The two groups shared something. L ooking at children seemed to reveal a lot about scientists. Using his school as a laboratory — in all three senses — gave Dewey not only a site for testing his ideas about cognition and teaching, but also a place to figure out new things about science itself.
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By watching children study, Dewey gained insight into his own method of thinking. Spontaneity and sociality were chief among the features that Dewey saw in children and recognised in science. Giving children and teachers free reign in the classroom both fostered spontaneity and allowed Dewey to observe it.
This approach gave students the opportunity to produce novel solutions, which — in turn — led to new insights about the role of spontaneity in teaching and learning. In the decades after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species , many psychologists of the era set to work outlining its impact on the study of the mind. Evolution, in both the natural and mental worlds, gave a key role to chance. Random variations were necessary for species change, while spontaneous ideas were essential to mental development. Observing children at play convinced Dewey that spontaneity was crucial to scientific progress too.
He was not alone in this realisation. Like Dewey, many promoted explicitly evolutionary views of human nature and the human mind.
Such views enabled them to look into the minds of non-human animals in search of the roots of human reasoning. Hereditary links, however distant, between humans and their non-human relatives promised that there was always something to learn about our own minds from the careful study of the minds of others.
The early years of what we now call evolutionary psychology led scientists to think of their own methods in new ways.
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Today, watching rats navigate mazes seems a far cry from reflecting on the nature of science. But around , when this technique was developed, much was at stake in the reasoning of rats. Pursuing an experimental ideal themselves, Small and his colleagues saw experiment everywhere — including in the animals they were in the midst of observing. The booming science trapped, timed and tested cats, dogs, birds, apes and — yes — human adults and children in order to probe the mechanisms and limits of their minds.
Throughout, the psychologists who studied them faced the same question: how much of what went on in other minds could be observed, and how? Spontaneity was one lesson Dewey learned from children. Innocent of shame and incapable of subterfuge or so it was thought , children seemed to reveal the inner workings of the adult mind. While self-consciousness prevented adults from acting spontaneously in the laboratory, children had no such qualms.
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Their behaviour was thus seen as aspects of the adult psyche, now hidden. Certain scientists went even further. In this evolutionary age, some saw child study as a vision of a shared past, common to all peoples and cultures. Scientists reconceived the raw emotions of childhood as evidence of human prehistory.
Play-fighting among siblings prepared people for later confrontations, with higher stakes. Either way, psychologists at the turn of the 20th century saw the spontaneous activities of children as clues about the wider world, with far-reaching implications. Dewey founded the Lab School in this heady, suggestive atmosphere. For the field to grow, he and others felt, it would have to be open to new, often wild ideas.
Scientists needed to take a cue from children, in other words, and stay alive to the improbable and even the inane. The intensely social nature of thinking was another.
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Children enter the classroom as individuals, with goals and interests to which teachers attend, but they learn best as groups, by banding together and bouncing ideas around. In a series of lectures Dewey gave in support of the Lab School and collected in the volume The School and Society , he devoted much of his attention to the interactions among the students in the classroom. After Dewey left for Columbia, his colleague and close friend George Herbert Mead further developed these insights about the social nature of learning.
A founding figure in the field of social psychology, Mead turned the study of social factors into a social theory of knowledge over the course of a long career. In philosophical terms, this view of meaning is a familiar echo of American pragmatism. In pedagogical terms, it heralded a new emphasis on the relational character of teaching and learning.
For scientists, like children, progress in the pursuit of knowledge meant working out both stakes and methods in a community of co-investigators. The implications here are radical. Childhood learning shows us something that the idealised image of the lonely genius fails to capture — and, in the end, seems closer to the realities of the scientific community.
The list of steps most of us were taught as elementary students was itself the product of research on elementary students. In a very real sense, we owe the ideals instilled in science and its method to a group of psychologists who looked to children in order to better understand how we think. The categories psychologists use to study their subjects inevitably overlap with the terms they use to describe themselves, as humans. We were all children once, after all — and this includes psychologists. Whatever it is that kids do when they encounter a new problem or try to master a task — well, we did it, too, and still do.
Science is a medium, not a message. What is surprising is that we have lost sight of the generative, enabling links between childhood psychology and scientific study. It should be obvious, in a sense, that children learn new material in ways that mirror the progress of scientific research.
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The answer, in part, has to do with the amount of science out there — its sheer mass. There is far more science, in more specialties, published today than there was in Even scientists are overwhelmed by science. How could a kid keep up? In an age of climate denial and vaccine skepticism, the idea of painting science with a broad brush seems ill-advised, if not politically suspect. What happens to scientific authority if the method that makes it work is in the heads of infants?
These anxieties are not necessarily new, but they seem to have reached a level that makes the claims of the theory theorists more counterintuitive than ever. Today, science is torn between accessibility and authority.
Science is a medium — a really effective one — not a message. Dewey saw it this way: science is less what a set of people called scientists say than it is a way of saying things. Science is a style of reasoning. The story of how science got identified with one particular method remains to be told. The question, then and now, is how far that method extends and who is capable of using it. Casting children as scientists is not about taking science down a peg. Sarah Stein Lubrano. Become a Friend of Aeon to save articles and enjoy other exclusive benefits Make a donation.
Henry Cowles is an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan. Aeon for Friends Find out more.
Science is a medium, not a message What is surprising is that we have lost sight of the generative, enabling links between childhood psychology and scientific study. Henry M Cowles is an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan. We also warn are parents at the beginning of the year not to send them in their Sunday best and bring a change of clothes because our children explore and that means digging in the dirt, splashing in the water table, mixing paint that sometimes goes beyond the smock.