Critically analyse ways in which aspects of developmental psychological theory have had an impact upon lower Primary educational policy in the UK. It is important when we are working with young minds in any capacity that we have an understanding of where the ideas propagating the policies are coming from and where they may be heading. In this essay, I will address how different theories of developmental psychology have moulded how we have come to think about children and childhood, and the way in which this has infiltrated educational policy.
I shall be looking specifically at the 2013 Key Stage 1 Assessment Arrangements including the phonics screening check, and providing a critical analysis of the future practice of this and the vision of education that this policy implies. I shall then highlight the positive and negative features of developmental psychology and expand upon the effect that these theories – which, it can be argued, we in the Western world have come to accept as intrinsic truths -have had on our ideas about the nature of childhood and children’s capabilities.
I shall be analysing primarily the work of Piaget and the way that the growth of ‘psychologisation’ of children has permeated educational policy. I will then move on to look at the psychopathology of children and how, by uncovering a ‘normal’ standard, which is what I understand developmental psychology seeks to do, that inevitably necessitates the labelling of ‘abnormal’ or ‘other’. This is termed by Rose (1985) and Ingleby (1985) as the ‘psy-complex’. ‘National’ Assessments for 7-year olds
There are 47 pages of instructions on the Standards and Testing Agency Key Stage 1 assessment and reporting arrangements document, outlining which children this set of tests must be administered to and exact procedures for its application. The Standards and Testing Agency (STA) is an executive agency for the Department of Education, and it aims, according to the policy, to “raise the standards of educational achievement; close the educational achievement gap between rich and poor; [and] support all young people, particularly the disadvantaged”. The Standards and Testing Agency Framework Document, 2011-2012:3). Whether or not it succeeds in doing this remains to be seen, although it does seem to be in direct contradiction with the general theme of developmental psychology, which it has been argued (Burman (2010), Rose (1985), Ingleby (1985) tends to seek out differences and alienate the unfortunate who are deemed to be outside of the ‘normal’ realm of development.
The STA aims to do this via a system of testing and assessment which is meant to provide a sound representation of children’s progress in order to highlight under-performing schools and provide evidenced accountability. The STA’s “Full Business Case Summary” stipulates that its main objective is to provide “an effective and robust testing and assessment system that objectively [my own emphasis] measures and monitors pupil progress from the early years up until the end of Key Stage 3. (STA, 2013:2) Soon to be implemented legislation will evaluate children and judge them on their performance in the three widely accepted ‘core’ subjects of English, Maths and Science. Correct pronunciation will also be tested, and all of these results will be amalgamated to provide a neat and tidy account of how the school is performing. This Assessment and Reporting Arrangement (ARA) applies to all maintained schools, including maintained special schools with children in Key Stage 1.
All academies, where the funding agreement for the school requires that it must comply with statutory guidance for assessing children’s and teacher’s performance must also adhere to the arrangements set out in the STA document. Independent schools may apply to take part in the assessment, although they are not required by law to do so. However, if an independent school intends to claim that the results achieved by their pupils are comparable with those of state schools then they must take part in the assessment procedure at least once in a four-year cycle.
This appears to represent a more appropriate, fairer method of assessing schools on a national basis, so that independent schools cannot claim to be achieving higher results without any evidence. Be that as it may, the average class size in an independent school is held to be around 15; in a state school the maximum class size is 30 ( due to the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act), but is in danger of becoming greater (according to a report published in the Guardian on 11th January, 2012).
This means that less attention can be devoted to individual children. It can be argued, therefore, that the comparison is highly rigged. Furthermore, the very fact that independent schools can opt out of the supposed ‘national’ survey of school performance is puzzling to me, for what reason do we call it national if it does not include all the schools in the country, including the ones that the privileged few attend?
Why, when it is deemed of utmost importance that the vast majority of our children study exactly the same thing, judged by the same criteria, is it sufficient for some not to be assessed by the same standard. Conversely, it may be beneficial to have a range of educational methods employed across the country to help ascertain effective teaching methods which can then be implemented nationally. The responsibilities enforced upon the headteacher with this latest testing system are manifest.
For example, it is their responsibility to identify which children in the school should take the assessments; ensure teachers and other staff comply with the regulations and arrangements set out in the policy; ensure that the correct administrative procedures are followed; ensure teacher assessment levels for reading, writing, speaking and listening, mathematics and science are recorded; and so on and so forth (STA, 2013:9).
