Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Child As Small Adult

The education literature since at least Rousseau has cautioned against viewing the child as a small adult. The meaning of the phrase, however, is not totally clear.

“Small adult” usually means that children are viewed as adults in miniature, that is, as small in height and weight and weak in physical strength, but otherwise as possessing an adult brain that is merely absent content. The job of educators and parents, then, is to fill that brain with knowledge to move the children, as they reach maturity, up to the level of educated adults.

The problem with this view is that the children obviously do not possess adult brains. And most parents and teachers have a sense that this is correct, namely that the brains of children are as immature as their bodies, that their cognitive capacities and abilities vary by age and among each other at the same age, and that pace of learning and interest determine what and how much any particular child will learn at any particular time. This is what the concept of “stages of development” is all about.

Yet adults continue to demand that children learn the way they, the adults, think they learned, by attempting to stuff the brains of children with knowledge the children are not ready for or interested in and by expecting this learning to take place and be completed at one time. I say “think they learned” because I doubt that many adults in fact learned the way the adults expect their children to learn.

The worst mistake adults make when relating to children is to demand obedience to authority. “Learn your multiplication tables or there will be a consequence.” “Pick up your clothes, or else . . .” Adults may or may not be consciously aware of acting on this premise, and sometimes it may be an act of desperation when nothing else works, but demanding obedience to authority is not nice when made either to children or to other adults. It is the demands of a dictator or authoritarian mentality; I’ll assume a more innocent motivation in adults for the rest of this discussion.

A widely common mistake that adults make in relating to children is what I call “one-time learning.” It manifests itself often in the (sometimes angry, sometimes exasperated) question, “What did I just tell you?” The question can be asked about anything, ranging from multiplication facts to dirty clothes on the floor to catching a softball with two hands. The assumption is that the child has been informed—the knowledge has been put into the brain; therefore, he or she should be able to instantly grasp, retain, and act on what was just “learned.”

Such expectation, however, is patently absurd. Adults do not as adults, and did not as children, learn that way. Experienced teachers know that two requirements of good teaching are repetition and patience, for the variety of reasons mentioned in the third paragraph above. Some children are just not ready to learn what the adults seem to think they should be learning right now. And others are just not interested in learning that great wisdom of the adults. What the experiments of Summerhill and Sudbury Valley Schools (1, 2, 3) have demonstrated is that children, when left free to pursue their own interests, will in fact learn to read, do arithmetic, and even go on to college, but not on the schedule that adult educators think they should be on.

This last was made obvious to me recently in my duties as assistant coach of my daughter’s softball team. One of the coach’s jobs is to repeatedly shout to the girls to use two hands when catching the ball, which they seldom do. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed, without my chiding, one girl (eight years old) all of a sudden was catching with two hands. Subsequently, in a game, she even made a semi-spectacular two-handed catch of a pop fly. Lesson learned, by the adult? Children march to their own drummer when it comes to learning! Something clicked in the girl’s mind that I could not have predicted. One-time learning certainly did not produce the result.

On the other side of the coin, adults who treat children as small adults often fail to grant them the cognitive capacities and abilities that they in fact do have. Montessori demonstrated this abundantly by teaching children to read at age four and by teaching lower elementary children geometry, algebra, and history, among other subjects that the education establishment long ago relegated to much later ages. Children desperately want to grow up and become adults, but adults have to allow them to do so, at their own pace and when they are interested enough to learn the ways of the adult.

The bottom line of the issue of viewing children as small adults is that children need to be viewed as children, not more than they are and not less than they are. And each child has to be viewed as a unique individual with unique desires and abilities. Recognizing and responding to those uniquenesses is one of the traits that separates teachers from those who would appear to be dictators.

Postscript. The recent financial bailout lunacy in the United States has
sufficiently tweaked my boredom with politics to make this comment. The simplest, concise explanation and solution to the lunacy can be read here by Mark Thornton of the Mises Institute. For more detailed and equally competent comments, read many of the last month’s posts on the Mises blog, but especially this recent one by George Reisman (also posted here).


Kevin Currie said...

Dr. Kirkpatrick,

As a high school educator myself, I feel that I can chime in here.

I agree with a certain amount of waht you say. I witness every day the misguided attempts to spend 1 day on a subject (meiosis) and assume that the students will remember it two weeks later, or taht one day's coverage is sufficient.

I could not disagree more about your appraisal of waht schools do currently. The big fad in education is "brain based ways of learning," a "scientific" way to back up the 40-year fad of progressive education. While I suppose someone can say that schools are not perfectly progressive in the way Dewey or Montessori would want, the schools I've worked in are far from the "teacher lectures while students copy" mode.

Also, in an ironic twist, those of us (myself included) that do not buy into Montessori's methods (which heavily influenced the failed "whole language" reading instruciton), feel that she, not we, are the ones who see children as mini adults.

You might check out books by ED Hirsch for further elaboration, but I see the progressive method of education as very Rousseauian in nature, assuming that the child is a noble savage who comes into the world ready to self-regulate to a degree larger than I think is realistic.

Yes, children need to learn via interaction, and I will never deny that, but I think teachers know quite well that students need a lot more guidance than Montessori's method provides. Before teachers can facillitate, they must actually instruct, but instruciton necessitates the "frustration" of the child's attention towards an artificial authority figure (the teacher).

