The text of this blog is from my free eBook, "Teaching Your Children."
By Lori Harvill Moore
Do we all start out as a blank slate -- a tabula rasa -- which we fill up over time through our experiences alone? Or are we born with innate abilities lying dormant until we start using them? Psychologists and theorists disagree about whether learning is a function of heredity or experience. I believe our ability to learn and how we learn is a combination of genetics and experience. While categorizing different approaches to learning can be an overly simplistic way to establish how children learn, reading what the theorists said can also be an eye-opening experience. This text is a short summary of the approaches philosophers, developmental psychologists, and educators have taken. As you read my eBook, think about your own aptitudes and your preferable method of gaining new knowledge. Do your children learn in a similar way? If you are a homeschool parent or helping your children with homework from a traditional school, knowing how your child learns is critical to their success. In this eBook I will survey six different views on the subject, from the 17th century to current times.
John Locke, a Blank Slate, and our Senses
English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) believed that all children were born as blank slates. Infants and children gathered knowledge through their five senses. To Locke, "innate" or inborn qualities and knowledge did not exist, and he went to great lengths in a famous essay to argue for his point of view (Bennett, 2017). Locke believed the external world and a child's experience in it would mold each individual.
Stepping into the role of an educational philosopher, Locke believed a good education was essential to filling the empty slate with the right kind of knowledge and values (van Setten, no date). Of course, what he considered valuable knowledge in the 17th century is far removed from our concept of what a good education should include today.
We know so much more today with the advent of genetics and developmental sciences. We do have inborn aptitudes, defined as "an inherent ability, as for learning" and "quickness in understanding" (The American Heritage College Dictionary, 1997). Our interests and talents become an expression of these aptitudes as we mature.
Jean Piaget and Cognitive Development
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget spent five decades working out his ideas concerning stages of cognitive development in children.
After years of observation and countless notes, he created these four hallmarks of development (Babakr, et al, 2019):
Sensorimotor stage - Infants and toddlers up to age 2 learn about their environment. They find out that objects have permanence. A toy may be in another room, and it exists even though it cannot be seen.
Preoperational stage - Children from 2 to 7 years old start using pictures and words as symbols to represent elements in the physical world.
Concrete operational stage - Children between 7 and 11 years old have the ability to solve more complex problems.
Formal operational stage - In this last stage, which begins around age 11, a child's cognitive development grows substantially, and the young person is able to think logically and abstractly, solving even more complicated problems. Critical thinking abilities come in at this stage.
Piaget's critics in the world of developmental psychology say that he underestimated the ability of infants and overestimated the ability of adolescents.
Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we probably seek out experiences that reinforce our preferred method of taking in and understanding new information. One of the most popular models for describing learning styles is the VARK approach, an acronym for the following: Visual Auditory Reading/Writing Kinesthetic Visual learners learn best through pictures, diagrams, charts, and other visual media. Auditory learners prefer listening to new information. Lectures, audio books, and videos fall serve this purpose. Students may like to have music playing in the background while completing homework, for example. Children who favor reading and writing to understand and acquire new knowledge do well with note taking, reading chapters in textbooks, and completing exercises (Cherry, 2019).