Colourful Children

Part 6 – Power and power structures

Here is part 6 of the web course, which is done individually before the 11th of December. It takes approx. 45 minutes to go through. 

Remember to document your thoughts and reflections. 

At this moment you will get increased knowledge about what power and power structures means, and how they can affect children’s possibilities in pre-school.

Power and power structures in pre-school

Societal norms are connected to power. A norm-critical approach contains an understanding of power structures as existing everywhere in society and affecting people’s lives and possibilities. Power structures are created and re-created when limiting norms are repeated. This happens through, for instance, legislation, how resources are divided and how institutions, such as schools, are conducting their education.

What is power?

To be able to work with equality, it is necessary to understand how power operates. A norm-critical attitude proceeds from the philosopher Michel Foucault’s ideas. Foucault explains power as something both negative and positive, it both gives and limits space. Power is also under constant change and always relational (Foucault 2002, p 98 and 103). It can be the positive experience of ”feeling empowered,” but power can also be negative. For instance, to do something to another person against his or her will, like controlling her/him. Power is relational, but at the same time dependent on power structures in society, for example, an unequal sharing of economic resources leads to inequality (Martinsson and Reimers 2008, p 20).

A person who repeats normative actions will often get access to power. Ideas of what is normal, desirable and true contribute, therefore to the distribution of power (Martinsson and Reimers 2008, p 7-30). How power distributes is contextual and depends on what time and place we exist. For example, the power dynamics between men and women in Sweden today is different compared to a hundred years ago. The distribution of power also depends on where we are, for instance, if we are in a pre-school or at home (de los Reyes, Molina and Mulinari 2006, p 22).

Intersectional gender pedagogy

To understand how power is distributed from a norm-critical perspective, the concept of intersectionality could be useful. An intersectional perspective acknowledges intersecting power structures and demands a challenge of the same. Intersectionality can be seen as a tool to understand how different power structures based on categories like class, health, race/ethnicity, sexuality, gender, functionality, age, and migration cooperate and also co-create each other (see, for instance, de los Reyes, Molina and Mulinari 2006). An intersectional perspective helps us understand the complexity of how power is distributed through societal structures and, at the same time, by specific situations in a given context.

Intersectional gender pedagogy creates awareness on excluding norms and power inequalities in teaching and education. Instead of seeing children as a homogeneous group, we can see differences between children as assets and, at the same time, work against the limiting norms that create inequality and discrimination. We can also start asking questions about which effects children’s different experiences have on the learning process (Lykke 2012, p 30-31). The school curriculum states that children, through their experiences and ways of thinking, create meaning and context. That is why it is important that children in pre-school are treated with respect regarding their beings, their way of thinking and understanding their own environment (SKOLFS 2018:50).

How are power structures saturating pre-schools?

From an intersectional perspective, we notice that in pre-schools, as well as in society, there are power structures based on categorizations like, for example, age, gender, ability and race/ethnicity. In a preschool context there is also a predetermined power structure – namely that adults have power over children. Adults take decisions that children need to follow and accept. The distribution of power between adults and children in a preschool environment is partly based on the fact that children need care, which leads to the child’s dependency on the adult. The power asymmetry is also based on the fact that it is adults who control the direction of the pre-schools and the formulation and interpretation of the curriculum (Dolk 2013, p 33; Salmson and Ivarsson 2015, p 54-55).

Self-reflection as norm critical practice

One way to get practical with a norm critical pedagogy is to reflect upon one’s own power position as a preschool employee. Self-reflection is a central part of a norm-critical pedagogical practice. Pre-school staff need to reflect on their own position, privileges and what they bring into work. Self-reflection is about scrutinizing who we are and where we come from. With a norm-critical perspective, it is possible to start discovering and examining the different starting points we have in our work and also understanding that who we are and the experiences we have shape us and our power positions in our professional role. What we, consciously or not, bring with us into work shapes how we meet children. It also affects how we relate to each other as colleagues, which teaching content we choose, which perspectives we put on that material and how we form our leadership.

To challenge existing power structures can lead to vulnerability, resistance or other feelings within us. It can be hard to give up old ways of thinking and get new insights (Hooks 1994, p 43). The feelings that may arise during a norm critical work are an important part of the process (Kumashiro 2009, p 24). It is necessary to have an understanding of different emotional reactions and where they come from and work with that. We might need to investigate the resistance and the feelings that arise within us and create space for vulnerability (Zembylas 2012, p 118).