Whilst it is essential that our schools are educating our children to a high standard, the level of bureaucracy involved in this measure is astounding, and will add to the already overburdened role that many teachers are struggling to bear. As is evidenced from the Scale of Occupational Stress HSE 2000, “HSE research in 2000 found teaching to be the most stressful profession in the UK, with 41. 5% of teachers reporting themselves as ‘highly stressed’. For comparison, the incidence of any kind of stress across the working population is believed to be less than 20 per cent” (HSE 2000).
Although the policy does state that teachers must be given “sufficient non-contact time” (STA, 2013:19) to mark the tests and make their judgements, questions arise as to the likelihood of already tight funding to be used to arrange supply cover for this purpose, or to arrange sufficient free periods for the teachers. The policy states that the teacher’s judgements are to be monitored so that no preferential treatment is given to any particular student. This is also to ensure that students who do well on their tests but are not well liked by he teacher for any reason are not discriminated against. Again, this appears to represent an impartial, benevolent approach to ensuring an equitable education policy. However, on the contrary, this assumes that the headteacher is able to acquaint themselves with each individual pupil, and to have a suitable estimation (at the very least) of their capabilities and their relationship to the teacher. This is probably possible within a small school in a village or suburban setting; however in a large, urban, inner-city school it may well prove impossible.
It is stipulated in the policy that “the specific contents of all assessment materials is not used to prepare the children for the tasks, tests or check” (STA, 2013:9). This caveat should guarantee that each child is entering the test on an equal footing. This does however rely on the professionalism and honesty of the teachers to certify that they do not ‘teach to the test’. Each teacher wants their teaching practice to be seen in the most favourable light possible, and it would be difficult to enforce such a practice without being in the classroom at all times.
It also relies heavily upon the professionalism and honesty of the headteacher; if the standard and reputation of the school is to be judged on the outcome of these assessments then these attributes are to be severely tested. Teacher assessment is the main focus for the evidence of pupil attainment needed in these tests. “If teacher assessment and task and test results differ, the teacher assessment results should be reported, provided the judgement is based on an appropriate range of evidence from work completed in class” (STA, 2013:12).
Again, this seems to be providing for the discrepancies in performance due to, for example, anxiety. The teacher assessments are meant to take in to account judgements of how each individual child has performed at different stages and across a range of contexts, and provide a rounded evaluation of their capabilities. Yet surely this is again open to some degree of subjectivity on the part of teachers, for the above reasons? Within this policy, it appears that there is to be little collaboration between parents’ and teachers’ wishes.
If there is any dispute over whether or not an individual child should take part in this testing process, the school has the right to make the final decision. As is evidenced on page 17 of the STA document: “Schools do not have to agree to parents’ requests not to enter a child for tasks or tests. Similarly, they do not have to agree to requests to enter a child for National Curriculum assessments where the school has decided this is not appropriate”. The headteacher’s decision is final.
Furthermore, the concerns and complaints procedure in relation to this policy demands that the complainant is proficient enough in the use of English to have their concerns addressed, and/or that they are computer literate (STA, 2013:11). This eliminates some parents from the ability to have their voices heard. Key themes emerging from the policy document One of the major themes coursing through the veins of this document is the commitment to supply rank, measurement and categorisation of children.
This can be seen most readily by the expectation that schools will score the child in accordance with the “threshold mark” (STA, 2013:30). In this respect, the tests are directly related to aspects of developmental psychological theory. The test seeks to tease out pupils who deviate from the ‘norm’. Whether this is for benign purposes or not is irrelevant; the subsequent labelling of the child has the potential to have devastating effects on his/her psychological state of mind. Furthermore, categorisation of children can have a profound effect on later teacher expectations and personal expectations.
This process is more commonly known as the Pygmalion effect, wherein one’s own or others’ expectations of performance come to be realised. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ormrod (1999) insists that expectations influence the ways in which teachers evaluate students, behave toward students, and make decisions about students. These expectations create an inter-subjective reality in which students tend to perform up to[or play down to] expectations” (Sherman, 2000). This paper takes the issue even further, suggesting that teachers’ expectations “can increase students’ intellectual capabilities…
Teachers’ expectations, then, may be linked to students’ self image and achievement levels” (Sherman, 2000). There are, it has to be argued, some positive effects of this kind of labelling of children. If children are going to get more help because they are identified as having certain ‘deficiencies’, then there are some distinct advantages to it. Indeed, some parents and children may feel that the label is helpful, because they get the appropriate support. They may feel that the label actually adds clarity to their needs, ensuring they get the support they deserve (Lamb Inquiry, 2009).
