more coherent identifications with objects once understood as threatening and vengeful. Open to a broader ← 64 | 65 → range of emotions, including the reparative pleasures that come with such positive identifications, we are also less fearful of surprises and mistakes. Reflecting this depressive position in theory making, for example, Joseph Litvak invites us to “take the terror out of error” and to make mistakes, “sexy, creative, even cognitively powerful” (Sedgwick, 2003, p. 147).

In brief, I read our desire to open the field of early childhood to a much broader range of theories and styles of theory making as an attempt to move from a schizoid/paranoid position to a depressive one. Rather than defend the developmental canon, rather than rely on scientific “truths” that promise certainty, legitimacy, and as NAEYC leaders claimed, higher salaries for underpaid workers through professionalization, we sought to embrace a more playful, dare I say pleasurable, stance toward theorizing the world of children and classrooms. Over and against the rigidity of the NAEYC position grounded in claims to the “truth” value of developmentalism, we sought a more flexible, inclusive approach to what counts as salient knowledge to educating young children. We used a Foucauldian language to query our own work: How does this knowledge function in the world? What does this knowledge do and not do? Who benefits and who loses by its instantiation into early childhood practices?

I do not suggest that we were always successful at asking, let alone answering, these questions. I do suspect, however, that we were more successful in shifting our theorizing than in changing our own practices or those more widely employed in early childhood classrooms. In my more Zen moments, I think that perhaps our singular accomplishment was just that: to make theorizing a form of practice in a field that had become theoretically barren and epistemologically bankrupt. No small accomplishment and one that I can only hope still thrives across the chapters of this volume.


Butler, J. (1997). The psychic life of power. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Caldwell, B. (1984). Growth and development. Young Children, 39(6), 53–56.

Castiglia, C., & Reed, C. (2012). If memory serves: Gay men, AIDS, and the promise of the queer past. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cogan, D. (Producer), & David, F. (Director). (2012). How to survive a plague [Motion picture]. United States: Sundance Selects.

Counts, G. (1932/1978). Dare the schools build a new social order? Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Cvetkovich, A. (2003). An archive of feelings: Trauma, sexuality, and lesbian public cultures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Dinshaw, C. (1999). Getting medieval. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Doty, M. (2010). The art of description: World into words. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf.

Gallop, J. (2002). Anecdotal theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Halberstam, J. (2005). In a queer time & place: Transgender bodies, subcultural lives. New York: New York University Press.

Halberstam, J. (2011). The queer art of failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Krakowsky, L. (2010). Leonard Covello: A study of progressive leadership and community empowerment. (Occasional Paper No. 24). New York: Bank Street College of Education.

Polakow, V. (1993). Lives on the edge: Single mothers and their children in the other America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schulman, S. (2012). The gentrification of the mind: Witness to a lost imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sedgwick, E. (2003). Touching feeling: Affect, pedagogy, performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Silin, J. (1987). The language of aids: Public fears, pedagogical responsibilities. Teachers College Record, 89(1), 3–19. ← 65 | 66 →

Silin, J. (1992). New subjects, familiar roles: Progressive legacies in the postmodern world. In F. Pignatelli & W. Pflaum (Eds.), Celebrating diverse voices: Progressive education and equity (pp. 221–241). Newbury Park, CA: Corwin.

Silin, J. (1995). Sex, death, and the education of children: Our passion for ignorance in the age of AIDS. New York: Teachers College Press.

Silin, J. (1997). The pervert in the classroom. In J. Tobin (Ed.), Making a place for pleasure in early childhood education (pp. 214–235). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Silin, J. (2000). Real children and imagined homelands: Preparing to teach in today’s world. In N. Nager & E. K. Shapiro (Eds.), Revisiting a progressive pedagogy (pp. 257–275). Albany: SUNY Press.

