Academic journal article Journal of Curriculum Theorizing

Decentering Anglo-American Curricular Power in Early Childhood Education: Learning, Culture, and "Child Development" in Higher Education Coursework

Academic journal article Journal of Curriculum Theorizing

Decentering Anglo-American Curricular Power in Early Childhood Education: Learning, Culture, and "Child Development" in Higher Education Coursework

Article excerpt

The concerns of this paper regard the content of coursework for Masters degree students in Early Childhood Education in Norway. This has developed from a local site of otherness to Anglo-American practices and theories. By considering Norwegian curriculum, and relating this to translations from a Norwegian Masters thesis (Brandtzaeg, 2001b), the paper shows and discusses some effects of the local and the global on what counts as today's knowledge, practices and research about and with young children. Reconstructions of institutions engaged in education and care can only come about through discursive and generic shift. The paper works toward these by critiquing the pervading discourse of development psychology and its relations to pedagogy and the new social studies of childhood. The reconceptualizing of early childhood's higher education requires a knowledge of not only how to resist positivist research and positivist positionings, but to how to recognize and act upon the discourses and genres of various non-positivist approaches. The Masters degree (Hovedfag i barnehagepedagogikk, 2001) courses considered regard (1) 'Child development and learning in a relational perspective' and (2) 'Childhood and society.' All translations in this paper are the author's. Further, she takes responsibility for any misinterpretations and omissions she makes because of her positioning in Norway as an 'immigrant.'

One way to read a course outline (from its listed aims, contents and reference list) is to see what is not there that could be, and to imagine how the various discourses seemingly within the described course might play themselves out. To make this reading, the course outline (seen as text) requires a contextual background in the form of other courses also having to be taken by these students. A course is also contextualized by its relation or its non-relation to practice, to similar courses in other places, to the culture in which it is embedded, and to the professional and personal lives of the postgraduate students and lecturers engaged in it. From the course called 'Childhood and Society' it can thus be read that 'society,' which in 2001 was without aims, content or references about cultural and linguistic diversity, complexity and multiplicity, might be problematic. Further, from the course called 'Child Development and Learning in a Relational Perspective,' it appears that which children and whose relational perspectives are not what is central. Relations between gender, ethnicity and social class as they relate to poverty and power are thus left off the agenda. This paper shows what Masters degree students might do to avoid confronting such political and theoretical dilemmas between their given coursework, their own experience as teachers and carers with the very young, their need to pass, and their desires to produce today's cutting edge research as their thesis.

Rather than simply critiquing the two courses, this paper also produces positive (but not positivist) readings of them, in terms of what a particular cultural practice (in Norway) is currently constructing as valuable for Early Childhood Education and care. As ways of reading texts and discourses three approaches are thus demonstrated. The first, which theoretically draws from the poststructural, is constituted within the deconstructive and postmodern. The second draws mostly from a critical or Foucault approach, though it also works with a Derridean notion of traces and absences. The third ignores these to approach research as a meaning making or semantics informed by phenomenology and hermeneutics. All of these may be described as non-positivist, non-empiricist approaches to knowledge making and to educational caring practices.

Developmental psychology, however, has a positivist hard science history. Hence its assumptions regard prediction, control, explanation and technically exploitable knowledge. Here the researcher takes the role of expert, with children and their abilities objectified and categorized. A pedagogy informed mostly by developmental psychology is not likely to be critical or highly theorized. Moreover, the teacher-carers, the parents and the children themselves may be bypassed by the developmental psychologist in the rush to record results and findings (Leseman, 2002). I shall show how this approach is affecting what counts as coursework in Early Childhood Education, and where and why this is out of touch with today's newer directions. For Masters students, who may choose what to write about as their thesis, after a year of studying coursework, one solution is to just ignore the theorists they find not interesting. However, in taking up newer theorists they risk facing external examiners who know only the paradigms of positivism, or only the discourse of a psychology so normalized as to go unnamed. For Early Childhood Education then to be more affected by contemporary shifts to cultural studies (and methodologies relating to critical theory, literary theory and anthropology), requires a change in those in power.

Thus the 'new social studies of early childhood' (Christensen and James, 2000, p.1) and the new 'childhood and cultural studies' (Cannella and Viruru, 1999) are implicitly and overtly raising issues and controversies in 'child development' discourses and their relationships to pedagogy. Because the traditionally dissimilar disciplines of psychology and sociology have historically constructed what people in affluent nations call Early Childhood Education, there is still quite a lot of transforming to be done as reconstruction and transgression. In Oslo Norway, where I now teach, supervise and examine in Early Childhood Education, the psychologybased coursework and the sociology-based coursework are not seen in opposition to each other. Rather they are seen as complementary and mutually reconstructive (Brandtzaeg, 2001b). Further, although Norwegian coursework is cognizant of some of the latest in Anglo-American texts (international publications in English) Norway is building its own locally constructed institutionalised practices, documentations and research. As this all happens in Norwegian language, it is little known outside Norway, Sweden and Denmark, where the languages are mutually understood.

Norwegian Interpretations of Social Studies of Childhood

At the time of the writing of this paper the Masters degree coursework was named in Norwegian Hovedfag i barnehagepedagogikk 2001. Since that time the coursework has been changed. We now have a 'Masters' degree, as Norwegian university colleges have all now adopted this English word. Here linguistic colonialism is seen to be alive and well, although the content of the course is no more 'English' than before, and the students continue to write and speak Norwegian.

In some ways the 'new' social studies of childhood are apparent in the Norwegian work of Bae and Waastad (1992), Bae (1992; 1995) and Schibbye (1996; 1997; 1998). What also happens here is a construction in practice and in theory of a Scandinavian ethics of pedagogy and care (Fog, 1992). This works especially well for Norway and its dominant discourses. Here the current trend for the psychologically based study of 'child development' opens for the study of the social, and treats children as actors in their own right. The critique of this is that relationships are not only social but cultural. So taking this notion a step further would involve deconstructing essentialism. But if you are located at the centre of a culture and not at its periphery, this is impossible: without some radicalizing experience.