Sadly, it is only for those children for whom additional help has already been incorporated into standard classroom practice who will get extra support (STA, 2013:34). This could mean that there are still children who are struggling without additional support. Children who have been identified as having special educational needs and who are receiving extra help, in the form of rest breaks, changing of the font used or printing on different coloured paper (STA, 2013:33), working towards level 1, will be identified with a P scale.
This appears to be an aspect of the policy that seeks to reference ‘abnormality’. As Bird (1999) agrees: “There is a focus on the normative learner, with a tendency to position students with `special educational needs` as exceptions to the norm” (Bird, 1999:21). There has been a long-standing focus on the individual child as the source of issues or problems in the classroom. Cyril Burt, the founder of British educational psychology, put the “under-achieving” child under the microscope (so to speak).
A view like this, that is inherently focused on the individual as the source of their apparent misery and/or disruption to the class, misses other important factors such as the individual’s social environment, circumstances, learning styles and so on and so forth. Certain elements of the phonics policy in particular seem to be focusing purely on a child’s ability to decode in English. This is an important skill, and one that can be useful when reading, but it gives no focus to the actual understanding of concepts.
Christine Blower, head of the NUT, has been quoted on the BBC website in September 2012 as saying the tests are a “waste of time” (Richardson, BBC News, 27th September 2012). Some pupils are seeing themselves as failures already, it is implied in the report. What is startling to note here is the apparent lack of attention to developmental psychological theories, which I shall expand upon later. A broad outline of the developmental psychological theories that have influenced school policy in the U. K Throughout this policy in particular, there is evidence of individuality – ‘every child counts’ (ECM, DfES/1081/2004).
This can be traced back to the work of John Locke (1632 -1704). Christianity tended to view the child as innately ‘sinful’, but Locke challenged this, arguing that, at birth, the child was like a tabula rasa – a blank slate -that is ‘written on’ by their experiences (Foley et al. , 2001). Thus, he saw nurture as being the most important factor in child development. Behaviourism “A human being begins as an organism and becomes a person or self as he acquires a repertoire of behaviour. There is no place in the scientific position for the self as a true originator or initiator of action” (Skinner, 1974:225).
As well as dismissing the role of the self, behaviourism only focuses on objectively observable behaviours and discounts mental activities. Although Skinner’s ideas are still quite influential in the field of behaviour management, they no longer exert the hold that they did in the 1950s and 1960s. This might be because the application of behaviourist ideas to education is often seen to be dull and restrictive. For example, Skinner’s (1971) insistence on heavily structured lesson materials, pre-scripted teacher input and high levels of reinforcement, can feel uninspiring in the classroom.
Behaviourism has therefore been criticised because it disregards some of the activities of the mind. It tends to see human beings as automatons rather than creatures of will and purpose. I. Q and Mental Testing Out of all of the developmental psychological theories, this one seems to have the most direct comparability with the 2013 Assessment and Reporting arrangement policy. As Eysenk (1994) defines it: “those who are good at abstract reasoning, problem-solving, and decision-making are often seen as more intelligent than those who are poor at those mental activities” (Eysenk, 1994:4).
This completely ignores creative thinking, musical intelligence and social intelligence. If this is the direction that our schooling will take, it is extremely sad. The correlations between this new policy and I. Q testing are that they both seek to measure children and value mathematical, scientific ways of thinking, undermining and under-valuing other ways of being. One saving grace of the STA legislation is that it also involves teacher assessment and reviews the work of the whole year, although this in itself can be fraught with problems as I have illustrated. Child-Centred Education
Piaget’s thinking provided a different way of looking at children that had less of a focus on measurement. Although Piaget came to be seen as the main theorist cited in this approach, it has its roots much earlier in the work of Jean-Jaques Rousseau, Friedrich Froebel and the philosopher John Dewey, among others. All of these theorists were similar in their views in that they all endorsed a child-centred approach, “advocating that education should be orientated towards children’s interests, needs and developmental growth, and informed by an understanding of child development” (Burman, 2008:262).
