Economistic Subjects: Questioning Early Childhood Pedagogies of Learning, Participation, and Voice

Emma Buchanan

At both national and global levels, instrumental, human capital logics are seen to dominate contemporary rationales for the investment in, and expansion of, early childhood education (ECE) (Farquhar & Fitzsimons, 2013; Stuart, 2013). In scholarly commentary, primarily economic rationales for investment in ECE are often related with standardized conceptions of curriculum. Standardization is typically seen to derive from psychological understandings of universal developmental stages (Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 2007) or from “schoolif- ied” emphases on discrete knowledge and skills (Lee, Carr, Soutar, & Mitchell, 2013). A common critical response to these developments is to advocate for early childhood pedagogies that foreground diverse forms of learning, children’s participation, and voice. Such approaches are often framed as offering an unambiguous and positive alternative to dominant instrumental logics. Moreover, a pedagogical focus on the child as a competent, and what is often described as “agentic,” learner is advanced by advocates as a move toward a more democratic form of ECE (Mitchell & Carr, 2014).

In this chapter, I offer an alternative account of these “counterinterventions.” I argue that rather than side-stepping key dangers— universalism, reductionism, and a thin vision of the human being as homo economicus—that are often associated with primarily economic rationales for education, a pedagogical focus on the child as a competent, learning subject has the potential to both presume and promote a cumulating and calculating form of child nature. I develop this argument in reference to what has been termed the “Te Whariki approach” (Lee et al., 2013) to ECE curriculum and assessment in New Zealand. Through a Foucauldian inspired analysis of assessment practices I illuminate ambiguities surrounding the learner-centered pedagogy, and I question its status as an approach that is largely in opposition to economic fundamentalism.

I begin the chapter by introducing key elements of the Te Whariki approach—an interrelated set of curriculum and assessment understandings, documents, and practices. I describe the context in which Te Whariki, the national ECE curriculum document, emerged, and detail key features of the curriculum framework. I then outline the learning story approach to assessment, which has been developed as part of the Te Whariki approach, and indicate key themes in its scholarly reception. This is followed by a critical analysis and discussion of documented assessment examples.

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