Exploring children's learning
Exploring children's learning

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Exploring children's learning

1 Child development

Ideas about children and their development have varied across different periods of history and cultural contexts. Four contrasting, commonly held views of how children develop have been identified:

  • development as discipline;

  • development as natural stages;

  • development as experience; and

  • development as interaction.

Developmental psychology, as a field of enquiry devoted to understanding how children's minds and behaviour change over the lifespan, has produced theories of child development that have been empirically tested and that can be applied to real concerns and issues. Such theories ‘formalise’ lay beliefs to some extent, but also in some cases challenge our everyday assumptions.

This course introduces four theories, which are outlined in this section. These theories are sometimes referred to as ‘grand theories’ in the sense that they offer general explanations of child development as a whole, rather than just certain areas. It should be noted that they are not the only theories of child development that exist, but these four have been and continue to be especially influential, underpinning much contemporary theory and research.

The first of these theories, explored in Section 2, is behaviourism, also commonly referred to as learning theory. This approach sees child development arising from specific forms of learning, based on the idea of the child as a passive recipient of environmental influences that shape behaviour. The generic term for the process of learning as defined by behaviourism is conditioning, which emphasises how external factors, such as reward and punishment, affect behaviour. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was the dominant model in psychology, and research with both humans and animals testified to the power of this approach in explaining some aspects of learning.

Section 3 considers social learning theory, which challenged behaviourism by recognising that children can learn by simply observing someone else. This emerged in the 1960s, supported by research that showed how aggressive behaviour was often imitated by children who observed others engaging in it. The social learning model thus recognised the more active part that a child can play in learning from their environment. It also stressed the significance of ‘role models’ in children's development.

Section 4 explores the most ambitious theory of child development put forward to date which was also developed during the first half of the twentieth century: Jean Piaget's stage theory. Contrasting with behaviourist views, this saw children as independent agents in their own learning, and more important than the influences of parents and teachers. It described in detail a series of four successive stages through which all children were believed to progress. This theory, also described as a form of constructivism, because Piaget saw children as having to construct their understanding of the world for themselves, prompted a massive volume of research activity, which continues today.

Finally, Section 5 of this course turns to another theory that also sees children as active participants in their own development, but in addition stresses the roles that other people and the culture the child grows up in play in fostering development. Social constructivism also contrasts with social learning theory, as it argues that the key to learning and development lies in social interaction, rather than in mere social observation.

From these brief descriptions it is already apparent that some of these theories have aspects in common, but all of them differ in important respects, and make contrasting claims about what kinds of things will affect children's development. By the end of the course we hope that you will understand the strengths and limitations of each approach, rather than seeing one as ‘right’ and all the others as ‘wrong’.

Box 1 Evaluating theories

As a student you need to develop your own views on theories that you are introduced to. Questions you might ask yourself include:

  • Does this theory offer a more complete explanation of the topic under consideration than other theories in the area?

  • Does it have the same limitations as other theories in this area?

  • Are the terms used in the theory well defined, such that it is possible to investigate them in the context of a research study?

  • Is it based on sound empirical research? Are the studies that support the theory problematic in some way?

  • Has it subsequently been extended by other researchers or otherwise resulted in further research in that topic?

  • Can its principles be applied to everyday questions about children's development and be used to address ‘problems’ in this area?

Summary of Section 1

  • Theories produced by developmental psychologists have the potential to inform everyday discussions of children's behaviour and development.

  • ‘Grand theories’ attempt to explain the general processes that underlie children's development and behaviour. Four of the most important are behaviourism, social learning theory, constructivism and social constructivism.

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