Egocentricity and language development

I have often seen Jean Piaget cited by education and child development theorists but until now have never read any of his work.  I’m now reading “The Language and Thought of the Child” (3rd Ed 1959).

At the first chapter, I was fascinated, not so much by any conclusions that he came to, as by the question he was asking.  He is questioning the very function of language in children – why they talk.  His method of study is to meticulously observe two 6 year olds, to record every utterance and to catalog it as having a particular type of purpose (which may or may not have anything to do with communicating with others).

He talks a little about speech magic: the way that words may evoke an imagined sensation that is independent of any accompanying event to bring some kind of pleasure or other affect in their own right.  He cites Mme Spielrein’s endeavour to demonstrate that the near universal baby word ‘mama’ is an extension of suckling and so it’s utterance brings comfort apart from any response it evokes from others.

I often watch little Monster say mamamama slowly and repeatedly.  She is not talking to me (I am generally called mammy/ mummy/ mommy now), what she is doing is making bubbles.  You don’t need to make the noise to make a bubble and she doesn’t watch herself doing it in the mirror so she is using the word purely for kinisthetic pleasure.  This is egocentric use of speech – it is purely for her own ends and requires no interaction from anyone else.

Piaget believes that this egocentrism comes from an inability to decentre.  As far as I can make it this means that the young child is unable to put herself in the perspective of another and adapt her speech or actions to the needs of her companions.  He seems to think that this egocentrism is total at birth and dominates the childs thought and action until the age of 7 when socialised thought begins to dominate.  This is a sliding scale and there are various developmental stages in between with collaborative play beginning around age 4.

Despite this, I have already watched Monster engaging in collaborative play at only 19 months.  This week we had two examples.

In the first instance she was playing in the room with her friend Fraggle (3 weeks younger).  Fraggle climbed onto the brick trolley/ walker, held onto the handle and wobbled back and forth as if trying to make the trolley move.  Monster watched what she was doing and began to push the trolley forward with Fraggle in it, both of them laughing.  When they got close to the desk she slowed down and stopped before they hit it (normally she would just barge the trolley right into the desk).  When she tried unsuccesfully to shuffle the trolley round (a little difficult when there’s a body in it), I suggested she pull it backwards which she did until Fraggle started to climb out and she stopped pulling to allow her to do so.  There was no verbal communication involved in this but clearly Monster was picking up on cues for her game play and paying attention to the situation and surroundings to make sure no one got hurt.

The second example was when she was watching little Oreo (about a year younger).  Oreo can’t crawl yet but she is beginning to experiment with movement.  Her dad placed a toy out of reach and she was lunging repeatedly towards it but not making any particular progress.  Monster watched her failed attempts to retrieve the toy and picked it up, placed it closer so she could reach and said ‘There you go’.  Clearly she has missed the point of the exercise (as decided by the adult) but she has responded to the need that Oreo was expressing and has acted to resolve her problem.

There is little language involved in these scenarios but I am confident that there was socialised/ collaborative thought going on.

I think that maybe Piaget was focusing too heavily with language and equating it with thought.  He places great emphasis on the quantity of egocentric speech or monologue: when children chatter as they play but to no one in particular and with no need for a response – he believes they are simply verbalising their thoughts and that they are unable to keep these thoughts to themselves.  As children become more socialised, they keep more of their thoughts to themselves and their use of language becomes limited to what they feel other people need to hear.

I watch Monster thinking a lot – I can see the metaphorical cogs turning as she works out how to solve a problem: the best climbing route to get the pens off the desk, how to undo a shoe lace or to put the lego bricks together so they stick, or to fit one object inside another.  There is a look of utter concentration and no sound at all.  She has some language that she could use in these situations and if she decides she wants help then she will use the language but there is no monologue going on, the words only happen when she needs someone else to intercede.  Either (which is quite likely) her thinking is not verbal yet, or she does not feel any need to verbalise her thoughts unless she needs to communicate, or both.  It seems unlikely that as her lexicon increases and she becomes more able to think in English that she will forget how to think in silence.

So I think Piaget is wrong about the purpose of the monologue as well as being wrong about the egocentrism of very young children.  I am not sure what the purpose of the monologue is, maybe it ties into the speech magic I mentioned earlier, but I am sure that very young children think and demonstrate socialised thinking independently of their language development.

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A short exploration into the ethics of home education

This week I read ‘Children’s Minds’ by Margaret Donaldson.  It was written 40 years ago but could just as easily have been written last week.  The education system that she wants to radicalise does not seem to have progressed; if anything there have been regressive changes.

This year the government are piloting baseline testing for 4 year olds to be rolled out across the country in 2020.  This was announced earlier this year, and although I had already been thinking very seriously about home education, my mind was absolutely made up by this.

The tests are being put together by one educational research organisation (NFER) but have been highly criticised by another (BERA) in a report which concludes that the test results will have little statistical validity and have no moral justification as the test will not be used to support children’s learning and may even be damaging.

