Harvard Educational Review
  1. Children Solving Problems

    By Stephanie Thornton

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. 143 pp. $24.95; $10.95 (paper).

    In Children Solving Problems, Stephanie Thornton challenges the traditionally held notion among developmental psychologists and educators that factors such as age and general intellectual capacity are the main determinants of a person's capacity for problem-solving. Thornton challenges theorists such as Jean Piaget who have maintained that the development of abstract reasoning capacities such as logic lie at the heart of one's generalized capacity for problem-solving across all contexts. Rather, Thornton suggests that human problem-solving capacities are innate and that humans are engaged in such activity from birth through adulthood. Thornton suggests, in fact, that engagement in problem-solving processes provides the fundamental "machinery" for cognitive development (p.126). The dynamic process of engaging in problem-solving with appropriate support has the potential to lead to, rather than result from, conceptual change.

    In this short, clearly written book, Thornton synthesizes literature in post-Piagetian research to consider the development of children's problem-solving capacities. She suggests that there are multiple variables that contribute to the ease with which children solve problems and the sophistication of the strategies they employ: the child's prior knowledge, the child's previous familiarity and experience with the problem, the context in which the problem is presented, the support available to the child, the salience the problem holds for the child, and the relative confidence with which the child views his or her own capacity to solve the problem. Given the array of variables that contribute to a child's problem-solving abilities, Thornton argues that not only does it make sense that children will demonstrate different problem-solving capacities and processes across different disciplines, but also that they are very likely to do so.

    The respect and attention Thornton pays to a child's capacity to know are as compelling as is the clarity with which she presents her argument. Her book is important to adults who spend time with children, and to education and developmental psychology researchers. For adults who are in the company of children, Thornton offers a framework for analyzing children's problem-solving capacities and some suggestions for how to support children's development of these capacities. For researchers, Thornton's synthesis of post-Piagetian research challenges previous conceptions of intelligence and problem-solving, and raises intriguing questions for further research.

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