Democracy – Developing a Language of Dissent

As part of the work with our Sightlines Network Group, we are considering the idea of democracy in its various definitions and manifestations within early years practice. At Imagine…our starting point is a consideration of Peter Moss’ ‘Democracy as First Practice in Early Childhood Education and Care’ (2011). Drawing upon Deweyian concepts of democracy, Moss references a deeper notion of what democracy can be. He writes that it can be ‘understood as a mode of being in the world…a form of living together…more than a form of government…’ and significantly, ‘a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature…’ Moss writes that ‘democracy and education are inseparably interconnected’- the two work to ‘strengthen and sustain’ one another. What we are particularly interested in is Moss’ assertion that ‘the discourse of democratic education is in danger of being drowned out by two other discourses, that of quality and that of markets’. Moss defines the discourse of quality as being ‘strongly managerial’ with education treated as a ‘technology for delivering predetermined outcomes’. He says that this understanding of education focuses upon ‘bringing children, teachers and institutions into conformity with expert-derived norms’. Moss defines the discourse of markets as one that ‘favours deregulation but understands early education and care as a commodity for sale to parent-consumers’. He states that ‘neither discourse values democracy in the practice of early year childhood education’. This vision of education is one that seeks first and foremost to meet the needs and demands of the economy and therefore reflects the politics and ideologies of the dominant social class.
From Moss, we consider the following to be important points for exploration;
-democracy understood as a way of being in the world
-democracy as a mode of living founded upon faith in the possibilities of human nature
-the danger of democratic discourse being drowned out
Based upon these points we briefly conclude here that firstly, if democracy is about ‘being’ and ‘faith’, then democratic practice in the early years must be underpinned by metaphysical and philosophical considerations that underpin its processes and actions. In other words, it is not enough to merely engage in the suggested practices of ‘British Values in the EYFS’. Whilst the external practices of democracy are necessary and important, there must be a consideration of its internal dimensions. There must be an acknowledgement of a “democratic consciousness” that informs practice, if we are to engage with a deeper, more rigorous kind of democracy that effects change at a structural level. For example, we believe that attempting to engage in democratic practices within a fundamentally undemocratic educational framework is highly problematic and can only be addressed by initially recognising and articulating the system within which we operate. The system we seek to explore here is that of curriculum- specifically that of ‘Development Matters (EYFS, 2017)’. Secondly, picking up on Peter Moss’ observation that democratic discourse is being drowned out, we suggest that the idea of developing democratic discourse- a voice of dissent- is a way in which we can begin to recognise, resist and rework the systems within which we operate in order to work towards a more truthful democracy within early years.
With its neatly headed, colour-coded and age-banded boxes, designed to clearly guide us through a child’s progress, ‘Development Matters’ epitomises a rational and reasonable approach to play, learning and development. It is presented as an aid offered to help the practitioner navigate their way through teaching and caring. However, these very characteristics of the document simply beg for the practitioner to become a mere administrator, whilst turning the child into a checklist. Nancy Stewart- a Development Matters author- acknowledges this, writing ‘that the tool to understand and foster children’s development is too often misused’. She writes that ‘when used as a tick list of descriptors of what children must achieve, it can sadly limit both children’s development and the professional awareness and skills of practitioners’ (‘Development Matters: A Landscape of Possibilities, not a Roadmap’ 2016). Although Stewart states that this was never the intended use for the document, we posit that ‘Development Matters’ in its present form is difficult to use in any way but a reductionist way. In diminishing the child to a series of processes, actions and goals to be readily reified by the adult we argue that ‘Development Matters’ dehumanises children and impoverishes teachers’ thinking. If we take Moss’ definitions of democracy referring to ‘being in the world’ and ‘faith in the possibilities of human nature’, then it is clear that ‘Development Matters’ is structurally anti-democratic. The danger of such a document is in the way it insidiously affects and informs our thinking. Its statements, easily read and digested, couched in the reasonable and rational terms of child development, affably lend themselves to being absorbed as dogma- the guidance becoming doctrine, subtly implying an authority that cannot be questioned. A resultant intellectual laziness increasingly erodes the ability and the desire to think thoroughly and independently. And yet, we must remember the curriculum is a system in which we have to work.
