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European Early Childhood Education Research Journal

ISSN: 1350-293X (Print) 1752-1807 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/recr20

Post-Vygotskian lenses on Western early childhood

education: Moving the debate forward

Marilyn Fleer

To cite this article: Marilyn Fleer (2003) Post-Vygotskian lenses on Western early childhood
education: Moving the debate forward, European Early Childhood Education Research Journal,
11:1, 55-67, DOI: 10.1080/13502930385209061

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13502930385209061

Published online: 15 Jun 2007.

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European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 55
Vol. 11, No. 1 2003

Post-Vygotskian Lenses on Western Early Childhood

Education: Moving the Debate Forward

University of Canberra

SUMMARY: The narratives surrounding early childhood education have been called into ques-
tion in recent times (Cannella, 1999; Dahlberg, Moss and Pence, 1999). Cross-cultural analyses
o f educational practices and their associated theoretical perspectives have highlighted the ethno-
centric framework o f early childhood education in many countries (Siraj-Blatchford and Clarke,
2000). This paper discusses the traditional practices and the theories that have been adopted by
many early childhood professionals within Australia. In particular, the implicit codes o f Western
schooling are called into question. Data from a study o f Australian Indigenous families regarding
their children's early childhood schooling experience are presented and discussed.

RI~SUM[~: Les conceptions habituelles de l "Oducation de la petite enfance ont OtO rOeemment
mises en question [Canella, 1999; Dahlberg, Moss et Pence, 1999]. Les analyses interculturelles
des pratiques Oducatives et lea'perspectives thkoriques qui leur sont associkes ont mis en lumikre
le cadre ethnocentrique de l "~ducation des jeunes enfants dans nombreux pays [Siraj-Blatchford
et Clarke, 2000]. Cet article examine les pratiques traditionnelles et les thkories adopt&spar la
plupart des praticiens australiens de la petite enfance. II questionne, en particulier, les codes
implicites de l '~ducation occidentale. II pr&ente et discute des donn~es issues d'une ~tude des
familles indigknes australiennes au regard de l "experience pr&colaire de leurs enfants.

ZUSAMMENFASSUNG: Die ,,Erziihlungen" (narratives) im Umkreis friihkindlicher Erziehung

werden seit einiger Zeit in Frage gestellt (Canella, 1999, Dahlberg, Moss and Pence, 1999).
Interkulturelle Analysen erzieherischer Praxen und der m# ihnen verbundenen theoretischen
Perspektiven haben die ethnozentristische Orientierung der Kleinkinderziehung in vieten Liindern
hervorgehoben (Siraj-Blatchford and Clarke, 2000). Dieser Beitrag diskutiert die traditionellen
Praxen und Theorien, die von vielen Fachkriiften in der Kleinkinderziehung in Australien
iibernommen wurden. Dabei werden insbesondere die impliziten Regeln westlicher Schulerziehung
in Frage gestellt. Daten einer Studie iiber australische Ureinwohnerfamilien und die
Vorschulerfahrungen ihrer Kinder werden pr~isentiert und diskutiert.

RESUMEN: Recientemente se han cuestionado las narrativas que describen y explican los primeros
a~os de educaci6n formal (Cannella, 1999; Dahlberg, Mossy Pence, 1999). El anc~lisis transcultural
de las prdtcticas educativas, asi como las perspectivas te6ricas asociadas a ellas, ha evidenciado
el cardzcter etnoc~ntrico de la temprana educaci6n primaria en muchos paises (Siraj-Blatchford y
Clarke, 2000). Este trabajo explorard~ las pr~kcticas tradicionales y las teorias que han sido
adoptadas por muchos maestros primarios en Australia. En particular, se cuestionar6 los c6digos
implicitos de la educaci6n primaria en el Mundo Occidental Se presentara y discutirdt tambi~n
56 European Early Childhood Education Research Journal

informacirn concerniente a un estudio sobre la experiencia educativa de nihos aborigenes

australianos, y el impacto de la misma en sus familias.

