Major Theories in Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology I want to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are.

Last time we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide is with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment.

Much has been written of the various theories of child development and I am not the best person to rehash them all (but see the reading list at the end of this post). What I would like to do is to give a brief introduction to each of the major contributors with a particular focus on the underlying beliefs which affect their overall philosophy. This will be the fodder for future posts in which we delve a little more deeply into the trends in child psychology and how we as Christians should view them. (I also have an earlier, less detailed post, similar to this one which you can find here.)

Major Thinkers in Developmental Psychology

(roughly in chronological order)

John Amos Comenius (see also this earlier post on the history of Christian education)

Who, Where and When:  a Brethren pastor from Moravia (1592-1670)

Major Contributions: Tried to create a universal education system which was “pansophic,” i.e. in which all extant knowledge was included (a goal which probably seemed more possible in his day and age). Education should follow the stages of mental development, happen through the medium of the senses, and take into account children’s interests (common ideas, as we will see). He saw language enrichment as a pre-requisite for learning and interest and attention as indicators of readiness to learn. The goal of education is to give the individual a happy, productive life and to ensure the continued morality of society.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Comenius believed education should be begun before the mind is corrupted (which tells us that he did not believe in total depravity) and that the child has a predisposition to learn. He speaks of the “seeds of knowledge, of virtue, and of piety” being within children (Elkind, p. 35).

John Locke (Locke is also mentioned in this post)

Who, Where and When: Enlightenment philosopher (1632-1704). Though his family was Puritan and Lockerbie argues that he was Christian, it is not at all clear he was.

Major Contributions: The mind is blank at birth (the so-called tabula rasa idea). What we know comes to us through our senses. Character is formed early on. Children should learn early to deny themselves their own desires. Children learn best when their minds are in tune. Formal education should be delayed so as to not kill the love of learning. Learning is done through scientific experimentation. The goal of education is primarily to preserve the status quo.

Beliefs and Assumptions: There are no universally accepted truths. Our reason leads us to the knowledge of self-evident truths (think the Declaration of Independence here) including the belief that there is a being we call God, but a God who would have the same attributes no matter what we call him.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (discussed in this post on the origin of evil)

Who, Where and When: A French philosopher (1712-1778) and a really bad parent who abandoned his own (illegitimate) children.

Major Contributions: Education should be natural — preferably in the country, away from society. Learning is through direct experience and the child will have a natural inclination to learn. Books are downplayed (except Robinson Crusoe). The goal is to enable natural man to be able to live in society without being corrupted by its influences. Proper education is for the individual, not the society.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Man is naturally good and it is society that corrupts him and makes him evil. Our first, natural impulses are good. Formal education is corrupting and bad. Nature is best.  Organized religion is unnecessary, most governments are bad and adults should not exert authority over children. (And, by the way, he said females’ only role is to please men.)

Johan Heinrich Pestalozzi

Who, Where and When: Swiss educational reformer (1746-1827). The famous Prussian schools which in turn influenced American ones were based upon his model.

Major Contributions: The goal of education is the development of the individual, not meeting society’s needs. Education is not the imposing of knowledge but the development of potential. All human activity must be self-generated, not imposed from the outside. He emphasized the child’s experiences rather than verbal instruction.  The best model for education is the first — that is, the family and especially the mother-child relationship. He emphasized a home-like environment and teachers who truly loved each child. Movement from the simple to the complex, eg. from hands-on manipulatives to theoretical ideas. The goal of education is primarily social in that it deals with the child’s relationships and interactions.

Beliefs and Assumptions: The sacredness of personality and the potential of the child.  Education can create responsible citizens who know right from wrong and ultimately lead to the happiness of humanity. The child is basically good and will naturally develop in good lines without negative outside influences.