Further, the Norwegian 'relationship perspective' in 'child development' (Bae; Schibbye) stops short of critical theory and the postmodern (Connole, 1998). It does so epistemologically by explaining, analysing and interpreting its research data and drawing its conclusions from there; but not going further, into critique and deconstruction. Thus a phenomenological and hermeneutic approach to research (Bae; Schibbye) avoids Foucault (Cannella, 1997) and postmodernity's undoing of meaning (Burman, 2000). I shall develop this idea later in the paper by demonstrating, deconstructing, rationalising and discussing. In Norway as a non-English-speaking country, there is some confusion over the differences in the terms 'modern' and 'postmodern' (Kolle, 2001; Winger, 1994), and the term 'poststructural' may be published without referees stopping its inappropriate use. But whose language here is doing the colonizing?

While earlier studies of 'child development' focused on behaviourism and the manipulation of 'prosocial behaviour,' more recent work has been constructionist (Jenks, 2000, p. 66). This allows for possibilities of practical political change as receptualizations of what happens when children and adults are together. In other words, childhood is seen as 'not simply the context for socialisation but as the frame within which children become constituted as children' (Christensen and James, 2000, p. 3). For each of the Norwegian courses considered here, this is happening. The first of these, as 'child development' coursework and hence deriving from psychology, differs from the traditional. The second, coming from the discipline of a sociology that is newer than psychology but not as new as cultural studies, perhaps finds it easier to be critical, (its reference texts include Dahlberg, Moss and Pence, 1999; James, Jenks and Prout, 1998), though it stops short of taking on diversity and difference. Thus although 'social research is always about social relationships' (Christensen and James, 2000, p. 5), who defines the social becomes a moot point. So whilst the Norwegian theories and practices regarding relationship, acknowledgement and respect (Bae; Schibbye) are putting the social back into the social science of Early Childhood Education, this requires the support of critical studies of childhood. Why is this necessary when sociology, anthropology, sociolinguistics and cultural studies have always regarded the social? Because psychology developed by the isolated study of the individual, and (special) education has built up its curriculum of intervention and adult expertise as a result. It is thus only within a pedagogical/psychological culture that lacks the social that relationships have to be named. Reading between the lines then, Norway's early childhood pedagogy appears as needing this naming.

Beyond pedagogy, a research practice of relationship with children and adults challenges traditional notions of what a researcher does in 'getting data,' and in writing subjectively and objectively about it afterwards. Representing children's lives in research then becomes a challenge, as understanding childhood (unless it is your own in retrospect) may be presumptive. At this point a relationship perspective to 'child development' becomes critical. The dilemma for researchers and beginning researchers (such as postgraduate students who have completed their coursework and must now produce a thesis) is what to do with this knowledge and how to construct a theoretically and ethically compatible research methodology.

Added to this is a further feature of the new social science of childhood: 'intergenerational perspectives'. These account for commonality and diversity by locating childhood within a life-course perspective (Mayall, 2000). Researchers following this will probably want to take up aspects of ethnography, as a research methodology for 'hearing' what children say: not just 'listening' to them. Here Norwegian postgraduates highly able in English and disposed towards cutting edge theory are accessing these discourses for themselves (Brandtzaeg, 2001a; 2001b; 2002) to challenge normalised research practices of 'observing children' and categorising adulthood and childhood as dichotomised positionings.


We have now come a long way from 'the dominant and most closely scrutinized paradigm [that] conceptualizes childhood as about "development" (Woodhead & Faulkner, 2000, p. 12). Following recent psychological work from Norway (Schibbye 1996; 1997; 1998) it does appear that 'psychologists are well able to reconstruct developmental research' and that they see 'specific patterns of adult-child relationship' (Woodhead & Faulkner, 2000, p. 14). Here though Woodhead and Faulkner go further by naming the cultural. They want research, theory and practice that works 'in ways that are both respectful to children and their cultural context as well as articulating their status in the research process' (2000, p, 14, my italics). This is qualified by their saying that 'Developmental psychologists are now increasingly willing to recognise that research is a cultural practice ... through which children's nature is constructed as much as it is revealed.' The implications of this for postgraduate students beginning what is probably their first research project, and for undergraduates working with children, are that they will be critically reflexive of their own roles in relation to the young people with whom they will research and interact.

This is a large step away from the work that I had to do when I first became a teacher educator. Being very junior I was given my task by a senior man (this was 1978). What I had to do was sit on one side of the one-way glass with the first year students and observe the seven year olds we had bussed onto the campus for the purpose of labelling their behaviour as they engaged in learning. One year later we had progressed to experimenting with large tripods and video cameras which it was my job to aim at the children.

The history of 'men-as-experts' in child development took a long time to be challenged by women. The mothers of the babies turned by Gessell into his objects of developmental psychology and the subsequently validated practice of 'laboratorybased child study' apparently showed no resistance (Woodhead & Faulkner, 2000, p. 17). Similarly the wife of the theory-testing Skinner, who experimented with their own daughter living for eleven months in 'an inexpensive apparatus,' seemingly complied (Woodhead & Faulkner, 2000, p. 21). By the 1970s psychologist Margaret Donaldson was professionally in a position to challenge Piaget (Donaldson, 1978). She did so gently, to modify his theories by showing that children found his tasks difficult to relate to, and that the children were in fact more sophisticated in their reasoning than Piaget had claimed. Later, feminists have been more openly resistant of great men of 'child development' theory (Cannella, 1997: Davies, 1989; Rhedding-Jones, 2000; Walkerdine, 1986; 1999). Here not only women but some men are becoming critical and shifting to take up the social and the cultural (Hendrick, 2000; Holligan, 2000; Woodhead, 2000). The bulk of this resistance of 'child development' discourses however is from women, in Norway as much as outside it (Bae; Schibbye). Here the Norwegian work reflects the international shift away from non-social theory in psychology and in pedagogy. It may also be seen to reflect its own cultural positioning by theorising acknowledgment and social relations: thus bringing Norwegian preschool practice to meet 'the' Norwegian ideology of equity, sameness and collectivity.

