Gaile Sloan Cannella. (1997) Deconstructing Early Childhood
Education: Social Justice & Revolution. New York: Peter Lang
Reviewed by Abdeljalil Akkari
June 27, 2000
Child-centered education is rarely discussed in the dominant
pedagogical and psychological discourse. Deconstructing Early
Childhood Education: Social Justice and Revolution by Gaile Sloan
Cannella is a successful attempt to bring our attention to the
cultural production of educational discourse. The arguments
presented in this book combine deep understanding of the
theoretical frameworks of child-centered education and the wide
range of societal implications of its hegemony.
In the introductory chapter, Sloan Cannella challenges the
effectiveness of child-centered ideology. Mainstream early
childhood educators consider themselves as advocates for
children: "We take pride in the notion that we are child-
centered and place the whole child at the forefront of our
thoughts and actions. Through observation and psychological
theory, we have diligently learned so much about children that
we can describe how they grow and change. We know what kind of
experiences to provide for them and how to advise others
regarding these experiences. We dedicate many hours to issues of
child development, attempting to improve home and school
experiences for all children" (p. 1). Sloan Cannella wonders if
these efforts have increased educational opportunity for all
children. Obviously, early childhood educators' activities
appear unsuccessful: "The communication and socioeconomic gaps
(including access to resources) between human beings from
different cultural groups and economic classes is widening in
the United States and around the world. Monied children attend
particular schools while poor children are provided with
different experience" (p. 1).
Describing her own background, Sloan Cannella explains how she
moved from a determinist piagetian perspective to postmodern
philosophy. By reading the work of critical authors (e.g.,
Jonathan Kozol, Lisa Delpit and the like) and working with
children and adult whose life experiences differ from her own,
Sloan Cannella came to believe that the construction of
knowledge is rooted in power relations (p. 4). She suggests that
multiple forms of knowledge should be heard.
Not only are these multiple voices neglected, there is also a
tendency to reinforce monolithic thinking in childhood
education. The National Association for the Education of young
children published in 1987 a document entitled
Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood
Programs Serving Children From Birth to Eight (Bredekamp,
1987). This document is grounded in developmental psychology,
most obviously exhibiting a piagetian influence. According to
Sloan Cannella, classrooms all over the United States are
currently exploring the potential use of the teaching guidelines
provided in the document. Early childhood educators themselves
are currently debating the universalist perspective implied by
the notion of "appropriate practice."
In Chapter II, Sloan Cannella tries to undress the genealogy of
childhood education. Using Aries (1962) work, she reminds us
that childhood did not exist during the medieval period. French
child from the middle Ages to the eighteenth century was simply
treated as small adult. The construction of the child as
separate and distinct from adult took place between the
thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consequently, the idea of
"graded classes" was created to protect those who are younger in
years from those who were older and may have seen more of the
debased world. The clergy defined childhood through the
construction of school activities and ways of functioning.
Regulation and control are deeply embedded in the history of
Sloan Cannella explains also how, the construction of child is
used to perpetuate a colonialist power relationship between
countries. Charitable agencies publicize for donations to
"guarantee" a childhood for children in the "Third World." This
perspective uses younger human being to deny the imperialism
that lead to poverty, and perpetuate the notion that people in
poverty are responsible for their condition. The strength and
agency of a group of family and children are denied and the
perception that "first World" countries are the saviors is
fostered. The use of childhood creates a perspective in which we
can deny the political question regarding our role in
subjugating others. We do not ask what we are doing that
contributes to the conditions in which people find themselves
(p. 37). Sloan Cannella argument remind me the former French
minister of Humanitarian action asking few years ago,
schoolchildren to carry with him a rice' bag to "save" the
Another element in the western genealogy of childhood is
positioning human beings as individual, self contained agents.
Sloan Cannella criticizes the famous Kholberg (1976) theory of
moral reasoning. The sixth stage in this theory clearly
illustrates the Western-Christian "ideology of individualism."
Nevertheless, in some cultural contexts, the highest level of
morality is respect for elders, the avoidance of conflict, and
the development of harmonious social relations, a form of moral
knowledge that almost eliminates the construction of human
beings as individuals. Focusing on the individual child as a
social unit masks, in Sloan Cannella's view, gender, class, and
cultural knowledge (p. 38).
