A journey into the Chilean early years (EY) worker psyche: In the search of the children within

*Photo credit: “Las hijas del pescador, villa de Horcones” (Sergio Larraín, 1957)

In this post we would like to highlight the presentation of Coca Lagos at the UCLU Chilean Society on 10 March 2017.

Her initial research aim revolved around the way Chilean EY curriculum depicts the child, as circulating representations of the child –especially national curriculum as official discourse- play a significant role in the way teachers establish relationships with children in their everyday practice. A shifting understanding of the relation between policy and practice moved Coca’s interest from curriculum to the way representations of the child are constructed in the psyche of the teacher. Specifically, she started to ponder that what happens in the classroom may have less to do with national curriculum, and a lot more with teachers’ practices and relationships, especially as the emotional and affective complexity of said practices and relationships, may have a significant impact in teachers’ subjective experience. Therefore, her main research question evolved to the following –probably provisional- state:

How do Chilean Early Years (EY) workers construct the child from their subjectivity?

Regardless of having gotten rid of the ‘curriculum part’ of Coca’s initial interest, she did remain appealed to the ‘representations of the child part’, which proved to be productive in terms of offering a tangible way of accessing how teachers answer the overarching question about the purpose of education. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, this sustained interest in representations somehow suggested psychoanalysis to her, as a theoretically and methodologically suitable language. Psychoanalysis has lucidly depicted how incommensurable the teaching endeavour can be:

‘[it] implies being able to reach out and contain a learner’s anxieties while maintaining contact with the intended learning (…); maintaining a balance between these two tasks is part of what makes the pedagogic relationship so very difficult’ (Bibby, 2015 p. 62).

‘[there are] aspects of the self that had to be given up (…) in exchange for the professional role’ (Farley, 2014 p. 121).

‘[teachers must] learn about their own conflicts [in order to] control the re-enactment of old conflicts that appear in the guise of new pedagogical encounters’ (Britzman & Pitt, 1996 p. 118).

As the previous quotes show, the way teachers construct the child does not only have to do with the real children of their everyday practice, but also with teachers’ emotions and experiences: previous and present, inside and outside the teacher-children relationship. The ‘relational others’ that take part in our everyday relationships are represented within our psyche as internal objects, and a richness of psychic processes affect them. Concordantly, Early Years Education (EYE) has been described as an eminently relational, ethical and political practice that often entails engaging with the ‘dark side’ of children’s learning and development: their distress, defiance, messiness and chaos; with attributes such as failure and uncertainty lying at its very core.

Coca thinks psychoanalysis might be proposed as a language for exploring some of these complexities, instabilities, and impossibilities. That is, to explore what the mind of the teacher brings to the educational process, while introducing a notion of time –by casting the ‘past’– to its analysis. Regarding Coca’s specific case study –Chile- its EYE sector is currently posing the question about what a quality EYE might look like. This could be a prolific opening for contributing with an exploration of how EY teachers construct the child and what could this mean for a possible definition of ‘quality’.

Coca is currently theorising the teacher-children relationship –as internalised object and lived experience as well- in terms of transference. Transference can be understood as the transference of unconscious psychic contents from one context to another. It is also a special term to denote patient’s relationship to the analyst. Transference was first observed by Freud (1914) in patients as a resistance to remember, repeating instead in action what is forgotten and repressed. Nevertheless, he also declared it as the central means of the ‘modern technique of analysis’. Thus, transference emerged both as an obstacle to treatment and what as the very element, that brings it forward.

How can we understand this paradox? Some memories can be very difficult and painful to remember, to the point they may produce a dangerous symptomatic acting out/side the analysis. This is why, for the sake of the patient, said memories are much better off unremembered, and merely acted ‘within’ the transferential relationship that takes place within the analysis. In this sense, it might be said that analytic work takes place around memories, but not always nor necessarily getting deep into it. In sum, transference transcends the action and remembrance dichotomy, thus constituting –perhaps- a way of remembering through repetition.

Transference has been very fruitfully used in education, first by Anna Freud (1928); however, it remains paradoxical in education as well:

Transference does not only entail a possible obstacle for learning, if teachers do not gain insight and work through their unconscious conflicts.

At the same time, ‘transference is the [very] condition of pedagogy. That is, teachers cannot anticipate how their students affect them and how they affect their students. It is only in the pedagogical relation that one begins to encounter one’s self as a teacher’ (Britzman and Pitt, 1996 p. 118).

As seen, transference seems to offer a rich language for talking about subjects relate to each other; ultimately, a way of theorising about the teacher-child relationship I want to explore. Therefore, it will also have a central role in the conceptualisation and design of Coca’s methodology, which aims to critically analyse -from a reflexivity perspective- the researcher-participants relationship.

Reflexivity consists in critically examining our own knowledge production processes -especially as researchers- acknowledging its situated and provisional nature. Concordantly, there is no single way of ‘doing’ reflexivity. At the moment, there are two main ‘reflexive imperatives’ that Coca would like to bring to her research: to be attentive -even suspicious- of textual seduction (Skeggs, 2002), that is, of those way-too-comfortable, attractive narratives and; therefore, to be willing to embrace the uncomfortableness inherent to the research encounter (Pillow, 2003). In slightly more concrete terms, this initially means/implies: actively seeking to disrupt and trouble comfortable orderly reflexive narratives and; not rushing into making ‘sense’ of data too fast. The first might be attempted by trying and using less ‘discourse-reliant’ methods, given narratives inherent inclination to construct coherence, continuity and closure. Regarding the latter, a first approach might include critically engaging with ‘response data’ (St. Pierre, 1997): researcher scarcely acknowledged yet impactful response to the data produced by research subjects.

Coca’s research methodology demands significant further elaboration; however, she have preliminary decided to work with teachers by using free-associative techniques (instead of interviews or other more classical qualitative approaches), and to conceptualise the researcher’s response data as countertransference, that is, focusing on her internal/lived experience of the research encounter.

Coca Lagos has a degree in psychology by U. Católica de Chile and a specialisation in psychodiagnostics by U. Diego Portales. Before becoming a PhD student at UCL-IOE, she worked in University-based educational research and as a public servant in a State education agency.