How then, do we engage in democratic thinking and practices whilst operating within the confines of a framework that systematically dehumanises children and impoverishes teachers’ thinking? Our consideration is concerned not with the surface practice of democracy, but a democracy that resonates at a structural level. We emphasise that we feel there is nothing wrong per se with what ‘Development Matters’ says or suggests, but we do stress that it is sorely lacking and lends itself to poor application. Recognising that we work within the social institution of curriculum/education in its current form, we suggest that the only way to attempt to transcend its limitations, is to engage in a kind of immanent critique. We think that to challenge ‘Development Matters’ from within, engaging in a dialectic process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, is more practicable than the theoretical external position of binary opposition. An internal stance allows us to consider the document in terms of the gaps between what it stands for and what is actually being done. Our key project is to engage in the fundamentally democratic practice of recovering the whole child and reviving our whole professional selves- what Peter Moss and Diane Kashin refer to as ‘the rich teacher’. We propose to do this by crawling into and inhabiting the negative spaces of ‘Development Matters’. The positive spaces in literature are those that directly confront and present us with ideas. But betwixt and between the relentless statements of play, learning and development, lie spaces of absence and ambiguity where we may develop our own ideas. These negative spaces, spaces of silence, give us room to breathe and contemplate the critical void that reveals what is missing- that which has been left unsaid. Consequently, broader and deeper meaning and understanding may be located and constructed here. What then is missing? We contend that it is spirituality- ‘the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul’ ( We base this upon the lack of humanity afforded our children by the pedestrian statements of ‘Development Matters’. And we root it in Moss’ Deweyan definition of what democracy is. We understand the term ‘spirituality’ to be one that is fraught with unfavourable connotations within the rational realm of education and so we look to Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia approach to provide us with some validation of what we propose. How do we comprehend, articulate and express something so immeasurable and unquantifiable, something so “woolly”? We need to develop our democratic voice of dissent- a voice that fills those negative spaces and addresses the unsaid. We look to Malaguzzi’s ‘The Hundred Languages of Children’ poem as our valuable source of inspiration.
First, the obvious- the content of the poem, which reminds us that ‘the school and the culture [i.e. the curriculum for our purposes] separate the head from the body [read: our children taken to pieces]’. It tells us that the child is made to ‘understand without joy, to love and marvel only at Christmas and Easter’. We believe words such as ‘joy’, ‘love’ and ‘marvel’ pertain to the spiritual- the soul, the psyche, the inner self, the essential being- that which simultaneously evades and is also thrown away by the language of quality and markets. As practitioners, to engage with the affective and emotive language of poetry, stands in dramatic contrast to the dry language of curriculum. Language is powerful and should not be underestimated as it re-orients and reshapes our thinking, enabling us to exercise resistance to dehumanisation, enabling us to remember and celebrate the spirit of the child. Secondly- and we believe less obviously- the form of the poem. Why did Malaguzzi choose a poem with which to encapsulate his key ideas and core beliefs? Why not a staid manifesto document? Why eschew the serious academic layout of the essay in favour of the child-like, fanciful form of the poem? The poem is the original voice of dissent (see Simon Armitage on poetry as a form of dissent for example) and this is evidenced in its form, which is subversive- irregular syntax, uneven line lengths, nonsensical words and so on, are all aspects of poetry which deliberately stand in opposition to what is deemed proper, grammatically correct and serious forms of writing. The poem therefore is a powerful symbol of the anti-establishment, so anti-political it makes the most powerful political statement. The form of the poem eludes capture by the voice of authority, resisting attempts to turn it into doctrine or dogma, its flighty, irreverant qualities irreconcilable with an act of consecration or being co-opted by those in power. Poetry is essential to democracy (see The Wall Street Journal ( And this is significant, because by choosing the poem, Malaguzzi safeguards the Reggio Emila approach as a democratic and therefore very human approach- one that seeks to retain an image of the ‘rich child’ and the ‘rich teacher’.

S Gill

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