Nowadays it is widely accepted that social context greatly influences a person’s development in many aspects and throughout their lives. Developmental psychology aims to describe how children develop and its grand theories emerged to “offer general explanations of child development as a whole, rather than just certain areas” (Oates et al., 2005, p. 49). In this essay, the main elements of the four ‘grand theories’ of child development are discussed, exploring in more detail which aspects within the social experiences are explored by each grand theory.
For the purpose of this essay, when discussing social experiences we will refer to any social aspect of human experience, including socio-cultural contexts and social relations and their products. Some of these experiences have been taken into account by the field of developmental psychology in order to study and investigate how children’s minds and behaviour change throughout their lifespan.
This field of study has produced many theories that propose hypothesis to explain different aspects of child development.
Among these, four theories stand out and are sometimes referred to as ‘grand theories’: behaviourism, social learning theory, constructivism and social constructivism. The reasons why they are referred to as ‘grand theories’ are many fold, mainly, they provide explanations of child development as a whole, instead of just focusing on partial aspects, and they are vastly influential. These ‘grand theories’ have inspired great amounts of research, both past and present, and their applications continue to be used to assist children to overcome their personal developmental challenges.
Behaviourism stemmed from a desire to approach psychology as an objective science by studying observable measurable events, that is to say, by studying behaviour.
In terms of child development, it explains that the child is a passive recipient whose behaviour is shaped by environmental influences and that behaviour is learned and maintained by its consequences. In behaviourism, development is equivalent to learning and the process of learning behaviours is called conditioning. Conditioning describes how the consequences of a given behaviour affect the likelihood that behaviour will be repeated in the future i.e. if a behaviour produces a positive consequence, such as a reward, the frequency of that behaviour increases. Conversely, if the consequence of a behaviour is negative, such as a punishment, behaviour decreases.
Watson and Rayner performed an experiment where a little boy, ‘little Albert’, was conditioned to respond with fear to the sight of a white rat by banging a bell loudly when he was shown a white rat (Watson, 1924). Subsequently, he also showed fear of furry toys, a fur coat and even a Father Christmas mask. The unpredictability of this and other behaviourist studies (Skinner, 1938) (Huesmann et al., 2003) exemplify, at least in part, an important limitation of behaviourism: it ignores the intrinsic cognitive processes during learning. In addition, the unpredictable and undesired negative effects of these studies obviously pose serious ethical issues.
Behaviourism does not explicitly discuss the role of social experiences. However, by seeing the environment and the consequences of behaviour as determinants of learning, behaviourists were implicitly assigning an important role to social experiences, since social interaction and social convention heavily influence the environment in which learning takes place and the consequences of behaviours. For example, the same behaviour may be rewarded in a family or society but punished in another.
Behaviourists’ notion that children learn new behaviours only based on the consequences of their own actions was seen as limited by the Social Learning Theory (SLT). According to them behaviourists did not account for real life observations of how children also learn new skills, behaviours and attitudes from observing and imitating others. For example, studies have described how Guatemalan girls learn to weave by watching models weave (Crain, 2000). Furthermore, Bandura and others studied how observing others being punished or rewarded for their actions influenced children’s learning and behaviour. This view, therefore, assigns an essential role to external factors to help explain learning, as previously done by behaviourism.
These notions were supported by a series of studies Bandura carried out, in which 4-year-old children were shown films of a man behaving aggressively towards a Bobo doll. Subsequently children saw the man’s aggressive behaviour being punished, rewarded or with no consequences (children were divided in three groups). Later children were left alone in a room with a Bobo doll and later displayed aggressive behaviours towards the doll. According to Bandura these studies illustrated how children learnt these behaviours solely through observation. Also children who saw the man being punished after hitting the doll displayed less aggression compared to children in the other two conditions (Bandura, 1965). These findings started the important debate that still continues today on the consequences of exposing children to violence on TV. In addition, further studies showed that children are more likely to imitate behaviour if they share a similar age and sex with the model and if the models show desirable attributes (Oates et al., 2005). These observations may also be relevant to the current debate surrounding celebrity culture and the effect of celebrities as role models for children and young people.
Importantly, in order for a child to imitate behaviours, Bandura explained that the child must attend to the model; be able to abstract, encode, retain and perform physically its essential aspects and be motivated to reproduce that behaviour (Oates et al., 2005). Thus, this theory views children as having a more active role in their learning and acknowledges internal cognitive processes that occur within the child (Bandura and Jeffery, 1972). However, he does not address children’s cognitive processes in detail and describes children development as a process of learning new behaviours rather than a process of cognitive development. For that another theory is needed: constructivism.
Constructivism is a theory proposed by Jean Piaget that describes cognitive development as progressive and constructive (Oates et al., 2005). It is progressive because it proposes that children go through four defined and ordered stages of cognitive development. It is constructive because it proposes that development is the child’s own construction whereby the child develops and accumulates increasingly complex and abstract mental representations of his/her own world and experiences (schemas). They are constructed through the association of a child’s experiences with their subsequent effects.
In Piaget’s theory different core concepts are associated with a given stage of development. In order to establish whether a child had progressed to the next developmental stage he designed experimental tasks linked to those core concepts. One of them was conservation i.e. understanding that a quantity (e.g. mass, volume, etc.) remains the same even if presented in different containers. In Piaget’s experiments children up to the age of 6 or 7 think that quantity changes when for example water is transferred from one container to a different one e.g. taller, shorter, etc. (Oates et al., 2005).
However, subsequent studies, like the ones carried out by Light et al (1979), showed that children were able to perform above levels predicted by Piaget when tasks were performed within a meaningful context for the children. Additionally, Donaldson (1978) highlighted the importance of designing studies in which the tasks to be performed make ‘human sense’ to the children. These findings can be interpreted to point to the interrelation between cognition and social context.
Despite the fact that Piaget’s theory acknowledges children become social, the emphasis of his theory was cognitive and the role of social context and interaction is not defined or studied. In contrast, Vygotsky proposed it is in fact through social experiences that cognitive development takes place in children. His theory shared with Piaget’s theory ideas about the constructive nature of development and so it was aptly named social constructivism.