Silin, J. (2005). Who can speak?: Silence, voice and pedagogy. In N. Yelland (Ed.), Critical issues in early childhood education (pp. 81–95). Maidenhead, Berkshire, U.K.: Open University Press.

Silin, J. (2013). At a loss: Scared and excited. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 14(1), 16–23.

Silin, J. (In press). The teacher as archivist. Studies in Gender and Sexuality.

Stockton, K. (2009). The queer child, or growing sideways in the twentieth century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tobin, J. (Ed.). (1997). Making a place for pleasure in early childhood education. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Vascellaro, S. (2011). Out of the classroom and into the world. New York: The New Press.

Weber, B., & Weissman, D. (Directors). (2011). We were here [Motion Picture]. United States: Red Flag Releasing.

← 66 | 67 →



Still Waiting for the Revolution

Michael O’Loughlin

Much remains to be done to undo societal prejudices against children. While organizations such as Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education (RECE) have agitated for change in specific areas, the health of the overall ecological infrastructure of contemporary childhood in the U.S. is very troubling. The passing of Maurice Sendak (1928–2012) reminds me how ephemeral our passions and accomplishments are and causes me to worry that the accomplishments of RECE and the many talented individuals who comprise it, too, may be fleeting. Reflecting back on the inaugural RECE meeting at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1991 evokes in me memories of nurturance, hope, possibility, and a perpetual wish for more. Is it possible to thread a movement from such moments? Have we stormed the epistemological barricades? What can a life’s work of child therapy and child pedagogy, teacher education, and writing preserve? In a world of predatory capitalism, ruthless mechanical notions of accountability, and disinterest in the existential and liberatory potential of care and education, for what might we be remembered? Our humanitarian and critical impulses give me optimism, and the reactionary politics of all power structures give me pause. I find the tenaciousness of normative developmental models of childhood discouraging. Has our RECE movement had any lasting influence on policy and practices? Do we have the capacity to stand up to the retrogressive influences that seek to roll back the gains in our field? I fear I’m still waiting for the revolution.

In this chapter I will chart the course of a journey that began with my early critiques of early childhood education, ripostes that were sometimes tinged with the sharpness and impatience of my relative youth. I will contrast that with my position today—one edged by my concern about legacy and the passing on of an ethic of care and a language of critique to future scholars and practitioners. In seeking to rupture the tenacious hold of developmental normativity, bolstered nowadays by foreclosing tropes such as “evidence-based practice,” I will present my current conceptualization ← 67 | 68 → of the possibilities of childhood through what I have begun to call “a psychoanalysis of the social”—an approach that combines psychoanalytic notions of valuing emotions, imagination, and the possibility of the unconscious with lessons from intergenerational trauma theory that offer profound insights into the role of ancestry, spirituality, history, culture, and difference in our coming to be as subjects. I will argue that we must find a way to add greater political muscle to the urgent case for a more liberatory imaginary for future generations of children.

Compulsory Retrospection

Compulsory retrospection is tricky stuff. As a younger person I thought and wrote like…well…like a younger person. I had faith at that point that we could charge the epistemological barricades, and in some respects we did. The infusion of queer theory, postcolonial theory, and critical qualitative research into the discourses of early childhood education, and indeed the establishment and remarkable continuance of the RECE Conference for more than 20 years, offers extraordinary testimony to our capacity for change and to our ability to work in relative solidarity to keep an idea going. As I have grown older, I think perhaps what has changed most for me is that I have considerably less interest in just winning an argument or scoring rhetorical points, and more interest in seeding a movement. I am interested in living a philosophy of life and seeking to spread that word to those who may have a receptivity to the human values that I believe in, and, by putting my ideas out there, contributing at a minimum to keeping alive the possibilities of being, becoming, imagining, and acting, for future children.

