The last week and a half has consisted of a lot of business and a lot of reading but not much writing. It is time, as they say, to reflect on what I’ve learned in my readings.
I’m reading a translation of Piaget in the form of a book called Six Psychological Studies translated by Anita Tenzer and edited by David Elkind. It is interesting to read what Piaget has to say about child development in his own– if translated– words rather than in the words of the many pedagogues and psychologists who cite him. Everyone who I have read who writes about him is writing about Active Learning which, rather than being his work itself, is an application of Piaget’s “Genetic Epistemology.” Both Piaget and the Elkind emphasize that what Piaget has contributed isn’t a system of psychology or of education, but rather a way of understanding the way we thought centuries ago, the way we think now, and the way we will think later by means of breaking down and naming the things that we seem to do as we grow up.
Active learning is an application of the understanding that Humanity learns by a process of equilibration, that is: we do things one way for any number of reasons and only begin to do them a different way when we hit some sort of barrier. With children, this means that they do things, sometimes accidentally, learn to enjoy them, become frustrated, try something else by accident, learn to enjoy it or find some other reward in it, become frustrated, et cetera. This is applied to teaching by presenting children with developmentally appropriate problems, and then giving little pushes and shoves in the proper direction.
Of course my one-sentence understanding is very bare-bones. There are other elements involved, one of which, the idea that babies do not distinguish themselves as being separate parts of the world, gives a new insight about why children grow in a certain way, and how they remain so jealous of things for so long in their development.
On the other hand I’m reading an autobiography of Edward T. Hall, the renowned Socio-Linguistic-Anthropologist famous for studying cross-cultural relations. He asserts something quite different from Piaget, though less directly. He says that people in different cultures develop ways of thinking differently and based upon what language they speak.
I’m not sure that their two theories– Piaget’s and Hall’s– need to be mutually exclusive, but it does throw off the proposed universality of Piaget’s Genetic Epistemology in context of the development of logic, which Hall says certain cultures develop differently because of how their language is constructed.
Hall’s Examples, so far in my reading, are the Hopi and the Navajo, neither of whom seem to value logical reasoning in the context in which Hall worked with them. The Navajo on a IECW dam-building project weren’t working their full shifts when Hall wasn’t around to supervise, and Hall was perplexed, because he had explained to them the logical reasons that they should work all the time. He spoke to a trader named Lorenzo Hubbell, who told him that the Navajo understood bargaining.
So Hall went back and talked to the Navajo on one site and asked them some questions about their work, such as what they thought they were getting and what they thought they’d have to give in return. The answer to what they thought they were getting was some free dams and the ability to work locally on their own land, and they didn’t understand what they had to give back, so Hall explained that the bargain was that to get these privileges the people in Washington were giving, they had to work an eight-hour shift every weekday.
This may seem just like logic to us. And it is logical, but the difference it is a logic of balanced give and take. It isn’t just if this then that, it is if this is that way there must be something I’m missing because it doesn’t add up. More like algebra than geometry.
Now, I’m not sure yet what to think of how to balance the theories of Hall and Piaget, both of which make sense to me. Piaget did his studies not just in France, but in other parts of the world, so they would seem to be universal, but the ethnographic studies that Hall has done are also from all over the world, and while the stories in this autobiography tend to be anecdotal, they line up with the rest of his more clinical work.
So to move on to another book that I’m reading, mostly unrelated to the other two, except by common aesthetic links, The Brightening Glance by Ellen Handler Spitz is subtitled Imagination and Childhood. It is about the nature and development of aesthetics in young children. The way she goes about defining aesthetic is, in and of itself revealing of how the book unfolds,
If you were to ask a child to tell you what an anesthetic is, chances are you would hear something like, ‘The stuff they give you in hospitals…to make you numb so you won’t feel anything.’ Many children know that an anesthetic blocks sensation…. …aesthetic has a lot to do with anesthetic, for one is the opposite of the other.
In the book she goes on to talk about Aesthetics not just in terms of what is beautiful, but in terms of being any kind of sensory experience that we feel or express.
I first read this book two years ago when I was beginning a paper on how my dual-career as Artist-Teacher isn’t just a benefit to me, as my work with the children inspires me, but by its very nature creates a circuit of creativity which is self-sustaining whereby both my work and lessons improve as I work more, and the children’s creativity improves which further sparks my own creation. Since then this book has been on my list of books to own, but living in Spain it was impossible to find, and it hasn’t been published in England, such that, even on my rare English-speaking visits, it was unavailable. Imagine my joy at finding it at the local second-hand bookstore.
So how does this relate to Piaget and to Hall?
Well, since Hall’s auto-biography is a series of vignettes that he uses both to tell the story and to explain some of his theories, the structures of the two books are related. Spitz uses short accounts of things that happened to her or to people she knows to illustrate her larger themes of how to make good aesthetic choices for children. As of now in Hall’s book, I’ve only read about his childhood and adolescence, so some of the stories ring very similarly. For instance when Hall talks about being forced to take a watercolor class, rather than getting a job, and the resulting knowledge and relationship to art from said experience sound a lot like the kind of challenging experiences that Spitz advocates.
And Piaget’s study relates because hearing about his interwoven theory of social, logico-mathematical, and physical helps me understand what the children in Spitz’s stories must be learning.