Posts Tagged ‘education’

Scientific Evidence for the Power of Fiction

Dear Reader,

Just a few random thoughts today from books I have been reading.

First from Virginia Woolf, a feminist writer of the 1920s:

“Fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact.” A Room of One’s Own (Leonard Woolf, 1957) p. 4

And Abigail Marsh, from a secular professor of psychology and neuroscience:

” . . . books are windows into the minds of the people who wrote them and the people who are written about. Fiction, in particular, represents what the psychologist Keith Oatley calls ‘the mind’s flight-simulator’ — a vehicle for exploring the rich mental and emotional landscapes of people, we have never met.

” . . . fiction enables us to become emotionally invested in the characters we encounter, to care about their plights and their fates.” The Fear Factor (Basic Books, 2017) pp. 243-44

Marsh goes on to argue that written fiction does this better than other media because it requires the use of the imagination in a way visual media do not. She cites studies which show that reading fiction increases people’s compassion and empathy and further says that:

“People who read fiction (but not nonfiction) are better at identifying complex and subtle emotions in others’ faces. And when subjects in one study were experimentally assigned to read a work of literary fiction, they reported increased empathetic concern for others even long after they had closed the book.” p. 245

If you are uncomfortable with these non-Christian sources — and even if you are not — I also highly recommend “Christians and Lit,” a recent episode of the Mortification of Spin podcast in which the hosts discuss the value of fiction, and give lots of good book recommendations.

Off to do some reading!

Nebby

Stages of Development in Classical and CM Education

sDear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

The previous posts in this mini-series are:

Having looked last time as Jean Piaget’s theory of the development of the child’s intellect and reasoning abilities, I would like today to look at how the stages he delineates line up with both the classical and Charlotte Mason philosophies of education.

To recap, Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

We do not typically associate a Charlotte Mason education with stages of development.  I would suggest, however, that there is at least one major stage distinction she does make, that between school-age children and pre-school age children. A Charlotte Mason education did not begin until age 6 or 7 and she did not expect children to do formal schoolwork or to narrate books that were read to them until that age. Over the course of their school career, children would advance in some ways, moving to harder books, beginning harder subjects like Plutarch, and trading copywork for dictation. She did not in any way describe these as stages, however. They seem to represent more of an advancement of knowledge and ability than new intellectual milestones. Even with subjects like grammar which were delayed until middle or high school ages the concern seems to be not so much for the stage of development as the obtaining of background knowledge which is necessary to understand the subject. On the other end of the age ranges, Mason did very much believe in giving the youngest children real ideas to chew upon and not withholding meaty intellectual materials, albeit age-appropriate ones, from them.

Classical education has many definitions and many versions are available today (see this post and this one). I am going to speak today of what I would deem the most regimented of these modern varieties (at least in terms of staging), that first espoused by Dorothy Sayers in her Lost Tools of Learning and later carried on by Douglas Wilson and others. This version of classical education is characterized by its use of the Trivium [1]. The Trivium distinguishes three stages, each of which necessitates a different approach to education. In the early years, the Grammar stage focuses on memorization. In the middle years, the dialectic stage emphasizes logic and disputation. And finally, in the upper years the rhetoric stage focuses on language and making persuasive arguments. These stages roughly correspond to elementary, middle, and high school levels. In each stage there is a different kind of learning. Those in the grammar stage, for instance, learn mainly through memorization. The grammar stage is for obtaining the building blocks. In the middle, dialectic stage, the child begins to manipulate those building blocks and to make logical arguments. In the rhetoric stage the focus is on expressing oneself and communicating those ideas which have been formed. It should be noted as well that there would also be a pre-school stage, an age below which formal education begins.

“The Poll-parrot stage [= the grammar stage] is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished . . . The Pert Age [= dialectic] . . . is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums . . . The Poetic Age [=rhetoric] is popularly known as the ‘difficult’ age. It is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.” (Dorothy Sayers, “Lost Tools io Learning,” Kindle Loc. 169)

Comparing these three systems would give us the following:

Piaget Mason Classical [2]
0-2: Sensory/motor 0-6: No schooling 0-6: No schooling
2-7: Preoperational      “
7-11: Concrete thinking 6+ Schooling 6-12: Grammar stage
12-15: Formal operations 12-14(?): Dialectic
15-17: Rhetoric

The big commonality here is that all three agree that there is a stage (or 2) that lasts up until age 6 or 7 during which traditional, formal education is not appropriate [3].

One might think from this chart that classical education lines up fairly well with the modern scholarly theory of child development as exemplified by Piaget. I would like to suggest, however, that there are some profound differences.

The biggest differences come in the view of the young child. For Piaget the child does not think like an adult but he is always constructing his reality. That is, he is taking in information and responding to his environment, continually constructing and redefining his mental model of the universe.  For Sayers and those who follow her, the young child, up to age 12, is a memorizing machine. His storehouse, if you will, is being filled with information at this stage, information which he will only really start to utilize in the next stage. Mason does not directly address how the child learns but she presents to even young children what she would call vital or living ideas and she assumes that the child is able to take in, or digest, these ideas.

It is the view of how learning happens and how the child reasons (or doesn’t) that is behind these differences. For Mason the child is able to reason; this is not a taught but an inborn skill and he simply must be given quality material on which to use this skill. An analogy which used to be used frequently in Charlotte Mason circles is that of pegs and things to hang on them. A Charlotte Mason approach says that children need pegs first; they need fixed points, so to speak, things they have relationships with and only when they have some connection can they take information and hang it on those pegs. A classical approach, on the other hand, starts with the information and only when there is a stockpile of facts learned does the child have pegs which allow him to sort it all and fit it all in (of course this analogy was provided by the CM folks, not the classical ones). Another way to say this would be to say that in Mason’s philosophy the facts and information do not make sense to us and will not be retained or be useful until and unless we have a context in which to make sense of them.