Vivian Paley devoted her life to understanding the importance of storytelling and fantasy in the lives of the children in her kindergarten classes. Her 2005 book, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, offers a troubling view of where the schooling of young children is headed when the nurturance of imagination and the provision of a space for the working through of feelings is no longer of consequence. Instead, predictability and reliability offer a safer and more sanitary path for teachers:

What an astonishing invention is this activity we call fantasy play. Are we really willing to let it disappear from our schools and kindergartens? “I’m not inclined to encourage fantasy play any more if my teachers can’t handle it,” a preschool director admitted recently. “If the teachers are worried about what’s coming out, especially with the fours and fives, everyone is better off if we stick to lesson plans and projects.”

“Has the play changed that much?” I ask.

“The teachers think so. Maybe it’s the increased tension since 9/11. Children do seem less prepared, more at risk. We’re on safer ground with a somewhat academic curriculum. It’s more dependable.” (p. 7)

As Paley notes, expectations for young children have become so instrumental and fixed that “The potential for surprise is largely gone.” “We no longer wonder,” she continues, “‘Who are you?’ but instead decide quickly ‘What can we do to fix you?’” (2005, p. 47)

As I leaf back through my own contributions to the early RECE debates,1 I notice a salient binary ethos in the argument: us versus them. RECE versus the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). RECE versus Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). RECE versus oppressive and retrogressive pedagogy. RECE versus sell-outs ← 68 | 69 → and hold-outs. I now realize that binaries are unhelpful because they bind us in a dialectic that provokes resistance and may inhibit change; and also by virtue of our opposition, we may unwittingly reify and confer legitimacy on the status quo that we seek to supplant. A third path is needed.

Leaving that aside, however, I am struck by how relatively constant my concerns have been. The arguments of my more youthful self still resonate deeply with me, but I think I have made progress in two ways. First, by becoming a child therapist and psychoanalyst, and having now seen children in therapy for close to 10,000 hours, I have become more attuned to the experience of being with children, and this has grounded my ideas immeasurably. Second, I learned to think psychoanalytically. I have identified a liberatory lineage in psychoanalysis going all the way back to Freud’s Free Clinics,2 and I have found a way, through what I call a “psychoanalysis of the social,” to argue that not only does psychoanalysis have useful insights to offer into the emotional foundation of children’s lived experiences, but that it has potential, through speaking to a sociohistorically defined unconscious, to address the ancestral, cultural, and historical formation of the child and thereby to contribute to liberatory pedagogical practices. I should note too—and here the writings of Deborah Britzman, Gail Boldt, Jonathan Silin, and Peter Taubman are illustrative3 —that one does not need to be formally trained either as a psychologist, therapist, or psychoanalyst to claim a space in the psychoanalytic world or to use critical psychoanalytic concepts. When I put out a call recently for chapters for a book that would speak to childhood and schooling from psychoanalytic perspectives, I received enough material to produce two books with 33 chapters, written by passionate child advocates from a variety of professions.4 This gives me cause for optimism.

Nowhere to Grow?

Five-year-old Errol’s5 parents were puzzled. He absolutely refused to have a party to celebrate his birthday. He was adamant that he was not growing up and that he would never turn 6. More seriously, 10-year-old Dave wore the belt of his pants cinched a few notches too tight in order to maintain an image of slightness, and each year when his mother took him shopping for back-to-school clothes he insisted on clothes that were at least two sizes too small. One day, in my consulting office, he drew a womb-like image with a tiny stick figure, perhaps two centimeters long, inside. He drew a speech bubble and an arrow pointing to the figure within the womb. Then he wrote the legend “I’m hear” [sic] in the bubble. He labeled the picture, poignantly, “The boy who wouldn’t grow up.”

In The Queer Child (2009), Kathryn Stockton speaks of the child who, faced with normative, linear, heterosexist notions of advancement, simply has “nowhere to grow” (p. 3). As Stockton notes, if growing up inevitably means encountering continual trouble or permanent misrecognition, some children will recognize that if they wish to follow a path that includes any vestige of their own desires, they have little choice but to seek an alternative sideways path forward. Do we have any room in our thinking for such sideways paths? Is “developmental delay,” with all of its connotations of pathology, retardation, and deficit, the only alternative to growing up?