Keywords: Sociocultural theory; Indigenous; Research; Early Childhood; Culture.


Over the past ten to fifteen years early childhood education has been influenced by the work of
Vygotsky and those that followed. Citations to Bukhtin, Leont'ev, Luria, Bozhovich, Gal'perin,
Zaphorozhets, Zinchenko, El'konnin, Smolka, Davydov and many others abound in the literature
on teaching and learning which follows a sociocultural perspective (see Wertsch, 1991; Wertsch &
Smoka, 1993; Wertsch et al., 1995). Scholars such as Wertsch, Bruner, Haste, Goncu and Rogoffhave
also been influential in the field of early childhood education (see Fleer, 1995; 2001a; Penn, 2001).
A sociocultural approach to learning in early childhood education has been advocated
strongly in Australia and New Zealand (Cart, et al., 1998; Cullen, In press; 1999a; 1999b; 2000;
Fleer, 1991; 1992; 1995, 2001b; 2001b; Jordan, 1999; 2001; Smith, 1992; 1996)and many teach-
ing support materials have claimed that this perspective underpins their material. However, there
is evidence that many practices in Australia are culturally exclusive and position some children
without a voice or a familiar context in which to learn (see Fleer & Williams-Kennedy, 2002). This
paper presents the findings of a study which sought to examine Indigenous peoples' views on early
childhood education as lived experience for themselves and their preschool aged child.
The work of Rogoff (1990; 1998), Bourdieu (see Grenfell & James, 1998) and Wenger,
(1998) have been used in this paper to illustrate the disparity between Western schooling practices
and Indigenous perspectives on learning for their children.

Sociocultural lenses

Child development is represented as a process subject to natural laws and taking place as
a kind of maturation, whereas education is seen as some purely external use of the capaci-
ties that emerge during the process of development...(Vygotsky 1982-84, Vol. 2:225 cited
in Davydov & Zinchenko, 1993: 100; My emphasis).

This view of early childhood education has dominated Western thinking for over twenty-five years.
Although, this perspective has been debunked in a range of research and academic contexts over
the past twenty-five years (see Cannella, 1999; Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 1999; Rogoff, 1998),
changes to curriculum and other teaching support material have been somewhat slower to be real-
ised. In Australia, the average age of teachers in Government schools and preschools is 48 years,
representing a critical mass of staff who were educated with a domains perspective on child devel-
opment and educational learning activity. As such, changes to the dominant discourse are slow. As
a result, many practices implicitly reinforce the view that:

... education is the tail behind child development, guided not by tomorrow, but by yester-
day, by the child's weakness, not his (sic) strength (Vygotsky 1982-84, Vol. 2:225 cited in
Davydov & Zinchenko, 1993: 100; My emphasis).

Vygotsky's account of the deficiencies of a maturational view of child development and educa-
tional learning activity as illustrated through this quote are powerful ideas when considered within
the context of research which demonstrates that knowledge is culturally embedded rather than
developmentally defined (see Rogoff, 1990; Goncu, 1998). For instance, Delpit (cited in Hill et
al., 1998: 26) states that:
M. Fleer 57

Individuals move across various sociocultural fields where divergent knowledges, skills,
disposition, social relations and linguistic practices are differently valued. The capital or
resources of an individual may be valued in the local community group, but this capital
may be in competition with institutional values. For instance, a child who has been so-
cialised to use a particular verbal uptake in the home community may find this is at
odds with school practices (My emphasis; p. 26).