In a classical education, the early years, up to age 12, are largely for memorization and the acquisition of information. Reasoning as such is not done at this age and is a skill which must be taught.  The analogy for this would say that the child needs material to work with before he can build. Supplying the building blocks, in the form of facts and information, is the first stage. [4]

Piaget says that children do not reason as adults do but he does see their reasoning skills developing naturally given the right educational circumstances. It is not that young children don’t reason for Piaget but that they do so differently. He sees a process of disequilibrium and accommodation by which children learn. They begin with one view, a thesis, which is then challenged, the antithesis, so that they must adjust and come to a new view, the synthesis [5]. If there is an age before reasoning for Piaget, it is the 0-2 age bracket. The awareness of object permanence he sees as the foundation for all later learning. After it is in place, reasoning can begin. Elkind, who follows and expands upon Piaget’s ideas, sees the years between 7 and 11 as the period of “work” for the child [6]. This work, however, does not equal rote memorization which Elkind deems “anathema to critical, innovative thinking” (Power of Play, introduction). “Even at this stage children  . . . want to understand, not just repeat and imitate” (ibid., p. 7).

The role of the teacher also varies. The teacher in classical education is paramount. He is a mentor and guides the process of learning in a fairly involved way. Though modern applications vary, the process of dialectic which is characteristic of classical education involves a dialogue between teacher and student(s) in which questions are asked and answers elicited. Piaget’s approach, in contrast, sees the teacher as one who creates an environment in which the child can learn, but he would say that the teacher cannot in a real sense teach anything. The child must do his own learning as he builds his concept of the world. Charlotte Mason is a little closer to Piaget on this. For her, the teacher does not create an environment but spreads a feast of ideas, the focus being on intellectual materials more than physical ones, and the child has freedom to “ingest” these materials but cannot be forced to do so.

In the end, I am not sure that the specifics of the staging matter as much as our ideas about children’s ability to reason and how they may or may not develop over time. For both Piaget and Mason reasoning is natural though Mason would say that the child is born with all his faculties intact and Piaget sees reasoning ability as developing over time. For classical educators like Sayers, reasoning ability is something that is taught. The view of the role of the teacher in each follows upon the view of reasoning, with classical educators giving teachers the most involved role and Mason giving them the least. All three would agree that formal learning is best delayed until around age 6 or 7. What happens between ages 7 and 11 is perhaps the biggest divide. For Sayers this is a time of memorization. She calls this the “poll-parrot” stage and says that children of this age take pleasure in memorizing and have little desire to reason (see quote above). For her it is a time to gather materials but not to construct. For Piaget, the child is always constructing reality and takes little pleasure in memorization but desires to understand. Mason’s motto (or one of them) is that “education is the science of relations” which for her means that children must always build relationships with what they are studying.  Information without relationship or context is useless.

My quick take-away from all this would be that modern developmental psychology tends overall to support Charlotte Mason’s views more than those of Dorothy Sayers and the other classical educators who follow her with the caveat that it does lead to a more staged approach which it might be wise for us to take into account.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] There has been a movement in classical circles away from the Trivium as Sayers defined it. See Shawn Barnett, “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

[2] The ages here are somewhat fluid depending on whom one is reading. I am basing the specifics on “What is the Trivium”  by Harvey Bluedorn from Trivium Pursuit (1993).

[3] I say “traditional formal education” because Piaget would have schools for children below age 6/7 but they would not be doing seat-work and the other things that we think of as traditional schoolwork.

[4] It is a bit unclear to me why the age divisions given in Sayers’ Trivium are what they are. According to Elkind (The Power of Play, p. 122), the ancients, i.e. the original classical educators, saw reasoning as a necessity for formal education and since this education begins around age 6 or 7 we must posit that reasoning also does.

[5] We can see in this process the influence of the evolutionary mindset which assumes that the organism (a child in this case) must adapt to its environment when there are changes or any kind of conflict.

[6] See this earlier post on Elkind’s theories.

Applying Piaget

Dear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

In the first 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 their personal belief systemsAnd last time we looked at some of the major trends within the field and how we as Christians should approach the subject.

Today I would like to focus in on the ideas of Jean Piaget. As we saw last time, the various thinkers tend to concentrate on different areas of development. Piaget looked primarily at intellectual development and how we come to know things (i.e. epistemology). Since my on-going project is to create and refine a reformed Christian philosophy of education, this side of things is of particular interest.

Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

When we looked at how a Christian should approach the social sciences, we said that we are most likely to glean information from these secular scholars when they are speaking of mundane (=this-worldly) issues. Of the thinkers we have been considering, I find Piaget’s theory most intriguing and potentially helpful because it does seem to stick to fairly concrete matters. Though Piaget himself seems to have had a fairly materialistic outlook (in the sense of considering only the material universe and nothing of a transcendent or spiritual nature), we can still appreciate his scholarship as it touches on these concrete areas.

David Elkind, who largely follows Piaget, says that children do not think the way we do though they do feel as we do. Piaget gives us some guidelines for how children do think and what may be expected of them at various ages. As Christians we have to note that children are fully human. Spiritually they are as we are, accountable for sin and capable of a relationship with their Creator (dependent upon His grace of course). But this does not rule out the idea that their thought might be different than ours in some ways.

