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Home arrow Geography arrow Global Perspectives on Human Capital in Early Childhood Education: Reconceptualizing Theory, Policy, and Practice


Scientific Research and Human Capital Theory

The push for enlarging early education in many countries is based on two strands of reasoning that became prominent in the last half of the twentieth century: the first strand is the idea of “cost-benefit” economic analysis (e.g., Barnett & Schweinhart, 1996) and human capital theory (e.g., Becker, 1964/1993); the second is research on “brain-based” learning and teaching, which suggests that the early years are a critical period for children in which their development may be optimized with appropriate stimulation (shown through neurological studies of brain activity in, generally, 0 to 3 years old children). These two discourses have been used by many to focus on the importance of funding early education (from 0 to 5 years) (e.g., see Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).

Increasing interest in the developmental significance of early life experiences has been fueled by extensive media coverage of research on the developing brain. From governors and state legislators to business leaders and entertainers, virtually everyone is talking about the importance of the early childhood. (p. 20)

The push for rigorous scientific data on young children’s develop - ment and learning, including the development of national standards as well as curricula for young children, emerged in relation to the increased “truth” value given to this research. This increased “truth” value given to scientific data led to privileging of normed develop - mental stages.

Scientific research was a critical strategy used to construct truth about who was normal and which children or families were perceived as abnormal and in need of different social interventions. (Bloch, 2003,

p. 206)

As the standards movement increased in the early twenty-first century in England, the United States, and in many other countries, these shifts in reasoning created a tension between the changes advocated for, even required by, these reforms and the child-centered or multicultural education that was part of “best practice” before this break in ideas about what constituted an educated young citizen.

The reforms of the early twenty-first century formally articulated new ideas about normality in young children and the universal, scientific norms of child development. National reforms in policy and curriculum became a vocal area of concern, with many legislators, caregivers, and families shifting from diversity education to standards established in literacy and numeracy, among others. Education policy discourse is itself an amalgamation of differing social, historical, and political discursive disciplinary fields of study such as developmental psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and political theory, among others. Since the turn of the twentieth century, social science research including child development knowledges, along with other psychologies, have robustly participated in the normalizing of subjectivities “helping to identify who and what was normal and what was abnormal and required intervention” (Bloch & Popkewitz, 2000, p. 258). These knowledges govern how we think of the child. One of the ways these knowledges have shaped the subjectivities of child is through ideas about “normal,” which I problematize in this chapter.

I posit that at this point of rupture young children shifted from being primarily viewed as important learners in need of protection to young students and future human capital for the nation. The most significant and clearest legislative embodiment of this rupture in England was the Education Act 2002 although other legislation prior to and following this act was part of the rupture as well. Through circulating current local and global discourses, the young child has become inscribed as a citizen in the making. The early twenty-first- century discourses, as in other times, have crafted the child with a renewed sense of importance in relation to the nation, now imbued with potential and new dispositions. For example, this orientation can be seen in language such as, “The early learning goals set high expectations for the end of the foundation stage” (QCA, 2001, p. 3; italics added). I have added italics here as I do in other places to emphasize the newness of certain language—in this case—“foundation stage,” the emphasis on a new distinct identity, the importance of learning goals assessed at the end of the foundation stage; the italics are to highlight ways of reasoning that appear normal but signal new and multiple narratives or discourses.

I argue that the young child, in various social and historical locations, is a site upon which multiple narratives are written: romanticized as innocent, pure, and in need of protection; demonized as uncivilized, in need of salvation or governance; and categorized as a being with potential, a future contribution to the economy as a consumer and a source of labor and skill. Within a certain notion of “history of the present” of England’s early years policies, I have analyzed cultural reasoning about young children as citizens and protocitizens, with the shifts in gaze and power/knowledge relationships that make these movements possible. Here I draw on the work of Michel Foucault who used multiple terms to delineate the ways that he played with history in his work, for example, archeology of the present, genealogy, regimes of truth, history of thought, and history of the present (O’Farrell, 2005, pp. 61-73); history of the present is the term that most closely describes what I have attempted to do in this chapter, “examining the past in order to throw light on contemporary ‘problems’ ” (p. 71). Nonetheless, I have not focused on causal linkages. My purpose is to develop an understanding of these particular historio-cultural discursive ways of reasoning and how they interplay and play with policy initiatives. I argue that these have created an uneasy but unique collection of understandings packed into the neat language of government policy. As part of this argument, I first trace the breaks and slippages in ideas about the education of young children in this brief history. I provide this history to exemplify the fact that the young child is not a stable entity as seen through the grids of reasoning either of law or of educational practice, but rather is a shifting entity created by discourse. The first shift in the grids of reasoning about young children that I discuss is the idea of young children as human capital for the nation.

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