Development that is culturally embedded is realised in quite different ways, as Deplit (1988) and others
have shown in a range of traditionally defined developmental areas such as language development.
The developmental view of learning (see Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) that has been con-
structed and named through curriculum development for the early childhood period within Aus-
tralia, has been categorized under the headings of social and emotional development, physical
development, language development and cognitive or intellectual development. These domains
are central to all curriculum documentation in Australia today. Whilst many now also feature tradi-
tional school-based terminology such as mathematics education, developmentally appropriate prac-
tice often represented as domains of learning, still dominates in most states and territories.
The cultural constructions of development and learning have not emerged in the early
childhood education sector as central to discussions on curriculum development. Although no-
tions of diversity feature, and cultural inclusion is foregrounded, this rhetoric is still only an add-
on to the dominant developmental construct in place (see Cannella, 1999 for an overview of the
reconceptualisation of early childhood education literature). Even where newly developed cur-
ricula are used or being developed, the discourse of dominance, and hence power, is that of a
Western construction of development and learning. The question of whose development is being
foregrounded in early childhood curriculum is not asked (Fleer, 1995; MacNaughton, 1995). For
instance, Hill et al., (1998) in citing Delpit (1988) argue that 'The rules of the culture of power are
a reflection of the rules of the culture of those that have power' (p.29). In Australia, Western
development, with its legitimation through Western research, is the prevailing view of learning in
early childhood curriculum. Western development with its enactment through curriculum devel-
opment, positions children from Western cultures as the dominant and privileged group. Unfortu-
nately, 'those with power are frequently least aware of or least willing to acknowledge its exist-
ence, while those with less power are often most aware of its existence' (Hill et al., 1998: 29). As
such, the 'taken-for-granted' practices become the accepted community of practice (Wenger, 1998),
the predominant way things are done, becoming habitual. Bourdieu (see Grenfell & James, 1998)
suggests that the dominant habitus becomes a form of cultural capital that early childhood profes-
sionals take for granted. A critical analysis of the taken-for-granted practices from the perspective
of those who are not part of the culture with power is necessary if change is to take place within
early childhood education in Australia. Siraj-Blatchford and Clarke (2000), in citing Lubeck (1996:
20) urge educators to understand:

...how early childhood practices help to maintain social inequality by creating status dif-
ferentials between and among people and by reinforcing ideologies most likely to have
been acquired by the dominant classes (p. 91).

The study

Indigenous preschool aged children and their families from different regions of Australia were
invited to participate in a study which sought Officers to identify learning experiences in chil-
dren's prior to school experiences. Aboriginal Liaison offers from each state and territory nomi-
nated families who had preschool aged children to participate in the study. Local members of the
Australian Early Childhood Association worked together with the Aboriginal Liaison Officers to
solicit family involvement. Six families from rural and urban communities took part in the study.
Each family was given a video camera and asked to record aspects of their child's life which were
an important part of growing up as an Indigenous child in Australia today.
58 European Early Childhood Education Research Journal

Over the course of one week, six preschool aged children were filmed by their respective
family. Families video-taped their child at home, in the community and in preschool, undertaking
normal everyday activities.
A major aim of this project was to provide Indigenous families with an opportunity to act
as central agents, selecting those valued cultural skills and knowledge exhibited by their young
children (Williams-Kennedy,2001). All of the tapes were copied with numbering so that sections
of the tapes could be easily identified by the families. Each family selected from the hours of
video-tape those aspects of their child's life which best represented to non-Indigenous people
important aspects of being an Indigenous child in Australia today.
The six edited tapes were shared at a one-week workshop that took place in Alice Springs
(central Australia). On the first day, family members shared with each other what they had filmed,
discussing their selection, and specifically commenting upon what was important for them. The
full tapes were also available and were used by some families as they further reflected upon what
they wished to share. Three guiding questions were used for sharing their videos:

• What can everyone see?

• What can only the family see?
• What can we no longer see because it is so much a part of our lives?

