Te Whāriki has been the national curriculum for the early childhood education sector in Aotearoa since the late 90's. At the time of its release it was hailed by the sector (and internationally) as a revolutionary approach to bicultural education. And it is, no doubt about it. The authors are all well-respected leaders in early childhood education and with the process occurring during 'The New Zealand Experiment' of neo-liberal reforms, most educators were certain they had managed to sneak a fluffy left-wing curriculum under the noses of the bastard politicians.
Yes, well that was all just fine and dandy. Then I discovered Dr Iris Duhn's The Making of Global Citizens: traces of cosmopolitanism in the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, Te Whariki, out there in Google-land and I'm left wondering...
Is Te Whāriki a tool of neo-liberalism?
Historically, as a result of colonial paternalism, New Zealand has a deep dependence on authority. The majority of Pakeha have an uncritical attitude towards political power which in conjunction with a high standard of living makes us a nation of sheep. The 'New Zealand Experiment' was a walk in the park - Hitler would have been impressed with the audacity of it all.
Early childhood education, historically ignored by governments as 'women's work', is suddenly pulled into the education sphere as government recognises the potential of curricula as “an instrument for producing citizens suited to the demands of a globalised economy” (Duhn). David Lange “articulated the hope that early childhood education, with its emphasis on diversity, its community-based nature, and the retention of close links with the family, could play an important role in what has been publicly defined as 'determining later life chances'” (Duhn).
The goal was to maximise the child's potential from the earliest possible age. 'Life long learning' is considered an essential strategy to counter the problems of an inflexible workforce : quality ECE improves educational outcomes plus childcare enables mothers to up-skill or work! Double whammy!
Thus the commissioning of a unifying curriculum to enforce these goals.
Te Whāriki came into being as “part of an international trend to strengthen connections between the economic success of the nation and education” (May, 2001, cited Duhn). The economy needed multi-skilled, flexible workers who were strongly rooted into their community, but global in their thinking. Yeah!
So, as for sneaking in a 'radical' curriculum, well the politicians did actually give it a very careful going over... they chucked a lot out (a special needs curriculum for example), and they also made some additions - Learning Outcomes to be precise.
'Learning Outcomes', quite the educational buzz-word eh? The authors quite rightly resisted the idea of such a narrowing of education to goals decided on by politicians (Lockward Smith actually), but in they went. I mean they're nice and vague really, for instance under the Strand of Well-Being we're asking that “children develop an increasing ability to determine their own actions and make their own choices”. Self-determination... individualism.... go go go! Hmm...
Duhn's concerns are thus: Te Whāriki was designed to be a curriculum that would be constructed by communities to fit their local context and for that reason it reads as being very 'open' (okay, it's fucking vague) and for this reason was/is considered a very powerful tool for educators. However a lack of critical analysis of Te Whāriki is potentially fatal. Te Whāriki assumes teachers are switched-on political animals, but we know the painful truth!
Duhn argues that the authors of Te Whāriki with their vision of the 'ideal child' unconsciously adopted the rhetoric of neo-liberalism and that this is revealed in the language of the document. Her position is not one of blame, but recognising that the dominant discourses of that period were full of such bullshit – global economies, personal freedom and autonomy, problem solving, flexible, adaptable, multi-lingual, life long learners etc, and it permeated everything. I mean they sound like good, progressive goals to me...
Despite years of professional development in understanding and implementing Te Whāriki, many many teachers still struggle to understand the pedagogical position of the document – let alone the political themes - and take it at face value. They 'do' Te Whāriki. They follow the strands, link them with learning experiences and trot out the learning stories as expected. “With its highly flexible structure... Te Whāriki does not challenge teachers to develop teaching practices from a critical perspective... it assume teachers will address issues … through individual interpretation” (Duhn).
What this skim-read means is that educators unwittingly fall back to a 'default setting' where the rhetoric of neo-liberalism often remains dominant within personal discourses which click nicely with the language of Te Whariki...
Duhn claims that Te Whāriki is not a product of neo-liberal reforms, but a technology for further neo-liberal reforms. A deep sleeper! They're letting us do the work of indoctrination. So was it carefully constructed to appease a bunch of stroppy left-wing women? To get them onside and rely on Te Whāriki's 'vagueness' with its process of personal interpretation that allows the powerful rhetoric of neo-liberalism in through the back door? Hmmm...
Time for another read – and a very critical one at that!