Another angle on this is that a relationship perspective follows Vygotsky in focusing on the socially constructed 'collaborative child' (Woodhead & Faulkner, 2000, p. 27), and the importance of interpersonal relationships and social dynamics. From a critical stance this becomes problematic when the research focus presents the researcher as the expert, drawing on adults' views rather than children's, and following a research approach of certainty rather than the linguistic turn of deconstructing discourses of power. Here a theory linking childhood to age and generation (Gullestad, 1996; Hendrick, 2000, p. 52) is paramount. So putting together an intergenerational theory with a 'relationship' theory would seem to be a next step (Mayall, 2000, p. 120). Here Mayall claims her analysis of power in schooling shows that 'The inferiority of children is demonstrated ... by the fact that they have little negotiating power as regards the intergenerational contract. They must work within it.' For preschooling (day care), where the pedagogical ideology is play (Berg, 1997) rather than work, the question would be: Are the children playing within it also? In Brandtzaeg's study (2001b) the children themselves, aged two to five, defend their play as the space they can call their own. This raises interesting questions regarding what is happening to their 'development', their 'relationships' and their childhood 'culture', as it presumes that this is the space without the intergenerational, and hence without their possible inferiority. For the preschool professionals who are 'observing play' or directing it or sharing it there may be political agendas of which they are unaware. Here, says Mayall (2000, p. 120-121):

   We adults need to take into account children's knowledge in the
   work of trying to understand relationships between social
   groups ... generation is key to understanding childhood and
   children's lives... Much research, notably within psychological
   paradigms, has been carried out on children, based on the
   assumption that children, compared to adults, are incompetent,
   unreliable and developmentally incomplete; so it is the goal
   of the researcher, on the basis of adult paradigms of child
   development, to improve knowledge of children's position and
   progress on the journey to adult maturity. Commonly the
   researcher's stance is that of detached observer. By contrast,
   researchers, broadly within anthropological traditions, seek
   to suspend notions of generational difference, in the
   attempt to reach understandings of children's take on
   social life.

It is this positioning that has informed my own research with children aged 4-12 (Rhedding-Jones, 1994), and that of Brandtzaeg with children aged 2-5 (2001b). I suggest that this positioning comes from a particular critical practice: the practice of having worked as a professional teacher-carer with young children, and of critically reflecting on the politics of power and its effects on age and difference. Not having been psychologists, but having been educated to work pedagogically with the very young, Brandtzaeg and I come from another space. From this positioning I shall next contextualise the new social science of childhood as within and without normalised research on 'child development.'

"Child Development" and Liberal Humanism

Child development as an effect of modernity is constituted within liberal humanist assumptions. These are that all individuals are free to become whoever they want to be, and that all people including the very young are equally positioned. Such assumptions deny class, money and gender as constructing life outcomes and possibilities, by placing the blame on individuals rather than on systems and institutions, hierarchies and technologies of power. Hence people of difference become problems instead of resources, and remediations and interventions masquerading as professionalization conceal agendas of capitalism, personal gain and globalising force. Getting out of such a modernity is thus for the 'child development' discourse that grew from it perhaps impossible. Yet to meet the critique and to survive the deconstruction by the postmodern, 'child development' cannot remain as it was (Burman, 1994). I see the reconceptualizing movement in Early Childhood Education as working at this point (Cannella, 1997; Tobin, 2000).

Following this movement, new Norwegian Masters level coursework named Reconceptualizing Childhood would blur and transform what we now have as historical constructions of course work for postgraduates, with their division between psychology and sociology. Similarly, coursework named Critiquing Pedagogy would examine the discourses by which national curricula and practical strategies evolve: to meet communities of difference, local sites of child care and global theorisations of adult-child relations. With awareness of Foucault (1979; 1999) such courses would consider what counts 'true', what politics are hidden and what networks of social relations follow as effects (Holligan, 2000; Walkerdine, 1986; 1999). Critical and deconstructive perspectives on the relations of play (Strandell, 2000), amongst other institutionalised activities of young children, would then by these courses be placed alongside the (usually normative) discourses of 'acknowledgement', 'social competence' and 'learning' (Dysthe, 1996). Being able to identify usual assumptions constructed culturally would then become a scholarly task of postgraduates (by further reading, theorisation and academic writing), and a practical task (by exemplification and discussion of everyday routines) for those learning as undergraduates to be teachercarers. All of this is at this stage hypothetical: I am suggesting it.

It seems that some Norwegian postgraduate students have worked out for themselves the political aspects of coursework. Their resultant textual productions (e.g., Brandtzaeg, 2001a; 2001b; 2002; 2005 forthcoming) are by their selected research methodologies, and their resistance of 'research as usual,' showing their implicit understandings and critiques of not only socialisations of childhood, but the reconstructions of its psychologically constructed pedagogy based on 'child development'. Although Brandtzaeg says she takes up the sociological, her dissertation presents data touching closely on these challenges to 'child development' theory and practice. Here 'people who are living their early childhoods' (two to five year olds) say (and draw that) a child is a 'small human being,' and that 'they did not seem to consider childhood as a phase of human existence more unique than other phases such as being unborn, infant, adult, old, or dead' (Brandtzaeg, 2001b, p. ii). If this is so then 'adultism' should be seen as no different from racism or sexism (Brandtzaeg, 2001b). At the start of her dissertation (written in Norwegian) Brandtzaeg summarized her work in English: "Those of us labelled as adults, and especially those of us who are labelled as knowing or resourceful adults, [have] a responsibility to consider and reconsider both existing discourses and their manifestations concerning childhood and power."

In the book Brandtzaeg produced for the two to five year olds who provided the information for her thesis, upon analysing drawings and interviews, a child states: "In the picture there's a man with big muscles. He's sitting on a rock and eating hamburgers. He's got a safety belt on, so he won't fall." ("Pa bildet er en mann med store muskler. Han sitter pa en stein og spise hamburger. Han har sikkerhetsbelte pa, sa han ikke skal falle ned!") (p. 121).

Metaphorically this is not only the positioning of a man in the eyes of a child: strength and abundance combined with a need for security. It is also a positioning of the postgraduate who theorises and writes well but who needs to pass. Further it is, I think, the double positioning of pedagogy: the security of not letting go of 'child development' theories and practices, whilst at the same time taking in 'the sociology of childhood' and reconstructing from the strengths and abundance of 'new times' theories, practices, discourses and genres. Like Brandtzaeg's book for children, which became her dissertation when re-written, contextualised and reconstructed as theory, 'child development' must also undergo a process of change.

