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Developmental Psychology’s Marriage to the School System

The focus on children in school distorts our understanding of childhood.

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Have you ever seen the Handbook of Child Psychology? If not, I urge you to take a look at it the next time you have the opportunity to visit a university library. Handbook is a misnomer for this work; you'd need both arms to carry it all, and if you have a weak back you might want to carry it only a part at a time. The rest of its title--of Child Psychology--is also, in my opinion, a misnomer.

The most recent edition of this work is four volumes long, consisting of a total of nearly 5000 double-column pages. It's divided into 79 chapters, each authored by a different expert or set of experts on some aspect of child development. The list of authors could provide the foundation for a Who's Who in developmental psychology.[1] The work is intended as a full account of psychology's findings and theories about children's behavior. Graduate students in developmental psychology are often encouraged to use it as a foundation for their training. The Handbook's publisher, Wiley, describes the work as follows: "This authoritative four-volume reference spans the entire field of child development and has set the standard against which all other scholarly references are compared."

When the most recent edition came to my university's library, I eagerly hauled it down from its shelf to find out what it had to say about children's play and curiosity, the topics that interest me most. Here's what I found.

None of the 79 chapters are about play or even hint at play in their title. When I checked the subject indexes of each volume I found a few page references to play, but when I followed these up I discovered that, in all four volumes combined, slightly under 10 total pages are devoted to play. Ten pages out of 5,000--in other words, two-tenths of one percent of the whole--are devoted to the topic play in a work that is supposed to sum up all that we know about child psychology!

What about curiosity or exploration? Here the story is even worse. Not only is there no chapter on these topics, but curiosity doesn't appear in the index at all, and exploration appears in the index to just one volume. When I followed up that reference, I found that only 1 page was devoted to the topic of exploration. The problem is not that the index is short or incomplete; the index to each volume is huge. It is also not the case that the handbook uses some other terms for the topics of play, exploration, and curiosity. I looked exhaustively.

How can this be? How can a modern compendium of child psychology have essentially nothing to tell us about play and curiosity? If you ask a man or woman on the street to free associate to the concept child, the word play or playful will usually be near if not at the top of the list, and curious will be not far behind. To most non-academic observers, play and curiosity comprise a good part of the very essence of childhood. To borrow (and modify) a phrase once used by William James, "only a mind polluted by too much immersion in academia" could possibly think about children for long without thinking about play and curiosity. Mark Twain has a lot more to tell us about the real psychology of children than does this supposedly comprehensive account of child psychology.

How did this sad state of affairs come about? My theory is that it came about because of the long, tight marriage of the field of developmental psychology to the school system.

Schools provide the settings, subjects, researchers, mind set, and questions for research in child development.

To conduct research on people you need to find a pool of subjects. It is difficult, time consuming, and expensive to reach out into the non-school part of the community to find people willing to be studied; it is a lot easier to study people in schools. Students provide a ready and more-or-less captive group for research. A large proportion of all of the research conducted into adult psychology is conducted with college freshmen and sophomores as subjects, who "volunteer" their time because it is part of a course requirement or because it boosts the grade they get in an introductory psychology class. Psychologists who study people younger than college age have to leave the ivory towers a little bit to find their subjects, and the most convenient places by far to find them are in schools.

Children in schools are used to being manipulated, observed, and tested. You can subject different groups of schoolchildren to different conditions, give them tests before and after the manipulation, tally the results, and, voila, you have, quite likely, a finding that you can publish in a scholarly journal of child development. Try that on a neighborhood playground or street corner and you may get picked up by the police. (In fact, you might get picked up just for standing around observing children in those settings, especially if you happen to be a male.)

When children are not studied within their own school building, they are most often studied in a psychology laboratory at the university. The children recruited, if they are age 5 or older, are almost invariably children who are attending conventional schools. The experimental research paradigm used in the laboratory fits well with the familiar school paradigm, so the children easily follow what they are supposed to do. The subject is the student, the researcher is the teacher, the experimental manipulation is the lesson, and the test is the test. The match fits well not just in the minds of the subjects, but also those of the researchers. My academic colleagues in psychology quite frequently, as a slip of the tongue, refer to their classroom students as "subjects," or to their laboratory subjects as "students."

Psychologists who study children generally call themselves developmental psychologists, because they are primarily interested in children's development, that is, in how children progress toward adulthood. In our culture schooling is such an ever-present force that most people, at a gut level, link child development with progression through the school system. Research psychologists are, as a rule, supreme products of the school system. We are people who survived schooling, and may have even thrived on schooling, for at least 20 years (through the Ph.D.) and are still in school, now as professors rather than as students. Even more than is true of most people in our culture, our gut-level understanding of human development is tied to notions of progression through the school system.

The school model of development is also convenient for psychologists who seek orderliness in their theories and abide by the dictum that only things that are measurable are worth studying. Development through schools is orderly, uniform, and measurable; wishful thinking makes all of human development like that. Another significant source of influence on research in developmental psychology is financial. It is easier to get a government grant for such research if you link it somehow to children's education than if you don't, and education is understood implicitly by most grant reviewers as schooling.