Stockton points to the queerness of notions of childhood that preclude consideration of “sex, aggression, secrets, closets, or any sense of what police call ‘a past,’” thus revealing the core notion of the normative child as innocent and walled off, a child who “on its path to ← 69 | 70 → normativity, seems safe to us and whom we therefore safeguard at all costs” (2009, p. 30). As Bruhm and Hurley note in Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children (2004), childhood innocence is imbued with notions of asexuality and incipient heterosexuality. “The figure of the queer child,” Bruhm and Hurley state, “is that which doesn’t quite conform to the wished-for way that children are supposed to be in terms of gender and sexual roles” (p. x). The conundrum of the child, inserted discursively into a retrospective normative role of innocence that is deeply invested with adult fears, anxieties, and projections of innocence, not to mention socially normative scripts about class, race, and gender (cf. Bernstein, 2011), is to either sacrifice desire on the altar of parental and societal notions of normative expectation, or else run into the brick wall of developmental arrest and thus be viewed as delayed, deviant, or oppositional. These kinds of interpellative processes are onerous and alienating for all children, as they seek to keep children cordoned within the realm of thinkable ways of being and within the realm of bourgeois aspiration and social hierarchy through the suppression of any aberrant or nonmaterial desire. They are all the more catastrophic for the queer child—the child who by definition may embody homosexual identifications, transgender identifications, racial identifications, or any other interests that bourgeois society might regard as uppity, perverse, aberrant, deviant, or dangerous to the bourgeois status quo. What then of the dilemma facing a transgender child such as Ludo in the movie Ma Vie en Rose (Berliner, 1999), who faces a willfully misunderstanding family and community? Or what of Willie, the gay protagonist in the movie The Hanging Garden (Fitzgerald, 1996) whose mother seeks to straighten him through a visit to a hooker, and whose attempts to eat his way out of heterosexual progression and spurned homosexual love leads to an impasse that brings him precipitously close to catastrophe? Or what of Billy, the main character in Billy Elliot (Daldry, 2001), who seeks to pursue his desire to be a ballet dancer despite the vehement condemnation of his working-class patriarchal homophobic father and brother, the envy of his gay friend Michael, and his own attempt to bob and weave around the societal expectation that his interest in ballet inevitably means that he is a poof? Is it possible for a child to push through this pain to a place of desire and possibility?

The Troubled State of Early Education in the United States Today

In my early work, I was interested in challenging specific facets of the epistemology underpinning developmental psychology and early childhood pedagogy. Gradually I came to understand that the problem was larger. Since then I have attempted to articulate one dimension of an alternative epistemological understanding of the notion of childhood and the paths by which children might negotiate themselves to positions of desire and a capacity to question both the paths of their individual life trajectories and the collective paths that are offered by post-industrial societies that seem willing to market technological progress and material consumption as the solution to the meaning of life. In doing so I have no illusion that the theory of embodied and embedded subjectivity that I offer here is, on its own, the answer to what ails our society. My hope is that those of us who share a rejection of the core epistemological principles of normative childhood, linear development, and prescriptive pedagogies, often artfully disguised as student-centered and humane education, might take seriously the need to articulate a comprehensive critical alternative vision to the status quo.

My central critique of RECE is that we have failed to coalesce around a comprehensive, critically progressive, located, and multidimensional understanding of childhood experience, ← 70 | 71 → and hence of the multiple ways in which particular children—each of whom is queer in their own way—may seek opportunities to think, imagine, and experience their own critical possibilities for becoming. I am very concerned with the decidedly anti-child drift of current educational practices and policies.

