Susan Engel (2006)

Open Pandora's Box: Curiosity in the Classroom

Theories Are Lenses

We all look at children through a lens. When you watch your daughter, your student, or your experimental subject, what you see is shaped by your theory of development. Each theory tends to highlight some aspects of a child’s behavior and mask others. Your theory also guides your interpretation of what children do and say. A theory can expand and deepen our understanding of children, but it can also distort and limit our view.

Let me begin by describing a recent conversation I had with a friend. The friend was complimenting me on my three sons—how well they had “turned out.” She said this with some surprise and admitted that when they were little she thought they were totally wild and out of control: “You had no rules at all.” I disagreed, suggesting that my rules may not have been about things like swearing, or keeping their clothes on, or saying “thank you” to a grown-up, but had more to do with working hard at things and being kind. She thought about that for a minute and then said, “But what? Did you punish them when they weren’t kind? Did they have a consequence when they didn’t throw themselves into things?” Honestly, I was baffled. Then I realized that her implicit model of development was showing through her questions. Her model of development is clearly based on behaviorism—the traits that will emerge over time in a child are the ones that are regularly rewarded, while undesirable behaviors that are punished will disappear.

My friend is not odd or unique for thinking about everyday experiences through a theoretical lens. We all have implicit models of child development, though we rarely articulate what these are, and even more rarely know how we acquired them. I often drive from my home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts to New York City. As I make my way south, I pass two family day care centers. The first, a large old farm house with a fenced-in playground outside, has a sign that reads, “My Little Angels Day Care.” Right down the road from it is another one, also an old family house. This one is named “Little Professors.” The two day care directors surely have different models of childhood. What people say about and to children often offers clues about their implicit model of child development.

When you praise a child for being kind to a friend, somewhere within your thinking is the idea that children crave social approval, and such approval can shape the way they interact with others. When a teacher leaves a child to play with a bunch of blocks, she’s assuming that cognitive development occurs spontaneously when children have a chance to interact with the physical world. A teacher who makes sure her students see her looking up answers to questions she doesn’t know may believe that children imitate the behavior of adults they feel close to. When you suggest that four-year-olds should sit quietly in circle time because they will have to sit quietly at their desks when they are older, you believe that development is a process of acquiring and strengthening habits and behaviors.

But it’s not just parents and teachers who carry around implicit models of child development. Psychologists do, too. The models psychologists create have a huge impact not only on what they learn about children in their research, but on what the rest of us think—particularly about what happens in schools.

Let me describe two powerful metaphors that have shaped the way people have thought about young children over the past 75 years or so. | Read the full paper»