Given all this, it is not surprising to discover that the questions that developmental psychologist attempt to answer in their research are largely school-related questions. Many of the questions are explicitly about school lessons; they have to do, for example, with ways of teaching reading or math. But even questions that are not so obviously about schooling are strongly affected by the school paradigm. They have to do with the effects, on children, of structured situations set up for them by adults, in controlled settings where the choices of what to do are severely limited. That, by itself, pretty much rules out the study of real play or curiosity.

There is nothing nefarious about any of this. These are honest researchers trying to study what they and others around them see as important. The result, though, is an extraordinarily biased and narrow view of the human nature of children.

What kind of place is school, and how does this bias our understanding of children?

If I am correct about the influence that schooling has on thought and research in developmental psychology, then an understanding of school as an environment that promotes some behaviors and prevents others can help us understand the biases that exist in developmental psychology. What kind of environment is school, and how might that affect the theories and findings of developmental psychology?

1. School is a place where children are more or less constantly directed by adults.
In school, the decisions of what to do, when to do it, and how to do it are made by the teacher or by authorities above the teacher. The student's job is to follow directions. I think this fact has an enormous influence on the ways that psychologists have thought about and studied children's behavior. There is very little research or theory on how children make choices, or take initiative, or become engaged with the world around them. There is, instead, lots of research on how children answer questions that adults ask them to answer and how they process or remember information that is given to them by adults.

2. School is a place that draws a sharp distinction between "work" and "play" and puts learning in the former category.
A constant message at school is that work and play are very different things. Work (specifically, "school work") is what you have to do; work improves you; work educates you. Play is something you do at recess as a break from work, or when your work is finished. The implicit idea here is that play is trivial. I think that this helps explain why most developmental psychologists have avoided studying play, and why those few who do study it rarely get invited to contribute to summaries of the field, such as the Handbook of Child Psychology.

3. School is a place of frequent tests, emphasis on norms, and ranking of children along measured dimensions.
The school system requires lots of testing to judge when children are ready to move on to the next lesson or grade. Psychology has obliged with an enormous amount of research on test construction and with whole theories of development that are based on measurable achievement norms. In fact, it is fair to say that developmental psychology got its start, near the beginning of the twentieth century, when Alfred Binet was asked by the French ministry of education to develop a test whose purpose was to help the school system assign new students to grades and tracks. The result, of course, is what we know of today as the IQ test. Even today, IQ testing is among the major applied areas of developmental psychology. So, the link of developmental psychology to the school system goes back to the inception of developmental psychology. (Perhaps the metaphor of marriage in the title to this piece is misleading. You might argue that developmental psychology is the child of the school system, not the spouse, and the child has not yet ventured far from home.)

4. School is a place of strict age segregation.
In schools today, children have almost no opportunities to interact with children who are more than a few months older or younger than themselves. I think this fact helps explain why there are almost no studies in developmental psychology dealing with interactions between young children and adolescents, or between children who differ in age by more than two or three years. Yet, as I have argued in previous posts, in non-school settings age-mixed play, over a broad span of ages, appears to be the principal means by which younger children acquire new skills and knowledge and older children develop leadership and nurturing capacities (see series of three posts, beginning with Sept 9, 2008). By focusing on children in schools and employing an implicit model of schooling as the model of all of human development, developmental psychology as a field has completely ignored the developmental power of free age mixing.

5. School is a competitive place.
Schools, by design, are competitive environments. Children compete for high grades, for high placements in class rankings, and ultimately for limited places in selective colleges. The classroom "games"--such as spelling bees--are generally competitive, as are many of the extracurricular activities. Students compete to be in the school play, or on interscholastic sporting teams, or in the select chorus, or on the cheerleading squad. Moreover, age segregation itself tends to promote competition. All this leads to an atmosphere of competition that rubs off even onto the less formal activities at school. Children--and even more so adolescents--develop social hierarchies of popularity in the school context, which are often studied by developmental psychologists as if they are natural to children everywhere. Yet research in non-schooled societies and on children outside of school--conducted generally by anthropologists rather than psychologists--casts doubt on the generality of such hierarchies. Even monkeys are more hierarchical, competitive, and aggressive when they are confined, in cages, with others whom they did not choose to be with than when they are free to roam and to choose their own companions.
If we want to understand human potential, and not just how people adapt to schools and school-like environments, then we must widen our scope of research to include research on children in a wide variety of settings and research using a wide variety of methods. We will never know fully the power of children's play, curiosity, and self-direction, or the power of free age mixing, if we don't study children in contexts where these are allowed to blossom. Unfortunately, such contexts are becoming increasingly rare in our society. Let's find them, study them, and nurture them as we do for vanishing species!
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[1] To research psychologists the terms child psychology and developmental psychology are largely synonyms, though some developmental psychologists study adult development. I am not talking here about child psychology as clinical practice (where, in fact, considerable attention is devoted to the subject of play--especially to play as therapy), but rather about child psychology as an academic discipline aimed at learning about the psychological nature of children and the processes involved in children's development toward adulthood.

For more on children's natural ways of learning, see Free to Learn.