With a few notable exceptions, for the most part the discourses of child development, classroom management, early childhood education, special education, school psychology, and school counseling have constructed notions of children and schooling that are often behaviorist, instrumental, and symptom focused. In the educational arena, curriculum too often focuses on rote acquisition of knowledge; discipline is conceptualized as compliance (Kohn, 1996/2006) and symptoms such as anger, school resistance, oppositionality, etc. are pathologized and reacted to out of context. Children’s special needs are often conceptualized instrumentally, and children with complex psychological symptoms or complex social backgrounds are delimited, depersonalized, or simply removed (Books, 1998/2006; Polakow, 1998; Polakow-Suransky, 2000). While this has been true of North America for some time, the biologization and pathologization of psychic distress in children as behavior to be medicated and eliminated, is spreading across the world.

For a quarter century, I’ve been teaching a course called “The Emotional Lives of Children and the Possibility of Classroom as Community” to teachers and psychologists. I also teach courses on child development, child therapy, and classroom management, all focusing on the emotional quality of children’s lives, and on the complexities of transference relationships between children and the adults who care for them. I have found students to be receptive to the person-centered and psychodynamic perspectives we study through fiction, memoir, film, and academic texts, and my students are invariably puzzled that these perspectives rarely form part of the core principles of their preparation. Why are so few psychologists, social workers, and teachers introduced, for example, to the writings of Donald Winnicott, Margaret Mahler, Maud Mannoni, Louise Kaplan, or Selma Fraiberg? “What if, instead of manualized therapy and scripted pedagogy, we assisted professionals in using their talents and gifts to work obliquely with children (cf. O’Loughlin & Merchant, 2012) so that our services to children speak to desire and imagination instead of demanding rigid conformity and stifling uniformity?” (O’Loughlin, 2013c, p. 2).

The reductiveness of outcomes-based and supposedly evidence-based methodologies has crept up into university preparation in the United States, primarily through the influence of accreditation processes that have increasingly constricted the space in which either philosophical ideals, imagination, or emotion can be discussed (cf. Biesta, 2007). Our critical voices are diminutive indeed in the face of an alliance between postcapitalist and neoconservative ideologies, coupled with a strain of anti-intellectualism, all thinly disguised in an ethos of school reform and a desire to mold children into becoming willing participants in a culture of material consumption, teaching them to fit in with corporate business practices, and perhaps even teaching children to accept the necessity for their own eventual unemployability in a ruthless global market economy.

With this in mind, looking at my early papers I enumerate the following concerns that were at the forefront of my mind 20 years ago. I invite you to consider how well they have been addressed within the reconceptualizing movement, specifically within RECE itself, as well as within mainstream early childhood policies and practices in the United States. If these concerns continue to be relevant today, that raises troubling questions about our capacity to effect substantive change in the field. With respect to early childhood education, back then I argued that: ← 71 | 72 →

Despite a veneer of student-centered and discovery-oriented learning, the meaning-making capacities of children are denied, and the teleology of early childhood curriculum is impositional, bourgeois, and culturally exclusive.

Ancestral, historical, social, cultural, and local contexts of meaning-making are denied.

Learning is conceptualized as a mentalistic or intrapsychic process as opposed to being viewed as sociohistorically constituted and fundamentally social in form.

Child growth is conceptualized as linear and founded on hierarchical assumptions from a decontextualized and universalized developmental psychology. This epistemological hegemony prevails despite the pioneering work of Valerie Walkerdine and her colleagues as presented in the seminal work Changing the Subject (Henriques, Hollway, Urwin, Venn, & Walkerdine, 1984), and subsequent works (e.g., Burman, 1994; Walkerdine, 1984, 1987, 1990, 2002, 2004) challenging that paradigm.

Early childhood education fails to speak of children in genuinely socioculturally inclusive and plural ways.

Notions of curriculum and learning in early childhood education fail to acknowledge the mind as socioculturally and discursively located and as dialectical in operation.

Early childhood education uses the concept “development” uncritically. If development is at all useful as a concept, should we not consider it as ecosocial, nonlinear, nonhierarchical, opportunistic, and locally and contextually situated?

