Review: Children’s Minds

My third and final piece of holiday reading this Summer was Margaret Donaldson’s Children’s Minds, the first book I’ve read on child psychology.

This is a book first published in 1978, but various sources suggested it to me as a good introduction to the field.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this book. The initial chapters seem to be very much “of the time”, a detailed critique of the theory of Piaget, which meant little to me without a first hand knowledge of Piaget’s views. Donaldson does, however, include her own summary of Piaget’s theories as an appendix.

Donaldson argues that children are actually very capable thinkers at all ages, but that effort must be made to communicate to them in a way they can understand. Several interesting experiments by Piaget, from which he apparently concluded that children are incapable of certain forms of thought, are contrasted against others by later researchers who found that by setting up the experiments using more child-friendly communication, these forms are apparently exhibited.

The latter half of the book becomes quite interesting, as Donaldson explores what schools can do during reception (kindergarten) age and beyond to ensure that the early excitement of learning which most children have is not destroyed by schools themselves. It is fascinating, for example, to read that

There is now a substantial amount of evidence pointing to the conclusion that if an activity is rewarded by some extrinsic prize or token – something quite external to the activity itself – then that activity is less likely to be engaged in later in a free and voluntary manner when the rewards are absent, and it is less likely to be enjoyed.

I would be most interested in what work has been done since the 70s on this point, as if this is true then it seems to clash markedly with practice in the vast majority of primary schools I know.

The final part of the text is remarkably polemical:

Perhaps it is the convenience of having educational failures which explains why we have tolerated so many of them for so long…

A vigorous self-confident young population of educational successes would not be easy to employ on our present production lines. So we might at last be forced to face up to the problem of making it more attractive to work in our factories – and elsewhere – and, if we had done our job in the schools really well, we should expect to find that economic attractions would not be enough. We might be compelled at last to look seriously for ways of making working lives more satisfying.

Little progress since the 70s, then! Interestingly (for me) Donaldson approvingly quotes A.N. Whitehead’s views on the inertia of education; I know Whitehead as a mathematician, and was completely unaware of his educational work.

As I mentioned, this is the first book on child psychology I’ve read. I found it rather odd; I am not used to reading assertions without significant citations and hard data to back up the assertions. I am not sure whether this is common in the field, whether it is Donaldson’s writing, or whether it is because this is clearly Donaldson writing for the greater public. I tended to agree with much of what was written, but I would have been far more comfortable with greater emphasis on experimental rigour. There is much in here to discuss with your local reception class teacher; I want to know more about older children.


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