Thinking about critical theory and NZ’s early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki.

Recently I had occasion to discuss with colleagues the pages in Te Whāriki about theories and approaches (pp.60-62).  In my view the curriculum recognises that all kaiako bring with them theories about how children learn and their place in relation to this.  While it may be difficult for individuals to articulate this with conviction and clarity all/some of the time, they/we are motivated to do particular things because of their/our implicit beliefs, assumptions and preferred knowledge.  Here I lay out some of my views on why the curriculum has such a critical perspective; for those wondering about why early childhood teachers might be expected to grapple with issues of diversity and difference, inclusion and exclusion in their daily work, this post may help you recognise why.


The curriculum names sociocultural theories as central – taking a lead from Mātauranga Māori leaders and scholars (Rose Pere, Arapera Royal Tangaere, Sir Tamati and Lady Tilly Reedy), Bronfenbrenner, Vygotsky, and Bruner – although echoes of Piaget and his cognitive constructivist perspective remain (along with others), it is the sociocultural that is identified as leading the frame.


That the sociocultural is named and described is significant for any discussion on the critical theoretical perspectives advanced in Te Whāriki.  This is because it reinforces from the outset that Te Whāriki was produced from and informed by ways of describing the world, people, knowledge and phenomena like learning, that came after the 17th – early to middle 20th century rise and dominance of empiricism (a philosophical view that all knowledge is produced through ‘sense experience’ and only verifiable through evidence), rationalism (i.e., the belief that knowledge may be deduced and produced in ways that extend beyond experience: i.e. through reason, hypothesis etc.) and accepted Western empirical scientific method. The curriculum already and always emerged from Te Ao Māori, gifted through Te Kohanga Reo Trust leaders who foregrounded kaupapa Māori aspirations for children, whānau, hapu, iwi, Māori strength and knowledge for a uniquely New Zealand curriculum. Te Whāriki also and always posited human development as a product of your unique positioning in a particular ecological niche that could account for the particular learning and developmental pathways that may arise for you (after Bronfenbrenner); it foregrounded the social and cultural nature of learning and development and a particular relation between the two (that learning lead development) (Vygotsky and Bruner).


That the interaction between the individual and collective is foregrounded in the curriculum means that Te Whāriki was always going to address issues of dominance, inequity, justice – it always has and continues to require us to work with children, families and communities in ways that speak back to power. Critically oriented theories provide many means of intervention for kaiako and communities to work together on what’s fair. In part this provides a rationale for the inclusion of critical theoretical perspectives in the curriculum.


Te Whāriki comments on critical theories rather than Critical Theory (CT) although CT in its various forms can be conceived of as a point of departure for a range of theoretical perspectives and practices that have emerged since the later part of the 20th (e.g., critical literacy, disability studies, refugee crit., queer theory etc) – you might think of them as of the same family tree.

An underlying premise of all critically oriented theories is described by Friere (1996) – that we live in a world full of oppressions at a both structural and institutional level – the idea of change (for the positive) sits at CTs core. While CT describes a world that can be observed (a position that isn’t universally shared), that world is never neutral. Neither the observation nor the observer is free from interpretation – we need frameworks to make sense and our particular methods are as unique as we are, filtered through our worldviews, preferences, attitudes, values, assumptions etc. CT seeks to make this power visible using research to actively challenge injustice and oppression (Freire, 1996).  With Critical Theory one can engage in a cycle of “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (Friere, 1996, p.33).


When you think about ‘the child’ as constructed through ‘modern thought’, and the function of education in supporting children through the oppressions of childhood (child as object, child as powerless, child as non-rights holder etc.) and then you think about the aspiration in Te Whāriki (recognising children’s contributions to the world now) you can see how Te Whāriki is already written with critical perspectives to the fore – as a tool and statement of aspirations for New Zealand children, it speaks back to power.


Critical Theory provides critique to modernity – that impulse of ‘man’ to adhere to the doctrine of progress (as linear and improvement), ‘his’ belief in Western science, the disciplines, and technological advancement, and ‘his’ reliance on reason to discover truth. The production of the modern world has bought benefits to some for sure: technologies, health, longer life expectancies, freedom, but it has also bought with it great poverty, two world wars, and the reality of an unsustainable planet. Many indigenous and traditional knowledge bases were oppressed (and continue to be so) through the modern project  Science (in the minority world) ‘spoke’ for everyone until the late 20th century and people started to speak back.


So we began to see the rise of the ‘posts’ – post modernism, post humanism etc… near the end of the 20th century as suspicions towards grand narratives were raised.  In our early childhood field, resistance to the totalising messages of scientific thought began to be spoken – developmentalism was named and its impositions queried; not all families were the ‘nuclear norm’; ‘the children’ were never ‘that’ an homogenous group sharing the same developmental pathways in the same timeframes and universal norms; and what about the dimensions of family, history, reality, relationships that in developmental psychology’s gaze were left out of view – spirituality, holism, human-animal relatedness, the interconnectedness of peoples across generations into history across the ages and time?


And in addition some of us began to query more closely the effects of the scientific gaze on the body of the individual at the micro level – seeing how the grand narratives came to play out on us, our expectations of others and ourselves (Erica Burman’s Deconstructing Developmental Psychology‘ was the text that opened my own eyes here). Here is where post-structuralism comes into play. The way that language constructed, pathologised, normalised, and homogenised the human body – defining ways for it to be healthy, normal, moral, and legal. Attention to the discursive and more recently the interplay of the human-material emerged.


The result is an ever-expanding conversation from diverse standpoints about how to make the world fairer, more reflective of every-body’s interests and aspirations, of troubling what comes to settle as ‘the norm’. In our 2012 book Te Aotūroa Tātaki – Inclusive Early Childhood Education: Perspectives on inclusion, social justice and equity from Aotearoa New Zealand (Gordon-Burns, Gunn, Purdue & Surtees) we argued that inclusive education is an ongoing project – building community where everyone feels they can belong is never a done thing. The revision to the early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki invites us all – kaiako, whānau, children and community to listen with care and keep conversations about how this place ‘is’ for everyone flowing.

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