Monday, 1 January 2018

Child Development: the invisible man

In his thoughtful essay What is Education, Mark K. Smith proposes that education is ‘the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning’. However, before we are able to effectively pursue this goal, we have to acknowledge the fundamental and sometimes quite bitter debates that exist within the teaching and learning arena. At the heart of these we find that the very root of the word education is disputed, in terms of whether it descends from the Latin ‘educere’- to lead out, or ‘educare’- to train or to mould. The question of the delicate balance between direct instruction and mentored development is a debate that human beings have never been able to address within a cultural or political vacuum; however the political arena in which Anglo-American education is situated has become increasing polarised over the first two decades of the twenty-first century. This blog will argue that the current over-arching political ideology of such neoliberal societies heavily infiltrates pedagogical debate, with the result that the human developmental process is ignored, creating dysfunction at the heart of state education.

While ‘traditionalists’ advocate an education system in which the principal pedagogy should favour direct instruction towards specific targets, ‘progressives’ favour a less directive style of teaching that fosters learner creativity and independence. The modern concept of ‘progressive’ education emerged from the practice of pioneers such as Johann Henrich Pestalozzi who, in the early 19th Century, attempted to model the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau in practical pedagogy. Early 20th Century American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey further proposed that education for societies rooted in fast technological change should not rely upon the rote transmission of ideas from a teacher to a pupil, but a more organic interaction between teacher and learners where both draw upon previous knowledge and experience in a process of ‘continuous construction’.

The ‘trad/prog’ debate has therefore been ongoing for centuries, but as Neoliberalism has risen over the past 35 years to become the principal Anglo-American political philosophy, it has become increasingly heated. The case made from the ‘prog’ side (which increasingly sees itself as ‘the defence’ to state-sanctioned policy) is that education practices have become too heavily skewed towards the narrowly traditional, driven by the neoliberal goal of producing compliant consumers and workers for the international marketplace; a situation dubbed ‘The Zombie Doctrine’ by George Monbiot. Parsimony is the key to neoliberal concepts of education, the impetus being towards quasi-privatised state education and the relentless statutory assessment of the competence of both pupils and teachers, utilising assessment results not only to test learners against artificially created ‘norms’, but also to impose ‘accountability’ measures upon teachers and schools.

Where education practice is dominated by this neoliberal premise, the driving impetus inevitably becomes programming learners towards assessment performance via the most economically parsimonious practices. And, given that such a practice has its roots in a philosophy of ‘dehumanisation’ it should not be a surprise that the subtleties of child development begin to become invisible. I have argued in many publications that the ways in which human beings most effectively learn to make meaning in the early years of life have been increasingly ignored within contemporary education policy and practice, even in the face of psycho-biological research findings that clearly highlight physical evidence of the ‘under construction’ synaptic patterns present within the living brains of young children. Such findings support some aspects of earlier models of cognitive development created by researchers such as Jean Piaget, in particular the incomplete nature of neural connection that makes it difficult for children under seven to deal with information that cannot be processed through existing concepts within memory. In my article Is baseline missing the bigger picture? I use the analogy of an attempt to store clothes in a wardrobe with insufficient hangers: unfamiliar ideas, like excess clothes cannot be placed into memory in an organised fashion, and therefore tend to fall to the bottom and become jumbled together.

The fact that young children’s brains are under development in this way during the first six years of life means that teaching and learning interactions during this developmental stage are far more successful if the child has a role in choosing an activity to act as a pedagogical anchor within existing cognition, and adults then engage in this agenda to teach towards ‘next steps’, a process known as ‘Sustained Shared Thinking’ (SST). Where children entering early education settings come from homes where English is not the principal language, or they have been diagnosed as non-neurotypical, SST can also be flexibly utilised to effectively address such individual needs.