These interactional sessions were transcribed on computer in situ. All data were analysed for com-
mon themes and shared understandings by the Indigenous people themselves. On subsequent days
the families shared their video and analysis with a broader group of Indigenous and non-indig-
enous early childhood specialists. The broader group was instructed to listen and to seek clarifica-
tion as the families discussed their understandings. Once again, all whole group and segments of
small group work were transcribed on computer in situ.
As Siraj-Blatchford and Clarke (2000) remind us "Some aspects of the culture are visible,
including food, art, music, literature, festivals and important celebrations (p. 92). However, the
complexities of any given culture are usually invisible, unless careful analysis of"personal behav-
iour (the way we sit, stand, walk or gesture), [and] interactional behaviour (personal space, eye
contact, use of gesture, the rules followed, for example good table and non-acceptable behaviour)"
takes place (Siraj-Blatchford & Clarke, 2000: 92). The study was designed to make visible impor-
tant cultural knowledge needed for better understanding the educational needs of Indigenous Aus-
tralian early childhood children.
Analysis of the transcribed data as linked to the broader video tapes, required a sophisti-
cated three plane level of analysis (Rogoff, 1998). Rogoff(1998) has provided a powerful tool for
analysing the sociocultural activity that takes place in a range of contexts. In this context, her three
planes of analysis were important for viewing elements of data, but not losing sight of the whole
sociocultural context in which conversations took place.
Rogoff (1998) has shown these lenses at three planes, closely mirroring the Vygotskian
idea of interpsychological and intrapsychological functioning (see Figures 1-3 below):

Using personal, interpersonal and community/institutionalplanes of analysis involves fo-

cusing on one plane, but still using background information from the other planes, as if
with different lenses (Rogoff, 1998: 688).

In Figure 1 the traditional focus on the individual in research contexts is shown - for example,
finding out what the individual thinks about a particular aspect of education.
In Figure 2 the lens is on the interaction between the individual and another Indigenous
person. Here the focus is on finding out what the individual thinks whilst engaged in experiences
or conversations with others. The social context is featured.
Finally, in Figure 3 we note that the focus is on the whole cultural or institutional context.
This is symbolically represented by the video material being discussed in this context. However,
the discourse of schooling, the codes of behaviour and ways of learning are all part of this third
lens (see Bourdieu on habitus [Grenfell & James, 1998]).
M. Fleer 59

(, /
( ",, Personal
~. j/ Plane

\ /i

\ ~ articipan@

FIGURE 1: Using a personal plane of analysis (Rogoff, 1998: 688)

~ ~a'ticipant<l>
/ ( ...., .,
\, Interpersonal

\ //
video y - -- -\
/f -"~ __ / )

'\\ f

FIGURE 2: Using an interpersonal plane of analysis (Rogoff, 1998: 688)

~ articipants
f ........\
I' /

\~_ _~..... j.----- \ Plane
I Vide° ' { i
[ ~
\ /
'\\\ ~' participants ........

.. J

FIGURE 3: Using a commumty/institutional plane of analysis (Rogoff, 1998: 688)

60 European Early Childhood Education Research Journal

The three lenses provided a powerful tool for examining the disparity between Western
schooling practices and Indigenous perspectives on learning for their children.

Codes of Western schooling

A critical analysis of the taken-for-granted practices from the perspective of those who are not part
of the culture with power was undertaken to identify practices within early childhood education in
Australia that actively worked against Indigenous learning. Although a range of areas were identi-
fied only four are briefly discussed. They include: Listening for the connections between people;
You have to ask the questions and you have to know the questions to ask; Reading the land,
reading the body, reading feelings...; and Schools equate looking with learning. These are dis-
cussed in turn. (For a full practitioner style presentation of the family stories, see Fleer & Williams-
Kennedy; In Press).

Listeningfor the connections betweenpeople

I was thinking... (as she watches the video) "that is someone's mum ...". We say it all the
time, when we talk about someone, we talk about their relationship to someone else. We
don't speak the name, but rather the relationship (Denise).