With these ideas in mind, I would make a few observations about the specifics of Piaget’s schema. Though the very youngest children may not think as we do, we should not underestimate their intelligence. The thing they have to learn in their first years which Piaget sees as the foundation of all later intellectual effort — that objects continue to exist even when they disappear from our sight — is huge. This is a giant intellectual leap and it is taken largely without any help from older people. We seem naturally to want to play peek-a-boo with small children and we delight in their delight in the game, but the cognitive leap that is made here would be made even if we did not do so. Though this is not an idea we directly teach to children, I would venture to say that very nearly 100% of them learn it [1]. And this is a major intellectual accomplishment. We could look at a one-year-old and say: “How stupid! He does not know his mother still exists when she leaves the room” or we could look at the same situation and say: “How brilliant! These very small people accomplish a major intellectual paradigm shift, larger than any that will occur later in life, without any direct aid from us.”

One last note on this first stage — the realization that objects and people still exist when we can’t see them is the huge intellectual advancement that characterizes this stage. It is nothing less than a paradigm shift which allows further logical thought. But it is far from all that these little people are learning. The attainments they make in understood and to a lesser degree spoken language in their first two years are astounding and we should not underestimate that degree of real intelligence that is at work there, largely without intentional teaching on the part of adults.

If we all come to understand object permanence, yet many adults seem to be stuck in various ways in the other stages. Most of us are able to accept that one person can be both a mother and a sister, but we are often fooled by the bigger=better mentality even as adults. Elkind gives the example of a glass that is short and wide versus one that is round and tall. Once she has learned some degree of abstract reasoning (ages 7-11), a child will be able to discern that the taller glass does not always hold more [2]. And yet restaurants use this glass trick to give us less for more money all the time. We may know the truth if we stop to think about it but even as adults we are not always aware of the truth.

My own very unscientific observation would be that, beyond the acquiring of object permanence, there are ways in which we all — and some more than others — fail to fully demonstrate that we have mastered these stages. On the other end, the students in my Sunday school classes (ages 2-6) have at times demonstrated reasoning beyond their stage (though this varies a lot from child to child). This would lead me to a much more fluid understanding of the stages.

I would add to this Lev Vygotsky’s understanding that as we progress we are often able with help to do that which we cannot yet do on our own. This leads to a mindset which says not “don’t expect this child to do X task yet; he is not yet at that stage” but “we need to push the child a little; he may be able to do more with some help.” [3]

There are a number of implications here for how we approach education–

We must acknowledge that children will not always see the world as we do. Piaget said they think differently. The things which matter to us will not always be the things which stand out or matter to them. I believe this supports Charlotte Mason’s technique of narration rather than more traditional reading comprehension as it allows the child to tell what he knows and does not expect him to get from a text what an adult would.

We must also be patient. There are some subjects which the child will not be ready for until they have achieved certain intellectual milestones. Grammar instruction is wasted on the very young. Subjects like grammar and algebra should be saved until the child is at least 12.

Yet, following Vygotsky, I do not think it is wrong to push children a little beyond what they may think of for themselves. Some children will progress faster than others and some will be able to grasp ideas if we give them a little direction that they may not have thought of on their own. Practically speaking, an example would be that when we are reading a story which raises issues of morality it is okay to ask questions which get the child thinking about nuances that would not have occurred to him on his own.  I also think it is okay to do some level of literary analysis that introduces terms like protagonist and antagonist and thereby gives children the vocabulary and categories to discuss concepts that they would not otherwise have grasped. [4]

One might conclude from all this that it is good to teach logic in a formal way. I am not sure I am ready to go there. The attainments which Piaget describes, if they are not gained naturally, can be taught through casual, conversational methods. Formal instruction in logic as it is often done is not necessarily going to match these stages or to aid the individual in moving along from one to the next.

The Charlotte Mason approach, which my own philosophy of education largely follows, does not speak of stages of development whereas the classical approach, which I have been fairly critical of, does delineate stages. Next time I would like to address this issue head-on and to look at how the stages of development delineated by modern scholars line up with each of these philosophies.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] One question I have is whether this stage, the discovery of object permanence, is ever missed. When Bowlby discusses attachment, we can say that there are young children who fail to attach to any caregiver and who are scarred for life by this lack. Do any children, even the most developmentally delayed, ever fail to obtain the idea of object permanence? That’s a sincere question; I don’t know the answer.

I would also note that, ironically, many adult scholars and philosophers have operated on the assumption that we cannot know anything that our senses and direct experience do not tell us. They seem by this to start by jettisoning this very first stage of human intellectual development.

[2] David Elkind. Giants in the Nursery (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2015) p. 170.

[3] This is a point which Carol Mooney makes in her book Theories of Childhood (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2013).

[4] For introducing literary analysis, I highly recommend the book Deconstructing Penguins. See this post for an example of how we have used it in our homeschool.

Trends 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.

Not long ago 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 us with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment. In terms of child development in particular, we would expect more truth when the subject is on the smaller scale and deals with temporal matters but we should use more discernment when big picture things are in view.

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.

Today I’d like to give an overview of the big trends in developmental psychology (as I have read up on it thus far) with some observations thrown in.

Overview: Big Ideas and Trends

On the most fundamental level, developmental psychology makes one big assumption: that there is development. Children are not merely short adults but they are different in some way and develop over time. Though it is perhaps not necessary that it do so, this assumption often comes from an evolutionary mindset which assumes change, adaptation as a response to environmental stimuli, and a certain trajectory.  Change says that there are differences — the child is not the same as the adult. When we speak of adaptation, we are talking about how change happens. Evolution itself assumes a linear trajectory (as opposed to a cyclical understanding or some other model). Inherent in the idea of evolution is progression. There is progress, movement in a particular direction toward some defined goal or limit. Like a limit in the field of math, the end game may be a limit which is never reached, but when we talk about child development, there is often a goal which can be achieved. There is some point at which, if all goes well, the individual is an adult with all the capacities and skills an adult is expected to have (of course, if something goes wrong in the development the individual may never reach some of these goals).