Friedrich Froebel (see this post specifically on Froebel)

Who, Where and When: (1782-1852); studied under Pestalozzi; known as the founder of modern kindergarten

Major Contributions:  He stressed the importance of the early years and thought young children could learn much more than had been thought possible. Though he invented kindergarten which implies children are hothouse flowers (hence the garten of kindergarten), he actually had studied crystal formation and thought of their development as like that of crystals — just as each element will develop a certain form and structure as it crystallizes, so the child’s natural development is contained within himself.  He believed there were some perfect forms that children could learn from through life so he gave them spheres, cylinders, and cubes. The goal of education is metaphysical unity of man, nature, universe and spirit (see below). The role of the teacher is very important and he also emphasized the role of the mother in infancy.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Froebel denied the existence of original sin but believed man in his natural state is uncorrupted. If there is bad that enters into the child, then it comes from the adults in his life interfering in what is naturally good. Each one has an inner self which is good and an outer self which is the source of the bad in him. Children need to realize their good inner selves (which they do by playing with his perfect forms). All is Unity (big “U”) which is identified with God; this Unity is the goal of education. The child goes through an evolution which mirrors that of humanity.

Johann Friedrich Herbart

Who, Where and When: (1776-1841)

Major Contributions: Herbart devised a method of teaching called Herbartianism which was influential in America in the 19th century. He was the first to connect psychology and education. He developed a five-step pedagogy in which teachers select a topic, connect it to what the students already know, encourage their interest and perception of it, coalesce that they have learned and apply it to daily living. Herbartianism has been compared to the modern Unit Studies approach (see this post). In terms of goals the emphasis was on one’s social contribution and morality; true purpose is found in being a good citizen.  Education (which at the time meant moral training) is done through teaching (which is the conveying of knowledge).

Beliefs and Assumptions: Pluralistic realism. He saw children born as something like blank slates with no innate ideas or categories of thought and not inherently good or evil. Moral character (the goal of education) is a gradual acquisition. Ethics is subsumed under aesthetics. Morality can be taught.

Horace Mann (see this post and this one)

Who, Where and When: Father of the common school movement in the US (1796-1859)

Major Contributions: The goal of education is to turn unruly children into disciplined, judicial citizens. Education should be public and non-sectarian and administered by trained teachers. Common schools with all classes of society to equalize men’s conditions. Moral education was also the domain of the school. Though his schools were to be religiously neutral they did include Christian morals and Bible teaching, though at essentially the lowest common denominator.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Unitarian. He believed children should decide for themselves what to believe. Humanitarian optimism: the gradual advancement of the human race in dignity and happiness.

John Dewey (I have discussed Dewey a lot — see especially this post and this one)

Who, Where and When: The father of the modern American school system (1859-1952);

Major Contributions: The purpose of education is not to convey knowledge but to share a social experience and integrate the child into democratic ideas. Education serves democracy which is almost a spiritual community. Children participate in their own learning, but he is not entirely child-led. Material should be presented in a way that allows the student to relate it to previous knowledge. He advocated progressive education in which children are given educative experiences which they then react to and thus adapt and progress (but not all experiences are good; some are miseducative). The teacher guides this process and selects the curriculum and experiences based on the child’s interests.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Secular idealism. Morals are social and pragmatic. Democracy is almost a religion with him. His ideas are based on an evolutionary mindset (see links above) and he believed there is no transcendence, i.e. there is no super-natural.

Rudolf Steiner (see also this post on Waldorf education)

Who, Where and When: Steiner (1861-1925) is the founder of the Waldorf school movement and also the creator of a philosophy known as anthroposophism.

Major Contributions: In contrast to others, Steiner did not believe we know only through our senses but that the mind can grasp truth directly. Children advance through stages. In the first they are dominated by willing, in the second by feeling, and finally they are able to think. The goal is to integrate these three. Steiner included a lot of the arts and music in education.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Steiner essentially created his own philosophy/religion. Anthroposophism comes out of the spiritualism of the late 1800s (which was itself a rejection of materialism). In contrast to theosophism Steiner did not believe in hidden spiritual knowledge only for a select group but believed that the spirit world could be known through observation and meditation. People have a three-fold nature consisting of thinking, feeling, and willing. Because children do not have all three yet (at least not in equal measure) they are more potential than actual human beings.

Maria Montessori (see this post)

Who, Where and When: First female, Italian doctor (1870-1952). Worked initially with “backwards” children.

