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Debate: Not miniature adults

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By John CoeInformation Officer for the National Association for Primary Education

Understanding child psychology is an essential part of teaching. So why does today’s teacher training largely forget it?

John Coe

I yield to no one an admiration for the commitment, enthusiasm and downright skill demonstrated by young teachers. Those who have stuck at it (about four out of every ten who started at college) are true professionals and better than I was all those years ago when I started teaching. Recently though, I had a salutary glimpse of how young children are seen, as people, by those who have qualified in recent years. The task was to design an international primary curriculum centred on the topic of global warming. I led a small team of first-rate teachers, each one nominated by a forward-looking, successful school. I won’t be specific about their ages, but suffice to say if all their years of experience had been added together, it would just about have been equal to my own. Our aim was not so much to instruct – this was part of it but not the greater part – but rather to provoke thinking about the issues which will have such a powerful effect on today’s primary children as they become adults in the years ahead.

Asking questions is very different from understanding the answers – for that more needs to happen

A child is a child

When we began working together, I was astonished to find that the children for whom we were writing were thought of almost as miniature adults, equipped with all the intellectual ability and judgement we acquire over the years. When I gently questioned the ability of six or nine year olds to sit in a circle and discuss our carbon footprint (gently, because that’s how I work as a teacher), I was told: ‘Oh no, even the youngest ask questions about things like that.’ This I readily accepted, but, of course, asking questions is very different to understanding answers and debating them – for that more, much more needs to happen. Needless to say, as the weeks went by we reached common ground. Our curriculum for the youngest was expressed in terms of play. Then, for the older ones, activities giving children direct experience (not merely words) out of which, and alongside, their teachers they could draw ideas and understanding – the essential foundation for discussion in later years.

Trained to deliver

No doubt I was properly reminded of the present day sophistication of the young and how childhood has been shortened by the pressures of advertising and the media. But I know too, that my young colleagues had, almost for the first time, brought together the nature of their children with how they can best be taught. Perhaps I should not have been so astonished by this. After all, these teachers, like so many others, had been trained in a culture which has demanded delivery above all else – an overwhelming emphasis on instruction, with all too little thought given to those instructed. I asked one teacher how much time in her four year education degree course had been devoted to psychology and child development. She replied: ‘About four hours.’ Yet understanding children and how they grow is the very essence of our work. Children are not miniature adults. Yes, they will grow to be like us, but as we teach them, we must start where they are – in the world of the child.

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