Here then are some major trends and distinctions:

Stages of Development

As far as I can tell, every major theory of child development assumes that this development happens in stages. That is, there are not just two places one can be, childhood or adulthood, but there are degrees of development along the way. A normally developing 10-year-old is closer to the adult standard than a 2-year-old and not so close as a 14-year-old.

Though the various theories all contain stages, they vary greatly in how many stages they distinguish. Some tie the stages to particular milestones (eg. Steiner of the Waldorf philosophy ties one to the loss of baby teeth), others divide the stages more loosely. If I had to generalize, I would say the common divisions are infancy (birth to age 2), early childhood (ages 3-7, possibly with one more division within that stage), the middle years (8-12 ish roughly), and the teens.

Another question that arises relative to stages is: What happens if a developmental milestone is missed? For almost all the stages are sequential. That is, one must achieve the developmental milestones (whatever that person defines them as) in order.  Some would say that one can make up for lost ground, others that more permanent damage is done if a stage is missed. For most, if not all, some degree of developmental delay is involved when stages are missed.

Trends across Time

In my list of the various the thinkers and their ideas (again see this earlier post), I discussed them more or less chronologically. Seen this way, we begin to distinguish broader trends. Many of the earliest thinkers tended to be philosophers. Their interest was in what man knows and how he knows it. In this, they were rejecting earlier modes of thinking which would have relied on the Scriptures and divine revelation as sources of knowledge. Instead, they turned to more mundane (in the sense of being earthly, not heavenly) sources. Their approaches tended to be sensory and experiential, looking to man’s senses and experimentation as the means of knowledge. They did not necessarily deny man’s spiritual nature, however, or turn completely to scientific explanations.

The next generation of thinkers began around 1850 and was much more materialistic. No longer do we have philosophers but scientists of various sorts providing the theories. The men of this generation were heavily influenced by Darwinian evolution. They tended to view the world and man as entirely physical. Man’s desires and his development can all be traced to biological forces. The interplay between a man and his environment was assumed to be pivotal in his development (much as in evolution an organism is influenced by and responds to its environment). They also tended to view people, and children especially, as animals upon whom one can experiment. Which is not to say that they were cruel but that they assumed that as you can conduct an experiment on animals and get standardized results so experiments on people can and should work the same way.

At the same time, or very soon after, there was a counter-trend, a move toward spiritualism. This spiritualism was not a return to historic Christianity but it was a rejection of pure materialism and an acknowledgment that there is more to man than the physical. In the cultural realm, this was characterized by the rise of theosophism, a movement/belief system which sought deeper and often hidden spiritual knowledge. It was a time when people were conducting seances and seeking our spirits. Maria Montessori turned to theosophism later in her life, and Rudolf Steiner, of the Waldorf movement, initially turned to theosophism and then developed his own, equally bizarre, philosophy/religion known as anthroposophism.

The more modern thinkers on the list tend to be materialistic in their assumptions but less biologically based than their predecessors. That is, they do not acknowledge a spiritual side to man but they do take into account other, not purely physical factors, such as man’s emotions and his need for relationship.

The Parts of the Person

Which brings us to the next point: Human beings are multi-faceted. They develop physically of course but they also have mind and emotions and relationships. The various theories tend to focus on one aspect of development. When they delineate different schemas, it is often because they are addressing different areas of development.

To those from the most materialistic, Darwinian mindset, the physical is all there is. For Freud the driving force behind everything is one’s desires which are all rooted physically in the body. Piaget’s theory focuses primarily on intelligence while Erikson is concerned with the formation of identity and Bowlby looked at the attachments (i.e. relationships) a child forms. Though they may focus on more than the physical, yet these theories are often still at their base materialistic. Bowlby, for instance, in discussing the attachments that babies and children form argues that these are done because they give an evolutionary advantage — the adult is more likely to protect and provide for the child who is attached to him.

These need not be contradictory theories. Because they look at different aspects of the individual, many of these theories can be combined and, looking at Elkind and other modern writers, this does seem to be a current trend.

A Developing Nature

Many, if not all, of the thinkers we are considering would say that there is a natural, inborn tendency for development in the child. This potential may need to be helped by education or it may be subverted by various detrimental forces, but it is to some degree the way a child is programmed.

Rousseau stands out on this point as one who believed society was the corrupting influence on the child. That is, like others he toured the child’s natural state and tendencies but whereas they saw education as a good which would develop the child’s own potentialities, he saw traditional education as a negative societal force which corrupts the naturally good person.

The Origin of Evil

For Rousseau, the child’s natural state is good and it is society which corrupts him. Most of our other thinkers would not agree about the effect of society but they would agree that the child is either naturally good or at least has the potential for good. Comenius, one of the few professing Christians on our list, said that the seeds of virtue are in the child (obviously, he was nor reformed; he was in fact a Brethren pastor). Pestalozzi said the child is naturally good and will develop along good lines in the absence of negative outside influences. Froebel specifically denied the existence of original sin and believed the child’s inner self is naturally good and that the bad comes from outside and from the adults in his life. Montessori’s views were also along these lines.

Erikson seems to have what might be termed the most dualistic understanding of development. Each of his stages — and he posits some 8 of them — is characterized by two options, the first being trust or mistrust. If the child gets what they need, they develop along the positive line but if they don’t they developed mistrust and later guilt and shames. (Though Erikson was also one who said that it is possible to undo the bad that has occurred in previous stages.)

Locke famously saw the child as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, neither good nor bad, but he did believe character was formed early on and, contrary to Rousseau, that the influence of society through education was necessary to make sure that good character and not bad was the result. Herbart as well saw the child as a blank slate with possibilities for good or evil. He believed morality could be taught.