Jean Piaget began work primarily as a biologist and his work moved on from the study of molluscs as a young man, to the development of children’s understanding (Woods 1988:8). He did this by observing children, talking and listening to them while they worked on tasks he set. His view of how children’s minds work and develop has been enormously influential, particularly in educational theory. His particular insight was in the role of maturation in children’s increasing capacity to understand their world; he proposed that they cannot undertake certain tasks until they are psychologically mature enough to do so.
His research has spawned a great deal of interest and subsequent research (Donaldson, Bruner etc. ), much of which has more critically developed his own ideas. However, like many other original investigators his importance comes from his overall vision. Indeed, Donaldson (1978) begins her book by acknowledging her indebtedness to the work of Piaget, even though her publication Children’s Minds impels us to reject certain aspects of his theory. Here, I will briefly outline some aspects of Piagetan theory that are relevant to this discussion. Piaget’s Theory
Piaget’s constructivist theory of cognitive development has been a major influence on educational policy around the world for several decades. However, his focus was not on education but on how knowledge and thinking develops. He called this area of study ‘genetic epistemology’. It is worth noting that he was not a psychologist in that his main area of study was the “epistemic subject” (Burman, 2008:244) rather than the individual child. He believed that studying growing children was the best way to understand the process of emerging knowledge.
One of Piaget’s key perceptions was that children are not just little adults; they think in a qualitatively different way from adults. This was a revolutionary idea fifty years ago when psychological research was dominated by behaviourist theories. Piaget stressed self-activity as the root of knowledge. He believed that children construct their view of reality individually and it is an active process. (Butterworth & Harris, 1994) Piaget postulated that children’s cognitive development does not simply get better as a matter of course; rather, that children “undergo a series of transformations in how they think….
Children are not just cognitively less able than adults, but also that they actually think in a fundamentally different way” (Foley et al. , 2001:204). This is in parallel with the view of children as deficient in many ways– ‘less than’ adults. Childhood, in this way, became a developmental process in which adaptation to the environment was understood as a natural progression, through observable, pre-defined stages, towards a rational and civilised adulthood. Piaget described roughly four main stages of development which every child has to pass through successfully in order to proceed to the next stage (Burman, 2008).
The first stage he described was the Sensori-motor stage, which children are deemed to go through at 0-2 years of age. At this stage, an infant’s primary thoughts are held to be limited to gathering input from their senses (what they see, hear, taste, touch and smell) and a child below two years of age is thought to be incapable of any abstract thought. However, how Piaget deduced the mental processes that occur within an infant’s mind is unclear. This is why behaviourists, such as Skinner, discount mental processes and concentrate only on observable behaviour.
Children then progress to the ‘Pre-operational Stage’, wherein, a child’s thought processes become more sophisticated but are still seen as immature by adult standards. Piaget thought this to happen between 2 and 7 years of age (Donaldson, 1978:137). This transition is reflected in “the acquisition of language, imaginative play and the ability to remember things long after the event” (Foley et al. , 2001:205). Piaget gives this stage the term pre-operational thought as the child has first to master the ability to “represent things to himself” (Donaldson, 1978:138).
Piaget argues that the child does not yet possess the ability for logical thought. For example, if a child was to play with some blocks on the floor and an investigator was to ask how many, the child would not be able to understand, as adults do, the concept of number, even if he answered correctly. The way in which Piaget administered his experiments has given rise to some doubt as to their validity (Donaldson, 1978). It is reasonable to question the reliability of Piaget’s observations due to the generality of his results.
He has been criticised for not taking sufficient care in the design of his experiments so as to exclude alternate explanations, and that he theorised excessively from too little evidence. If his theory is to have a continued influence on education and psychology, it must be reviewed by the procedures of current research. One of the best known tasks Piaget set children of this age was to test their ability to ‘de-centre’ – to literally take account of another person’s point of view.
His work, The child’s Conception of Space (Piaget & Inhelder, 1948), gives an account of the experiment. Piaget uses a model of three mountains, each with different features to identify them. The child is instructed to sit at one side of a table, and a doll is placed at other positions around the table. The child is then presented with the question of what the doll sees. Very few children were able to succeed at this, and Piaget takes this as an indication that they are unable to ‘de-centre’ in imagination (Donaldson, 1978).
However, in another task devised by Martin Hughes (involving two walls intersected to make a cross, and the aim for a boy – represented by one doll – having to hide from a policeman – represented by another doll), found that: “when 30 children between the ages of three-and-a-half and five years were given this task, 90% of their responses were correct” (Donaldson, 1978:22). Perhaps one reason for this discrepancy is that in Piaget’s experiment, the children did not fully grasp exactly what was required of them. Also, Hughes created something that children can identify with.
