Voices in Education

A Radical Proposal for Early Childhood Education
David Wilson offers a thoughtful review of yet another compilation of research demonstrating the values of developmentally appropriate educational practice. His article once again raises the question: Why do we as a society continue to ignore this research in favor of imposing academics on young children?

There is no single answer to this question, but I believe that there is one, heretofore unexplored, possibility to consider. Since the beginning of institutionalized education, two opposed philosophies have competed for dominance. One of these, growth from within, argues that the mind has its own ways of knowing and it is necessary to adapt educational content to the child’s own growth patterns.

The other view, discipline from without, argues that the child’s mind is empty, and that education is necessary to provide it with the necessary social content.

I believe that these differences are not simply intellectual but rather, are symptomatic of temperamental differences that have long been recognized. Darwin referred to some colleagues as “lumpers” and others as “splitters.” These types have also been labeled as “synthetic” versus “analytic.” Whatever their designation, some people prefer to deal with whole picture while others prefer to deal with the details. Not surprisingly those who look at the big picture see education as growth from within, while those who like the details prefer a pedagogy which supports discipline from without.

Temperament may also explain why not all research supports the developmental view. Some investigators favor the particulars of society and culture over the generalities of development. Others tout the numerical and other abilities of infants. That is to say, researchers also reflect the temperamental differences found among educators. The difference between the journals Developmental Psychologyand Child Development give evidence for this split. The former is more concerned with experimental design and measurement, the latter with the concepts and other skills and abilities children are acquiring.

I believe we should consider these two approaches as complimentary rather than as in opposition to one another. After all, those who advocate for growth from within accept the child’s need to learn numbers and letters. And those who argue for the discipline from without do recognize individual differences in readiness to learn. If temperamental differences lie behind our educational preferences, perhaps a different strategy is in order. Indeed, marshalling the research in favor of the developmental approach may simply push those with the opposite temperament to become even more resistant to changing direction.

Hence my radical proposal: We who hold the growth from within perspective should try and find some common ground with those who argue for discipline from without. Perhaps by working together we may be able to find ways of designing programs for young children that incorporate both perspectives. Such a program would have the advantage of speaking to the temperamental differences among children as well to those of adults. In the end, the aim of education should be to have children who can think for themselves, but who are also responsible citizens ready to work for the common good.

About the Author: David Elkind is professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University. He is the author of The Hurried Child and many other books.