In beginning the dialogue around early childhood schooling two important criteria were identified
in the study. The first criterion related to listening. Active listening involved not just hearing what
is said, but watching closely the non-verbal language and providing space and time for this com-
munication to take place. The families in this study spoke about the need to make connections
between people, places and family. For instance Janette and Denise discussed this connectedness:

They use their skin names too. Not just your name - English name (Janette).

Where you from? If it is a black fella we ask you, and you talk about where you are from -
rather than using the English name. You make a connection straight off, We may say "We
know all your mob" (Sharon).

Family relationship is not immediately obvious, but all of them (shows with arm move-
ments) are related. Sometimes we don't know the kid's name, but we all know the family -
that's so and so, you don't need the name, but you need the connection. But as a teacher
you need the name for the roll (Denise)!

This building of knowledge about family and place connections has also been reported elsewhere:

The protocol for introducing one's self to other Indigenous people is to provide informa-
tion about one's cultural location, so that connections can be made on political, cultural
and social grounds and relations established (Moreton-Robinson, 2000: xv).

Active listening by teachers allows partners in the communication process to begin to re-frame
traditional school-community relations to be more culturally responsive, to interrupt the norms
and to build relationships on Indigenous rather than Western terms.
The connectedness between people also translated to what children were expected to do in
schools. The Indigenous families in this study spoke about the strong sense of interdependence
between children. Children were not expected to act as individuals, but rather they were part of a
network of children (whether family or otherwise). As such, Indigenous children were not to think
of themselves as individuals, but rather as part of a group. For example Janette stated:
M. F l e e r 61

They are not just individual kids; they have obligations to each other (Janette).

Similarly, the families argued that Western schooling forced individualism. Early childhood cur-
riculum focuses on observations of the individual child, Outcomes or goals are developed which
concentrate on individual children. Individual programming is common place in most child care
centres and many preschool centres throughout Australia. Siraj-Blatchford and Clarke (2000) ar-
gue that what is important is recognising the:

Difficulties [that] may arise when young children are faced with conflicting expectations.
The family may value interdependence, their major concern being to assist their children
to maintain connections. They may worry about their children becoming too independent.
On the other hand, the culture of the early childhood setting may value independence and
encourage self-help skills (pp. 92-93).

In early childhood education, an individualistic philosophy also transcends into observations and
assessment of children. Assessment practices generally examine how an individualperforms (Fleer,
2001b). Yet, as Laura states: Sharing knowledge is not cheating;

I shared knowledge when I was at school and the teachers used to think that when I used to
help my cousin in the classroom that I was cheating. The teacher used to think we were all
cheating, just because we were all helping each other, but really that's a the cultural thing
- if you know the answer then you really need to share it; and it works in opposition to
competition because the aim is for you to share what you have got and not to keep it to
yourself; see if you look at competition it is an individualisticthing, you are really compet-
ing against other individuals; with sharing, you are sharing with everybody, it is a different
way of doing things (Laura).

Western schooling with its focus on the individual as the habitus of power does little to frame
interdependence of learning and interdependence during assessment as important outcomes or
indeed as part of pedagogical practice. For instance Laura states that many Indigenous children
'tread water' in relation to their own learning, as they actively assist others: "The children need a
quiet time, to let the other child catch up to where they are" (Laura).
Organising learning with an individualistic perspective rather than a community orienta-
tion ignores, rather than builds upon, the children's capacity to read each others' behavioural
pattems, working together as a tightly knit group of learners.

You have to ask the questions and you have to know the questions to ask

Rogoff (1990) has suggested that:

In cultures that adapt situations to children (as in middle-class U.S. families), caregivers
simplify their talk, negotiate meaning with children, cooperate with them in building propo-
sitions, and respond to their verbal and nonverbal initiations (Rogoff, 1990: 123).

