Early Childhood Education



The reconceptualist movement in early childhood education gained momentum in the 1980s, with conversations among scholars around the world who problematized the dominance of psychology and child development theory and drew from an array of other, more critical and postmodern perspectives in their work. These researchers, like those in a growing number of disciplines, are critical of the dominance of Enlightenment, modernist and western interpretations of the world that assume the existence of universal truths or natural laws as applicable and generalizable to all human beings. In the more specific case of early childhood education, contemporary reconceptualist scholars question the belief that scientific truths could or should be “discovered” about any individual or group of children and then applied to all younger human beings, no matter the culture, language, belief structure, or physical life circumstance. Many are feminists working with critical personal narrative and autobiography; some are engaged in contemporary, including postmodern, psychoanalytic scholarship; some work from a critical, poststructural lens; and still others are engaged in postcolonial critique as well as social justice work that focuses on decolonizing the field. Overall, reconceptualizing has come from within a context and value structure that strives to appreciate and support diversity in people, ideas, and ways of being, at the same time recognizing that privileging any particular set of beliefs and forms of knowledge can create power for certain groups of people and oppress and disqualify others.

The theoretical interpretations and forms of research employed in reconceptualizing the field of early childhood education have emerged from individuals and groups with personal and career histories focused on issues of social justice, equity, oppression and power, and diversity and opportunity. Reconceptualizing the field has included a focus on challenging grand narratives that serve to control and limit human beings, recognizing and embracing diversity in ways of living and being in the world, while acknowledging the sociopolitical, historical embeddedness in which human life resides. Reconceptualist work is concerned with revealing circumstances in which power and privilege are created for some groups of people while “others” are judged and disqualified as lacking or labeled as disadvantaged, yet continuously struggles to avoid the creation of new truths, or grand narratives, from reconceptualist perspectives. These concerns in the field of early childhood education have been addressed using various forms of critique, including qualitative naturalistic research that attends to the voices of peoples who are often underrepresented, historical genealogy, theory juxtaposition, and critical personal narrative.

An increasing number of early childhood educators are joining others in challenging European American discourses that have been generally accepted as universal truths. These “grand narratives”—which include everything from Western views of logic, to the Evangelical Christian discourse of salvation, to economic interpretations of human functioning whether Marxist or capitalist, to the imposition of Piagetian structuralism on all human cognition—have been questioned in a variety of fields and from diverse perspectives. The work of such scholars as Michel Foucault and Jacques Lyotard are good illustrations of the deconstruction of such dominant grand narratives.

Such challenges to universalist truths have been taken up by scholars in fields directly tied to early childhood education. Illustrations include the scholarship of Valerie Walkerdine and Erica Burman that directly challenges Piagetian developmental psychology and other developmental interpretations of the world. These examples illustrate the cultural embeddedness of the theories and the ways that human developmental perspectives have privileged Euro-American middle-class stereotypically masculine ways of interpreting and being in the world. In addition, various early childhood educators are influenced by the work of curriculum- studies scholars in education who, over the past 30 years, have reconceptualized the field from one of linear, determinist curriculum development to curriculum theory as understanding, human functioning, and learning—each as embedded within culture, history, politics, and social context.

Reconceptualist early childhood educators continue to address the grand narratives that dominate the field, illustrating the ways that beliefs in the “universal child” and universalist theories of thought and human change (e.g., developmental psychology, scientifically “discoverable” learning theories) actually place some groups of children into categories in which they are judged as normal, as on the “correct” human life path, and/or as even gifted—and “others” as delayed, slow, and possessing incorrect or less important knowledges and skills. As a critical example, much of the early reconceptualist scholarship (e.g., Kessler and Swadener, 1992) challenged the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Guidelines for Developmentally Appropriate Practice, charging that the perspective is monocultural and ethnocentric and ignores the range of life contexts and knowledges experienced by children from diverse cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and values contexts (e.g., individualistic orientations or connectedness of people as cultural ways of functioning). Applying a human or child development perspective on all people from all contexts, as if a natural universal human truth, has been revealed as privileging linear thought as well as privileging notions that define adults as superior to children, has been exposed as deterministic (and therefore limiting children), and ethnocentric (privileging Anglo, middle-class materialism and ways of life).

A large body of scholarly literature in education addresses cultural diversity in general, the recognition of diverse voices and knowledges, and the social and political embeddedness within which various groups function. Scholars whose work is often referenced by early childhood reconceptualists include Michael Apple, James Banks, Elizabeth Ellsworth, Michelle Fine, Paolo Freire, Geneva Gay, Madeline Grumet, Henry Giroux, Cameron McCarthy, Peter McLaren, Janet Miller, Christine Sleeter, and Joel Spring. Although surrounded by scholars in other areas of education whose work has been increasingly informed by cultural studies, feminist theory, critical perspectives, postmodernism, or poststructural theory, the field of early childhood education, in general, has continued to focus on individual, normative child development.