There is no one on this list who says that there is naturally evil within children or that the evil which might come into their personalities comes from within them. For all evil is external to the person, whether it comes from the environment, society as a whole, or individual adults in the child’s life. I will reiterate here that the role of environment and experience in development tends to be significant for all our thinkers. This, as I have said, reflects an evolutionary mindset but perhaps also simply a godless one (by which I mean one in which God Himself is not a player). With no spiritual component, and in particular no spiritual actor, there are only so many forces and factors one can look to. There is the individual, other individuals, society, and the environment (which may include these others) as well as the individual’s interactions with these players which constitutes his experience. There is no God to act and there is no inner conflict. The forces which act on the individual are largely external to him.

Conclusions and Observations

Every one of our thinkers has his own personal belief system which influences his theories about the development of children. As Christians, we also have convictions which are going to influence how we view these issues. This is not my field and I don’t feel competent to propose a brand new Christian theory of child development, but I would offer some guidelines and questions to consider:

  1. Any Christian theory of child development needs to account for the child’s spiritual nature. We are not purely physical and our theory must reflect that reality.
  2. There is a Force beyond nature which affects our growth. That Force is a Personal God (meaning He is a Person, not a vague power).
  3. Children are not fundamentally different beings than adults. (Though we didn’t touch on it here, some of our thinkers did see children as different creatures, Steiner being the most prominent example.)  They are fully human with all that entails.
  4. Evil comes not from our environment or society or other people but from within ourselves.
  5. In fact, we are born with sinful natures. Children are not innocents.
  6. Sin is always serious, even if it is inadvertent. The fact that a person may not understand their sin as sin or may “not know better” does not make it not sin.
  7. We require a Savior. We cannot be educated out of our sinful nature or into godliness.
  8. Guilt and shame are not inherently bad things. They serve a purpose which is to drive us to our Savior.
  9. Self-esteem is not inherently good. What we need is to see ourselves in our true relation to our Creator. This stance acknowledges both the value of each human life and our fallenness.
  10. While fully human, children are in need of instruction. As they grow physically, so they also need to grow in wisdom and knowledge. (See this post on children in the Bible.)

These points fall far short of a theory of child development and say nothing about the particulars of the stages involved, if indeed there are stages. They do not answer questions about how children think or how we should teach them.

As I said in my post on how we deal with the social sciences, particularly on more mundane matters, there is a lot we can learn from secular scholars. Next time I would like to look a little more specifically at Piaget and his theories regarding intelligence.

Until then,

Nebby

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).

Sin & Theories of Child Development

Dear Reader,

I recently discussed David Elkind’s Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) with a particular eye to how his views on child development coincide with those of Charlotte Mason. Today I would like to return to the book but with a different emphasis.

Though I like a lot of what Elkind has to say, we do come at these issues from different places and this raises some questions. These have mainly to do with how we view rule-following and perhaps especially rule-breaking.

Elkind argues that children below a certain age are incapable of understanding rules. He is not an unschooler (speaking here of unschooling as a philosophy which says adults should not impose their will on children). He does believe that children do not always do what they should and that they need limits (p. 181). He also gives examples of disciplining children with humor, a lot of which comes down to redirection rather than discipline as such, which I find somewhat charming and which I think a lot of parents could benefit from. Yet his understanding is not mine because it does not include the category of sin.

As Christians we believe that children of all ages, even infants, are moral beings who are responsible to their God. They are capable of faith but they are also morally responsible for their actions, even for their thoughts and desires. In my denomination, parents promise to teach their children of their sinful nature, and my observation of humanity tells me that, though this sounds a bit depressing, it is one of the most important lessons every individual needs to learn.

So the major question I come away from this with is: How do we deal with sin as sin and yet account for the child’s development? Or do we reject secular theories of child development because they do not account for such things? (In this post I discussed the very un-Christian basis of much of the social sciences and how we should approach such secular scholarship.)

I don’t have all the answers but there are some random thoughts:

  • Ignorance of the law is no excuse. As reformed Christians, we believe that even infants in utero are sinful people (Ps. 51:5). One’s ability to understand the law of God and to recognize the rightness or wrongness of one’s actions is really irrelevant to whether they are sinful or not. On the flip side, I would add that God also saves His people before they are able to recognize their own sinfulness and, in the case of those who die young or who are mentally challenged, they may be saved even if they never are able to articulate an understanding of these things. This is because God’s saving of us is not dependent upon our own actions nor is it dependent upon our belief as a prerequisite.
  • Elkind speaks of children’s understanding of rules, both moral rules and the rules of games, as dependent on their developing reason but he does not deny that they have some sense of right and wrong at an earlier stage. If anything, he describes younger children as having stricter moral codes. In games, “[t]hey assume that the rules were created a long time ago by adults and cannot be changed” (p. 154). When asked to choose which is worse: accidentally breaking a whole stack of dishes or breaking one plate on purpose, young children always say whatever broke most is worse and they do not take into account intentions (p. 155). As adults we may evaluate the situation differently, but we must acknowledge that these young children do have a moral sense. If anything it is often the case that adults attribute too much to circumstances and intentions and thereby minimize sin.
  • Which brings us to — there is a way in which we are told to be more like children in our faith (Matt. 18:3). This is one of those passages which I really wish told us more. I am hesitant to put children on a pedestal; I do not think they are little innocents by any means. Yet there is something about them that we are told to emulate. Perhaps this is one possibility: “Young children are curious about extremes of weather like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. In answering children’s questions about this subject, we need to remember their mythic thinking. Young children assume that everything has a purpose” (p. 131). One might argue that we should all be looking for the greater purpose in such events.
  • Elkind argues for the power of games in developing children’s moral sense. “Games provide a set of rules that govern how to behave under certain circumstances” (p. 148). When they play games, particularly games in which they must negotiate the rules with other children (as opposed to games in which adults set the rules), “children are learning to subordinate their personal wishes — not to be chosen It — to the rules of the game” (p. 153). Fantasy role playing also teaches one to put onself in another’s shoes (p. 162). These are very valuable and desirable skills and if games are an easy way to practice not putting oneself first, I say we should play a lot more games.
  • The Bible has a lot to say about disciplining one’s children and, while I do believe that the rod language it uses refers to physical discipline, it is not the case that physical discipline is our only option. Sin is so serious that it is far better to avoid the sin if possible than to discipline after the fact. Elkind’s suggestions on how to parent with humor, though he might not see them that way, provide ways that both parent and child can avoid sin: “When we discipline lightheartedly, we accomplish three important goals. First, we manage our own negative feelings in a positive and constructive way. Second, we provide our children an effective and constructive way of handling their own emotions. Third, we provide a healthy model for parenting for our children to use . . .” (p. 177). Note that there is a temptation for the parent in these situations as well. I suspect most of us who are parents are all too aware of that.
  • I like Elkind’s suggestions. At the same time, I think we need to be careful not to always make sin a joke. If humor and lightheartedness can help us avoid sin, particularly if we can use it to defuse a situation which could turn worse, then it is all well and good. But we also need to communicate that sin is serious and is to be taken seriously. So I do think there is a time for punitive discipline.
  • Charlotte Mason includes habit training in her philosophy of education which, as she uses it, is largely about avoiding sin before it happens as well. We need to be careful not to think that good outward behavior is all we need but at the same time we should not scorn the importance of those good habits, whether they be picking up one’s toys or not snapping an annoying sibling. Elkind’s humor addresses sins once they have happened or are happening. Habit training is a proactive approach that identifies stumbling blocks and seeks to address them before they recur. Both are good and necessary.
  • When the proactive and humorous approaches are not enough, we do need to address sin head-on and we need to identify it as sin and help our children to know that this comes from their hearts and that they cannot will their way out of their own sinful nature. In other words, they need a Savior. And at the same time we need to acknowledge that we are in this together. Our nature and our need is the same as theirs. We hopefully have a little more perspective and insight on it and so we help along those who are further behind, whether due to their youth or spiritual immaturity, but we are all on the same road.

What does all this mean for our theories of child development? It is okay for us as reformed people to say both that children can be too young to understand their sin and that they are still responsible for it. At times, because they have fewer abstract thinking skills, children are often less likely to justify away things that shouldn’t be justified away. Children can be very black-and-white in their thinking (especially about other’s wrongs I have found). So I don’t think we need to automatically conclude that they are in a worse place than we are (and the Scriptures imply that this is not so). But they are immature and we need to make sure that they understand their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. This can and should be done in a compassionate and not a harsh way, as ones who are in the same boat (ark?).

Nebby

 

The Power of Play: Elkind & Mason

Dear Reader,

I first encountered David Elkind through his book The Hurried Child which I was quite pleasantly surprised to like (see this post and this one). More recently I picked up his Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) in which he tackles issues of child development and how learning happens in a more head-on fashion.

Elkind is a secular scholar and an expert in child development. He comes at the issues we will be looking at from a different place than I would, yet there are many similarities in where we end up that I find quite intriguing. Though I have my differences with her I largely follow the ideas of Charlotte Mason, a late 19th/early 20th-century educator. She was a teacher and her ideas of children and their natures come from her experience but also from her Christian faith.

As its name suggests, The Power of Play is a call for the return of play to the lives of children and especially the youngest children. Play, for Elkind, springs from the child’s “inborn disposition for learning, curiosity, imagination, and fantasy” (introduction). “Play is our need to adapt the world to ourselves and create new learning experiences” (p. 3). Though it is play Elkind stresses, he sees it as but one of a triad of drives that all people have. The others are love and work. These three work together. Play, without love and work, “is simply entertainment” (p. 4). There are times as the child grows when one or another of these drives dominates. From birth to age 6 or 7, play is the main thing. In childhood, work dominates and for teens love does. Yet education, at any age, is most effective when all three work together.

Because play is the driving force for infants and young children, their education should be largely self-directed. Elkind does not favor traditional, formal learning before age 6 or 7. From that age on, the child turns more toward work which he defines as adapting to the external world. Education as we know it is then more appropriate, though it should still not be rote memorization. Children, he tells us, want to understand (p. 7). In the teen years love becomes dominant until there is finally an equilibrium between the three in late adolescence (p. 10). For adults, play is still a part of life but tends to come in the form of hobbies.

On the surface, this may not sound much like Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but I do think there are some key connections here. Mason did not incorporate games in her curriculum and found it counter-productive in the long run to make schoolwork into entertainment. I would not call her methods playful. And yet as Elkind discusses play, I do feel there are some profound similarities. Play for Elkind is about creativity, interest, and imagination and all these Mason too incorporated.

Here are some points of connection which I see:

  • Mason would have said that learning does not happen without interest and relationship with the material. So Elkind says, “Formal instruction is work. For it to be effective, play [which includes interest] and love [relationship] need to be made part of the process” (p. 126).
  • A Charlotte Mason education is heavily reliant on books but they are books by people who love their subject matter and communicate their passion for it (aka living books). So Elkind urges parents to share their passions with children (p. 182) and says that teaching is more effective when the teacher shares his or her passions (p. 185).
  • Elkind talks about how children see the world and how they think. It is not in the same way adults do. Because of this “the child may be attending to something quite different than what the adult had in mind” (p. 102). This idea supports narration as it happens in a Charlotte Mason education. When we ask children reading comprehension questions, we ask them to tell us what we think is important. When we ask them to narrate, we let them decide what is important. As parents and educators, this often means that we have to bite our tongues and accept that these are two very different things.
  • And again, following Dewey, Elkind says that we only learn from our experiences when we represent them in some way. By doing so we make them our own (p. 191). This too calls to mind narration in which the child must tell back what he has heard or read, putting it in his own words, putting together his own thoughts, and making unique connections.
  • Elkind says that science begins with observation while experimentation is best introduced later. “Children are natural observers and classifiers” (p. 142). So too Mason kept science in the early years to nature study and used it to build observational skills and a love of creation.
  • Elkind says that rote learning is good for multiplication tables and for memorizing poetry but should not be the primary mode of education (p. 201). I think Mason would have agreed here too.
  • Quoting Smilansky, Elkind says that “‘History, geography and literature are all make-believe'” (p. 211). I love this idea. These subjects can be said to be make-believe because learning them requires imagination. We have to see in our minds what is being talked about. We form our own impressions and on some level again make the subject matter our own. Again, though I don’t have a specific quote to point to, I think Mason would have agreed.
  • Both emphasize the habit of attention. For Mason this is built through short lessons that do not tax the child. Elkind says that young children in particular should be allowed to complete the tasks they have set for themselves. When we interrupt their play, we teach them that their interests are not important and rob them of the power of attention. In the long run this leads to bored, unmotivated children. The emphasis is a little different here, but there is common ground in the value of building the habit of attention, and I think that Mason might have agreed that when children set a task for themselves it is better not to interrupt.
  • Though their brains are growing quickly, Elkind says, little children are not sponges. They take time to absorb information and throwing a lot of information at them will backfire. Mason did not throw facts at young children (as certain other approaches **cough, classical, cough** do). Having an interest in and relationship with the material was more important to her.
  • Both would delay formal education until around age 6 or 7. Elkind says that young children cannot learn to follow rules or complex verbal instructions until about age 6. Even though a younger child may learn their letters and some sight words eagerly, they may not be ready for formal reading lessons until later.
  • Elkind’s description of letting children play without adult interference but with some degree of oversight sounds a lot like Mason’s idea of “masterly inactivity.”

I have some other big thoughts that arose in my reading of The Power of Play but as they change the topic a bit I think I will save them for another post. My short take on Elkind’s book is that it is easy to read, enjoyable, and well worth the time. Though he comes to issues of child development from a different starting place, I am pleased to find that many of the techniques he ends up with are not so far apart from Mason’s (and mine as far as they echo hers).

Nebby

 

Christianity and 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. There are really very few Christian sources I can find on this topic for reasons which seem to be inherent to the study itself. Frankly, humanity went a few millennia without this (and many other social sciences) being a field of study.  Developmental psychology arises in the 1800s as a by-product of certain other scientific theories, evolution being a key one.

On the one hand, I do think that all truth is God’s truth and that secular scholars can find truth and that we should not discount their work. On the other, this field in particular has its basis in some very non-Christian presuppositions so we need to be very careful how we approach it.

A friend pointed me to an article from Christian Education Journal which discusses just this issue. In “Reading the Social Sciences Theologically (Part 1): Approaching and Qualifying Models of Human Development” [1], John Trentham discusses the problems in the social sciences, how Christians might approach them, and how they should. I will say from the start that though I found Trentham’s language harder than it needs to be, he appears to be not just Christian but reformed and I like his overall take on things.

Trentham starts by outlining the problem: as Christians we approach the social sciences with a very different framework than secular scholars. “The social sciences are, essentially, a modern secularist enterprise” (p. 462). They are materialistic in their assumptions. What can be known in the social sciences is only what can be observed. There is nothing of the transcendent, either in man’s nature or outside it. While it is not inherently wrong to study child development, the very discipline seems to rest on the idea that children are yet another species to be studied and that the same methods and assumptions that are applied to studying other animals will work here.

As Christians, science is not the enemy.  Indeed, true scientific thought is not possible without the assumptions that Christianity brings to the table — that the universe is knowable and makes sense. Science is part of God’s general revelation. If and when general revelation comes into conflict with special revelation (i.e. the Scriptures) we must give preference to the latter. Because developmental psychology looks at the child, including his nature and our goals for him, it is going to touch on “religious” topics. Scripture has something to say about these issues. Yet there are still things that can be known through general revelation. Our task then is to discern between the two: when is secular science giving us helpful insight and when are its presuppositions skewing its outlook? In the words of Trentham:

“Nonbelievers (i.e. those not ‘rightly related to [their] Creator’) will not lack insight into the existence and condition of humanity, but they will lack the redemptively postured interpretive capacity of corresponding their observations and analysis to the ultimate patterns and aim of God’s purpose for humanity.” (p. 469)

In other words, they may have valuable insights but they fail to see the big picture.

As we approach developmental psychology in the coming weeks, then, we must be on the alert for two stumbling blocks in particular. False presuppositions often lead one to ask the wrong questions and to draw bad conclusions. And whatever good scholarship one might do, a wrong framework which fails to see the big picture, and in particular fails to account for the transcendental, spiritual side of both man and the universe, will misinterpret even good observations. Trentham speaks of temporal conclusions (p. 470) and I think this is key — secular scholars may have good insights into temporal things but at the point where they begin to touch on the eternal, they go astray. Their understanding may at once be accurate but inverted (p. 472). “Social science models of human development are typically oriented into counter-biblical ideals, even while they may describe modes and means of growth that reflect authentic patterns of personal maturity” (p. 474). Which is to say, they may be right on the small scale but tend to be wrong on the large scale. I think of it a bit like theories of evolution (to raise another controversial topic). Microevolution can be demonstrated — we see the changes within a given species when their environment changes. But when we try to scale that to the big picture, macroevolution, we end up with something undemonstrable which depends more on our presuppositions, on what we expect to find, than on the science.

