Validity of understanding a child perspective


Think of a child you have spent time with and who you have found challenging to be around. Write a reflective response about this child (no names, identifiers, location, etc.) in relation to the notions presented this week – based on the ideas about the validity of understanding a child’s perspective: how might the child you know be interpreting their world? What is their preferred mode to express their views? What are their experiences? What appears to be hard for them? Easy for them? What sparks their interest and focused attention?

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After reflecting on these things, do you think that it has shifted your understanding and approach to this child?


Week 6: Who is the Young Child?


How we view young children – who they are within a social-cultural context and who they are as learners within educational spaces – influences our expectations of them and of ourselves as educators. John Nimmo (1998) says, “As a teacher, I have learned repeatedly that my understanding of young children is limited by my own experience and knowledge, and that I need to always be open to new truths, new perspectives on children’s capabilities, and most of all, new protagonists or people who stimulate change” (p. 295).

This module is an invitation to think about contemporary conceptions of young children and the relation of these conceptions to the pedagogical paths educators choose to embrace in the classroom. An additional question for us to think about is, What is our role as educators in contributing to the development of the child’s identity as a learner, a social agent, and a participant in our society?

As the reading by Malaguzzi for this module will emphasize, we all have an image, or even multiple images of the child. This image is influence by many experiences, cultural beliefs, traditions and histories, and various bodies of knowledge (i.e. psychology, sociology). Our image of the child is heavily influenced by philosophies and theories that we have discussed in this course. For example, John Dewey taught us to view children as social agent and active learners, Erikson and Freud’s theories of personal development enriched our thinking about children as social and emotional beings, Piaget’s theory of the stages of intellectual development helps us see children as thinkers, and Vygotsky’s ideas about the reciprocal relationships between the child and the social context for learning focused our attentions on children as participants in the meaning making process.

Susan Fraser (2006) further clarifies the sources from which the image of the child is constructed. She speaks of our personal experiences as children, our empirical knowledge of children that stems from directly observing children, and the cultural one – the image that is built on values and understandings about “what childhood should be at the time and place where we live” (p.20). These lenses through which we interpret children are in “conversation” with each other. These images and definitions of the child change and expand when we encounter new ways to understand who children are and who they can be.

Changing Conceptions of the Child:

From a Passive Recipient of Knowledge to a Valued Participant in Knowledge Construction

One dominant conception of childhood is that of the child as an “incomplete adult” (Moss & Petrie, 2002). Historically children have been thought of as empty vessels to be filled by knowledge and culture. This view of the child devalues early childhood as a stage that is merely a “preparation” or “readying” for the next, more important, stage of adulthood.

Another common conception of childhood is connected with the psychological or scientific understanding of child as a person embodied in the process of development. At its inception, developmental theory relied heavily on biological determinism and children were depicted as going through universal, predetermined, sequential stages. Developmental theory afforded the discussion about similarities in behaviour and thinking among children of the same age and the use of terms such as “age-appropriate” or “developmentally- appropriate”. One issue with the developmental lens lies in thinking about children in terms of  what they are supposed to do at a certain stage (Lenz Taguchi, 2005). This might limit what we perceive as educationally possible for young children (i.e., we may assume that toddlers can not express themselves artistically, because their fine motor skills are not well-developed, and thus, deny them the opportunity to paint or draw).

Children as meaning makers and theory builders

With the rise of constructivist theories the child has been conceived in more active terminologies. For example, children are considered active seekers of meaning, wanting to explore, study, and understand the world around them. It was Piaget who originally studied children as theory builders in a systematic and scientific way. In his book  The Child Conception of the World (1973), Piaget set out to explore how children perceive reality. He and his colleagues interviewed children ages two to fourteen, asking them questions such as, do you know what it means to think, what is it to be alive, where clouds come from, why it rains, what is the moon, the starts, and more.

In the following interview examples from Piaget’s book the children had been asked about the concept of thought, in particular, they were asked what they think with.

Barb (5 1/2 year old)

· -You know what it means to think of something?