Major Contributions: Children can do much more for themselves if their environment is scaled to their size (it is thanks to Montessori that we now have kid-sized chairs). Believed the main part of education was to create an environment in which children can learn through self-directed activities. Children thrive in an uncluttered environment (I wish someone would tell my kids this . . .). Education through muscular and sensory education, not direct instruction. Not a big fan of play for its own sake.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Especially at the end of her life, Montessori was into Theosophy, the spiritualism of the age. The child is born with potential for positive qualities but needs education to develop them. The goal of education is to promote civilized society, even to achieve world peace.

Sigmund Freud

Who, Where and When: The major psychoanalyst (1856-1939) who proposed a psychosexual theory of development.

Major Contributions: Sexuality, even in infants, is a major contributor to psychology. This term is understood very broadly and one goes through developmental stages. Infants are controlled by their oral and anal desires. The goal is mastery of instincts and emotions in healthy ways.

Beliefs and Assumptions: The human is another animal who can be studied using scientific methods and theories. Psychological determinism: our psychology is a product of the influences on us; it is not subject to chance or to our free-will. Human behavior is the product of unconscious fears, emotions, etc. It is our physical, bodily desires which drive our development.

Jean Piaget

Who, Where and When: A teacher and educational thinker (1896-1980) known for his work on the development of human intelligence.

Major Contributions: Piaget’s work is mainly about epistemology — how we know what we know and particularly how children get knowledge and intelligence. He said that we learn through a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis — that is, we have an idea (thesis) which is then challenged (antithesis) and thus we come to a new understanding (synthesis).  Children do reason but their reasoning is different than ours. Children start out egocentric and must learn to see others’ viewpoints. Children have unique worldviews; they do not view the world as adults do. Ideas that seem wrong to us are often age-appropriate thinking for children (eg. thinking whoever is taller must be older). Children construct their own reality based on what they know (constructivism). In the first stage (ages 0-2) children’s learning is sensory-motor and the main thing they need to learn is object permanence. In ages 2-7 they engage in transductive thinking. They must learn that things can be more than one thing (dog and animal) and have multiple relationships (mother and sister).  Between ages 7 and 11 they engage in concrete operations and only get to formal operations — being able to think about thinking and this learn grammar and algebra — at ages 12-15. After this there are no new mental systems. The goal of education is to make people who can create new things and think new thoughts.

Beliefs and Assumptions: I have found very little on Piaget’s personal beliefs. He was a student of Freud and a follower of Darwin. One can see the evolutionary influence in his theory — the sequence of thesis, antithesis, synthesis is a kind of adaptation to a new environment.  There is also a natural development. Teachers do no really teach as such but children react to their environment and thus develop along natural lines (though abnormalities can occur to derail that natural progress). Though Piaget rejected the idea that the individual’s evolution mimics that of the human race, yet his ideas are clearly evolutionary in terms of the natural progression and the ways in which it is said to occur.

David Elkind (see this post)

Who, Where and When: A modern scholar (1931-) of child development and a student of Piaget.

Major Contributions: Elkind largely follows Piaget but also blends in aspects from others. He sees a triad of elements which work together in education: play, love, and work. Each major stage is dominated by one of these — play first for young children, then work, then love in the teenage years. The goal is to integrate them to form a well-rounded individual.

Beliefs and Assumptions: I don’t know a lot about Elkind’s belief system. It is clear from reading him that he is materialistic in his world view.

Erk Erikson

Who, Where and When: (1902-1994). A German who ended up working largely in the US. A student of Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter) and a trained Montessori teacher.

Major Contributions: Erikson delineated no less than 8 stages of human development. He saw identity crises as the key to development. He was particularly interested in how one person’s identity crisis might have larger societal implications and wrote on Martin Luther and Gandhi. His 8 stages each represent a choice in which the child can end up going one way or another. Infants will either trust or mistrust, depending on whether their needs are met. Toddlers will either become autonomous (=self-mastery) or face shame and doubt. In the third stage the child will either begin to have initiative or face guilt. Education creates individual identity.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Humans have a long childhood in which there is, if all goes right, a lot of development. Erikson is essentially hopeful about such development whole acknowledging that the negative can happen. He does see it as possible to catch up later in life, however, if one stage has gone wrong. Though he may be using the words differently than we would, he paints shame and guilt as negatives to be avoided.  Positive mental health is equated with self-esteem.