Foucault Effects: Further Readings

It can be seen that I have been working with some Foucault-type ideas to deconstruct and critique what counts as pedagogy and its textual constructors and products at the postgraduate level. I shall take these a little further by considering the target of the work: what happens institutionally with young children. Following Foucault (1999), a deconstruction of pedagogical discourses currently constructing Early Childhood Education points to (1) the justification of parents placing their young children in institutional care for entire days at a stretch; and (2) the professionalization of teacher-carers and the development of the lucrative higher education that supports it. From feminist perspectives (Kolle, 2000a; 2000b; 2001; Lenz Taguchi, 2000) such critiques may be outweighed by the fact that (3) the parents include women whose right to paid work and study is as great as that of the children's fathers, and that this requires day care; and (4) the professional people are mostly women, who need such professional status and work. From these contrasting arguments the foundational disciplinary backbones upon which pedagogy is fleshed, namely psychology and sociology, give theoretical and therefore acceptable weight to point (1) and the first part of point (2) but not the second. Points (3) and (4) are mostly ignored.

What psychology does in this description is validate the notion that individual children benefit from such institutionalisation, because their psychic development is important, and the professionals in the preschools have the knowledge and the skills to manage and curricularize such 'developing.' In Norway, the current theory is that this happens via the relationships between the adult employees and the children, as the social interaction and communication that creates 'competence' in group play and group living. In other places and times development is/was seen to happen as the individual children demonstrate their proficiency at various age related stages of development. In both cases development follows a growth metaphor, with children literally as plants in the garden (kindergarten = barnehagen = child garden). Here language is both fertilizer and flowers. Linguistically this theory is that language is the constructor of meaning, both as process and as product or as reception and expression. These perspectives cause problems for people whose competence in the dominant language, and its related cultural normalisations, is heard and seen as lacking. Such people include the children who speak another language at home, or are in other ways linguistically or culturally different.

What sociology does in this description is support the parental idea that their child cannot become a useful and happy member of society without a childhood socialisation to it. Because the preschool offers so many children with whom to play and interact, then this must be the superior location, at least for five days a week whilst the parents get on with their own lives by working with other adults. Seeing childhood as a generalised whole, rather than seeing individuals as psychic beings to be raised from deficiency, the theory of socialisation is that children will learn to become like each other, and take up whatever it is that the planning adult has as intention for the group. Being outside the group, for whatever reason, is from this disciplinary perspective as problematic as are the perspectives from psychology. Some theorists are trying to get around this by saying that childhood is itself a culture, and that sociology should be more like anthropology, by regarding and respecting the tribal nature of childhood and the importance of children's present existence rather than whatever their futures might be. This still raises the question of the children not 'fitting into' the tribe: as the children with disabilities, the exceptionally or singularly able, the transnationals and bilinguals, the religious minorities, the sexually different.

One of the pedagogical answers to these problematics is to solve them by letting the children play. But as an adult strategy for learning, and as a recognised source of data for researchers, play is not necessarily what pedagogues think; nor is the research about play always in line with the experiences of the pedagogues. (I shall take this up further in the next section of this paper.) From psychological perspectives play 'develops' the child, via relationships with other people or by 'mastery' of particular stages in social 'competence', spoken language and physical skills. Not necessarily divorced from sociological and anthropological perspectives, these in recent years are softening to allow for more understandings of society and culture. For the sociology which separates itself from psychology, play is about learning to be social as a member of a childish group, and not about what particular skills a child is learning and which may be quantified. As a more recently constructed discipline than psychology, sociology is more open to critical approaches and to the deconstructions that have arrived with poststructural theories. Against empiricist and positivist aims of research, new sociology at undergraduate levels in Early Childhood Education is not about pathologizing 'the child', and not about making teacher-carers into professionals who phone for the nearest 'expert' to diagnose, recommend and problematise what is happening with individual children. Here I am saying that the discourse of traditional 'special education' has come from the psychological strands of pedagogy and not from new sociology. Unfortunately most undergraduate students do not know how these two disciplinary legs (of psychology and sociology) hold up the pedagogical discipline they strive so hard to embody in their practice and in their textual productions for assessment purposes. Nevertheless play, which is crucial to practice and thus has become 'essential' theory, is seen from disciplinary points of view rather than from children's.

In Norway play appears linked to the national ideology of fritid (free time). At least that is how it seems to this particular foreigner. 'Free time' is what constructs the adult's week as comprising work things that must be done, such as the paid job, study perhaps, housework, nurturing the family and maintaining the home. In contrast with this and fitting with modernist notions of binary splits is the notion of freedom, which for white ethnic majority Norwegians means going out into 'the nature' and walking, running or bicycling every day for a couple of hours if possible. Or being a member of some kind of recreation club, or just sitting or lying outside if it is not winter and chatting to friends and drinking (non-alcoholic) beer. As adult behaviour this appears to me to have its childish parallel in the freedom children are given to play, which means they are not having to take responsibility for tasks to do with the upkeep of the family, care of siblings, and the formal learning that takes place in pre and early schooling in many other countries. Parents try to spend what time they have with their children without doing any work or adult things, so that they may focus on what they believe are the pedagogical benefits of playing with them. Hence the emphasis is on particular qualities, and these manifest themselves during frequent family holiday times (ferie) and 'free time' after the day's paid work and (pre)schooling are done (often by three o'clock, which is problematic for the women who might be doing research in addition to their jobs as lecturers in Early Childhood Education).

In practice then in the above deconstruction, following a Foucault-type analysis and a subjective positioning, the preschool takes care of the children's play 'needs' until the parents are 'free' themselves to do so. In contrast to children in many other countries Norwegian children have large doses of 'freedom to play.' In early schooling the emphasis is on group work, talk and the shared projects that will also constitute the paid work when the children become adults; and their later unpaid work as parents themselves. In Norway parents may choose to stay home and 'look after' their own children, perhaps also caring for other people's children too. For this there is a government allowance which is not enough to make it financially attractive to any but the middle class or those with well paid husbands (Furu, 2001). From Foucaudian perspectives all of this requires deconstruction, analysis and critique: the ideology of goodness in middle-class parenting; the denial of class in the national ideology; the erasure of linguistic difference in the learning of Norwegian literacy; the disciplining of higher education for early childhood to render the foregoing as unimportant (and hence the absence of Foucault in the reference lists of required reading regarding 'child development' and the 'sociology of childhood').