Children can relate to the concept of hiding, whereas the ‘mountains’ task is abstract “in a psychologically very important sense” (Donaldson, 1978:24). The following stage in Piaget’s view of cognitive development in children is the concrete operational stage, occurring from approximately 7-11 years. This is where Piaget thought that children make a “crucial leap” (Foley et al. , 2001) in intelligence, making the jump to logical reasoning. For example, when working with several distinct objects (coins, coloured blocks etc. ), children are aware that however they are arranged, the number remains constant.
At this point, children begin to develop an understanding of patterns and therefore mathematics. It has been argued by some (Burman, 2008, Brown & Desforges, 1977 etc. ) that Piaget himself did not stipulate the ages quite so dramatically; rather, he gave an approximation of the ages that these cognitive transformations would occur. His work has since been taken by other writers on the subject of developmental psychology to represent intrinsic truths, leading to anxiety in the minds of parents and teachers when a child is ‘failing’ to reach these standardised goals.
Indeed, research conducted by Shayer and Adhani into the cognitive potential of children (2003) revealed that: “… on Piagetian measures the levels of 11/12 year olds entering secondary education spanned some twelve developmental years -i. e. , from the average 6-year old to the above average 16-year old (Shayer, Kucheman & Wylam, 1976). On the other hand, research on 5 – 8 year olds (Shayer, Demitriou & Pervez, 1988) showed that 20% of the 7-year-olds were already at the mature concrete level, the average level for 12-year olds”(Shayer & Adhani, 2003:3).
This shows the inherent difficulties of trying to apply some form of mathematical, scientific structure to human beings. We are, by our very nature, intensely malleable and liable to change and adapt as our circumstances do. As Shayer & Adhani (2003) found; “The implications of this study are that relative intelligence can be increased and is not fixed, and that children can be led into collaborating with each other to the benefit of their own thinking” (Shayer & Adhani, 2003:2,3). Piaget himself acknowledged that some of his work was in some ways deficient; therefore, when commenting on his scientific contributions, Piaget (e. . , 1976c) remarked that he had laid down only a rough sketch of human cognitive development and that subsequent research would certainly identify the parts missing from the sketch, the parts that need to be modified, and the parts that need to be discarded. (Lourenco, 1996). Piaget’s work tended to focus solely on the formation of logical thought, negating development of other functions such as intuition, art and music. This could form some of the reasons for the lack of focus and importance attributed to the study of these subjects in later life.
What is Piaget’s legacy? It is clear that Piaget’s name has become synonymous with developmental psychology and education; but why, when he was not actually a psychologist or an educationalist? The main point to note here is Piaget’s historical and cultural location. His work came at a time of growing dissatisfaction with the views of behaviourism, “with the “’empty vessel’ environmental determinism of behaviourism as well as the rationalism and innatism of genetic determinism” (Burman, 2998:244).
However, much of his work has been misconstrued to ‘fit in’ with the ideas of social regulation and modernity of the time. His ideas – or, more accurately, a selection of them – became popular at a time when the Western world was obsessed with a search for objective ‘truths’ and scientific discoveries were making rapid changes and improvements to all areas of society (Burman, 2008). It should also be taken into account that Piaget was writing in Europe in between two world wars, when there was a need for creating a peaceful society and discovering how we could all live more harmoniously together.
Burman quotes Piaget as saying, “Science is one of the finest examples of the adaptation of the human mind….. This is what we need socially… a new mental instrument, at once intellectual and moral, for in such a sphere the two things are one” (Piaget, 1933:7, from Burman, 2008:253). Given this, he managed to capture the minds of key figures in European and American psychology and education. His lasting legacy is of the now inherently ingrained perception, at least in the Western world, of the developmental difference between children at different stages in their life.
He valued learning through experimentation and exposure to the environment, and he extolled learning through play. This is one influence of developmental psychology that I for one am extremely grateful for, but is not evident in the guidelines I am reviewing. The influence of Vygotsky One major criticism of Piaget was his perceived failure to take adequate account of the influence of culture on the learning process. Indeed, it can be argued that the stages of development constructed by Piaget are representative of Western society and culture, and thus not applicable world-wide.
