I love watching what young children are doing; whether I’m in the supermarket or the park my eye is drawn to the happy absorption of young children in their own world. When children are free to choose they will be busy exploring and experimenting in the natural world or become engrossed in the world of their imagination. They are not following anyone’s lead or trying to impress. This is the human mind in full flow, the engine of child development. Childhood is an important and precious time which should not be rushed. We should never assume that children are blank slates biddable to the imprint of the adult world. The child is an energetic and determined individual who knows his own mind. Successful parenting, and indeed education too, is a partnership between the adult and the child, a very important relationship indeed which should start from the child.
Professor Alice Robert’s recent Horizon programme What makes us Human was a fascinating look at the biological basis of the human mind. Although we share 99% of our DNA with Chimpanzees and Bonobos we have a much larger brain which allows us to develop and share knowledge. It seems we have traded the speedier development of our nearest cousins for a deeper and richer potential. Other creatures become independent much earlier via pre-programmed brains which pick up a smaller range of skills. The human brain is more flexible which allows us to share knowledge and ultimately to think independently. That trade off of fast development for greater potential gives us huge advantages. However it also leaves children very vulnerable and dependent on the quality of social support they receive. It was suggested on the programme that if a child grew up on a desert island they would be closer to their ape cousins than to human children who had been nurtured and stimulated. We don’t need to be overly concerned about the risks of abandoned children as much as the socially deprived child. Neglect leaves a long legacy which I will explore in another post.
While the quality of social experience is crucial to successfully stimulate and develop the child’s mind, this is only one side of the equation. A child’s capacity to learn has an internal dynamic as well as a social one, it is very much a 2 way street. The powerful curiousity and determination of the child needs to be fully engaged and nurtured. We can only be successful if we go at the child’s natural pace which is determined by what they already know and what interests them. Children are knowledge seeking beings, not passive and compliant dependents. The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled (as Plutarch said). He realised that holding someone’s attention is a voluntary act between two people working productively together, not a power based relationship where one person has control. How often does discussion of how to be a parent or how to teach become sterile by focusing solely on the adult’s control and the child’s compliance? The solution is not upping your power over a child but engaging their interest in some shared task. A child’s development is a social relationship of the highest order.
So it’s something of a false dichotomy to see debates about child centred techniques versus traditional adult in charge. What nurtures the human mind is a balance between supporting the child’s interests and motivation alongside sensitive leadership and guidance from the adult. Whether you are interested in this debate as a parent or a teacher the starting point is the child and how well you know them. The answers don’t lie in a parenting manual or on a curriculum plan but with the real flesh and blood person in front of you and how to move forward together moment by moment.
My colleagues in early year’s education are totally in tune with the importance of the learning relationship. Liz Truss, Under Secretary of Education must have got quite a shock at the sustained and energetic opposition she received to her proposals to move early year’s education onto a more formal “teach and tell” mode. In primary schools too, teachers seem more comfortable with a child focused model of teaching, no doubt because being class based makes that possible. But in the secondary sector there seem to be a leaning towards finding Super Teacher techniques to maximize knowledge transmission, for example the interest in Daniel Willingham’s Why don’t students like school? which explores what cognitive psychology tells us will improve learning. While it is good to see an academic psychologist be so generous with his time to support teachers, I believe his book looks at only one facet of educational success. What understanding the cognitive aspects of learning doesn’t do is examine what motivates or engages students. His is an interesting but partial answer at best.
Secondary teachers have become very interested in the science of learning and finding evidence to support approaches. While this is a worthy aim, hard science works by paring down issues to small fragments to test one variable at a time. Behaviorism had a major hold on psychology early in my career because it chose to look at the narrow dimensions of stimulus and response. What went on inside us was deemed irrelevant. Thoughts, feelings, motives, values and beliefs all dismissed as less important than the final outcome of the response. Any evidence based educational research must avoid this over simplification but I fear that history is repeating itself.
Aspects of the human mind which are considered fluffy and inaccessible to the experimental method have become the targets of high minded abuse in some educational blogs . Subjects which make this group hoot with derision include child centred or personalized learning, creativity, 21st century skills, learning styles and indeed anything which seems to be suggesting focusing on the needs of the child. Maybe I’m being a bit sensitive and should ignore it but recently some writers have been name checked by The Secretary of State for Education who reads their blogs and seems pleased to have allies in schools. Given his hearty dismissal of academics in education and indeed the need for teacher training at all this may seem a bit odd to be praising practitioners whose views chime with his own. Ah but maybe that is the point.
I really am concerned that the disregard of the child’s role in learning is a dangerous proposition. The false dichotomy created to separate the teacher’s role in education and the student’s is one we cannot afford to support. Wanting to engage children via methods that motivate them is not the same as harking back to Rousseau or leaving children to find their own way. The future of our children is too important to become mired in fruitless debate which narrows the focus of our thinking. Being educated by inspiring, knowledgeable and dedicated teachers is every child’s right but equally important is the search for better knowledge about motivating, supporting and engaging young people to get the best from their years in education.
Jeni Hooper is a Child and Educational Psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish. Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Children-Happy-Confident-Successful/dp/1849052395/ref=tmm_pap_title_0