Education is not conceptualized within larger systems of power and ideology. The workings of power and inequality in the relations between language, culture, and schooling, and in models of practice and in modes of research inquiry are not problematized or interrogated critically.

Early childhood education theory, policy, and practice occur within larger political and policy contexts, often contexts that do not privilege equity, justice, and opportunity. While espousing critique, progressive early childhood education professors are also beneficiaries of the privileging systems that perpetuate the status quo and generate cultural capital and career status [as I am doing right now by writing this chapter] while promulgating critique from a safe distance.

In critiquing Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP; Bredekamp, 1987), the practice philosophy promulgated by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and keystone of the NAEYC accreditation process for early education, I offered the following additional critiques:

The rhetoric of certainty and progressive linearity embodied in the DAP prescriptions is problematic. How do we presume to know what is good for all children in all contexts? What happens if our prescriptions for children are inherently normative and unsuited to particular children in particular locales and contexts? What would locally generated critical constructivist—as opposed to positivist—curriculum practices look like?

DAP is founded on the narrow epistemological foundation of Piagetian notions of knowledge and a linear, hierarchical understanding of human development and is ← 72 | 73 → therefore inherently unsuited to a critical, open, inclusive, grounded curriculum process.

Appropriate for whom? Why propose a “one size fits all” model? How can a culturally responsive or locally grounded pedagogy be conceptualized within a generic “one size fits all” model? Doesn’t the use of the term “appropriate” betray the inherent normativity of the enterprise and the hegemonic epistemological assumptions underlying the curriculum prescriptions that are advanced as precepts of best practice?

Where is the space in DAP for emancipatory or critically located pedagogy? What is the ultimate goal of the kind of pedagogy formulation DAP embodies? Who benefits?

A Third Way: The Emergence of Childhood Subjectivity Discursively

As I noted earlier, in Changing the Subject (1984) Henriques and his colleagues not only challenged hierarchical, normative, and essentialist understandings of the experience of childhood, but, using postmodern and postcolonial theory, they began to articulate a complex understanding of the coming to be of human subjectivity. In The Subject of Childhood (2009a), drawing on the work of Rex and Wendy Stainton-Rogers (1992), I suggested that notions of childhood are, to use their term, “manufactured.” “Childhood,” with its accompanying notions of naturalness and innocence, is a discursive creation that is designed to serve certain ideological functions. The difficulty with unreflexive early childhood pedagogies and curriculum practices, however humanely presented, is that they are built upon a foundation of hegemonic discursive assumptions and ideological and epistemological tenets that go unexamined.

With respect to ideology, what if the underlying foundations of the field are built around notions of commodification; that is, the artful construction of childhood subjectivity to prepare a child for a specific niche in society? Schools and nursery schools, after all, are instruments of socialization for society. The robust and acrimonious debates that occur around the content of textbooks, as well as the never-ending battle over mechanisms of evaluation, reveal the ideological battles for the hearts and minds of children. How can teachers and schools act as if they operate in a benevolent and humanistic vacuum in the middle of such a maelstrom? What are the implications for teachers if indeed most children in U.S. public schools are “schooled to order” as David Nasaw (1981) suggested in the book of the same title? Such considerations also extend of course to norms of sexual identity and the banishment of queerness, and indeed to the restriction of children’s capacities to use their imaginations. What if a child were to think the unthinkable? Is there space—or even time—in our nursery schools and elementary schools for such a possibility? And if there is not, what happens to the possibility of education for freedom?