In Piaget’s work, formal operations and logical thinking are valued higher than other forms of development; whereas in other cultures, alternative modes of development may be prized. Many modern educationalists are more strongly attracted to Vygotsky’s social rather than individual constructivism. Vygotskian views on education were greatly celebrated during the 1990’s and early 21st century in Britain and America in particular. He was brought into the limelight by a powerful paradigm shift in recent decades, from biologically based to sociocultural explanations of human activity.
Piaget’s work also heavily influenced Vygotsky, but Vygotsky disagreed with Piaget on a number of points, firstly, on the function of egocentric speech. Piaget argued that this form of speech was a reflection of children’s egocentricity, but Vygotsky argued the opposite. He argued that it was a method for helping children to solve problems, and that it eventually becomes internalised. For Piaget, development moves from the individual to the social; for Vygotsky, it is the other way round. Vygotskian theory states that a child is essentially social from the start, and that all infants engage in social exchange.
For Vygotsky, language structures our concept formation in a social way; for Piaget, language is much less crucial in cognitive development. Vygotsky developed a theory which he named, ‘The general genetic law of cultural development’, in which he postulated that; “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts.
All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals. ” (Vygotsky, 1966: 57) What Vygotsky is suggesting here is that children internalise their shared, collective experiences with their peers, parents or older siblings and learn through them. They learn through participating in experiences that are just beyond their competence. This is their zone of proximal (or potential) development. This is his most famous concept: the ZPD. As Vygotsky himself states: “What a child can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow” (Vygotsky, in Stierer & Maybin, 1994:55).
Piaget did not value children working in groups, suggesting that such a practice would inevitably serve to frustrate the child. Vygotsky, on the contrary, valued this type of interaction as it encouraged social exchange and thus learning capacity was increased. Group work is seen throughout primary schools, and it seems we have the work of Vygotsky to thank for this. Vygotsky proposed that mental tools are to the mind as mechanical tools are to the body. Cultures use symbols, diagrams, models, graphs, maps, language and other symbolic devices.
Children need to acquire these tools of the mind early, because it is these tools that will enable them to succeed in formal education. What’s more, these cultural tools radically change the process of learning, allowing children to organise and regulate their own cognitive processes. Vygotsky also placed great value on the importance of play, and learning through play. He posited that play is important for a child’s development. In his work, ‘Play and its role in the mental development of the child’ (1966), he said, At pre-school age special needs and incentives arise which are highly important to the whole of the child’s development and which are spontaneously expressed in play”. (Vygotsky, 1966:7). The importance of play is recognised in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and it is agreed by most Western theorists that it is a fundamental learning device in which creativity, spatial awareness and imagination (among other things) is enhanced (Sheridan, 2011). Sheridan echoes Vygotsky; “The freedom and choice inherent in spontaneous play make it a vital ingredient for children’s healthy development” (Sheridan, 2011:4).
Sheridan asserts that there are many theories as to why children play; firstly, the pre exercise theory put forward by Groos (1901) construed that the function of children’s play was to practice key skills that are essential to adult survival, such as cooking, making dens and so on. The relaxation theory, put forward by Patrick (1916) holds that we play because it requires minimal cognitive demands; and the surplus energy theory (Spencer, 1898) decrees that we play, as the name suggests, when we have taken care of all other survival needs (Sheridan,2011).
I agree with Vygotsky that play has a much more fundamental purpose than this latter theory suggests. Play has a positive effect on social functions; conflict resolution, awareness of self and others, negotiation etc. It also has a benevolent effect on cognitive ability; for example, it has been said (Vygotsky, 1966; Sheridan, 2011) to improve balance, problem-solving, sorting and so on. Whilst in Hong Kong, I was working with a boy who was identified as having ADHD. He tended to find his lessons rather difficult,especially Mathematics, but when I observed him in the playground his problem-solving skills were exceptional.
Play has also been widely recognised in the Western world to have a profound effect on physical development, improving visual-spatial awareness and coordination (Sheridan, 2011). Play continually makes demands on the child to act against immediate impulse, as when playing by an agreed upon set of rules, usually formulated by the children themselves. For example, in a race all competitors must start at the same time. Children, it is proposed by Vygotsky, derive more pleasure from the game rather than gratification of an immediate impulse. Winnicott (1971), furthers the importance given to play. In playing, and perhaps only in playing, the child or adult is free to be creative” (Winnicott, 1971:62), and she goes on to state that “it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (Winnicott, 1971:63). Vygotsky was innovative in his recognition of the significance of ‘reality perception’, or imaginative play; the ability to substitute objects (for example, using a stick to signify a horse etc. ). We can see from these extracts that much importance is given to play and learning through play in the Western world.