Educationalists have known for years that there is little if any benefit to formal schooling before the age of 7 and prolific theorists, including Donaldson have done much work over the last half century to make recommendations for systems, styles and methods that would actually be of benefit to our children and society at large.  Despite this, successive Education Secretaries have made the system increasingly formal and test based.

So I’m exercising my ability to choose and opting out until I get to a point where I think school may be beneficial to little monster.

This leaves me in a bit of a moral quandary though.  I find the education system in our country to be fundamentally flawed and I want better for my own child, yet as a passionate advocate for equality I believe strongly that the state should be responsible for the provision of education and that private education should essentially be a non-option.

At a moral level I see little difference between my choice to home educate and the choice of a more affluent family to send their children to private school.  Essentially it is using the resources available to you to ensure that your progeny get better life chances than everyone else’s.

If I felt that home education was a viable option for everyone then this wouldn’t trouble me so much but it really does seem to be the preserve of people with a certain level of material and/ or educational privilege.

I don’t think that equality means we should all drop down to the lowest common denominator though – I think the ideal of equality is about raising standards for everyone.

So to repay the moral debt caused by my somewhat hypocritical choice I see two options:

the first is to make home education accessible for people who otherwise lack the material and academic resources,

the second is to revolutionise the state education system.

I guess I am hoping that in my reading, blogging (and hopefully ultimately book writing) I will be able to tackle the accessibility issue to some extent.

As for revolutionising the system: I am a member of the Women’s Equality party who have a policy on equality in education so maybe that is a place that I can start.  The policy as it stands seems to be looking at making repairs to a fundamentally flawed system – I think it needs to go further and seek to implement a system that has equality for all at it’s heart rather than as a sticky plaster on the fractures.

Creativity: thoughts around socialisation and autonomy

In her book ‘Cultivating Creativity in Babies, Toddlers and Young Children’, Bruce stresses the importance if autonomy and self-awareness.  She cites research showing how creativity is stifled when children do everything as a group because they are unlikely to do things that are different from the others.

This ties in really well with Philip Carr-Gomm’s ‘Don’t be afraid to be different’ episode of his ‘Tea with a Druid’ series in which Carr-Gomm explored the drive to normalcy and the pressures to conform and described how this drivve disappeared for him on a visit to New Orleans, opening up a channel of creativity.

When I listened to this episode (some months ago now) I explored this notion of the drive to normalcy and concluded that I only have it very weakly, largely as a result of moving around a lot as a child.  Often in group situations I find myself being as much observer as participant.  It left me wondering why, if this drive is so weak for me, do I struggle so much to bring my creativity to fruition.

I suspect the answer in part is that I also lack a strongly grounded sense of belonging.  Bruce talks about both factors as being important: the need to belong and to be separate; the need for love and companionship to feel emotionally safe combined with the personal space to develop our ideas autonomously.

daring to think for yourself and to have your own ideas requires the courage that comes from being emotionally able to do this (Bruce, 2004 p16)

This leaves me with some questions around the socialisation of young children.  There are so many activites for toddlers now (most of which we don’t access due to: cost, my own antipathy for groups where the shared identity of the adults is based solely on the functionality of their reproductive systems, and my doubts as to the benefits of early group socialisation).  Many toddlers also spend substantial periods of time in group childcare settings while their parents work.  I wonder how much value these settings have for toddlers and what that value really derives from.

Something else I have been pondering recently is whether or not it is possible to raise a child with an internal locus of evaluation and how we might be able to acheive this.  I haven’t yet found the answer and I suspect that it is not fully possible but Bruce’s idea that

Children who are encouraged to develop creativity are helped to develop a point of view of their own, which will not be over-dependent on others (Bruce, 2004 p14)

suggests that getting that balance between belonging and aloneness may be the key.

Cultivating Creativity in Babies, toddlers and young children by Tina Bruce

I ordered a second-hand copy of this book last Monday after reading through a series of online journal articles on pedagogy (the art of education) and finding it among the references.  By the following day, I couldn’t remember the title of the book I ordered.  I could, of course, have checked my emails, but I didn’t.  So by the time my parcel arrived I had no idea what was in it.  I rarely get parcels so I was really excited and knew I was in for a great surprise because I remembered how excited I had felt when I discovered the title initially.  It was like opening up a birthday present from someone you just know will have got you exactly what you want even though you don’t know yet what that is.

I wasn’t disappointed when I started reading either.  Tina Bruce is described as a ‘leading expert and renowned author in the area of Early Childhood’ and there is no reason to suppose from that acclamation that she might be a druid or any kind of pagan but this book resonated so much with my bardic studies that I was left enthralled by the coincidences.

She cites Graham Wallas suggesting that the development of a creative idea has an incubation period and that this period is made up of three stages: preparation, simmering and illumination.  Immediately I was put in mind of the Taliesin story and Ceridwen’s creation of the Awen potion.  In preparation, Ceridwen sought the wisdom of the Pherryllt and then spent months gathering the materials that she needed.  The simmering was overseen by Gwion and Morda who spent a year and a day stirring the cauldron until at last the combined ingredients came together and boiled over, culminating in Gwion’s moment of illumination.