The concept of subjectivity, therefore, offers a way out of the binary in which the child is conceived as an intrapsychic “developing” entity, and the external world acts on the child. Employing the more situated term “subjectivity” allows us to consider that rather than a homunculus that preexists action or interaction with the world, the becoming child is subjectively constructed through immersion in the world. Althusser (1971) captured this notion in his articulation of processes of interpellation. “Subjectivity” as a central concept, therefore, allows us to become interested in the ways in which children become who they need to become by making use of the cultural and symbolic resources put at their disposal. ← 73 | 74 →

A particular value of thinking about childhood in terms of evolving subjectivity, therefore, is that it brings to the fore the dilemma of the conflict between socialization and the possibilities of becoming a free subject. As Judith Butler noted in The Psychic Life of Power (1997), becoming a subject necessarily requires becoming subject to prevailing discursive practices. Considering the pressure for assimilation and the insidious workings of interpellation inherent in processes of socialization such as child-rearing, education, normative race, class and gender socialization, and induction into religious and political thought, what chance is there for a particular child to pursue queer or sideways paths toward becoming and desire? Adopting subjectivity as a central organizing principle offers the opportunity to pose important political questions about the role of early childhood educators as guardians of the status quo with respect to gender, race, class, and ideological norms.

These uncomfortable questions are at the heart of what Paulo Freire (1969, 1970) termed “education as the practice of freedom.” Might it be possible for teachers of young children to think of their work as being about resisting some of the interpellative processes that are placed on children in order to allow them, as Rich Johnson and I expressed elsewhere, to “imagine themselves otherwise” (O’Loughlin & Johnson, 2010)?

I conclude my first chapter of The Subject of Childhood with a modest suggestion that self-reflexive autobiographical inquiry may offer a starting point in developing questioning capabilities in young teachers who might then go on to nurture similar capacities for questioning and for reflection on desire and possibility in the children with whom they work:

I think what bothers me most about the grand narratives of childhood that are so endemic to conventional wisdom about children and pedagogy is the determinism of the child’s life path. Where is there room for questions? How is the child to ever develop imaginative possibilities and experience desire if all of life is hemmed in with the ever-increasing demand of teachers, parents, pediatricians, pastors and others? If we, the adults who conceptualize childhood and schooling, cannot enter into dialogue with our own child selves, and if we cannot break out of the narrow pathways of our own experience, what hope is there for emancipatory, opportunistic, or imaginative dreaming among the children of our future? (2009a, p. 26)

On Possible Lines of Rupture: Troubling Spectrality and Genealogical Filiation

In the conventional view, the epistemological story lines are simple. Children are born with anticipated futures, poised to grow up to claim a space in society. The educational conundrum is not about what they need to know to become well-functioning adults, because society has already specified the curriculum paths for their lives within certain race-, gender-, and class-bound parameters. The sole remaining ideological question is whether the socialization should be done in Dickensian fashion, using harsh pedagogical techniques, or whether we can create softer modes of induction that create a less jarring entry into culture for the child. Early childhood education, with its focus on student-centeredness and “discovery” learning approaches, espouses the latter strategy. These are, however, distinctions only in kind. As noted earlier, the normative and assimilative intent of the enterprise is unchanged and the ontological assumptions of the system are a given.

Conventional normative socialization is premised, therefore, on the ontological notion that what counts is official knowledge. Yet, as Adam Phillips (1998) reminds us, Freud and ← 74 | 75 → other early psychoanalysts were fascinated with the child’s refusal of official knowledge and with her preoccupation with illicit knowing, particularly about the realm of sexuality and sex play. With a few notable exceptions (e.g., Dyson, 1993, 1997, 2003; Tobin, 1997), the unofficial worlds of childhood are typically ignored by researchers. It seems that we practice the taboo that we also preach to children!

