‘superficial happy endings’

There is an article I really like on children’s conflict that analyses a group of children’s use of social structures (already in place) to enjoy agency in their world. She considers children’s adoption of gendered and learner identities in this regard, drawing on Gee’s critical discourse analysis theory.  It is quite an academic article and draws on theories not all teachers will be familiar with, but it is also incredibly interesting and hugely relevant to many areas of education.

Wohlwend’s piece is based on a particular event that happened in her playground, specifically a moment when the children took ownership of a conflict resolution tool (called ‘a friendship circle’) that she herself had created to ‘teach’ them to settle their own disputes. These children adopted the rules of the friendship circle and invoked its power as a  strategy to meet their own social ends (and not the goal of conflict resolution that it was originally intended for). …put another way, the children learned the teacher’s rules and  used them almost strategically in their power games. She describes how, on reflection, she realised that her intervention in the incident described was based on an adult need to impose what amount to ‘superficial happy endings’ (p.77) (I include this reflective paragraph below).

I don’t think I’ve summed it up very well here, but it is a fascinating article and well worth a couple of readings. I’ve copied the abstract below and here quote the section that I really got hooked by (when she explains her theoretical approach and methodology):

Wohlwend explains: “I use critical discourse analysis theory and methodology (Gee, 1999) to examine how social language surrounding the conflict elicited and constituted gendered performances of teacher protection, nurturance, and authority as well as child innocence, agency, and obedience. I analyzed the playground dialogues according to Gee’s analytic tools, two of which are highlighted here: cultural models and situated identities.
The cultural models that the children and I drew from provided us with shared storylines for the expected ways that boys and girls should interact during conflict. These cultural models are simplified representations of the world that set up expectations for typical cases; in this way, cultural models create normalizing binaries by determining what counts and what does not count as legitimate practice within our gendered discourse. Cultural models such as DAP ‘set up what count as central, typical cases, and what count as marginal, nontypical cases’ (Gee, 1996, p. 78). In this way, cultural models create and apply hidden criteria for social exclusion.
Individuals use language to get their social interactions recognized as situated identities – the available social positions that are recognized in particular contexts, such as compliant students within the institutional context of school (Gee, 1996, 1999). Situated identities make up the range of performances that are accepted as a valid way of doing things within a discourse. These heteroglossic (Bakhtin, 1981) performances draw upon and signal shared histories of previous performances within and across discourses. Based on these histories, situated identities and practices are linked to particular spaces so that different roles are available to a child in the classroom than on the playground. Further, individuals enact more than one situated identity in the same time-space. Children on the playground are simultaneously six-year-olds, students, peers, girls, runners, and football players among others.
The universe of available cultural models and associated situated identities offers far more
diverse ways of dealing with children’s conflicts than the handful of models outlined below.
Although I could also analyze the cultural models at work in this situation as classed or raced, the obviously gendered nature of the 10-on-1 attack of girls against a boy prompts my particular attention to gender. The cultural models found in this incident, embedded in DAP and other institutional norms for early childhood education, normalized and reduced the possibilities for enacting other (cross-)cultural models of gender, agency, and authority.” (p.78)

As mentioned above, Wohlwend’s article is based on a critically reflective approach to the incident described. She writes: “When I reviewed the incident, it became apparent to me that I had exacted a superficial ‘happy ending’ which could mandate no more than nominal social acceptance. I struggled with my culpability as a teacher, in promoting a conflict resolution tool designed to encourage perspective taking and empathy which instead proved an instrument for coercion and exclusion, in upholding a ‘just’ conclusion in which the girls were reprimanded for combining forces and asserting themselves against a perceived threat, and in failing to provide an authentic resolution for the victimized boy.
The blocking circle incident troubled me as it indicated that friendship meetings failed to
ensure cooperation among children; moreover, in this case, it appeared that a friendship meeting had actually aggravated the conflict. The blocking circle shook my confidence in children’s ability [-p.78]  to settle their own disputes without resorting to tattling or seeking adult intervention. The harshness of the children’s conflict challenged my beliefs about peer relationships, my assumptions about the innocence of play, and my acceptance of common developmental expectations about the social naivety of young children.” (pp.77-78) I love her honesty here – and I love how she models true reflective practice… there are lots of excellent points to be read in this article!

Karen Wohlwend (2007) Friendship meeting or blocking circle? Identities in the laminated spaces of a playground conflict Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 8(1), pp.73-88

“ABSTRACT Drawing from an incident that took place during a year-long investigation of children’s play and peer culture on a school playground, the author argues that seemingly neutral child-centered techniques can maintain and even strengthen existing gender inequalities as teachers and children access laminated but contradictory identity positions surrounding agentic educational discourse. As children revisit the original conflict, they laminate time-spaces to discursively reconstruct events and position themselves advantageously. Critical discourse analysis problematizes the effects of a conflict resolution strategy based upon gendered notions of learner agency in a cultural model of teaching: developmentally appropriate practice (DAP). Although the focus of this article is a single event on one elementary school playground in the USA, the author suggest that the presence of the DAP cultural model internationally means that many early childhood teachers may experience similar ambiguity over gendered tensions that arise around issues of agency and authority as they attempt to resolve children’s conflicts during play.” (p.73)

Reference is to: Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: four essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Gee, J.P. (1996) Social Linguistics and Literacies: ideology in discourses, 2nd edn. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Gee, J.P. (1999) An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: theory and method. London: Routledge.


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in early years education, Images of Parent Child and Expert, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, social and political contexts, Understanding Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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