Theories of Child Development

The models of some our most influential theorists in education over the past century were the main subject of this tutorial. Despite the fact that many of the theories stem from the last century and are by no means recent, they are still very much the structure upon which much of our education system is built. The three main theories that we examined were behaviourism, constructivism and social constructivism. The main protagonist of behaviourist learning theory was an American called B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) who, through research mainly on animals, found he could manipulate and control behaviour through a system of rewards and punishments. The theory requires a level of passivity from the learner, whose motivation is extrinsic by nature- to gain rewards and avoid punishments.

Examples of behaviourism are very easy to spot within most classrooms. Many primary schools use a system in which children receive rewards in the form of stickers or merits for good behaviour and for good work. My own experience in a Year One classroom has been to witness children being motivated to do well purely for the satisfaction of receiving a sticker and feeling thoroughly demotivated if a sticker is not earned.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss developmental psychologist who  viewed learning as an individual child centred process, in which the child discovers the world for himself and makes sense of it mostly through play and experimentation. It is interesting to note that his theory of four cognitive developmental stages: 0-2, 2-7, 7-11 and 11-16 coincide very closely with our division of key stages throughout school life, with the stages of pre school, key stage one, key stage two and key stages three and four( secondary school). Constructivism can be seen in many primary classrooms with areas of the room being set up with interesting and stimulating activities for the children to discover and learn from through play.

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian psychologist whose theory had much in common with Piaget but he saw a child’s development very much in terms of its social environment. He saw the need for teachers and carers to speed up and facilitate a child’s learning by targeting teaching to their individual levels of competence and knowledge.  He saw the relationship between the teacher and student as a partnership. He introduced the notion of the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ which described the gap between what the child is achieving by themselves and what they have the potential to achieve with adult assistance.

Examples of social constructivism can regularly be seen in the classroom with use of targeted questioning by teachers to encourage the pupils to engage further and be challenged by what they are learning. Pupils are regularly grouped according to ability in order for the teacher to adapt the teaching to individuals’ levels of ability.

Jerome Bruner (b.1915) is an American psychologist who has built on the work of Vygotsky and Piaget. He introduced the idea of ‘spiralling’, where the learner revisits previous learning at later stages to reinforce and further his previous learning. He emphasised the importance of language interaction from a very  young age, thus citing the role of the main care giver in developing these language skills. He acknowledged far more than any of the other theorists the social factors that would affect the child’s ability to learn and be successful in the school environment.

I think that it is very interesting to study the theories of how children learn and develop and examine how they are still in use in classrooms across the country today and a healthy mix of different tried and tested means are very effective tools in school but it is also essential that we recognise the individual needs of every child and that one way of teaching/learning may be very effective for some children but of little value to others. We need to take a long hard look at how children learn today and at what skills they will need for their futures. We need to realise that education is not just about what goes on in the classroom but also how we relate that to our place in society today and in the future.

“For education to help us continue our evolution we must ensure that it helps us to develop that sense of who we are and how we fit within a wider community. For that reason LEARNING TO LEARN AND LIVE must form the foundation of our educational experience.”

Gerver, R. (2012). Creating Tomorrow’s Schools Today. p.110

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3 thoughts on “Theories of Child Development

  1. It seems to me that all of these theories that have been discussed are relevant to how learning takes place in schools today, and that all have a place.
    Many teachers today use the behaviourist approach of controlling behaviour through systems of rewards, such as giving stickers or smiley faces, and punishment, such as losing house points or missing break times. They do this because it often works, as a method for keeping children on track in their learning and for trying to hinder children that are effecting others’ learning in a negative way. Though I do believe that the ‘controlling’ element of this approach should be thought of as less about controlling how the children themselves learn but rather how the environment in which they are learning is controlled.
    As for Piaget’s individual child-centred approach and Vygotsky’s social approach, they are clearly both relevant to understanding how learning takes place, but in different contexts. In some activities, children will understand best working individually – to play, experiment, reflect, etc. but later on in that activity or in another activity, learning may be better placed in social interaction, to share ideas, to lead each other to think beyond the obvious or their current ideas, etc.
    It doesn’t appear that any of the approaches are particularly right or wrong, despite being different. It should be more about creating a balance between them by understanding the place they each have in aiding our understanding of children’s learning.

  2. We need to realise that education is not just about what goes on in the classroom but also how we relate that to our place in society today and in the future.

    “For education to help us continue our evolution we must ensure that it helps us to develop that sense of who we are and how we fit within a wider community. For that reason LEARNING TO LEARN AND LIVE must form the foundation of our educational experience.”
    Gerver, R. (2012). Creating Tomorrow’s Schools Today. p.110

    I agree with this final comment, but I do see that the psychological theories, especially social constructivism, applied in the classroom can actually aid the development of our social being. Psychological theorists such as Skinner, Piaget, Vygotsky and Brunner enable our teaching of children, as they give us an insight into how children learn and how we can facilitate this learning. Obviously children learn in different ways, but it gives us a framework to guide us. For example we know that children with normal physical development should be walking by the age of 18 months; clearly this is not always the case as we are all individuals, but it gives us a guide and provides us with a means to enable this learning on whatever level and to meet children’s needs. I feel this is the ultimate aim of psychological theories around child development and learning, understanding why and how, in order to facilitate the development of learning and not hinder it, either on an individual or social basis .

  3. It struck me as a little odd that the research being discussed here dates back to the early part of the last century. I wonder if there are more up to date studies which reflect contemporary issues and realities in education today?
    I am also against the idea of categorising learning in such a rudimentary manner. Education is not as black and white as these theories would have us believe.

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