Relatedly, in Brandtzaeg's research (2001b), the children said that in the day care centres the adults decided everything, as at home did the parents. Children, said these two and a half to five year olds, decided what happened at the holiday house and in play. Had they been told this? Did they simply say this to please the researching interviewer? Brandtzaeg says:

   The children I talked to considered themselves as powerless towards
   adults. They did not view confronting adults as a way of gaining
   power. The children expressed that they preferred to hide, flee or
   seek refuge in play when it came to conflicts with grown-ups. They
   also believed that adults were in a position to 'decide everything'
   regarding children. (p. i)

Also writing following Foucault, Harriet Strandell in neighbouring Finland (Strandell, 2000) suggests that for adults play has a belittling quality that they simply tolerate or feel obliged to explain. She says that preschool day care staff do not know what is going on, and that often the childish agendas of dominance and submission regard their own dominance over adults, as they reassert their power over situations and involving normative control.

Relatedly, Woodhead (2000, p. 7-14) offers a critique of 'child development' as the underpinning discipline for pedagogical work in early years. Raising questions for both theory and practice, he says no-one can claim universalistic assumptions about how children learn. In Norway's case this may not be problematic if you decide to be ignore the 'class' differences caused by dissimilar amounts of money or education, differing ethnicities and home languages. When the middle class mothering (which is the basis of much of the womanly care in institutions for the young) is paralleled by ethnic and linguistic and class similarities in the children's homes, then these children are most likely to be deemed to be 'socially competent'. Following Norwegian ideology such competence precedes and determines the 'subject' or disciplinary (faglig) competencies that will follow in the forms of Norwegian language, physical education, mathematics, nature studies or science, music and visual arts.

Thus a Norwegian-centric pedagogy with play as its preschool practice follows normalised knowledge of what relations are seen as positive, between adults and children and between the children themselves. Outside this framing of relations however are other relations not acknowledged by the Norwegian model. These include Foucault's 'relations of power' (Foucault, 1979; 1999); and the relations between a locally un-stated view of child development and a wider global picture of young children who work, and young children who are in regimented and formal preschooling (as in Bangladesh for example, see Woodhead, 2000, p. 17). Seen from a Foucault perspective children are surveilled and disciplined even by the practices of the 'developmentally sound' notion of play, which takes place in institutional locations and in adults' time frames. By not permitting children to work, the children are denied their identities as useful members of society, and their equity with adults. Or so such an argument might run.

As can be seen I have tried to show how differing discourses of childhood (or the denial of the existence of such discourses) affect what happens as approved practice, and hence as implicit and explicit theories of how children are. The discourse that has constructed institutionalised care for the young, at least in the minority world of Europe, America and Australia, follows 'developmentally sound practice.' (The majority of the world's children live in the continents of Africa and Asia.) This 'developmentally sound practice' assumes that there is to be a development in children's lives, so that competence follows incompetence; language follows its lack; physical growth is reflected in intellectual and emotional 'growth'; and that adults who have been through this themselves and also have a particular higher education are the experts. These adults will show parents how child care can best be done, with the support of acknowledged texts published in their own language but with some reference to the world beyond it. Further they will use parental and State funding to provide the appropriate programs, activities and ideologies. All of this is culturally constructed, out of the 'science' of pedagogy, which nobody dares say might be regulated common sense and representing only the local majority.

Worldview accounts of childhood (Penn, 2000) cannot thus be normatively compared; and neither can those of the ethnicities, religions and races comprising the minority of the local preschool population. Seen thus, the solid base of theory which child development has got from psychology (Burman, 2000) is not so solid after all. Here what is innovative in Norwegian child development theory is the 'relational perspective' (Bae, 1992; Schibbye, 1998). This is not quite Penn's critique of the 'roles that adults adopt in relation to young children' (Penn, 2000, p. 1). The difference as I see it lies in the Norwegian desire to construct a Norwegian pedagogy of 'meaning' and 'respect,' rather than critique it.

What is innovative Norwegian practice is what happens in the day care centres (with children aged 1-5): informal interactions between children and adults, nonteaching by unstructured and un-regimented situations, much play of many kinds, being outside in all kinds of weather, understanding of learning through social participation and sharing, apparent chaos and noise, the relaxed giving of love. Against this is the adult control of the timing of the rhythm of the day, the monocultural representation and construction, the ethnic minority mothers' anxiety about their children being out in the snow or the rain, the almost total dominance of women. As Woodhead says (2000, p. 15) a danger in the production of similarity (such as the Norwegian construction of childhoods as the same, following a national ideology of no-one being better or worse than anyone else) is 'standardised childhoods regulated on the same technically regulated mass production principles as the fast food industry.'


This section extends the above by focusing on set reading for the Norwegian students. One thing that undergraduate and postgraduate students always ask for more of, is writing about play. Because play matters to children, then people in Early Childhood Education want to know more about it, want to talk it, want to write about it. The problem is the paucity of the publications that are available. Moreover, doing research 'on' children is as pointed out (by James, Jenks and Prout, 1998; Qvartrup, 2000; Roberts, 2000) highly problematic, from ethical perspectives, if not from practical ones (Bae, 1987). Yet the work of the now-retired 'key theorist' on play, Brian Sutton-Smith, is much quoted, especially in Norway, where his English is not nearly as difficult to read as new postmodern theory.