As part of creating these conversational opportunities, particular conversational genres are cre-
ated. One of the distinctive features of these interactional patterns is the use of questioning (see
Fleer & Williams-Kennedy,In Press). These conversational patterns tend to be mirrored in many
early childhood centres and schools. For instance, many early childhood teachers will ask ques-
tions to things they already know the answers to; ask questions to find out what children know;
and use questioning as a control technique (to name but a few ways in which questioning is used in
Western schooling).
62 European Early Childhood Education Research Journal

Teachers expect children to ask questions and to know how to do this. There is a belief
that all children learn these conversational patterns in their home or community prior to beginning
early childhood education. However, conversational patterns do not necessarily evolve in this
way for all children (Goncu, 1999). As Rogoff(1990) states:

In cultures that adapt children to the normal situations of the society (as in Kaluli New
Guinea and Samoan families), caregivers model unsimplified utterances for children to
repeat to a third party, direct them to notice others, and build interaction around circum-
stances to which the caregivers wish the children to respond (Rogoff, 1990: 123).

In Australia, the use of questioning as part of the conversational genre that is so highly valued in
early childhood education was critiqued by the Indigenous families in this study. For instance:

My grandmother she believes you don't ask questions, you should just watch and listen.
In some communities you only watch and listen. In some communities it is bad manners to
ask too many questions. I was always taught by my grandmother that you don't ask ques-
tions you watch and you learn; you don't question things; copying rather than asking
questions (Laura).

The privileging of a question-based pattern of interaction in early childhood centres and schools
has meant that some children are faced with the task of not just learning the content, but also the
codes for participating effectively in the leaming practices (if they are to have access to the con-
tent). Vicky explains:

When I was at school, I didn't learn the things I wanted to learn because I was too afraid
to ask the questions or didn't know the questions to ask. I never learnt the things I wanted
to know; IfI was worried about spelling or reading or something like that, I never asked or
questioned as a child; so I want Gregory (five year old son) to be able to learn things by
asking questions (Vicky), (Fleer & Williams-Kennedy,In press).

Vicky felt she was positioned as 'other' to mainstream Western pedagogical practices. The four
years of cultural capital that she had developed within her family, as described by Laura above,
was simply ignored. As such, she experienced great pain - never learning the things she wanted to
know - but rather, was left to work out how mainstream schooling operated. She didn't want her
four-year-old on entering early childhood education to experience this pain, as Reay (1998) also
found in a study of middle class and working class families:

Dawn (working class mother) decided quite deliberately to be actively involved in Andreas's
education on a regular basis, to protect him and act as his advocate in relation to the
school because of the consequence of her mother not assuming this role in her own school-
ing: "I wasn't going to let what happened to me happen to my kids'. Dawn's account
illustrates the powerful push for change that mothers' own educational experience can
exert on their involvement in their child's schooling. She is attempting to generate profits
of cultural capital but in a situation of little prior investment. Rather than replicating habi-
tus, which was the process most of the middle-class women were involved in, she was
attempting 'the transformation of the habitus' (Bourdieu, 1980/1993) (My emphasis; Reay,
1998: 63).

Vicky too was transforming the habitus. Whilst Vicky's pro-active stance positions Gregory (her
son) on equal terms in Western schooling contexts, it does little to interrupt or even question the
status quo. The 'other' must conform to the Western middle class notion of schooling and early
childhood education.
In this study, it was evident that the richness and diversity of cultural capital built by these
families prior to their child's preschool experience were simply left ignored.
M. Fleer 63

Reading the land, reading the body, readingfeelings...

In this study the families spoke into existence cultural capital that demonstrated a complexity and
level of sophistication unknown to many non-Indigenous teachers. They spoke of the range of
literacies, of which Western literacy was but one form of communication. The concept of multiple
literacies as articulated by the families, highlighted the ethnocentric view of literacy as presented
in Western schooling. The families shared the many diverse ways that a child can learn to read.
Janette and Gloria give an immediately identifiable example:

Reading to us is what we read in the land - read the tracks, we know where the tracks are
going (Janette).