In Specters of Marx (1994), Derrida proposed replacing ontology with “hauntology,” a way of thinking that shakes up the linearity of time; that allows for spectral memory and preoccupations; and that recognizes the delayed occurrence of meaning for an event that has occurred in earlier time. Applied to the world of a child, this formulation allows for the recognition that children have dynamic pasts. They not only grow up inserted into narrative strands and preexisting discursive practices, but there are many spectral qualities to the child’s experience based on intergenerationally transmitted unnamable knowledges and experiences, and based on the notion of après coup, where events that have occurred earlier only retroactively acquire significance. In addition, spectral knowing pushes the dimensions of knowing into new arenas, including ancestral, spiritual, and historical knowledges and realms of fantasy and the uncanny that are excluded by formal ontological understandings of knowledge as static, event-filled, and informational, and of child growth and development as teleological and normative. Such spectral knowledges occasionally burst into the open with unruly zest. What kinds of questioning might be possible for a child if we welcomed these unruly guests to the table?

What distinguishes this notion of inheritance and genealogical filiation (cf. Apfelbaum, 2002) is the dynamic nature of the pasts that are imaginable, and the potential, given optimal pedagogical or child-rearing conditions, for a particular child to explore gaps, fissures, points of rupture, and openings to multiple ways of experiencing and entering into possible subjectivity. Students of hauntology, scholars of indigenous epistemologies and practices, and scholars who analyze sociohistorical aspects of experience6 have all contributed to specifying the architecture of the cryptic spaces in which such knowledge resides and pointing out the straitjacket in which growth is placed if the dynamic and spectral origins of experience are delimited, discarded, or ignored.

In Trauma Trails, Judy Atkinson (2002), exploring the limit case of the catastrophic consequences of the abuses of the Stolen Generations for Australian Aboriginal Peoples, conceptualizes the relative consequences of growing up with or without access to ancestral, historical, and familial ties in terms of notions of lore and lorelessness. Lacking access to lore and to the narrative threads linking present and past times, lacking continuity with ancestors and sprits, and lacking a capacity to be in dreamtime, has caused aboriginal people to experience severe dislocation and an inability to dream. While this conceptualization has special relevance for historically marginalized groups, it should not be thought of so narrowly. What is at issue here is a form of dreaming, namely our capacity to imagine our children embedded in large webs of different types of epistemologies, filiations, and lineages, arranged on multiple planes and at multiple levels. The marvelous opportunity for any child to discover the multiple possible arcs of their own growth is brutally crushed if we ignore these epistemological dimensions and reduce growth to teleological and normative development, and if we continue to define education as reductionist socialization. ← 75 | 76 →

Coda: Troubling Pedagogy

How might this conceptualization of subjectivity translate into pedagogical actions? The most fundamental commitment is to the question of the child. Can we permit the child to reach for a place of desire? In my work as a therapist with children, I see my primary attributes as an acutely attuned receptivity to the child’s emotions, and a capacity to resist obfuscating a child’s truth-seeking with comforting platitudes. In addition I struggle to “do nothing”; that is, to express as little desire as possible in order to create a facilitative space where either the child’s desire emerges, or the inhibitions to the child’s desire become evident and can be named (O’Loughlin & Merchant, 2012). I have described in some detail elsewhere the elements of an evocative pedagogy that is designed to address the child’s unconscious, as well as the notion of a regenerative curriculum that is built around the idea that pedagogy ought to be about assisting children in creating social linkages between their current being/becoming and spectral, ancestral, and unnamable aspects of their own subjectivity (O’Loughlin, 2009a, 2010, 2013d, 2013e). I recently summarized the process this way:


XIV, 362
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2018 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XIV, 362 pp., 15 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Marianne N. Bloch (Volume editor) Beth Blue Swadener (Volume editor) Gaile S. Cannella (Volume editor)

Marianne N. Bloch is Professor Emerita in the Departments of Curriculum and Instruction and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. <B>Beth Blue Swadener</B> is Professor and Associate Director of the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University-Tempe. <B>Gaile S. Cannella</B> is an independent scholar, former professor and endowed chair and series editor for Childhood Studies, as well as Post-Anthropocentric Inquiry at Peter Lang. All are founding members of the International Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education group and are former early childhood classroom teachers, scholars who have conducted research that is published in multiple books and refereed journals&nbsp;and early years policy activists.


Title: Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education and Care—A Reader