Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Doing Theory with Early Childhood Educators: Understanding Difference and Diversity in Personal and Professional Contexts

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Doing Theory with Early Childhood Educators: Understanding Difference and Diversity in Personal and Professional Contexts

Article excerpt


Early childhood educators are in an ideal position to actively make a positive difference in children's lives, and that of their families. This is possible through advocating for their rights and addressing social inequities that many children and their families experience. Research demonstrates that young children are capable of constructing and acting on negative attitudes towards diversity and difference (Palmer, 1990; Troyna & Hatcher, 1992; MacNaughton, 1994). Consequently, challenging children's positioning within negative discourses of difference and intervening in their discriminatory practices is paramount in the process of counteracting inequities existing in the broader community.

It is essential that educators are given opportunities in their training to develop a critical understanding of their own attitudes and beliefs regarding diversity and difference and how inequalities are socially constructed through daily power relations operating on both the micro and macro levels in society. This is crucial, as research indicates that preservice teachers have a tendency to focus on the `individuals' as the fulcrum of change, at the expense of acknowledging the role that systemic and structural forms of oppression play in the lives of minority groups (Smith, Moallem & Sherrill, 1997). This can result in the belief that individuals are responsible for their own oppression, leading to unrealistic expectations that individuals alone can effectively change the disadvantage they experience in society. Ultimately, educators' attitudes and beliefs will influence how they deal professionally with these issues with young children and their families (Lundeberg, 1997).

Theorising diversity and difference: going beyond common sense understanding

Understanding about children's development and growth is perceived by early childhood educators as a fundamental and necessary requirement underlying their daily work. Most preservice courses prioritise the need to theorise understanding about young children's development and growth through the application of different theoretical frameworks. Equally, the need to apply intellectual rigour in the analysis of difference and inequality and their impact on the lives of children, families, and communities is also of great importance.

In the early childhood field the central focus is most often on the individual child. Understanding about the social constructedness of young children's identities within the social categories of `race', class, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, language, and gender is undertheorised by staff (Robinson & Jones-Diaz, 1999, forthcoming). There is often little regard for the broader sociological frameworks which position children's learning and development within sociocultural contexts (Alloway, 1997). This is partially due to an over-reliance on `developmentalism' which underpins much of early childhood pedagogy.

Staff's understanding about children's behaviours and development is that it is biologically and innately determined. Consequently, in early childhood education, ways of thinking about children become primarily focused on chronological `ages' and `stages' which are perceived to determine children's behaviour (Fleer, 1995; James, Jenks & Prout, 1998). This reinforces normative understanding about children's developmental pathways, especially if viewed from middle-class, Eurocentric perspectives. The `idea of stages does not orient us to think in any but normative terms about children whose developmental trajectory might differ' (Lubeck, 1998, p.301). Furthermore, such views effectively silence and marginalise minority sociocultural groups that may have very different ways of viewing and understanding young children (Alloway, 1997).

Critical approaches to diversity and difference

Recently, there has been an emergence of alternative theoretical frameworks to the study of childhood and its developmental trajectories. …

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