Sutton-Smith's work spans anthropology and zoology, philosophy, culture and 'child development'. Photographed wearing a collar and tie for the front cover of the book published in his honour (Pellegrini, 1995), Sutton-Smith has a ten page list of his publications on play (Pellegrini, 1995, p. 297-307). With approximately 13 publications named on each page (international refereed journals, books co-edited and single authored, 1952-1995) Sutton-Smith in print is a master player. Many of his books, such as How to Play with Your Children (Sutton-Smith, 1974) have been best sellers. In his personal epilogue to Pellegrini's edited collection about 'our mutual understanding of play' (1995, p. 292-293) Sutton-Smith says:

   I think that playing progressively contributes to our mood of
   confidence about the matters that we play at ... it is also
   a most labile behaviour system, enhancing whatever persuasion
   the player needs for such optimism, whether it be in matters
   of combat or fantasy, where the passions and the procedures
   are well prescribed. Modern focus on solitary and mental
   play is quite obviously quite modern. [sic]

This, I think, is not what the Norwegian students had in mind when they asked for more play-related reading as coursework. Here Sutton-Smith, a 'set theorist' in their Masters degree coursework, can only confuse them. 'Is there any play beyond these rhetorics?' he asks (Pellegrini, 1995, p. 291). And further on the same page, 'What I have called "rhetorics" they would call "theory." So there is a paradox here in trying now to state some essentialistic meanings...,' he says. Turning to his book The Ambiguity of Play (1997), it is indeed rhetorics that he espouses. His chapter headings here include 'Rhetorics of Animal Progress' (Chapter 2), 'Rhetorics of Child Play' (Chapter 3), 'Rhetorics of Fate,' (Chapter 4), 'Rhetorics of Power' (Chapter 5, without reference to Foucault). As clarification he says (1997, p, 50):

   Among psychologist play theoreticians, definitions akin to the
   rhetorics of the self are also becoming popular. These are
   theories to say child play is a form of intrinsic motivation,
   attention to means rather than ends; it is organism dominated,
   noninstrumental and free from externally imposed rules.

I do not know if English-speaking Masters students outside Norway are currently reading text like this. Kristin-Marie Brandtzaeg passed her written exam with its compulsory reading, including the above, then worked on her thesis for a year with me as her supervisor (veileder), got Honours (a top mark, laud), and then went back to full-time work with the very young in a day care centre. In 2004 she is working with multiethnic toddlers as their teacher-carer. Additionally and in her 'free time' she published from her thesis: one article in Norway and another in Denmark (Brandtzaeg, 2001a: 2002); and continues to publish about her professional practice. Sutton-Smith is not in her reference lists.

But he remains in the coursework, with the problem of positivist psychologist from the past unresolved. 'Some of us figured it was time to advise parents on how to play with children,' he says, (1997, p, 38). And further: 'After the Second World War it appeared increasingly possible that developmental science would shift from the plotting of developmental irregularities in play to studies that would yield a more specific causal understanding of the role of play in child development.' He then lists in detail the studies showing 'causal understanding.' As a conclusion he says (1997, p, 51):

   Analogies here are frequently passed off as causes. But
   ambiguities are frequently to be found in the dispute over
   functions, those that apply to children and those suitable
   for adults. As yet, the discontinuity between the generations
   has led to no marked clarification of their similarities or

As does Kolle (2000a), I am pointing to the problem of language and the construction of the male expert, especially as he appears in Early Childhood Education discourses. For Norwegians the problem is added to by the weight given to an Englishwriting expert from America. This problem of the reification of the foreign man also applies also to the work of Vygotsky (1962), and his translation into Danish (by a Danish man in 1971). Having died in 1932 at the age of 38, Vygotsky was younger than most of the 95% women students in the Masters degree I have been trying to teach. Certainly he had less experience with children, though this appears not to have influenced his impact on higher education for early childhood. Since Vygotsky's day, however, psychology does not have a monopoly on the study of the interrelation of thought and language. In fact language studies have gone elsewhere: into linguists both sociological and applied, into literacy and language learning, into cultural studies, into education, into media studies and into studies of discourse and genre.

At least this is the story for Anglo-American locations. In Norway in Education there is a division between pedagogy and 'the disciplines' or curriculum areas (fag). And the faculties in universities normatively maintain distinct boundaries. Hence postgraduates beginning Masters degrees in Early Childhood Education have no experience of the disciplines of Linguistics, Language and Literacy, Cultural Studies, Sociology, Media Studies, Psychology and Anthropology. What they have to do then is try to make sense of the versions of these that come within what they must read and study in their work on courses and dissertations. Vygotsky though is known from their undergraduate Pedagogy coursework, which included great dead men of other countries; and great live women in Norway. This blend has given the students some sense of professionalism, some ideas about what to do with children, and the means with which to discuss these doings with each other. In the next section I take up an informing discourse of the ideology of play: that of 'child development'. To do so I deconstruct some more 'required reading' in set coursework (Vygotsky, 1971).

"Child Development" and Vygotsky: A Reading of Meaning Making Interpretations

As 'child development,' the reading of the translated Vygotsky boils down to the notion that the relationship between thought and language undergoes many changes (Vygotsky, 1962, p 33). Norwegian undergraduate students may have memorised (for exams) information such as 'the close correspondence between thought and speech characteristic of man is absent in anthropods' (1962, p. 41); or 'initially thought is nonverbal and speech nonintellectual' (p, 49). These will not be the words though, as undergraduates in Norwegian Early Childhood Education read only Norwegian. Hence the Masters degree students have another problem, and that is how to read English. At Masters level in Early Childhood Education only about a third of what the students have to read will be written in Norwegian. Vygotsky, however, is translated into Danish (Vygotsky, 1971) which is far from popular with the students. For the purposes of this paper I quote the English version of the same text (Vygotsky, 1962).

As was the practice of his time, Vygotsky wrote not only about children but also about chimpanzees and parrots (p. 49). Though this might be forgiven, what are we to make of 'the development of scientific concepts in childhood'? (p, 82-118). Here says the pre-1932 Vygotsky, in Russia, the aim is 'to devise successful methods of instructing the schoolchild in systematic knowledge' (p, 82). Given Vygotsky's location and time this is not surprising. What is surprising is that this is still current reading in Norway. (My library copy of this book comes from Barnevernsakademet, a national institution of Early Childhood Education. The set reading for the Masters students is 92 pages of the text.) 'When the child's mental development itself has reached the requisite level,' says Vygotsky (p, 82) 'is when a complex and genuine act of thought is able to be taught'. Further in the chapter on the development of scientific concepts in childhood we read that (p. 99):

   Writing also requires deliberate analytic action on the part of
   the child. In speaking, he [sic] is hardly conscious of the
   mental operations he [sic] performs. In writing he [sic] must
   take cognizance of the sound structure of each work, dissect it,
   and reproduce it in alphabetical symbols, which he [sic] must
   have studied and memorised before.

