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The Way Science and Psychology Has Affected Our Understandings of Childhood

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Science and psychology dominate how we approach children’s development, care and education as well as our general understanding of childhood. In this essay I will discuss how science and psychology have affected our views of childhood and explain the relationship between these understandings. Not only this but I will explain different approaches of childhood and the psychological approaches linking to them, supporting this with case studies as evidence. Many social scientists had an influential role to play on how we now understand childhood, such as Bowlby, with his aggression theory, Freuds id, ego and superego theory and Skinners, contemporary conditioning theory, which I will discuss within this essay.

Children were treated very differently throughout history than they are treated now. Until the 17th century, children weren’t known as any different than an adult. Before the 1800’s, issues were addressed by parents, and teachers increasingly became the subject of scientific scrutiny. This had an enormous influence on how children were treated in homes, schools, hospitals, and childcare centers. With his experiments “Darwin’s work on the origins of species was influential in establishing child psychology as a scientific discipline’. Darwin wrote details on his son, William’s, development in the 1840’s. The points Darwin noted on his son were his physical movement, anger, fear, affection, ideas, and reason. As this was one of the earliest known experiments on a child’s behaviour it helped form our ideas today on contemporary childhood.

Another psychological approach effecting our views on childhood is Freuds Id, ego, and superego theory. This approach allows us to understand the ages of development and the needs a child will have, allowing us to understand them more when displaying attributes from these stages. The id is the impulsive, unconscious part of our psyche responding to basic urges to give immediate gratification regardless of consequences. It is the first of the three stages to develop. This is the primal urge that gives us an animalistic trait. The ego is the mediator between the id and superego as it allows us to make decisions influenced by our personality. This stage gives us reasonable ways of gratifying our urges made by the id, usually developing at the age of three. The superego controls the id impulses, persuading the ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than realistic ones, usually developing at the age of five. When the crucial needs of an induvial aren’t met around this young age such as being nurtured by a parent, they may carry some attributes from either the id, ego, or superego stage throughout their life, as they are unable to develop into the next stage. This shows a child’s needs must be met for them to grow into a functioning adult, this allows us to understand childhood better through this psychological approach. The way science has affected societies view on childhood is through brain development which has a correlating relationship with psychology. The brain is linked to the mind which is more prominently researched in psychology allowing us to understand why child development is a foundation for a sustainable society. The brain usually takes five years to develop which links to Freuds theory as the superego is created around this time.

Other psychological approaches included Bowlby’s bobo doll experiment which were conducted once in 1961 and once more in 1963. This was conducted to see how children would be affected when raised without maternal care and exposed to violence. In this experiment the children were made to watch adults exert specific behaviors to a doll. One was to exhibit violent behavior towards the doll and the other was to ignore the doll and get on with other activity’s in the room. The children were then taken to the dolls after they had witnessed the behavior of the adults to see how they would react. The results showed that the children that witnessed the violence where significantly more likely to show violent behavior to the doll, therefore showing that children can learn through observation. Even after the experiment had finished 40% of the children exhibited the same behavior after 8 months. After this was found out it showed that environment also has an impact upon behaviour in childhood. This effects how we view childhood, as we now know the importance of how we behave in front of children. This is because they look up to the adults in their lives and are very easily influenced at an early age. By exhibiting a certain kind of behaviour it will influence them into similar behaviors, which is supported by Banduras observational learning theory. We also view children as more knowledge than they used to be given credit for. In recent studies it has been shown that babies and young children know, observe, explore, imagine, and learn more than we had previously thought. An experiment was carried out by Fei Xu and Vashti Garcia at the University of British Columbia. In this experiment their aim was to prove that a baby can understand probability. Eight-month-old babies were presented with a box filled with mixed up ping pong balls with red and white balls inside, but with a larger amount of white balls to red. The babies were more surprised, looking more intently and longer at the experimenter when four red balls and one white ball were taken from the box, which was an improbable outcome. 

Individual learning styles have been introduced to facilitate to children’s learning needs and learning strengths, instead of fitting into one category or a one size fits all education system. This has been developed since the 1950’s. The education system has also changed with new emerging schooling systems such as grammar schools. Riding’s model created in 1991, proposed two different dimensions involving constructs of other researchers. These different dimensions were the wholist analytic style, meaning an individual either processes information in whole or in parts. The other is called the verbal imagery style, meaning the individual will represent information whilst verbally thinking or in mental pictures. He “found that for pupils who exhibited learning difficulties a mismatch between their preferred styles and the learning task could affect more than a mismatch would for competent learners”. After analyzing both style dimensions it was found that wholist verbalizers were less willing to focus for lengthy amounts of time on non-stimulating learning tasks but are much happier working in a group. On the opposite side they found that analytic imagers were more likely to persevere with the task and much prefer to work alone. A test was carried out to assess the work and characteristics of year 10 and 11 boys. Teachers were asked to comment on each category. The teachers found that wholist boys were achieving lower than the analytic boys and had more sociable and outgoing characteristics. Other experiments based around his work claim that children who are taught by teachers with the same cognitive style’s learning experience will be far more positive.

Biggs specialized in approaches to study in 1978-2001. Research on learning approaches has been conducted in higher education, the massification of higher education and student self-funding created a greater imperative which has been able to deliver a more effective learning experience for students. Entwisle had 4 orientations to learning including ‘meaning’, ‘reproducing’, ‘achieving’ and ‘holistic’. “Approaches to learning are thus a function to both motive and strategy, and motives influence learning strategies.” This means students whose strategies are compatible with the task they were set are likely to achieve well in their task. Whereas students who struggle to have motives compatible to the task are more likely to struggle to complete the task. Young and Collins research found where tutors included students in the contributions to the lessons found the students were more engaged and motivated. This developed how lessons can be taught by receiving feedback from students and giving the education system a deeper knowledge of how to keep students motivated by changing the style lessons are taught. Ausubel showed the need to compete in public exams. This can lead to the adoption of rote learning techniques ending up in temporary peripheral learning. This learning orientation has been promoted in many countries because of the emphasis on performance testing. Competition leads students to focus stringently on learning outcomes instead of learning opportunities. Not only this but it links to the emergence of the different schooling systems that the exams determine your entry to such as a grammar school. 

Overall, it’s clear science and psychology have had a significant impact upon how we understand childhood and how it has affected the education systems as well as how children are treated. There are many social scientists that have made significant impact on this view. From their experiments, they have allowed us to develop and add on to our understandings to make sure the education system is the best it can be and catered to all individuals. These include theory’s and experiments such as Bobo doll, Id, ego and superego, contemporary conditioning and Darwin’s experiments on his son. By doing this we know it is important for children to get social interaction from a young age to develop their intellectual development. Stages of intellectual development may be accelerated by social interactions and support, as well as intellectual development being a consequence of social development. It has also allowed us to understand that not all children are the same, so schooling shouldn’t be either. This has made education much more learner friendly and an all-round better suited institution that has been developed through generations.

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The Way Science and Psychology Has Affected Our Understandings of Childhood. (2022, August 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from
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