Reflections On . . . The Great Early Childhood Education Language War

By Sinéad McCauley Lambe

Updated / Wednesday, 28 July 2021 10:17

Since beginning my journey into early childhood education, I have learned that this sector appears to have its own “language.” And the more I think about how language is analysed and used in early childhood education, the more I think about Brian Friel’s Translations and how this play portrays the “the role and impact of language on human experience” (Larson, 2019). Set in 1833 Ireland, it tells the story of a moment of historical transition, a clash between languages and cultures that would see the Irish hedge schools replaced by a national education system in which English would be the official language. In Friel’s hands, the power shift illustrated by this change from the Irish to English language captures how the use of a particular language is deeply connected to our identities, and that, “without language, a thing or person has no meaningful existence, identity or presence” (Dreiling, 2015).

While not as drastic as the historical shift that provides the backdrop for Friel’s Translations, the early childhood education sector in Ireland has experienced a significant societal and professional shift in recent years. This has seen the identity of early childhood education evolve and change and its presence and visibility increase on a national scale. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the criticality of a quality early childhood education and care system has become clear for all to see. Nonetheless, the sector remains in a state of flux, and the struggle to achieve equality in relation to working conditions and a greater societal acknowledgment of the importance of early childhood education is ongoing. Perhaps it is this period of identity building and change that has initiated what I call “The Great Early Childhood Language War.”

As a lecturer in Early Childhood Education who is a primary school teacher by “trade,” I have been struck by the apparent tension around the use of particular language in the context of early childhood education. I sensed early on in my journey that it was not okay to use the word “teacher,” that “educator” or “practitioner” was preferred. It was also not okay to use words like “lesson” or “school.” At first, it was difficult to get the hang of things. My brain had to employ the equivalent of the “replace” tool on Microsoft Word. I had to replace “teacher” with “educator,” “lesson” with “activity,” and “school” with “setting.” Sometimes I tripped up. Whenever this happened, I immediately corrected myself, because to use such language in the early childhood education sphere seems to imply that one does not fully “understand” early childhood education.

The words “teacher,” “lesson,” and “school” appear to conjure up images of a didactic system, where the “teacher” is an authoritarian, and where “lessons” are teacher-led and involve only passive learning. The word “school” seems to give the impression of a rigid, rule-bound place where children conform and are not permitted to express their individuality; a place where children’s agency is not promoted or supported. In my experience as a “teacher,” this could not be further from the truth. And from my experience of “teaching” infant “teachers,” this is certainly not the truth. I have observed a huge demand from teachers to educate and upskill themselves in relation to early childhood education. There is great understanding and knowledge among infant teachers that child-led learning is effective, that following children’s interests is critical, and that enabling children to demonstrate agency is central to education. This remains true no matter which language and terminology might be used.

For years, most teachers have been doing all of these things, albeit under another guise and using different language. Assigning daily “jobs” to children who thrive on being given responsibility, asking children to share their stories and their news, acknowledging individual learning needs and interests, emphasising the uniqueness and individuality of all children, and wholly embracing the idea of active, hands-on learning.

There is no doubt that the introduction of the Aistear Framework (NCCA, 2009) shone a light on the importance of play-based learning in infant classrooms and beyond. It also challenged teachers to reflect on their practice. And while many may have struggled to adapt their practices to align with the Aistear Framework, schools and teachers across the country have embraced play-based learning. Many of the teachers who successfully made this transition actively sought out professional development about how to incorporate playful learning pedagogy across the infant day – this was frequently done on their own time, for which they were not remunerated. Many teachers are also part of online sharing forums where playful learning is celebrated and championed. And so many “teachers,” in both the early childhood education and primary sectors want to, and are, learning from each other all the time. They are advocates of each other and recognise the shared knowledge, the shared skill-sets, and the shared vision of both professions. Nonetheless, the language war rages on, sometimes silently, sometime hidden, but always there.

It strikes me as odd that words such as “teacher,” or “teach,” come under great scrutiny in relation to early childhood education, while the language used in this sector in relation to the children themselves appears to go without criticism. Terms like “Wobblers,” and “Wobbler Room,” for example, are commonly used to refer to children between 12 and 24 months. At 20 months, a child can typically feed themselves and take off their clothes. They can turn the pages of a book and stack 3 to 6 small blocks on top of each other. They have developed sophisticated motor skills, problem solving skills, and communication skills. The Aistear Framework even acknowledges these capacities and that these children are “competent and capable learners” (NCCA, 2009, p.72), who are deserving of respect. But the word, “Wobbler,” does not invoke images of a child who is capable, competent, or respected as an individual with rights. Nor do some of the names of individual settings across the country.

The word “teach” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “to help somebody learn something by giving information about it.” The educator and children’s rights activist, Parker Palmer, describes “teaching” as a much richer endeavor. Palmer likens teaching skills to those involved in using a knife – it takes skill to murder someone with a knife and it takes skill to heal someone with a knife. The difference between the two lies not in the hand that controls the knife, but in the heart that controls the hand. We seem to spend so much time and energy focusing on the language used in “teaching,” or “educating.” Perhaps our time and energy would be better spent focusing on the hearts of our “teachers’ and “educators” and on education itself, so that we can become the teachers and educators that our children and the world needs.  

Maybe “the old language is a barrier to modern progress,” as Máire suggests in Friel’s Translations. Maybe it is not. Maybe our language around early childhood education needs to change over time. And maybe it will. But instead of creating divisions over language and terminology, and becoming burdened and side-tracked by how to best verbalise what we are and what we do, perhaps we could unite in our common goal to “love learners, learning and teaching life” (Palmer, 2017).

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Sinéad McCauley Lambe is a lecturer at Marino Institute of Education, specialising in Early Childhood Education. Prior to joining MIE, she taught for eleven years in St. Vincent’s Infant Boys’ school in North William Street. Here, Sinéad moved into resource teaching and worked with children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder and those experiencing a wide range of emotional and behavioural difficulties. This work ignited her interest in educational disadvantage, motor development, and early intervention. Sinéad completed a Masters in Educational Disadvantage at Dublin City University and is currently a PhD candidate there. Her research interests include infant motor development and emergent handwriting development. She strongly believes in the power of puppets and play to engage those learners who need us the most.