Here then is the discourse of the male master scientist learning to write. For Norwegians who casually allow children to happily play, run around and chat with whoever they like and when, even the notion of literacy is non-existent. In fact there is no word for literacy in Norwegian (Rhedding-Jones, 2003). I have to explain it by saying 'being able to read and write.' 'Oh,' they answer vaguely, 'They'll be able to do those things eventually.' And indeed Norwegian children are no less literate than any other affluent Westernised group. Yesterday I saw six year olds in the first grade in school adding a few words here and there to their drawings of the slugs that crawled across their paper and the floor upon which we all sprawled. No big efforts by their teachers to get those who weren't writing to do so, and no particular attention or praise for those who did. And nobody asked me to write anything which was a relief as my spelling in Norwegian is so bad you sometimes can't read it. Vygotsky however says (1962, p. 104):

   The cleverest animal is incapable of intellectual development
   through imitation. It can be drilled to perform specific acts,
   but the new habits do not result in new general abilities. In
   this sense, it can be said that animals are unteachable. In
   the child's development, on the contrary, imitation and
   instruction play a major role. They bring out the specifically
   human qualities of the mind and lead the child to new
   developmental levels.

Nancy File, in an article in an American refereed journal Advances in Early Education and Day Care (1995) writes of 'application of Vygotskian theory to Early Childhood Education.' Her article, about 'moving towards a new teaching-learning paradigm,' is set reading for the Norwegian Masters students (and thus liable to result in a question on their exam paper). File's work is not included in Brandtzaeg's self-selected reference lists; and thereby ignored rather than critiqued. (This indeed has been my practice also until now.)

Regarding children 'from infancy to age eight,' File takes up 'the role of context in development, the zone of proximal development, intersubjectivity and the relationship between learning and development' (p. 295). She claims Vygotsky is important firstly regarding the question of appropriate teaching roles of adults, and secondly regarding 'sensitivity toward cultural diversity in the learning contexts provided for children' (p. 296). Unfortunately she does not say how. Here I could add that of the six year olds I was with yesterday only four of the twenty-six speak Norwegian at home. Very few of them had much Norwegian when I first met them six months ago, and one of them could only say Vent! (Wait!)--a useful word to have learned first I think, but not a word you might have expected to be picked up. In an atmosphere of loving fun then these 'ethnic minority' children have now almost finished their first year in a Norwegian school. How this could fit with Vygotskian theory I cannot imagine. Nor could I imagine why anyone would want it to.

Yet notions of 'scaffolding' and ZPD ('zone of proximal development') are still taken up by literacy researchers and strategists (after Clay and Cazden) says File (1995, p, 299). These are not Vygotsky's ideas she says but 'popularised concepts without consistent meaning,' as if there is something wrong with being popular or with having meaning that is inconsistent: that is not purely Vygotskian. What File likes is the theory of 'assisting performance' and 'innovation in practice.' This links to the 'key to Vygotskian theory' which is 'his assertion that mental functions originate in social processes' (p, 300). This as I see it is was hardly news in 1995. Yet it becomes the message of the article, as the 'co-construction' or the 're-construction' of knowledge,' and a 'process of meaning making shared by adults and children.' What happens in File's writing here is a confusion of the discourses of the fixedness of meaning (as hermeneutic and phenomenological facts) with the poststructural and critical possibilities currently being explored by radicals such as the 'reconceptuallist' movement in Early Childhood Education (for example the New York Conference in October, 2001, What I am wanting to get across with the writing of this article in this regard are positionings within the 'reconceptualist' movement in relation to the discourses of its 'Other' (which 'child development and learning' appear to represent, and of which File is a highly conservative proponent).

Although no-one can have a monopoly on a word, what File is proposing is nothing like the reconstructing to which I have just alluded. Her proposal for 'reconstructing' is for 'interactive teaching' in classrooms, which I remember being talked about in Teachers' Colleges in Australia in the early 1960s when I was an Early Childhood Education undergraduate student (studying full-time for three years to get a Trained Infant Teachers' Certificate, with 'practice teaching' months in preschool kindergartens with 3-5 year olds, and in the classrooms of early schooling with 5-8 year olds). Further, File's stated claim that the children she is concerned about are aged from infancy to age eight means most of them would not be in 'the schools' at all. For Norwegian day care centre people (working with children from infancy to age five and in line with the wishes of the children's parents) what they are doing is resisting these discourses of 'teaching' and 'development.' Instead they value 'social competence' and 'co-operation.' So an agenda of 'mediated learning' would be quite inappropriate. The developmental 'problems' with which File is concerned (1995, p, 305) however, and which the Norwegian students experienced in the day care centres must read about, are 'resolved' by involving 'the child' in the solution: "The child performs under the guidance and with the assistance of the more knowledgeable adult or peer."

New Learning Paradigms?

Here the notion of performance and the gradation of knowledge (with 'the child' at the deficit end) are not at all compatible with the notions of 'culture' that File earlier took up so loosely (1995, p, 304). Wildly naming feminist theory and critical theory without being influenced by any, she says Vygotskian theory 'leads us to examine early childhood settings as a culture'. If this is so then what File suggests is rather like an invasion of it. She says 'teaching strategies are effective or not within a certain context, depending on how they promote self-regulation for an individual child' (p, 308). To this I say the following: (1) Having a strategy at all is like having a war to fight. (2) Considering 'effectiveness' like this is part of a management technique of measurement. (3) Promoting such self-regulation is a deliberate manipulation. (4) An individual child is separated from the discourses that construct groups, collectives and cultures. Of course I understand File's need to publish, and I know very well that the words we write are not necessarily the words we chose to write next time. But what learning is File talking about? What knowledge is it that she wants children to have? Without knowing answers we read the following on dialectic process (1995, p. 310):

   The adult's role in the dialectic process is to provide a
   counter-example or question which creates contradiction,
   facilitating the children's construction of new knowledge
   as the attempt to resolve the contradiction between their
   understanding and what they are encountering. Applying the
   concept of intersubjectivity to teaching practice results
   in a shift from the participants' roles in a dialectical
   process. In this paradigm meaning is constructed by the