Chapter III denounces our allegiance to Child Development. The
author points out that developmental psychology emerged
alongside the field of experimental psychology, and both were
created within the context of scientific positivism and
Darwinism. In multiple ways, Piaget, one the most influential
developmental psychologists, reinforced the dominant beliefs of
his time. For example, the "mental" was privileged over the
"active", contributing to the "thinking" versus "doing"
dichotomy, the "abstract" versus the "concrete." When knowledge
is described as progressively more adequately organized, the
adult is privileged over the child, rationality over
irrationality (P. 57). Children in highly technological
societies are privileged. As suggested by Dasen (1994), the
Piagetian stage of hypothetico-deductive scientific reasoning is
not necessarily what is most valued in every community, not even
in Western societies. Indeed, the development of formal
reasoning (as strictly defined by Piaget) seems to be strongly
dependent on reaching secondary schooling. When Piaget studied
formal reasoning in Geneva, he did so in schools that were
highly selective, attended by only five percent of the
population in that age group (p. 149).
Sloan Cannella holds that the concept of autonomy highly valued
in developmental psychology is truly imperialist in that some
cultures do not value the individualistic model of humanity.
Further, the focus on the autonomous individual can result in
denial of racial, class, gender, and cultural inequities.
Individuals become entirely responsible for their destiny.
Socio-cultural context and power relationships are completely
Sloan Cannella carefully discusses in Chapter IV how early child
experience is used to judge mother and family. Recent childhood
discourse is dominated by the assumption that early experience
in one way or the other determines the life of the individual.
This discourse is evident in development and guidance books,
displayed in every setting where education is discussed.
Sloan Cannella argues that some of us may not believe that the
early years are more important than any other part of a person's
life; however, we have certainly internalized the notion that
early experience is the foundation. Schooling after early
childhood education, then, can be regarded as the confirmation
of "early foundation." Failure of minority students in high
school may become "natural" and related to familial factors.
Clearly, an analysis of the historical construction of the
concepts of "mother" and "family" illuminates why appropriate
early experience emerged as dominant discourse: "We 'talk' as if
the nuclear, heterosexual family has always existed and that we
have evidence as to its superiority, that the best place for
children to thrive is in the arms of mother within the idealized
family unit." (P. 78)
Another myth discussed by Sloan Cannella is the notion of Self-
concept. The focus on self-concept is a disguised method of
privileging the western (and predominately American) notion of
individualism, yet denying societal responsibility for social
justice and the human condition. The "self" represents that
decontextualized body that is responsible for growth, progress,
reason, truth, and values. The individual self must be strong
and disciplined and must believe in its own worth because, with
a focus on individualism, there are not other resources
available (P. 107). The notion of self-concept, according to
Sloan Cannella is patriarchal, privileging western forms of male
detachment. The assumption that all humans can and should work
toward an individually oriented positive regard, an autonomous
being, privileges those cultures that focus on individualism and
disqualifies those cultures, groups, families, and even
individuals who do not construct humanity as a group of
At one point in her book, Sloan Cannella offers a critical
examination of the discourse on parent involvement. She asserts
that parent are "already involved" in the lives of their
children, in multiple ways and in multiple forms. By
constructing the language of "parent involvement", educators
place themselves above both younger human beings and their
parents as those who hold the received knowledge that must be
revealed to "others." We must show parents how to be involved
with their children, with the school, with appropriate early
experience, with homework-- -in short how to manage children.
Educators have not constructed a language that gives the message
that we want to learn "from and with" parents and their
children. The hidden, yet dominant, assumption in the words
"parent involvement" is that parents are not involved and do not
know how to be part of the lives of their children. The
discourse immediately places parents on the margin and
constructs power over them by those who are in the field of
education (P. 107).
In Chapter V, Sloan Cannella rightly suggests that in the
institutionalization of programs for young children and the
determination of curricular goals and content, early childhood
education has played a role in the construction of a two-tiered
system and in the continual segregation of diverse groups of
people (e.g., the poor, the cultural different, those with
diverse world views) perpetuating societal beliefs that
particular groups are inferior to others. For African-Americans,
schooling was not the path to liberatory education. Under
slavery in the United States, Blacks were forbidden from
attending school or attaining any of the skills that were
offered through formal schooling upon penalty of death. When
education was offered to the poor, it was grounded in the
assumptions that individuals and families were deficient and
that the state must "expertly" regulate and control the behavior
of those in poverty. Education has been one site for the
generation and perpetuation of race, class, and gender inequity
and the construction of power hierarchies. This tiered system is
directly illustrated in the practice of Early childhood
education over the past two hundred years. First, the field
emerged from a historical context in which the regulation of
poverty and the control of immigrants has been and is of utmost
importance (p. 108).
For me, therefore, one of the most exciting chapters was the
deconstruction by Cannella Sloan and Viruru (Chapter VI) of
child-centered, play-based instruction. Rooted in the work of
Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Frobel, contemporary early childhood
educators have constructed child-centered instruction as a form
of learning that is both natural and appropriate for all younger
human beings: "Child-centered pedagogy perpetuates the dominant
ideology that reifies a universal child and describes that child
as processing through predetermined stages of human development.