However, the recent OFSTED document Bold Beginnings makes no mention of SST at all, despite the fact that standard 2.4 of Early Years Teacher Status (which was created by the DFE, and is also not mentioned in Bold Beginnings) states that EYTs must demonstrate the ability to ‘lead and model effective strategies to develop and extend children’s learning and thinking, including sustained shared thinking’. The content of Bold Beginnings gives further indications that the concept of SST has not been considered by the authors; for example the comment that ‘most learning could not be discovered or left to chance through each child’s own choices’ (p.17) fails to recognise the role of the adult in the learning through play process. The proposal that there should be ‘the same learning...expectations at the start of school as... at the end’ (p.13) also indicates a lack of consideration of the role of SST within early years pedagogy, and is moreover a worrying indication of a lack of consideration of the vast difference between the stage of construction of an average 4 and 11 year old brain. There is additionally a reference in Bold Beginnings to ‘start(ing) teaching quickly’ (p.16), which appears to indicate that ‘teaching’ is constructed as synonymous with 'direct instruction'. This point is introduced in a paragraph reflecting upon what ‘body of knowledge to pursue... what ideas to link together, what resources to draw on, how to teach and how to make sure all pupils benefit’ (p.12) in which there is no mention of the fact that effective early years teachers routinely engage in SST to address these requirements, utilising young children’s self-chosen activities to strengthen and extend pathways within their existing neural network.

SST is especially essential for working with young children whose development has been negatively impacted by environmental circumstances. The UK has some of the highest child financial insecurity levels in Europe; nationwide, approximately one third of the child population have to cope with the considerable social, emotional and intellectual challenges of living within a financially unstable household. Such experience is likely to create a neuronal effect known as cognitive lag, one of the results of which is that children from socio-economically deprived households most typically start school with a less well developed vocabulary than classmates from more privileged homes. As such the SST process is crucial in creating an environment in which language development takes place in context, mirroring the niche in which human beings evolved: building linguistic competence through spontaneous interactions.  

Whilst it might seem most logical to deal with child poverty at source, in their recent policy document Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential, the DFE talk instead of ‘strengthening literacy and numeracy’ (p.15) as the key measure to prevent disadvantaged pupils ‘falling behind’ and ‘underperforming’ (p.17). This highlights one of the key reasons for the invisibility of the human developmental process within current DFE and OFSTED policy: it is not immediately compatible with parsimonious neoliberal demands which require children to swiftly absorb nuggets of information to regurgitate to hit specific assessment targets. From a psychobiological perspective it can however be argued that this a dangerously false economy, which puts the performance cart before the developmental horse. An early years pedagogy that does not effectively communicate with young children in ways that are appropriate to their early stage of neural development will not provide them with the foundation to grasp how human beings build what minister Nick Gibb refers to as 'domains of knowledge'. For example, the curiosity ignited by the mud kitchen in the four year old, alongside the investigative thinking carefully developed through SST creates the spark that ignites the fire of exploration that burns within the adult scientist.

In conclusion, the pivotal role of SST in the early years environment is to introduce young children to school as a place in which teaching and learning is, above all, a meaningful process. As such its omission from a document that ‘aims to provide fresh insight’ (Bold Beginnings, p.2) into early years education is extremely worrying. SST’s focus on meeting the child where s/he is ‘at’ is inclusive to all, guarding against children’s first experiences of school being tainted by the toxic cascade of bafflement, boredom and failure. Disillusionment at this early stage leads to later resistance to traditional adult-directed pedagogy that is most efficient in communicating the contents of a body of knowledge to learners over seven, and to a lack of confidence to engage in the independence and creativity that is required for progressive pedagogy to be fully effective. In this sense both the ‘trad’ and the ‘prog’ would benefit from the appearance of the developmental ‘invisible man’ to guide ‘the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning’ within education provision for children under seven.


  1. Great blog. SST is so, so important. Thank you for highlighting this in such a thoughtful way

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  5. An interesting and thought-provoking article. Sustained shared thinking is in many ways a better description of effective teaching than the "zone of proximal development." John Bald

  6. Very Good Article. Excellent explanation. Thank you.

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