Considering teachers and learners then, rather than children and adults and what they represent in terms of power, the 'dialectic' which Marx originally introduced to modern (not postmodern) social thought (Berger and Luckmann, 1966, p. 209) is not here used to bring insight to what lies between social reality and individual existence in history. Instead it is used to go against the 'new social studies' of childhood (Christensen and James, 2000; Frones, 1994) and support the notion that the opposite to the teachers are the learners. In File's description of 'dialectical process' what is 'counter' and what is 'contra' are what matters, rather than what is complementary, in parallel or unconcernedly different. Finding the 'counter-example' or the 'contradiction' is thus the work of the teacher, and the work of the student is to 'attempt.' No space here for the Norwegian ideology of play in the preschool. No time in fact for the rest of the children in the 'classroom' whilst their teacher is busily and dialectically engaged with one individual. Or is this to be whole class instruction with all children silent except for the one unfortunate with whom the teacher is verbally and intersubjectively engaging? File does not say. So we can only guess at how 'The teacher is a meaning-maker and mediator who jointly creates a shared understanding with the children' (p. 311). Why is the teacher 'the meaning-maker' and not the children? How can anything be 'joint' given the enormous power and size of an adult? Who says this is an understanding? What is it that must be mediated in the first place? Why is it that a Vygotskian supporter sides with the teacher and not with the children? What kind of institutions have allowed all of this to happen? Why do some people think that instruction precedes development? Why want such concepts? These are some of the questions currently ripping the field of Early Childhood Education apart.

File's article appears against 'a dialectical process' (p. 313). For the reader (especially I imagine a Norwegian reader reading this in English), this is confusing. Now it appears that File believes dialectics belong with Piaget and hence the past of assimilation and accommodation. What she wanted from Vygotsky was social after all (on her terms). This is the 'dialogic' process of 'shared meaning' and 'joint contributions.' The social it seems, like the cultural, can become anything you want it to become. And presumably so can 'the child.' As File herself says at the end of her article quoting a colleague, following Vygotskian theory 'sounds exactly like what I was doing when I taught my kids to ski' (1995, p. 314). For Norwegians this is a telling metaphor. In fact teaching kids to ski is not what happens. Nor in Norway are children owned by their parents and named as baby goats. Children become skiers as they become walkers. The Norwegian language literally is 'to walk on skis' (a ga pa ski).

From theoretical perspectives, teaching models following File's descriptions of Vygotsky empower adults and disempower children in ways unacceptable to readers of Foucault (1999). The professionalization of teachers after File's Vygotsky (forgot ski? Sorry, I can't say no to a pun.) thus places this 'formal knowledge about theory' (p. 313) as above an everyday understanding of becoming skilled and indeed of the social construction of childhood (James, Jenks and Prout, 1998; Dahlberg, Moss and Pence, 1999). What is this formal knowledge though? File (1995, p. 313) says it involves firstly context as the 'immediate learning environment'; secondly 'the children's role as an apprenticeship'; thirdly 'teaching strategies based on a knowledge of what individual children in individual situations are capable of doing'; fourthly 'creating shared meaning [as a] dialogic process focusing on joint contributions ... among the child and adult participants; and fifthly learning 'as leading to children's development [with] teaching ... based on questions such as "Where is this child going"?' I would say that this is a reading of Vygotsky designed to put in place the beliefs and ideologies about teachers that the writer already holds. Calling these 'formal,' 'knowledge,' and 'about theory' is thus an effect of the desire to raise the level of the status of (early?) education, by mimicing the language of formal structures, modernist thinking and those teacher educators many of us remember so clearly from the 1960s and 1970s.

Regarding these five points I would therefore make the following comments. Firstly, focusing on 'an immediate learning environment' is to ignore what has gone before and what a future might be, to assume that learning is what counts most, and that an adult can provide 'the right' surroundings. Secondly, if childhood is an apprenticeship then an adult is a master, and what children are expected to learn is exactly what adults are doing and being. Thirdly, a focus on one individual is impossible given the social qualities and quantities of children in the 'care' of one or a few adults in educational institutions. Even if this is desirable it smacks of the liberal humanism responsible for class differences, economic inequity and the ignoring of differences. Fourthly, 'creating shared meaning' sounds appropriate enough. The question is how can it be an equal sharing given the power inequities between adults in institutions and young children? And after poststructuralism what on earth is meaning? 'Dialogic processes' are easily read as adult manipulation via interrogation, the silencing of children and other disciplinary technologies. Fifthly, assuming the adult knows where the child 'is going' is a dangerous assumption. Even knowing where we ourselves 'are going' is not possible. To say that the development expected is because of the assumed learning the teacher controls is an ultimate arrogance. Doing so leads to the conclusion that what is to be learned and what is to be developed is in any case certain to be simple, singular, predictable, culturally normative and maybe not of much use or interest. Further, where is care in this model and where is play? What are Norwegian readers who have struggled to read this (in English) supposed to think of what they themselves value? I suggest that what happens is that the student reader rationalises the implications of the text by taking on 'the meanings' of it in order to pass the course. The incompatibilities of this in relation to course work presented elsewhere (about epistemology, knowledge and research methodology for example) and the work experience of the postgraduate student in Early Childhood Education are thus ignored. Here examples from the students' writing under exam conditions would bear this out.

File concludes with what I find an alarming call for an expanded 'research base' regarding what she has named. This she wants located in early childhood settings (1995, p, 314). For Norwegians to take this up and find examples from their own or other people's practices supporting File's five points above would be, I think, to deny their own cultural knowledge. This knowledge regards what happens with children, how adults play with them and enjoy their company, how the day care centres are physically set up for informality, for the non-dominance of teacher-carers, for loving touch, gentle words and fun. Putting a research model of getting a 'base' for more Vygotskian theory via English-language publications seventy years after his death, rather than constructing theories from the Norwegian day care's sweetness and noise, the lunch table talk and the play outside in the snow is (as I read it) a great Anglo-American colonial imposition.


The first version of this paper was presented in New York City, USA, October 3-7, 2001, at the 10th Conference of the international professional network Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education: Research, Theory and Practice. At that time the author had three years' experience of working in Norwegian language and culture in Early Childhood Education.


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Jeanette Rhedding-Jones

Oslo University College

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