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Mediating the rising inequalities through early childhood education: Challenges and opportunities

"Transformation of the social order begins with an act of imagination that elevates a startling dream of change above the intimidating presence of things as they are. Further, if such dreams are passionate and clear, and if they can call a great many people into their service, they may ultimately give shape to the future. In this way, the future vibrancy of our profession depends on the ignition of bold ideas, passionately conveyed." (Washington, 1996, p. 32)

Schools are sites for struggle. As a result of often competing and opposing ideologies, schools can never be neutral in their function. In fact, schools, as political and cultural structures, mediate curricula reflecting hidden agendas. As Young (1998) contends, “Education is always… a set of cultural choices, some conscious and some unconscious…” (p. 12). The most salient question I wrestle with is simply this: What form must curriculum and pedagogy take in our current North American contexts, especially in its application to early childhood education, to produce a just and equitable democratic society? As Pinar (1995) argues, “curriculum can be understood in any comprehensive sense only if it is contextualized socially, economically, and politically” (244).

Unpacking and contesting the hidden curriculum within every school context is a necessary political intervention. Teachers and students together must engage in critical pedagogy, also termed “the pedagogy of possibility,” and deconstruct the ways public policy privileges certain types of knowledge and canon, as well as race, political and hegemonic ideals and contributing to social engineering.

Education may no longer be the sine qua non of equality of opportunity for students from low-income backgrounds. Various social, economic and political factors have contributed to rising inequalities over the last few decades. Anyon’s (1980) research demonstrates the valid claim that knowledge in the West is stratified to a great extent. Equality of opportunity and upward mobility is denied to children of working class families as a result of different construction and interpretation of knowledge and their outworking through the curriculum and pedagogy in working class schools. In our efforts to greater equity, we must engage in questioning and exploration of the validity of different types of knowledge and the nature of schooling. We must ask: What type of knowledge do we privilege in education and is this accessible and equitable to all children? Connecting the school’s curriculum to the social realities outside its walls is a positive start. Moreover, contesting the school’s hidden ideology and cultural biases requires a change of consciousness and critical self-reflection on the part of the educators, yet is a necessary social action if we are to realize important changes in our education system (Whitty, 1985, 15-20).

The early years in the life of a child are foundational for setting him/her up for success. Research shows children from lower socio-economic backgrounds face many disadvantages early in life, including lack of access to quality early care programs, resources in the school, and other advantages readily bestowed upon children of middle and upper class families such as extra-curricular programming, books, outings/travel which contribute positively to the overall development of children. Moreover, at the start of formal schooling, children from poorer economic backgrounds have a noticeable developmental lag, particularly in language, compared to their middle and upper class peers. While the socio-economic backgrounds of parents contribute to children’s educational attainments, can quality early childhood programming mediate the effects for disadvantaged children over the long term? What form must pedagogy take?

The early childhood field continues to grow and offer new possibilities and challenges. The increasing institutionalization of young children, the utopian ideals put upon the child as the hope for the nation’s future (primarily defined in economic and socio-cultural terms) and the increasing government control over children’s lives through regulations call for deeper reflection. Resistance to the developmental psychology model, prevalent in the early childhood field are being noted, and new paradigms for critical reconceptualization of the image of the child and the subsequent pedagogical interactions based on social justice seem promising.

Yours in early education,



Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education, CLXII, p. 67-92.

Pinar, W. (1995). Understanding curriculum as political text. In W. Pinar. Understanding Curriculum (pp. 243-314). New York: Peter Lang.

Washington, V. (1996). Professional Development in Context: leadership at the borders of our democratic, pluralistic society. Young Children, 51(6), pp. 30-34.

Whitty, G. (1985). From theory and research to policy and practice. In Sociology and school knowledge: Curriculum theory, research, and politics (pp. 7-98). London: Methuen.

Young, M. (1998). The curriculum as socially organized knowledge; The curriculum and the ‘new sociology of education.’ In The curriculum of the future: From the ‘new sociology of education’ to a critical theory of learning (pp. 9-21); 34-47). London: Falmer Press.

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