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Democratic practice


Monday 16 November 2020

Biden has won! It has been nail-biting stuff for those who follow politics. Even if politics is not your thing, it has been hard to avoid the emotional build-up of the American presidential election and the heightening problems of racial division in the USA in recent times. But it is not just in America …. think about unrest in Hong Kong, protesting students in Thailand, the women in Poland and so it goes – we won’t even mention Brexit!   Never mind COVID-19, the world feels to be politically on a knife-edge.  So, you might ask what has this got to do with this blog?

Well, in our respective roles, whether that is working directly with young children and their families or teaching early childhood students in further or higher education, I think now more than ever we need to check our social and democratic compasses.   I don’t mean just in terms of Government or society; I mean in terms of what we want for our youngest children here in Ireland.

I have always been fascinated with Reggio and its origins. Out of the pain and injustices of the second world war, the Reggio approach emerged from the community to ensure that never again would people accept or just go along with the status quo.  The Reggio ways of working support children to be critical and creative thinkers, problem solvers, collaborators and active citizens.   The notion that we too as educators or teachers have a role in supporting very young children as democratic citizens is a powerful one – and it’s true.

Democratic practice is a formidable concept, about which Peter Moss writes extensively, and there are opportunities every day to help our children think and behave as active citizens.  The simple act of listening to children says that we value what they have to say.  Of course, listening is the start but I think we also need to help them form and voice their opinions within the context of the group.  In other words, we have to guide them in the practices of challenging and articulating their viewpoint, maybe questioning or giving them the vocabulary to name feelings.  This act of finding voice can be challenging even for us as adults.  I think of times I have stayed silent and avoided saying the hard thing out of fear!   

Perhaps we want our children to be questioning, critical, considered, brave – willing to stand up for what is right.  That is a tall order and one that they grow into slowly.   Harry Potter comes to mind. If you are a fan you will remember when Dumbledore awarded extra points to Neville on the basis that he demonstrated extraordinary courage because "it takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”    Helping children to be respectful and powerful communicators, with friends and adversaries alike, takes time and sensitive skill on our part, but it is an approach that I think will pay dividends for our children and for our society, if what we want is a true democracy.  To support children in this democratic stance we need to slow down in our pedagogy and become more conscious of what we are trying to nurture. 

So, consider the potential within your room or setting to cultivate a culture of democratic practice in the small things. On the larger and global stage maybe we can breathe a little easier as America readjusts to a new presidency and hopefully can begin to mend internal divides.


Marlene McCormack is a lecturer and placement coordinator on the Bachelor of Early Childhood Education in the DCU Institute of Education. Over her time in early childhood, she has worn many hats, as playgroup leader, centre manager, director of training, department head in ECI and always as an advocate for those working directly with children and families.  Her current focus is on preparing students for professional practice and her research interests include pedagogy and documentation.
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