Child-centeredness becomes the universal human pedagogy that is
appropriate for all human beings, the truth for everyone." (p.
117). Five central tenets of Child-centered Pedagogy were
masterfully discussed in this chapter: (1) readiness as adult
privilege, (2) choice as the illusion of Individual, self-
Governance, (3) needs as natural authority, (4) play as cultural
artifact, and (5) discovery as privileging mono-cultural
In the concluding chapter, Sloan Cannella attempts to
reconceptualize early childhood education as the struggle for
social justice. She suggested that in the United States and
Europe, our lives have been and are embedded in a political,
social, and historical context in which we have constructed
regulatory desires around notions of universal truth, progress
and hierarchy. These beliefs and desires are part of our culture
and as human constructions deserve some form of respect.
However, when these constructions are imposed on all human
beings, power relations are produced that foster injustice,
oppression, and regulation. This deconstruction of early
childhood education was conducted to unveil the way in which our
particular cultural desires, constructions, and beliefs are
biased; how our regime of truth have been perpetuated; and who
have been privileged or oppressed by dominant perspectives in
the field (p. 157).
As we choose our struggles, Sloan Cannella affirms that we could
at least begin by addressing social justice within and around
institutionalized settings. Multiple questions have to be asked:
For Sloan Cannella, an alternative to mainstream early childhood
education, may consist in "hearing and responding" to other
people voices to overcome the struggle for equal opportunities.
- "How do we eliminate two-tiered system?
- Does the curriculum respect the multiple knowledge and life
experiences of younger human beings from diverse backgrounds?
- How does our current practice perpetuate a classed structure
in the society?
- Is the message provided by education to each human being
equitable regarding his or her background, beliefs, and life
- Does the educational/care system treat everyone fairly with
- Are there those whose life experiences create privilege for
them within the school contexts that we have created? Is
this socially just?" (P. 164)
Originating from the opposite perspective (early childhood
education), Sloan Cannella arrives at the end of her essay at
the same conclusion that Freire did in discussing adulthood
education: the necessity to transform educational institutions
from "oppression" to "concientization", and from "hegemony" to
"liberation." Hegemony represents an anti-dialogical situation
that serves the oppression of subordinate groups of separated
being. Liberation characterizes a collective dialogical action
where oppressed people achieve their empowerment through shared
power and responsibility (Freire, 1970).
In this book, Sloan Cannella addresses her criticisms mainly to
European and American (mainstream) educators. However, I think
that her message is also valid for minority educators. As
pointed out by McLaren (1988) "[T]he dominant culture is able to
manufacturate dreams and desires for both dominant and
subordinate groups by supplying terms of reference (i.e., image,
visions, stories, ideals) against which all individuals are
expected to live their lives [and] in which the value of the
dominant [culture] appear so correct that to reject them would
be unnatural, a violation of common sense." (P. 174) The
perpetuation of cultural domination needs the passive
collaboration of the oppressed and the dominant.
One of the biggest strengths of this book is Sloan Cannella's
commitment to engage her personal responsibility in challenging
her "professional expertise" as specialist of early childhood
education. The power of this book resides also in its
revolutionary potential. It is an invitation to discuss the most
established tenets in psychological and educational discourse.
This book is a valuable source of information that would be
useful and motivational for educators engaged in critical
Aries, P. (1962). Centuries of childhood- A social history of
family life. New York: Knopf.
Bredekamp, S. (Ed.), (1987). Developmentally appropriate
practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth
through age eight. Washington DC: National Association for the
Education of Young Children.
Dasen, P. (1994). Culture and cognitive development from a
Piagetian perspective. In W .J. Lonner & R.S. Malpass (Eds.),
Psychology and Culture. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury
Kholberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization. In T.
Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and moral behavior: Theory,
research and social issues (pp. 31-53). New York: Holt, Rinehart
McLaren, P. (1988). Life in schools: An introduction to critical
pedagogy in the foundations of education. New York: Longman.
About the Reviewer
Abdeljalil Akkari is a Senior Lecturer in the department of
Education at Fribourg University (Switzerland). He teaches
courses in multicultural education and sociology of education.
He was a visiting professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore
County. His major publications include articles on youth
identities, home-school relations and educational inequalities.
About the Author
Gaile Sloan Cannella is an Associate Professor of early childhood
and multicultural education at Texas A&M University. She received
her Ed.D. in early childhood education from the University of Georgia.
In addition to numerous research articles in professional journals
concerned with the education of young children, she has written on
social justice and teacher education.