The University of Newcastle, Australia

All the colours of childhood

Associate Professor I-Fang Lee’s intercultural research is scrutinising and challenging our contemporary construction of what consists an ‘ideal’ child and childhood, revealing new perspectives that can strengthen early childhood education pedagogy.

Image of I-Fang Lee

What does society consider a ‘normal’ child and why? How do modern educational policies disadvantage children who fall outside this cultural idea of ‘normal’? In her research, Associate Professor I-Fang Lee doesn’t shy away from challenging the status quo if it means creating better support for our youngest community members.

“My research trajectories and scholarly interests have focused on contemporary issues relating to equity and justice in the field of early childhood care and education. In my work, I have continued to ask critical questions and explore layers of contemporary childhoods.”

By critically examining these accepted narratives across cultures—particularly as they relate to Asian childhoods—I-Fang hopes to shift the way we see children within society and create more appropriate and inclusive early schooling support.

“I take a ‘hard’ and ‘different’ look at what is taken for granted in research, policy, curriculum and pedagogical practices related to childhoods, families and programs.

“For me, it is important to employ critical perspectives to integrate the effects of the dominant construction of, and about, children and their lifeworlds.

“Critical theoretical lenses enable us to re-think and act with inclusivity toward social justice for greater equality and equity in and across global and local contexts.”

Inclusive and holistic education

I-Fang’s research is tackling some of the most pervasive challenges in the field of early childhood education and care (ECEC), including an alarming trend of commoditising children’s educations and futures.

“ECEC has been rationalised as a great social investment for all children, which promises to yield future success—both social and personal advancements. While this thread of economic reasoning has effectively promoted the importance of ECEC, it has also dangerously legitimatised the commodification of education globally and locally.

“As ECEC has been commodified, issues of affordability, accessibility and accountability have become of critical importance with political, social, cultural and educational dimensions. For instance, whose children can afford quality ECEC? How do we define what constitutes quality ECEC programs?

“Without asking such questions, we may be perpetuating the status quo and further marginalising already disadvantaged groups of children. These critical questions allow us to unpack, as well as address, challenges relating to inclusion and exclusion in early childhood education for greater equity and equality.”

I-Fang also identifies the trend of ‘schoolification’ as a significant challenge for childhood care and education within today’s global political economy. She explains that there is increasing pressure on early learning centres to focus heavily on preparing children for primary school—and this can come with a risk of compromising the provision of holistic and age-appropriate care.

“The making of ‘miniature students’ in preschool years is changing the landscape of teaching and learning in the early years. What’s important in ECEC is a holistic approach to support children’s belonging, being and becoming in their growth and wellbeing.

“As much as we advocate for the importance of play in early childhood education, over-emphasis on measurable learning outcomes in early literacy and numeracy can be problematic. It changes children’s contemporary schooling experience by reducing it to academic performance and achievement. Children’s agency and voice can become lost through the schooling process.”

Creating local and global impact

I-Fang’s academic journey has spanned the USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia, where she has been involved in developing and implementing several international projects in collaboration with global scholars.

“At the international level, I have been participating and leading research projects that contribute to carving out a space to support ongoing critical discussions relating to childhoods.”

I-Fang has also contributed to global research progress and knowledge exchange through her roles as co-editor and associate editors for two international journals: Global Studies of Childhood and International Critical Childhood Policy Studies Journal.

While I-Fang is passionate about making a global impact, her work is also creating change at national and local levels. Most recently, she has worked as chief investigator for a multi-year, multi-site Australian Research Council Discovery Project: Global Childhoods in the Asian Century: Connecting Policy, Educational Experiences and Everyday Lifeworlds of Children in Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

“This project explores and investigates connections between policy contexts, school experiences and children's everyday activities to enable policy makers, educators and parents to provide improved learning opportunities in children's lives.

“This work contributes a holistic understanding of children’s lifeworlds in schools and their homes across different cultural settings to better understand the constructions of childhoods and studenthoods.”

Empowering early childhood teachers

I-Fang is also shaping the future of early childhood learning through her teaching roles with the University, where she is heavily involved in designing and delivering high-quality courses grounded in research.

I-Fang supervises several higher research students, is the course coordinator for several undergraduate and master courses and holds the role of program convenor for the Bachelor of Teaching (Early Childhood/Primary) (Honours) and Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood/Primary) programs. Every year, I-Fang facilitates intercultural learning by leading multiple New Colombo Plan Mobility Projects with the University, providing students with the opportunity to learn overseas.

While empowering the next generation of early childhood teachers, I-Fang also partners with local centres to support current practice. In recent years, I-Fang has built a strong relationship with the Early Learning Working Party at the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese School Office where she offers critical perspectives to support and advocate for children’s rights to play in school settings.

“This standpoint on the importance of play and its positive implications for education and wellbeing has been well recognised as one of the key themes in the Early Learning Policy within the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Schools.”

Working alongside early learning teachers is a career highlight for I-Fang. She revels in seeing how research is starting to inform practice, empowering teachers to question misguided practice and advocate for children’s rights on a day-to-day basis.

“One of the proud moments that keeps me going in the field of early childhood education and care is seeing how early childhood educators and teachers (both pre-service and in-service) are beginning to ask critical questions in their daily practices to rethink why they did what they did in the classrooms with children.”

“This means that my work has the capacity to create impact for teachers, working with them to unpack dominant narratives in education. I believe if we don’t question and challenge the taken-for-granted ‘truth’ in our education settings, we are providing a mis-education for all children.”