· -Yes

· -Think of your house

· -Yes

· -What do you think with?

· -With the ears

Ceres (7 year old)

· -What do you think with?

· -I don’t know

· -Where do you think?

· -Where

· -In the mouth inside the head

From these types of interviews Piaget concluded that children in the preoperational stage are magical thinkers (i.e. they often contribute human characteristics to objects in order to explain their behaviour. For example, rain can be explained as tears coming from sad clouds). From a developmental perspective, differences in thinking reflect differences in children intuitive theories about the world. However, Piaget saw children’s thinking as primitive; he focused on children’s cognitive processes and on what they do not understand or grasp in order to explain their theories. While constructivism acknowledges the role that children play in their own learning, knowledge proposed and held by children is often considered “less than” adult knowledge in terms of its quality; child’s knowledge is considered as incomplete.

Children as Co-construction of Knowledge and Identity

A new perspective of the child has been promoted by socio-cultural perspectives, which took the idea of children as meaning makers further by proposing that what the child brings into the conversation is a significant attempt to make meaning within a particular history, culture, language, and symbol systems. It is less about the child getting the “correct” answer and more about how children expand their understandings about the world they live in and the role they play in it. From this perspective, children’s ideas and theories become a place from which rich conversations about meanings can arise. For example, a different view from Piaget about children’s theories is found in the way Rinaldi (2006) interprets children’s theories. She says, “Very often the theories and understanding expressed by the child are defined as ‘misunderstandings’ or naive theories…Rather, they should be viewed as something much more important. The genesis of the young child’s desire to ask herself questions very early in life…her wondering, her whys” (p.112). Rinaldi pushes us to think about what lies beyond and behind these questions that children ask, to value and appreciate the child’s quest to make meaning of experiences and give this meaning significance.

Following are examples of how Rinaldi interprets children’s comments:


Child’s theory: “The Sea is born from the mother wave”

Rinaldi: This child is developing the idea that everything has an origin.


Child’s theory: “When someone dies, do they go into the belly of death and then get born again?”

Rinaldi: This child is searching for meaning in life.


Consider the differences between Rinaldi and Piaget’s interpretation of children’s theories. Two distinct view points – one that seeks to compare child’s thought with “higher” level thinking, and the other which seeks to find what the child has to offer in a particular place and a point in time.

The Image of the Educator

A social-constructivist perspective pushes educators to imagine children not only in terms of what they know, but also in terms of how they think, feel, respond, and act, as well as why they think and act in a particular way. Seeing children through the social-cultural lens necessitates an on going commitment to reflection and dialogue among teachers, children, families, and even the greater community. The image of the educator as a reflective practitioner who actively researches children’s learning processes has been linked with living in more complex and diverse societies. Teachers become participants in trying to understand with children and families ‘what is a good childhood and what is meaningful learning in our unique context?’

One example of this commitment can be found in the strategy of Learning Stories which we have discussed in the previous module. Through learning stories educators (often working in collaboration) weave an image of the child as an active learner and a co-constructor of knowledge through documenting moments of learning that occur or are situated within a particular context. When children view their learning stories portfolio by themselves, with peers, teachers, parents, and even grand parents, they start to develop an understanding of their identity as learners and valued community members. They can see who participated in their learning processes (peers, teachers, parents), how their learning occurred in different contexts (on the playground, in the writing centre, painting at the easel, etc.), what tools they used to learn (a book, an “expert,” a photograph). This focus on child’s identity as a learner is an attempt to shift the attention from the norms, institutionalized expectations, and outcomes to the child him or herself.

Children as Participants and Teachers as a Researchers

“We must deconstruct how we value children’s way of learning, as well as their ways of expressing what they are learning. We must think about the conditions that invite children to use a multitude of ways to express their knowledge, their thoughts, and their questions. Lastly, when adding new ways of making meaning and expressing knowledge, we must guard against favouring certain expressions that might actually constitute a better way of meaning making for certain children in specific contexts”

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