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Donaldson states essay

Donaldson states in the preface of the book that her aim is to present “the evidence (that) now compels us to reject certain features of Jean Piaget’s theories of intellectual development.” The book does offer supporting evidence and discussions regarding this rejection of some of his foundational assumptions and conclusions but also carries out an in-depth analysis and review of the education system and practices in the United Kingdom, together with discussion and critique of other leading theorists, for example Chomsky. These additional subjects increase the scope of the book from a review of Piagetian theories to a broader review of development psychology.

The book asks a series of questions to develop its initial argument from the school playground until returning to the school playground at the end of the book. It starts with a review of the state of children’s education in the UK, with a suggestion that the education system for younger children (infant and junior) succeeds admirably to turn out enthusiastic, self-confident children who enjoy their educational experience. It then looks at the senior school system, which it suggests, in most cases turns out disillusioned children who take their failure at school into their adult lives. It also exposes unhappy teachers who blame the intellect, or lack of, on the children’s minds, rather than their teaching or the education system itself.

A number of Piaget’s theories are discussed throughout the book. These include egocentricity, decentring, object permanence, class inclusion and conservationism, for which it provides examples of other research that suggests that Piaget grossly underestimated the children’s abilities by using unnecessarily complicated experiments, which did not make ‘human sense’ to the participants and therefore did not achieve the results possible. Donaldson believes that “children are not at any stage as egocentric as Piaget has claimed”.

Language is discussed in detail and includes the various theories of language from the early associationist philosophy of speech, to later in the 60’s, Chomsky’s theories that humans were equipped with a ‘Language Acquisition Device’, which is an innate Universal Grammar tool. It is theorised that this LAD innately knew the generic rules of grammar of human speech. Later in the 1970’s John McNamara – theorises that children make sense of what people do and then add language, as follows:

“The primary thing is now held to be the grasp of meaning – the ability to ‘make sense’ of things, and above all to make sense of what people do, which of course includes what people say. On this view, it is the child’s ability to interpret situations which makes it possible for him, through active processes of hypothesis-testing and inference, to arrive at a knowledge of language”. It is further shown that the ability to develop language may help their reasoning.

Clark Hull’s proposition is discussed, that reasoning lies in the “putting together of two ‘behavioural segments’ in some novel way, never actually performed before, so as to reach a goal”. Donaldson questions this definition, but goes about proving that 5-year-old children are capable of the logic demanded by this task, albeit in a manner designed to make sense to the participants.
The book explores the concept of ‘Human sense’ in some detail. It proposes that the better you are at tackling problems without having to be sustained by human sense the more likely you are to succeed in our education system. People who use hands are adjudged failures or they have refused to live by the intellectual demands of education. This non-intellectual apartheid could be because the education system is not set up to develop the aptitude or the taste for intellectual schooling in many young people. Without this set-up, children in education, it is reported, grow bored and disillusioned, if they are unable to achieve the competence and results they desire. It is shown that you cannot educate by reward, by punishment or by letting children educate themselves, so what is left? The book highlights a major dilemma, which is how to intellectually stimulate the majority of the populace to want to be intellectually educated. It is only a small minority of pupils that reach intellectual competence. It is reported that it may be the convenience of having failures, in essence, to do the manual labour and non-intellectual work that is why society has not strived to change the system. A young educated population would not be easy to employ on present production lines.
The book is written in a scientific format and is aimed at an educated audience of psychologists, other professionals involved in development, educationalists and perhaps concerned parents. Although the book is not written in the most gripping prose, the ideas and the enthusiasm with which they are conveyed, make it a compelling read.

It was written to introduce a number of alternative concepts, theories and viewpoints to Piaget’s commonly accepted theories. The book achieves this admirably, including details of a number of experiments by different psychologists, expanding on experimental matter completed by Piaget. These experiments expand on Piaget’s work and are generally carried out in a more ‘Human Sense’ and are designed for the children in a more thoughtful manner. It does not present a new theory but is a critique of accepted ideas, which, Donaldson feels should be re-evaluated.

Considering that this study of Piaget was the main intention of the book, it wanders through other developmental psychology theories and into education. Because of this wandering, the book is perhaps a little confused and possibly a little hard to logically follow.

Aside from these trivial reservations it is an outstanding book, which proposes some interesting theories and ideas and offers a new approach to many of the previously held Piagetian views in developmental psychology. It is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in childhood, Piagetian psychological theories and more than that for anyone who is concerned about the education system in general.

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