Reconceptualist early childhood educators and researchers have introduced these more diverse ways of understanding, questioning, and interpreting the world to the field. Much of the work envisions alternative perspectives in both theory and practice, demonstrates a willingness to ask difficult questions not previously addressed, integrates multiple voices (especially the voices that have so often been disregarded), and draws from a variety of human perspectives in order to better understand the complexities and socially/culturally constructed aspects of childhood (e.g., Cannella, 1997).

In recent years, early childhood educators have become increasingly involved in work that reveals power and privilege and that demonstrates children’s awareness of gendered and colonialist impositions. Some of the earliest publications that could be identified as addressing power and privilege actually relate to poverty in the lives of young children (e.g., Polakow, 1993). In addition, an eclectic literature has emerged that uses postcolonial theory in early childhood education, and covers a wide range of power issues that include contradictions and challenges in indigenous education (e.g., Kaomea, 2003), the colonization of early childhood education through universal prescriptions for “quality” (e.g., Dahlbergetal., 1999) and decolonizing methodologies. Researchers have also demonstrated children’s recognition of colonialist binaries (e.g., Tobin, 2000), feminist methodologies and gender issues (Hauser and Jipson, 1998; MacNaughton, 2000), and possibilities for transformational early childhood practices in a global context (e.g., Ryan and Grieshaber, 2005), to name just a few.

The three issues discussed thus far represent only major broad categories of concern for the field of early childhood education and should not be interpreted as placing limits on reconceptualist perspectives. Scholarly work and resultant practices labeled reconceptualist cannot easily be placed into any particular category. In addition, many researchers and educators who have been labeled “reconcep- tualists” might ultimately resist notions of labeling of any type. Rather, these scholars offer diverse questions, the recognition of autobiographical embeddedness within their own work, and attempt to increase possibilities for ways of viewing and understanding the world as well as approaches for living with and educating those who are younger.

Partly in response to frustrations in finding appropriate outlets for dissemination of reconceptualist work in dominant venues (e.g., conferences and journals), the first Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Research, Theory and Practice Conference was organized and held in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1991. Since that time, conferences have been held in locations across the United States and in Australia, Norway, and New Zealand. Recent meetings have drawn participants from over fifteen countries. In 1999, a Critical Perspectives on ECE special-interest group was founded within the American Educational Research Association. Several publishing companies now devote an entire series to reconceptualizing early childhood education scholarship, and reconceptualist scholars have published in a range of journals and implemented various forms of critical practice in education and public policy work. The range of scholarship, activism, and involvement in reconceptualization has provided new forms of praxis in the field of early childhood education.

Reconceptualist scholars see a compelling need for this work in the context of recent public policy practices in the United States as well as around the world. Neoliberal policies such as welfare “reform” in the United States and the United Kingdom have been critiqued by reconceptualists within a critical advocacy and postmodern discourse (e.g., Bloch et al., 2004). U.S. legislative mandates like No Child Left Behind in 2001, Smart Start, and the National Research Council Report on Scientific Research in Education demonstrate the ways that prevailing beliefs about “child,” “family,” and “education/care practices” are linked to sociopolitical agendas.

Reconceptualist perspectives and methodologies are oriented to and argue for “hope and possibility as we move toward a newly evolving, liberating ‘third space,’ an early childhood dreamscape of social justice and equity” (Soto, 2000, p. 198). Many reconceptualists believe that to ensure an equal and emancipatory early childhood education for both children and adults, all educators who are concerned about children and the future of human beings and the world, practitioners and theorists, teachers and parents, reconceptualists and developmentalists, must join together and take action in solidarity. See also Piaget, Jean.

Further Readings: Bloch, M., K. Holmlund, I. Moqvist, and T. Popkewitz, eds. (2004). Restructuring the governing patterns of the child, education, and the welfare state. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; Cannella, G. S. (1997). Deconstructing early childhood education: Social justice and revolution. New York: Peter Lang; Dahlberg, G., P. Moss, and A. Pence (1999). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Postmodern perspectives. London: Falmer Press; Hauser, M., and J. A. Jipson, eds. (1998). Intersections: Feminisms/early childhoods. New York: Peter Lang; Kaomea, J. (2003). Reading erasures and making the familiar strange: Defamiliarizing methods for research in formerly colonized and historically oppressed communities. Educational Researcher 32(2), 14-25; Kessler, S., and B. B. Swadener, eds. (1992). Reconceptualizing the early childhood curriculum: Beginning the dialogue. New York: Teachers College Press; Lubeck, S. (1985). Sandbox society: Early schooling in black and white America. London: Falmer Press; Mac Naughton, G. (2000). Rethinking gender in early childhood. Sydney: Allen and Unwin; Polakow, V. (1993). Lives on the edge: Mothers and their children in the “other" America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Ryan, S., and S. Grieshaber, eds. (2005). Practical transformations and transformational practices: Globalization, postmodernism, and early childhood education. Amsterdam: Elsevier; Soto, L. D., ed. (2000). The politics of early childhood education. New York: Peter Lang; Tobin, J. (2000). Good guys don’t wear hats: Children’s talk about the media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Viruru, R. (2001). Early childhood education: Postcolonial perspectives from India. New Delhi: Sage.

Gaile S. Cannella, Beth Blue Swadener, and Yi Che