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Thinking Critically? The Affordances and Challenges of Critical Approaches in the Early Years

Fri, April 4, 8:15 to 10:15am, Convention Center, Floor: 100 Level, 119B


Objectives or purposes
The purpose of this research was to document how approaches to critical literacies might be deployed in early years classrooms in schools servicing culturally diverse, low SES student populations in Australia. We analyze the affordances and challenges of three different approaches to critical literacies that were trialed in one classroom of 4.5 to 5.5 year-old children.
Perspective(s) or theoretical framework
Educators have created a range of approaches for developing critical literacies for different contexts (Luke & Woods, 2009). Despite there being many examples of critical work with young students, there remains a persistent myth that approaches for developing critical literacies are not viable in the early years (Comber, 2012). We argue here that systematic ways of treating literacy in all its complexity exist for the early years of schooling, and the debate need not be constructed as an either/or choice between the basic and critical dimensions of literacies.
Methods, techniques, or modes of inquiry
In this design experiment (Cobb et al, 2003) three researchers and one classroom teacher worked together to plan, implement and document three approaches to the development of critical literacies in the early years. Our point was to note the affordances and challenges of each of three approaches: investigating the use of reinterpreted fairy tales; using process drama to develop critical language awareness; and focusing on familiar literacy strategies to introduce critical thinking and substantive conversations about real issues.
In analysing these three approaches we drew on Bernstein’s (1996) notions of the classification and framing of pedagogic discourse. In developing critical literacies, educators continually weave a range of stronger and weaker classification and framing values to achieve different learning outcomes. In this project we analyzed the affordances and constraints of these shifts.
Data sources
Planning documents, photographs, field notes of classroom observations were used in collaboration with audio recorded lesson sequences to document the three approaches. Work samples of all lessons were also collected and included in the data corpus.
Our analysis of the three approaches supports the idea that critical literacies in the early years is not a single unified method. Instead, it consists of a range of approaches for teaching and learning about cultures, societies, texts and discourses. Each of the enacted approaches demonstrated our shared commitment to the use of literacy for exploring notions of equity and social justice yet each differed in philosophical assumptions as well as the classification of knowledge and the framing of pedagogy. Each enabled different new ways of learning, however each approach also encouraged the students to think and articulate in ways that had not been possible in literacy lessons previously.
Scientific or scholarly significance of the study or work
Our investigation provides several points of contention and possibility for introducing critical literacy in the early years. We conclude that critical literacy is feasible in early years classrooms, and that teachers must take up the challenge to draw on diverse traditions to re-make critical literacies that fit their contexts.