There are many students that might learn well with Montessori's method (I suspect I would have). But as an educator, I can attest that there are many who need more structure than that, and need very specific directives (if they were asked "what would you like to do today?" not much would get done.) Many kids, especially the young ones Montessori was concerned with, don't have that type of executive funcitoning yet. (I am rusty on my Piaget, but I think even he said that.)

So the irony is that both "sides" see the other as treating kids like little adults. You see "us" as treating kids like little adults by "filling their heads with information," and we see "you" as treating kids as noble savages who are born with the executive funcitoning skills to know how to self-direct their learning.

David said...

Children need to be viewed as children but if you want them to grow into responsible adults you must permit them freedom: specifically freedom of choice.

"Unfortunately, virtually all schools today choose in fact to deny that students are personally responsible for their acts, even while the leaders of these schools pay lip service to the concept. The denial is threefold: schools do not permit students to choose their course of action fully; they do not permit students to embark on the course, once chosen; and they do not permit students to suffer the consequences of the course, once taken. Freedom of choice, freedom of action, freedom to bear the results of action -- these are the three great freedoms that constitute personal responsibility."

"Why don't people learn more in schools today? Why all the complaints? Why the seemingly limitless expenditures just to tread water, let alone to progress?

The answer is embarrassingly simple. Schools today are institutions in which "learning" is taken to mean "being taught." You want people to learn? Teach them! You want them to learn more? Teach them more! And more! Work them harder. Drill them longer.

But learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you! That is true of everyone. It's basic."

"People go to school to learn. To learn, they must be left alone and given time. When they need help, it should be given, if we want the learning to proceed at its own natural pace. But make no mistake: if a person is determined to learn, they will overcome every obstacle and learn in spite of everything. So you don't have to help; help just makes the process a little quicker. Overcoming obstacles is one of the main activities of learning. It does no harm to leave a few.

But if you bother the person, if you insist the person stop his or her own natural learning and do instead what you want, between 9:00 AM and 9:50, and between 10:00 AM and 10:50 and so forth, not only won't the person learn what s/he has a passion to learn, but s/he will also hate you, hate what you are forcing upon them, and lose all taste for learning, at least temporarily.

Every time you think of a class in one of those schools out there, just imagine the teacher was forcing spinach and milk and carrots and sprouts (all those good things) down each student's throat with a giant ramrod.

Sudbury Valley leaves its students be. Period. No maybes. No exceptions. We help if we can when we are asked. We never get in the way. People come here primarily to learn. And that's what they all do, every day, all day."

[Excerpts, "Back to Basics," Daniel Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley School Experience.]

David said...

"It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood. Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of man, but it also leaves a life-long residue of emotional immaturity in him."

— Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-1994)

David said...

"By age four or thereabouts, human beings have a fully developed communication system which, for all intents and purposes, makes them mature persons. They are capable of expressing themselves, of understanding what's said to them, and of structuring continuous thought; and they are capable of doing things with their environment...."

"....I want to say a few final words about the role of a person age four and up in the family. I've assumed that a child up to age four is the object of care and attention, as is due to a developing member of the family. It seems to me fairly obvious that once children have reached the age of four or five they become adults to all intents and purposes and can take a full role in the family, a full share of the family responsibilities. Now what their share will be depends on any given family, but they have every right and expectation to be treated just like everybody else. That means, on the one hand, they have got to carry their weight and find ways to contribute to doing the family chores, and on the other hand they have got to be given all the consideration that all the other members of the family are given in serious decision making. The part about carrying their weight is not really very difficult to conceive, because in rural families and in other cultures this takes place all the time. It is fairly common that youths age five or six draw the water and feed the animals and milk the cows. There is absolutely no reason why they can't do normal things about the house; it doesn't mean they have to be able to do everything. It doesn't mean they have to be able to cook, for example, - after all, in most families not all the adults can cook. Nobody says that all members of a family have to be interchangeable parts. But it is clear to me that once children have reached the age of judgment, there has to be some way for them to carry their weight. The other side of that coin is something that is harder to conceive in our society - namely, that the same child has to have a full voice in the decision making in the family. That is extremely difficult to carry out in our male-dominated patriarchal society where usually the only person who really makes decisions in the family is the father, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred he doesn't even consider the opinion of his wife, let alone his children. Even in families where both spouses share decision making, it is very rare to find the children consulted on major decisions. I find this state of affairs to be a complete anachronism and I do not see how it can maintain itself much longer....."

[Two excerpts, Ages Four and Up
, from Child Rearing, by Daniel Greenberg.]

David said...

The experience of Sudbury model schools shows that a great variety can be found in the minds of children, against Piaget's theory of universal steps in comprehension and general patterns in the acquisition of knowledge: "No two kids ever take the same path. Few are remotely similar. Each child is so unique, so exceptional" (Greenberg, 1987).*

* Greenberg, D. (1987). Chapter 19, Learning, Free at Last, The Sudbury Valley School.

Anonymous said...

As a parent and an Aunt, I find that a good majority of school teachers in the early childhood education section do not have what it takes to allow children to learn on their own and allow them to be children. My son was being threatened to be removed from care from a daycare center because he was acting like a 3 year old boy. My niece has been kicked out of school twice because the teachers didn't like to constantly help her in reading so they said she did something other than school work. She's five what do you expect? Children need more patience from the parents and less demanding when they are learning something.

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