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky

Who, Where and When: A Russian (1896-1934) with no formal training in psychology.

Major Contributions: The major forces in education are not biological but societal and cultural. People internalize the societal tools they are exposed to, things like language and mathematics. These tools then shape their higher mental processes. Thus one can imagine him saying that a peasant who may seem stupid to others is so because of his cultural circumstances not do to any genetic or biological fault in himself. He also believed in the zone of proximal development (ZPD) which says that we are able to do things with help before we can do them independently. There is always a new skill which is not yet fully achieved but which one is progressing toward (this is in contrast to others who saw the stage of development more as sudden leaps). Children should thus be put in situations which stretch them and push them on to the next level.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Heavily influenced by Marxism. Unlike others he did not see the maturing process as a natural trajectory but as entirely societal.

B.F. Skinner

Who, Where and When: A behaviorist (1904-1990).

Major Contributions: Behaviorism looks at environmental influences and sees all behavior as driven by outer stimuli and by rewards and punishments. His goal for education, as depicted in a fictional book he wrote, seems to have been to create a utopian society through operant conditioning which reinforces behavior.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Skinner took into account only the material; no consideration was given to man’s spiritual or even emotional nature. Children were experimented on in the same manner as lab rats.

John Bowlby

Who, Where and When: A researcher and child psychiatrist known for his attachment theory (1907-1990).

Major Contributions: Children are born with a need for attachments. These attachments serve an evolutionary advantage as they would get the child cared for and protected. These attachments play a role in later development, particularly if they do not form normally. Infants need to know that their mother is available and reliable. Again there is a staged development as attachments form and progress.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Again there is a distinct evolutionary basis. Though relationships are at the core of Bowlby’s attachment theory, even here they are given evolutionary justification.

Albert Bandura

Who, Where and When: A cognitive psychologist who advanced a social learning theory (1925-).

Major Contributions: Learning can happen not just through doing but through observation and modeling. Not all learning is related to rewards and punishments (vs. Skinner). Internal reinforcements such as pride and a sense of accomplishment are also important. Social influences are important. Internal mental states are part of the learning process (again vs. Skinner). One’s mental state and motivation will affect whether one learns.

Beliefs and Assumptions: I didn’t find much on his personal beliefs.

——————————–

Those are the major contributors to the field of developmental psychology as I understand them. Next time we will make some more general statements about the trends among them and how we as Christians should view their work.

Nebby

Reading List

“25 Things Research Says about Child Development,” Washington, D.C.: Child Trends, 2004.

Cherry, Kendra. “Child Development Theories and Examples,” Very Well Mind (accessed 7/8/2020). ~~ This site contains many other good articles by Cherry as well.

“Child Development, History of the Concept of,” Encylopedia.com (Updated 7/4/2020).

Elkind, David. Giants in the Nursery. St. Paul: RedLeaf Press, 2015.

____________ The Power of Play. Da Capo Press, 2007.

Lockerbie, Bruce. A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007 (first published 1994).

Mooney, Carol Garhart. Theories of Childhood. St. Paul: RedLeaf Press, 2013 (2nd ed.).

Murk, Donald. “Piaget, Erikson, Kolhberg, & Jesus: Growing the Soul,” Messiah College, 2017.

Oswalt, Angela. “CHILD & ADOLESCENT DEVELOPMENT: OVERVIEW,” Gulf Bend Center (accessed 7/8/2020).

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Last time we looked at the big thinkers in the field of child psychology, with a particular emphasis on their personal beliefs with an eye to how these might affect their scholarship. This post also contains a bibliography of the sources I have used in all of this. […]

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  2. […] post we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. We then looked at some of the major thinkers in the field of developmental psychology with particular emphasis on thei…. And last time we looked at some of the major trends within the field and how we as Christians […]

    Reply

  3. […] Major thinkers in the field of developmental psychology  […]

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