Comparison between developmental psychological theory and the STA Assessment and Reporting Arrangements 2013 Throughout the essay I have attempted to draw comparisons between the concepts brought about through developmental psychology and this policy in particular. I have previously noted some of the key factors emerging from the policy document and their relation to developmental psychological theory; for example, the correlation between the STA document and the desire to rank children’s performance in these tests according to the “threshold mark” (STA, 2013:30).
The reason given for this is so teachers and staff will have an easier way to identify children who deviate from the ‘norm’ and therefore be able to offer them the appropriate assistance. A more sceptical way of looking at this would be to discern that this is part of an overriding governmental policy to identify and label the ‘abnormal’ child at an increasingly younger age, and to give ‘brighter’ children (or more compliant, obedient and thus more educable children) more of an opportunity. As Rose (1989) puts it; Psychology has played a key role in establishing the norms of childhood; in providing means for visualising childhood pathology and normality; in providing vocabularies for speaking about childhood subjectivity and it’s problems; and in inventing technologies for cure and normalisation. (Rose, 1989:133) Another connection with developmental theory is Piaget’s stage theory of development, given that these tests are to be given generally to children of about 7 years old – the approximate age that Piaget (or, more accurately misinterpretations of his work) suggested that children reach the concrete operational stage of intellectual development.
As I have noted previously, children at this stage are held to be able to think logically about concrete problems in the here and now. Piaget was not concerned with the individual, but the ‘epistemological knower’, but his work has somehow become warped to fit in with the capitalist notions of individuality. Through the conjunction of psychology and the search for intrinsic ‘truths’ about ourselves and the nature of children, this in turn has lead to an increasing pathologisation and medicalisation of children in education.
The positive effects of developmental psychology – the value of learning through play and exploration, the zone of proximal development and the benefit of group-work etc. -are no-where to be seen in this particular policy. This begs the question: if this policy (and the potential future of British primary schooling) is not driven by developmental theories, what factors may be motivating future educational policy? The UK government is concerned with results and ensuring that our education system is of a persistently high standard.
It is widely agreed that standards are important, and it would be very difficult to argue against measures to promote and guarantee the future success of our children. My argument here is as to whether this method of education that we seem to be moving towards isn’t actually a regression – a step back to rote learning of behaviourism and the grasping to test the elusive concept of intelligence- and away from developing the whole child.
It appears that our education system is returning to the behaviourist view of children as ‘empty vessels’ which we need to fill up through a step-by-step, skills-based, scientific approach. This policy in particular adopts a prescriptive, commanding voice that serves to undermine teachers’ position and professionalism. Even head teachers are not to be fully trusted; the document states that all local authorities should ensure that the requirements as set out in the ARA are being followed (STA2013: 11).
This serves to de-professionalise teachers with the prescriptive, condescending, narrow guidelines that they must follow, regardless of the teacher’s, parent’s or child’s wishes. This seems to be a way for the government to compete with other jurisdictions worldwide. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) can be compared to a worldwide league table, and at the moment the UK is “average” (Research Report, 2nd February, 2012) in its performance in English, mathematics and science.
The government wants to increase the standards that our pupils are achieving, but isn’t there a danger of reducing children to statistics? We seem to have developed a form of tunnel vision – an obsessive focus on the core subjects, to the detriment of artistic, creative subjects that could truly expand pupils’ minds. In conclusion, I have attempted to show, through an analysis of the policy text and through an analysis of the developmental psychological theories underpinning primary education in the UK, that there only seems to be a tenuous link to the positive elements of developmental psychology.
What we do seem to be heading towards is a regression to a more objective, scientific way of looking at human children. This fits in with an individualist, market-driven, competitive view of society which coincides with a child-centred education system. As Burman (2008) notes; “This child-centred pedagogy subscribes to a naturalised, individualised model of childhood which confirms social privileges and pathologises those who are already socially disadvantaged” (Burman, 2008: 262).
I have endeavoured to show that this policy may be helping to identify so-called developmental delay at age 7, with subsequent low expectations from the teachers and from the child themselves, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This may help the pupils, giving them the extra support they need to catch up; or it may serve only to identify them as different, deficit learners. In this way, the policy does seem to be following the principals of developmental psychology.
References and Bibliography
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