Bruce dedicates a section of her book to overcoming myths around creativity, such as the myth of creativity being limited to the arts and the idea that only certain kinds of people can be creative.  Within this section she examines the notion that creativity leads to anarchy and chaos and looks at the reactions people might have to innovation.  One such reaction is fascination and curiosity but other reactions include fear and anger; a need to destroy the creation and this is what we see played out in Ceridwen’s reaction to Gwion’s moment of illumination.

Atop the coincidences with the Taliesin story, Bruce also shows a photograph of a ‘creative entrance’ to a learning space in which a book of magic spells, presumably made by the children and compiled by the educator, has pride of place on the book display.

Bruce looks at creation as both process and product.  She shows the importance of the process and how it happens differently for different individuals and how much it matters even though often there is no associated creative product.  She looks at everyday, specialist and groundbreaking creativity and outlines the role of adults in creating conditions where everyday and specialist creative processes in all subject areas can be cultivated.

The book contains a mixture of case studies (with pictures), psychological and educational theories from respected sources (e.g. Vygotsky, Donaldson, Maslow, Jung) and ideas from creative writers like Rowling and Pullman.  She pulls this all together to provide a resource that is both practical and philosophical; easy to read yet challenging and enlightening.

This is well worth a read for anyone working with children in home or school settings and a fantastic secular resource that will resonate well with pagan educators.

Autumn Equinox meditation

We have just come back from a long weekend in Glastonbury where we went to celebrate the autumn equinox.  For ages I have been wanting to go along to Chalice Well for one of their seasonal festival meditations but with a small monster in tow it has never felt quite appropriate.  This time, I went ahead and booked it anyway.  I decided just to give it a try – we could always leave if little monster decided meditation was not an activity she wanted to engage with.

It turned out brilliantly.  We started off just exploring the grounds a little.  We looked at the water in the pool then climbed up the slippy steps holding hands tightly until we got to the lion water.  This is where water flows out through the mouth of a stone lion into two glasses sat side by side.  The water swirls around in the glasses and pours over the top before flowing down the channel to the pool at the level below.  We spent ages watching the water swirl and then picking up each glass alternately to try a bit of the red water -‘umm, yummy’.  Carefully down the slippy steps again we bypassed the pool and went down to the yew trees, touching each one in turn and saying ‘hello chee’.  Then on down to the bottom to sit on the benches by the fire and watch the flames until dada rejoined us from his meanderings.

We went up to the well head for the meditation.  A woman offered us her seat (slab of rock) which gave us an ideal vantage point to see the candles and offerings at the well while still being close enough to the gateway to make a quick exit if necessary.  As 12 o’clock got closer, the silence grew and monster sat on my lap rocking backwards and forwards and acknowledging the silence by interjecting a ‘ssh’ every so often.  And that’s pretty much how she stayed.  Occasionally she would quietly label a sound (‘birdy’, ‘noise’) and once or twice she looked round and spoke quietly to identify where dada was.

The meditation was finished with the leader singing a beautiful song and then everyone gathered reading ‘the Glastonbury Moment’, a blessing on the earth, the area and life in general.  At which point the weather turned from wet, cold and grey to glorious sunshine.

I got what I needed, a moment to stop, breathe and rebalance.  But more than that – a moment where I was able to do that with little monster.  The chance to feel that I could actually really begin to incorporate my spirituality and my parenting rather than having that feeling of juggling two separate strands of activity.

Space to Grow

I am trying to create space for little monster to thrive.  Every day I get to know her better and each new snippet of knowing gives me new ideas about what she needs in her growing space.

Thinking about toddler space has prompted me to think more generally about creating space to grow and how that might look for me and other members of my family.

So how do we go about creating space for our own growth?

Firstly; clarify your growth goals.  This vision may change, but you can always rearrange and redecorate.  Maybe you aspire to be more confident or relaxed or are developing a particular skill.

Having established your goals, think about how you might achieve them and what environment you need for that.  If establishing goals is too much, maybe aim for space that will help you to think about them.

If you have a lot of goals, focus on a few: one for each section of the space you are working with.

I am very aware that, particularly for toddlers, things change rapidly which means creating space that can be updated quickly with minimal resources.

The Road to Success

How successful are you?

How do you think about achievement?  Do you consider yourself to be a success?

It is not unusual to feel like an underachiever when you define achievement based on other people’s expectations.

How do you define success?

Often these expectations come from our parents and may be unspoken.  Many parents believe they just want their children to be happy, but reward or praise specific behaviours, attributes and outcomes.  What we are rewarded and praised for, what is nurtured and encouraged; shapes our understanding of achievement.

If our skills and desires match those expectations, it is relatively easy to be confident in our success.  Conversely, if our skills and passions lie elsewhere, we are left with a conflict to resolve.

What does it really take to make it?

 

To feel happy and successful, we must base our definition of achievement on our internal values rather than external expectations.

Shifting our perception of achievement to our own ‘locus of evaluation’ (a phrase coined by psychologist, Carl Rogers, founder of client centred counselling) can be a long journey but ultimately enables us to trust in our own instincts and feel successful on a deeper level.