Nursery Management

“We Must Challenge Our Assumptions About Early Education”

It’s vitally important to question our routine assumptions about early childhood development, says Richard House…

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to write a column for Teach Early Years. Not, I hope, for predominantly ego-driven reasons, but because it offers me the chance to pursue my greatest passion – that of encouraging critical reflective thinking about the myriad of assumptions we all make in our important work with young children (we all make assumptions – it’s impossible not to). For the assumptions we make invariably have effects – and we can all be taken by surprise, even shocked, when the effects of our unarticulated assumptions about, for example, early learning, the place of ‘stimulation’, our pictures of ‘childhood’... (the list is a long one) are teased out, made conscious and then followed through – in terms of the impact they have on our attitudes and pedagogical practices.

It’s a truism of the psychotherapy field that clients are deeply affected by the way their therapists think about them, to the extent that this can deeply affect the ways clients think about themselves. One key implication of this phenomenon is that young children, too, may well be deeply inflluenced by the way that the adults around them think about them (which of course includes the assumptions practitioners make); and if this is so, it’s surely incumbent upon all practitioners to sort out their own thinking, as non-defensively and openly as possible, if we’re to become the best and most effective practioners we can be.

Yet there’s the rub. For psychotherapy suggests that we all have deeply personal, biographical reasons for adopting the various beliefs and assumptions we hold about the world – and these are sometimes rooted in the pain and suffering we’ve all experienced in early life. In this situation, we may often be resistant to looking critically and open-mindedly at our own assumptions (indeed, some might even ‘poo-poo’ what I’m saying here as meaningless psycho-babble!), as people sometimes build up a belief system to defend themselves against painful personal realities. The point I’m making is that many of us may find it very scary to expose our taken-for-granted assumptions to critical and reflective scrutiny. Yet for me, such a fearless openness to experience is an essential prerequisite for the kind of thoughtful, undefended practitionership of which the best early years practitioners are capable.

When I penned my submission to Cathy Nutbrown’s training inquiry, my main argument was that every early years practitioner should be on a life-long personal development journey (and I include myself in that). In most psychotherapy trainings, trainees are expected to engage in their own personal therapy for the duration of the training – a key reason being that those wanting to become psychotherapists routinely have unconscious motivations which are closely related to difficulties from early childhood of which they’re initially unaware; and unless these motivations are brought into awareness, therapists’ work with clients can be driven far more by their own unconscious needs, than being fashioned in the best interests of clients.

I think a similar kind of argument is relevant to working with young children; and if this is anything like right, then I hope the possible dangers will be clear – i.e. practitioners holding all kinds of emotionally driven beliefs and assumptions about children’s development and learning that are underpinned far more by their own early childhood difficulties than by a relatively objective perspective on facilitating children’s development and learning.

And so back to assumptions – what they are, why we make them, and whether they’re helpful, or otherwise, in our work with young children; something I’m sure we’ll return to in these columns. Oh, it may not surprise you that my favourite fairy tale is… The Emperor’s New Clothes!

Richard House is an early childhood campaigner, a trained Steiner Waldorf Kindergarten teacher, and a founder-member of the Open EYE campaign, the Save Childhood Movement and Early Childhood Action. Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)