This is something you take for granted, reading the language, footprints, what made that
track. Children are keen they want to know - 'Was it a big snake, or little one?' - children
take note (Gloria).

They spoke of learning to read the land, reading feelings, reading spiritual connections, and read-
ing sophisticated body language and hand gesturing. Reading print material was only one of the
many ways that Indigenous children learn to read. For instance, Laura, Vicky and Janette dis-
cussed the building of their cultural capital:

The child's journey began a long time ago; when they were a baby. Education doesn't start
when they get to school; they learn those signs; they use hand signals as they're talking;
they read your body; and they read the country; we use hand signs; they are powerful

We teach our children to communicate. Babies cannot talk but they can understand signs.
Children learn how to behave from babies-this is taken for granted because they begin so
young (Vicky).

Children recognise and understand what those symbols mean; even babies do; e.g. (makes
hand gestures) meaning what's happening? (makes gesture with finger) or where are you
going? People don't talk they just signal; you got to be observant to see what they are
doing; children learn how to behave from babies (Janette).

The significance of this cultural capital is summed up by Kathy:

All cultural groups learn, but it is what they learn that is different. We need to know about
what learning is valued by particular cultural groups (Kathy).

Bourdieu's work on habitus permits an analysis of the social inequity that clearly exists in schools
and centres. The habitus of schooling privileges children with social capital that centres on print-
based learning. It does not recognise and therefore value the other forms of literacies that some
children have acquired in their prior-to-school learning. The silence in our schools and centres on
these other forms of cultural capital or multiple literacies, is part of the 'what could be' that needs
to be spoken into existence in our early childhood narratives on learning.

Schools equate looking with learning

Recognisiton of the multiple literacies is also about understanding the confusion that can be gen-
erated when children's cultural capital is at odds with the habitus of the school. For instance, in the
study, many of the families spoke about the highly tuned and sophisticated capacity of young
Indigenous children to read body cues and body language. They spoke about the importance of
64 European Early Childhood Education Research Journal

non-verbal language as very important cultural knowledge and the 'taken-for-granted' way of com-
municating. In Western schooling, the importance of body language was very much underplayed
and as a result, caused confusion for some children. Laura explains:

Teachers are often giving offstiffbody messages; those little ones know that; when I want
my kids to stop doing something, then I do a freeze movement (shows stiffbody).

I have noticed that many teachers sit with a stiffbody in front of the children. Our kids are
getting mixed messages.

They read it the way they always read it: the teacher sits still in front of the children; they
use body language but the teacher forgets about the messages their body is giving; the
children read the body language and they listen to the words - they then get mixed mes-
sages (Laura).

The families spoke of many other differences between what their children had learnt in their family
and community that was silenced or simply not valued in schools. The families explained how
their children dealt with the contradictions by developing coping strategies, strategies which worked
against them in the long term:

Some children will turn away; body is saying a different message to the words, so the child
turns, and doesn't see the body, so that they can concentrate on what's coming out of the
teacher's mouth (Laura).

(Reading book) The kids are looking away, they are listening, but they are turning away, so that
they can understand; when you listen to music you don't have to look at the stereo! (Karen).

As a teacher, it is expected in teacher training courses that behaviour management means

all looking to the teacher; teachers measure their success as rated against what is happen-
ing with kids; these kids are not learning if they are not looking; as they equate looking
with learning (Denise).

