Children are Not Mini-Adults: Why Linear Developmental Models Fail

While discussing the story of Alice in Wonderland with a child last week, we came upon drawings of Alice when she has grown to be very large and shrunk to be very small. It made me think about development and the complexity that often gets lost in today’s perspective on education. Children do not merely grow bigger, but otherwise remain the same. Rather, they are constantly reorganizing, developing new ways of thinking and understanding, and developing new ways of participating in relationships. A four-year-old is not only taller than a 2-year-old, nor does he just have more knowledge. A four-year-old is an entirely different being, with an emerging ability to take perspective, to empathize, and to experience complex emotions. Considering the way that development unfolds should be our guide to determining best practices in educating (and parenting) our children.

One of my favorite metaphors for the process of development is baking a cake. At the beginning, there are only ingredients. There is variation in the freshness and quality of the ingredients that go into the cake, but the essential elements are pretty much the same for any cake. While baking, the ingredients are combined in different ways to make an entirely new product. Mixing the wet and dry ingredients, for example, makes a batter that does not have the consistency or the taste of any individual ingredient. As the baking process proceeds, the product is transformed multiple times until it is finally put into the oven and again takes on a new form. Timing is everything. Ingredients need to be mixed at the proper time, and the cake must be baked at the correct temperature for a specified amount of time.

When I look at educational policy today, I feel like we just keep adding more sugar and hoping it will somehow make the cake turn out better. The idea seems to be to drill kids on the basics of reading, mathematics, and writing from as early as possible. Rote learning and things that are easy to measure (i.e., tests) are emphasized. Battery powered infant toys recite the alphabet, numbers, and colors to try to make sure that children memorize these right away. Children have worksheets in preschool to trace letters, sometimes even before they have the fine motor skills to master the task.

While it is certainly appealing to focus on helping all children to read, reading is a task that most do not master until they are about 6 years old. Memorizing the letter sounds of the alphabet in toddlerhood will not lead to earlier and better reading if children do not understand the concept of phonics. Getting children to learn to read requires an understanding of how they develop. First, children need to be introduced to books and to be read to by caring adults. They learn that books tell stories, and they learn to love books. Later, they understand that the words and pictures in the books do the telling of the story. They look at the pictures and make up their own stories. Sight reading of familiar words follows, usually beginning with their own names. Finally, phonics come into play, and children can sound out words and actually read.

Similar to the cake, each part of the reading process is important, as is the timing of when learning is introduced. Children need to be cognitively ready to master a concept in order to learn it properly. They also must have the foundation of all of the previous steps to understand the step they are learning now. Going straight to phonics may ultimately lead to learning how to sound out words, but the concept of storytelling (reading comprehension) and the love of books (motivation to learn) will be missing.

Several years ago, infant swimming became very trendy. It was discovered that infants could be taught to float. Parents flocked to classes to teach their newborns swimming skills. Many did these classes because it made them feel more secure that their babies would be able to float. The only problem way that once the babies developed into toddlers, they were no longer able to swim. They had to relearn swimming as preschoolers, just like other children. Why? Well, the reflexes and motor skills that infants use to float are entirely different from the muscle systems and motor skills that older children use. So, teaching a skill before a child is developmentally ready to master it in the way that we mean them to usually does not work. It is like putting the cake into the oven before mixing the wet and dry ingredients.

Today’s focus on tangibles is understandable. It does not make sense to pour resources into an educational method without some results to back it up. But just because we want research-based practice does not mean that we need to oversimplify and administer countless standardized tests. Complex learning can be measured and assessed if it is broken down into its elements (e.g., can a preschooler make up a story based on pictures rather than can a preschooler identify all of the letters in the alphabet). Good researchers can also find ways to quantify what children are learning at school. It is difficult and time consuming to get these measures, much more so than administering a test. But it is essential to our children’s education. Just as creative teachers manage to teach math concepts by having children run a bake sale, creative researchers can find a way to measure what the children learned. In my research on parent-child relationships, we never assessed quality by the number of hugs or “I love yous,” but rather by detailed observations of the attunement of the parent to the child’s cues, the warmth and ease of interactions, and the child’s emotional comfort with the parent.

So rather than watch the pendulum of educational philosophy swing back and forth again, it would be great if we could realize that tangible outcomes and creative learning are not polar opposites. Perhaps we could put the pendulum in the middle and focus more on the issue of complexity. Let’s realize that learning is a process and not a product, that getting children excited about learning is important, and that mastery of concepts is more important the memorization of rote material. At the same time, let’s make sure that the methods that teachers are using in the classroom from preschool on up are effective. This will require not more assessment, but better collaboration between developmental researchers, educators, and policy makers in order to measure the right things in the right way.  (773) 852-6910

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