In the coming weeks we will begin to look at some of the main thinkers in the field of child development, keeping in mind these cautions — that they all come to the subject from a secular perspective and that while they may have some good insights, especially as regards temporal concerns, they often start from a wrong place and do not see the larger context as we would.

Nebby

[1] Unfortunately, I only have access to part one of this article.

Education: Creation or Fall?

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

One of the first reformed thinkers I read on education was Cornelius Van Til. In his “Essays on Christian Education”  (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974), Van Til argues that the purpose of education is found in Creation (pp. 79-80, 125, 167).  As he puts it, the Fall delayed the ultimate goal of Creation but did not fundamentally change it. Thus education is not merely a reversal of damage done by the Fall but it is a fulfillment of man’s creation mandate.

At the time I was intrigued by Van Til’s assertion and meant to come back to this idea. As I have developed my own philosophy of education, I have argued that for believers education is a subset of sanctification. In education we bring before students the things of God which He reveals in His general revelation. As these things are of God they are powerful in their own right. They are transformative and this transformation, specifically the remaking of our minds, is the goal of education (Romans 12:2).

Does that mean that if there had been no Fall and therefore no corruption of our nature that we would not have needed education? I am inclined to side with Van Til on this and to say that education would still have had a purpose. There was a Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden which Adam and Eve had not eaten of. They were sinless and their natures were not corrupted, but they did not know everything that there is for mankind to know. Education in such a state would perhaps not have been transformative in the sense of changing but there could still have been growth. Though Adam and Eve were in a state of grace, they could still have grown up in that state. Just as the world itself needed their cultivation so their persons could have matured.

For us, living in this fallen world, the task of education is tougher. The ultimate goal is the same, to grow up to maturity in the image of Christ. But the job is harder because we do not start from a place of mere immaturity but from one of corruption. The Fall is not the reason for education but it does make education harder.  Though I have largely followed Charlotte Mason in her philosophy of education I do think this is one aspect that she does not take fully into account. Oddly enough, I have found this idea most clearly in a non-Christian writer I encountered recently, Alfred North Whitehead. The Fall, he says, makes education not as easy as it should be because we do not have the joy in knowledge that we should and we resist those who would teach us. Not to mention that our mental abilities are hampered. I can not recall entirely where I read this (though I think it may be from Frank Gaebelein) but one writer said that every math error is a result of the Fall. It is easy to see that various specific struggles — things like dyslexia and attention deficit disorder — would not exist if it were not for the Fall, but it is incredible to think that if our natures were not corrupted that we would not make even minor mistakes.

I am straying far from my original intention in this post but it does make me wonder what life will be like in the new heavens and the new earth. We know that we will still have good work to do but will we also have learning to do? Will we know everything that there is for man to know at once? I tend to think that there will still be knowledge to be gained. To gain knowledge should be a joy for us and it is hard to imagine that we will no longer have that joy.

But this is speculation. My main point today is simply this: Education has its origins in Creation. The Fall did not create the need for education but it does make it harder.

Nebby

The Prime Mover in Education

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

When the world looks at education, it tends to talk in terms of the child versus the adult. On one end of the educational spectrum we find more traditional approaches in which the educator sets the curriculum and is the primary moving force. Classical education, in both its Christian and secular forms, fits this definition. There is believed to be a set body of knowledge that all people should know (or all people in western culture).  The curriculum is thus determined from above. The teacher plays a large role in other ways as well and is often spoken of as a mentor, one to be imitated, and the main source of knowledge.

On the other end of the spectrum we find “child-directed” or “interest-led” learning. The most extreme example of this is Unschooling which is a philosophical position which states that the child will gravitate toward what they need to know. In its most extreme forms, unschooling is a philosophy of parenting as much as of education and says that the adult should never impose his will on the child. The adult in this approach is mainly a facilitator. They help obtain resources but they do not drive either the curriculum or the learning itself. In between these two extremes there are of course many other options as well as many ways of combining their various facets.

What I would like to propose today is that viewing the spectrum in this linear way, with two poles, child-directed on one end and teacher- or curriculum-directed in the other, is too narrow. As Christians, we need to recognize that the child and the adult are not the only two parties involved in education. Charlotte Mason says as much in the last of her 20 principles [1]:

“We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.”

Elsewhere she calls the Holy Spirit the Great Educator. Ultimately, it is God who works in the hearts and minds of children and adults to enable them to know anything. [2]

There are then three parties in education — the student, the teacher, and God. How do these three relate and what is the role of each? While I am not proposing that we do away with traditional educational structures, the teacher is most extraneous to this process. The Scriptures make clear that we are to learn from those who are farther along in their faith and that parents are to instruct children. Other people are a major channel by which God works, but we must be clear that they are a means. [3] God could also act without these intermediaries and we need to be careful not to distort the relationship.

On the other hand, the child-led end of the spectrum distorts education in another way. It makes the individual learner the arbiter of what is true and good and necessary. My contention has been that in education we place before children the things of God which He gives us in His general revelation. While it would be impossible for any of us to learn everything man has been given to know, there is a level on which the curriculum of education is set by God Himself. He is the Truth and He is the One who enables us to know.

The world speaks of education along a two-dimensional axis with only two possible actors, the student and the teacher. In doing so, they eliminate the One who is actually the Prime Mover in education, the One who gives us the curriculum and who enables learning to take place, that is God Himself. In a Christian philosophy of education [4], we should not take what the world does and tack on God and the Bible as an afterthought; we must instead begin with this truth: that God is the Prime Mover in education.

Nebby

[1] I have discussed the 20th principle previously in this post.

[2] I would add that all three persons of the Trinity, not just the Holy Spirit, are said to give knowledge (see links below).

[3] See also these earlier posts on teaching and education in the Bible:

Words for Teach in the Old Testament

Teaching in the New Testament

[4] Find my philosophy of education (a work in progress) here.

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