5.2 Preschool Curriculum: Do you know the three main theories about children?

5.3 Dissect the three main theories about children

The Three Main Theories about the Child

A. Empiricism (behaviourists)

B. Nativism (maturationists)    

C. Interactionism (progressives)


A. The Empiricism Views

Implicitly subscribes to a deficit model of the child. The role of the adult is to identify missing experience, skills and concepts to select appropriate experiences and transmit them to the child.  This came to the fore during late 60s with Bereiter and Engelman as proponents. This work was built on the work of the psychologist Watson and skinner. In 1925, Watson wrote:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed and my own special world to bring them up in and I will guarantee to take any one of them at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select doctors, lawyers, artist, merchant-chief and, yes even bargeman and thief-regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities and vocation and race of his ancestors”.


This demonstrates how children are seen as something to be molded into shape and given experiences which are appropriate and necessary for them to take their place in society. Depending on whether we support the view of the child as a passive recipient or as an active explorer of experiences the adults’ role in working with that child will completely change. The child is an empty vessel to be filled or a lump of clay that can be molded into shape. Habit formation is important learning, teaching is broken down into simple steps from a complex sequence. Learning is seen as a hierarchy from simple to complex. Knowledge can be transmitted from one person to another. There is emphasizing on the influencing of experience and socio-cultural aspects. The adult teaches the child learning and dominating it. Development of the child’s moral values, emotions is seen as under the control of the environment via reinforcement.  Based on these perspectives, educational technology & behaviour modification techniques have been developed as teaching strategies. Children only learn by direct instruction. The teacher must teach the child. Learning is by stimulus response and reinforcement.


B. Nativism

The child is pre-programmed for development. This is determined by genetically pre-programmed maturational mechanism. The socio- cultural aspects influence development. For examples the language a child speaks.  If a child hears Kiswahili then the child learns to speak Swahili but the mechanism for learning language are already there: Adults observe children to monitor progress and emphasize milestone of normal development and check for readiness such as in learning to read. The child is seen as leading his/her own learning with the adult as a facilitator. The proponents here are Gesell, Erickson and Chomsky.


C. Interactionism

It integrates aspects of empiricism and nativism. This approach recognizes that there are biologically programmed ideas to development, although it places much emphasis on the socio-cultural context in which the child grows up. i.e the people, the material world and culture.


The context in which the child grows varies greatly according to the culture and the physical environment in different places, in one country or globe. People are important in this approach, both children even adults. Sometimes the adults lead the child’s learning and sometimes the child i.e. there is notion of reciprocity or give and take. It is like a conversation where different people can start a conversation but the different speakers need to listen to each other. Mental development is seen as the product of the interaction of the organization (child) and the environment.  It was first elaborated by Plato, then Dewey, and most recently by Piaget and Vygotsky. In this view the child is viewed as a scientist, an explorer, an enquirer, critically instrumental in constructing and organizing the world and his own development.




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