Small Wonders

The history of education in the twenty-first century may turn out to be like the history of medicine in the nineteenth century. Both medicine and education have great moral urgency. Passing on what we know to our children is, after all, one of the few ways we have of genuinely defying death; medicine just postpones it. Both medicine and education invoke knowledge to justify their authority. Doctors have always justified their practices by claiming that they understand how our bodies work. Educators have always justified theirs by claiming that they understand how our children’s minds work. But for most of history those claims were based on scarcely any systematic research. At best, they were pragmatic generalizations, the outcome of a long process of empirical tinkering.

During the last 150 years we have gradually begun to integrate real biological science into our medical practice. This has been one of the great scientific success stories. Surely even the most adamant postmodern critics of science believe that vaccinating babies is not just an exercise in patriarchal control. But our new biological knowledge has also told us that organisms and their illnesses are individual, variable, and complicated. And biology itself can’t determine what kind of medicine is worth having, and how much we’re willing to pay for it.

A similar story could unfold in education. In the last thirty years, we have begun to develop a science of children’s minds. This new research might be the equivalent of the scientific physiology that has transformed medicine. But it is unlikely to lead to some simple educational panacea. In fact, helping our children to be both smart and wise is likely to be just as difficult, as complicated and demanding, though just as valuable, as helping them to be healthy. And turning the scientific findings into practice depends on broader political and economic decisions.

Throughout history, our ideas about how children learn have informed our ideas about what education should be like. Calvin’s small sinners, Rousseau’s idealized innocents, Locke’s blank slates—all those particular images of children led to particular kinds of schools. Calvin, Rousseau, and Locke, and later Freud and B.F. Skinner, shared some basic assumptions. They assumed that children’s knowledge was a kind of oxymoron, that children were creatures of passion rather than reason, instinct rather than intellect. For better or for worse, teachers self-consciously shaped these natural creatures into rational, knowledgeable, civilized adults.

However, no one actually studied children systematically until the 1930s. That first empirical research, by Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, reversed the traditional view. Piaget concluded that even very young children spontaneously and actively reasoned about the world. Vygotsky concluded that adults naturally and spontaneously did things that helped children to reason about the world. In the Sixties, Piaget and Vygotsky were rediscovered as part of the new discipline of “cognitive science.” From the findings of that science, it turns out that our everyday behavior, the way we naturally see, speak …

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Psychology for Teachers: An Exchange November 4, 1999