Think about thought

14th June 2008 at 01:00




INFLUENCING CHILDREN'S DEVELOPMENT Edited by Dennis Bancroft and Ronnie Carr.

Blackwell Publishers Pounds 45 and Pounds 12.99 each.

Child psychology is alive and well and growing in importance. These books make accessible to the ordinary reader the research findings of the last century without any irritating dogmatism.

Each of them has a similar format: an editorial overview is followed by a series of seven or eight chapters divided into numbered subsections. Alongside the text, icons refer either to a study guide, a television programme, a tape recording, a methodology handbook or other reading - though free standing, the books are also cross referenced to other sources of information.

Each chapter is broken up by several activities designed to encourage the reader to reflect on its text or diagrams and, after each activity, the author gives some pointers about the line of thought which might have occurred to the reader. Boxes summarising the findings of research studies are introduced into the text and each subsection is briefly summarised. Suggestions for further reading and a list of references conclude the chapters, along with selected readings.

So much for externals. What about the content of what will undoubtedly be an influential resource?

Here the same care and consistency is evident. The Foundations book contains a discussion of developmental theories and introduces Skinner's behaviourism, Chomsky's nativism, Piaget's constructivism and Vygotsky's social constructivism. Skinner thinks behaviour and negative and positive reinforcement are what matter; Chomsky thinks human beings are born with a "wired in" capacity for learning language; Piaget thinks that children construct knowledge from interactions with the physical environment and Vygotsky thinks children construct knowledge using cultural tools, especially language, drawn from the social environment.

These four names and these four theories surface in all the books in the series. Thus language development, the learning of reading or drawing, disturbed behaviour, the growing sense of self, perspectives on emotion and overall cognitive development can be considered from any of these viewpoints. The relevant chapters usually refer to the theories where appropriate and cite research evidence in support of one or the other, but take no party line.

The interplay of these four theories is set within larger interdisciplinary boundaries. Child development is discussed with regard to evolution and memory with regard to neural networks. Intelligence is dealt with in the context of the history of psychology and information processing theory. Children's social perceptions are linked with legal considerations when children are asked to be witnesses. The peer group in facilitating learning comes up in discussing computers.

In a different set of connections, Down's syndrome, autism, deafness and dyslexia are discussed in terms of the advice which might be given to the parents of these children, how developmental processes vary among children with these impairments and the kinds of therapies which might be offered.

Undergraduates (these are Open University texts) are going to be well served by this mixture of a broad theoretical base and its application to real educational and social problems. There is something here too for teachers, social workers, educational psychologists, clinical psychologists, child psychiatrists and speech therapists.

What emerges is the paradox that, while competing theories may prevent a unitary approach to every aspect of child development, separate disciplines are sufficiently congruent to allow for some potent syntheses. In other words, the post-modern fragmentation of knowledge also leads to new integrations of knowledge.

Equally importantly, these books show how future teacher training programmes might be improved. One thing I would have liked, however, is an attempt to link these studies to the sort of syllabuses which are currently offered in British schools. That, perhaps, is a future project but one which would undoubtedly produce a critique of the national curriculum.

Dr William K Kay is senior research fellow at the Centre for Theology and Education, Trinity College, Carmarthen

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