The children dealt with the mismatch between the verbal and the non-verbal messages by turning
away so that they did not read the non-verbal cues. However, the Western etiquette of schooling,
expects children to show they are listening by looking at the speaker. As Denise states, universities
work with new teachers in ways that reinforce this perspective. As a result, the children were
positioned as not listening and therefore not learning. The habitus of Western schooling positioned
these Indigenous children as not winning either way. What is most tragic is that non-Indigenous
teachers are generally unaware of the dilemma they create for these children.
The perspectives shared by the families on the disparity between the importance of verbal
and non-verbal practices between the culture of schooling and the cultural capital of their children
signals the entrenched practices of Western schooling in our early childhood centres in Australia.
It also highlights the low level of debate surrounding cultural inclusion within Australia and dem-
onstrates that we are still seeing culture as an add-on to mainstream schooling practices. Cultural
inclusion must infiltrate the basic fabric or habitus of schooling - the taken-for-granted, the prac-
tices we no longer see but assume as quality early childhood education. As such, we can turn the
questions used in this study upon Western early childhood schooling. (What can everyone see?
What can only the family see? What can we no longer see because it is so much a part of our
lives?). In putting these questions into the schooling context they become:

1. What can everyone see?

2. What can only the teachers see?
3. What pedagogical practices can we no longer see because they are so much a part of the dis
course of schooling and early childhood education narratives?
M. Fleer 65

It is this final question that early childhood professionals are not asking in the discussions on
cultural inclusion and sensitivity. We do address the first question. We look at our centres and the
practices that occur within them, thinking about the obvious physical layout as well as the 'feel' of
the program. We address the second question when teachers critically reflect upon the curriculum
they have in place and note how many families do not see the valuable literacy, mathematical or
social and emotional learning experiences that are created during play. However, how often do we
critically examine the basic fabric of the maturational outcomes that we have espoused for over
fifty years? How often do we discuss the disparity that exists between outcomes that work towards
independence and outcomes centred on interdependence? The latter being so highly valued in, for
example, some Australian Indigenous cultures or some Japanese cultures. How often do we exam-
ine our non-verbal language and note what messages we may be 'shouting'? What practices are
now part of the 'taken-for-granted'? When were they developed and upon which cultural group
were they researched? It is timely to appraise our early childhood narratives and consider what is
and what could be. Sociocultural theories have provided new lenses (Rogoff, 1998) for looking at
our practices. Bourdieu (Grenfell & James, 1998) has provided a useful theory for reading what
we see and help us think through the cultural capital available to children and the general habitus
of schooling.

To the future

In future schooling contexts, foregrounding the Indigenous voice can only be possible when the
outcomes for Indigenous communities/familiesand outcomes for Schools are co-constructed (Jor-
dan, 2001). Building partnerships between schools and families is more than simply listening to
each other. It is about the joint construction of outcomes and pathways, and the active positioning
of Indigenous families as knowledgeable (Hughes and MacNaughton, 2000) about their children
and culture. As such, it goes beyond asking Indigenous families to share insights about their cul-
ture, through asking:

• What can everyone see?

• What can only the family see?
• What can we no longer see because it is so much a part of our lives?

What we must do is encourage early childhood teachers to question the habitus of early childhood
education, by asking:

• What pedagogical practices can we no longer see because they are so much a part of the dis-
course of schooling and early childhood education narratives?

However, to co-construct this critical reflection process, Indigenous families must be positioned to
have a voice and a support structure to facilitate the hearing of that voice (see Fleer, 2001). With-
out co-construction, schools will maintain the status quo and Indigenous families will continue to
see their children's cultural capital dismissed within our early childhood centres.


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This research project was undertaken by the Australian Early Childhood Association (AECA) and
funded through the Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs. Family
involvement was critical to the success of the project. Pam Cahir, Director of AECA provided
strong leadership in ensuring Indigenous peoples' voices were central throughout the entire project.
Denise Williams-Kennedy was an important member of the research and writing team in the broader
project. Without her guidance during the workshops and subsequent write up of the project (re-
ported in Fleer and Williams-Kennedy, 2001) the project could never have been a success.
This paper was presented at the 11thEuropean Early Childhood Education Research Asso-
ciation conference held in The Netherlands, August 29th to 1~tSeptember 2001.

Correspondence about this paper should be addressed to:

Marilyn Fleer
University of Canberra
ACT 2601