In praise of Early Childhood Educators

I recently had the opportunity to immerse myself in the rich conversations of early childhood educators.  The context was a conference that was international and a nice mix of academics and practitioners.  I went because I am working with a group of Canadian Deans of Education to write a national accord on early childhood education.  We wanted to present an initial draft to an expert audience for their input and feedback.  I also went because two of the keynote speakers were well-known to me through their work and I was really interested to hear them both.  One of them was Professor Margaret Carr from the University of Waikato in New Zealand. She was a co-Director of the Early Childhood Curriculum Development project that developed the national early childhood curriculum for New Zealand in 1996 (Te Whariki).  The other was Professor Carla Rinaldi,  President of Reggio Children and professor of pedagogy at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (Italy).  They were both wonderful, presenting their deeply held convictions with humility, humor, and honesty.

This is an interesting time in the world of Early Childhood Education.  Both nationally and internationally there is a move towards providing quality care and education for all children.  Many provinces have developed Early Learning Frameworks and several have moved to amalgamating Ministries of Children and Families/Care with Ministries of Education.  Australia and New Zealand have been successful in developing national curriculum frameworks and national public provision. Several jurisdictions across Canada have  adopted full day kindergartens, with Ontario offering fully funded, full day, junior and senior kindergarten this fall.  Many Independent Schools in BC have developed preschool programs along with full day kindergartens. As a result, there is also a strong move towards the professionalization of early childhood educators, requiring increased education and the development of quality standards.  Along with this professionalization comes the awareness of the theory/practice divide and the difficulty of changing an entrenched ECE culture.

The history of early childhood care and education in Canada is a story of labour force attachment, targeted groups of special needs and low-income families, women’s rights and equality, and the religious debate about the notion of shared responsibility for infants and preschoolers.  Current policies are often framed in language that speaks to economic and social capital, and academic success.  However, there is  also a strong push back from families and educators (with support from provinces) to focus on quality care and education for ALL children that honours this unique time in a child’s life.  There is a shared desire and need for care/education that is both holistic and emergent in design, rather than focused on school readiness through highly structured programs and academic success.  Unfortunately, the “push down” from the K-12 System and our market driven economy and technocratic culture makes the shared values and beliefs of many in the ECE community difficult to maintain.

As I attended multiple smaller sessions and the excellent keynote speakers, I found myself paying particular attention to the language that was being used.  As in all communities of discourse, there were both sacred and taboo words  and phrases.  Taboo words and phrases included “developmentally appropriate”, “checklists”, “running records”, “standardization”, “records”, “reports”, “labels”, and “school readiness”. Sacred phrases and words included “empowerment”, “curiosity”, “creativity”, “democratic”, “relationships”, “belonging, being and becoming”, “one hundred languages”, “holistic”, “pedagogical narration”,  “children’s rights”,  “play”, “care”, “family”, “spirituality”, “frameworks as a conversation starter rather than a script”, “the strong, competent and capable child”, “listening a child into being”, “attentiveness”, “time”, “working theories”, and “emergent curriculum”.

As Carla Rinaldi suggested, when we talk about education we are talking about politics.  Both the sacred and taboo words and phrases listed above are political statements, laden with philosophy and beliefs and, therefore, highly contestable.   The language reflects certain images we hold of God, His creation and Others and describes particular ways of being in the world with others.  While I may have some concerns about the sacred language used in the ECE community, I am not writing to critique today.  I am here to listen with appreciation and gratitude because I understand their deliberate choice of language and am grateful that they are committed to “pushing up” into the K-12 system.  It is especially lovely that they can speak of the importance of families and belonging and spirituality with such conviction and clarity, conversations that have been largely lost in the K-12 system.   May Early Childhood Educators not despair, and may all other educators listen them into being and join the conversation.

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