By Marvin Berkowitz, Ph.D.
It was early in my career when I first had to confront the idea of how we think about kids. As an undergraduate at the University of Buffalo over 40 years ago, I took Willis Overton’s developmental psychology class, which focused on a chapter he was writing with Hayne Reese on what they called “models of man.” It essentially explored the assumptions about fundamental human nature implicit in the leading psychological theories of the day. And it starkly contrasted a behaviorist (mechanistic) approach from a constructivist (organismic) approach. The former sees the person as a recipient of external inputs (experience) that accrue molecularly. People are not initiators of interactions nor interpreters of experience, merely the passive recipients of and responders to what the world does to us. And development happens smoothly as these bits of experience add up, much like the formation of a stalactite in a cave. It is largely a mechanical cause and effect process. The great thinkers in this tradition are B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov.
Quite differently, the constructivist approach sees the child as an innate meaning maker. Even the newborn infant interprets experience. And initiates interactions with the world simply to help make sense of it. We develop not in straight lines but in spurts and steps and in stages that may be more different in kind than in amount. We are innate scientists trying to make sense of a complex world. The great thinker in this tradition is Jean Piaget.
So which are we? What is our true nature?Read More