Child Study

Child study, also called paidology or experimental pedagogy, was the attempt to apply the methods of modern science to the investigation of children in order to discover the laws of normal child development. The child-study movement arose in the last decade of the nineteenth century in several Western countries and was inspired by a number of social reform movements that aimed to improve the health and welfare of children. The connection between child study, schools, teachers, and movements for educational reform was particularly strong, because many reformers viewed the educational system as the most promising avenue to improve the conditions of children and to create the conditions for a better and more just society. They became convinced that scientific insights into the nature of children would aid their efforts. Initially, the child-study movement was inclusive: teachers, parents, ministers, psychologists, educational administrators, physicians, psychiatrists, and others concerned with the welfare of children participated in its research. After the turn of the twentieth century, psychologists and physicians aimed to make child study scientifically respectable by excluding lay researchers. In their hands, child study became the science of child development and developmental psychology. Consequently, research into child development became a field of academic inquiry and lost its ties to social and educational reform.

Educational reformers viewed the school as providing the means for improving social conditions and fostering the moral progress of society. They were inspired by a variety of ideologies, such as the social Darwinism of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), which emphasized free competition as the prime condition for social betterment. In this view, a proper education equipped children with the tools for self-improvement and success in modern society, and would thereby help them lift themselves out of poverty. Other educational reformers were guided by the ideas of the French philosopher JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU(1712–1778) and the educationalists JOHANN HEINRICH PESTALOZZI (1746–1827), a Swiss, and FRIEDRICH WILHELMAUGUST FROEBEL (1782–1852), a German. These thinkers embraced romantic idealizations of childhood as an innocent and untainted period of life and wanted to re-create the educational system to provide a stimulating environment for free PLAY and exploration.

Despite the variety in their philosophies and political orientations, educational reformers agreed in their attempts to reform old educational practices that relied on rote learning, character education, the training of mental discipline, and an academically oriented curriculum. Educational reformers argued that this curriculum was irrelevant for most children. According to them, education should become more practical and help children take their place in society. They proposed the introduction of project learning and practical and vocational training, and advocated the establishment of KINDERGARTENS.

The Beginnings of Child Study

The psychologist G. STANLEY HALL (1844–1924) initiated the child-study movement in the United States in the 1880s. Hall was influenced by the evolutionary theory of the nineteenth-century English naturalist Charles Darwin and adhered to the recapitulation theory, which states that children repeat in their development the physiological and cultural development of the species. Hall was also inspired by developments in psychology and education in Germany, where he had spent several years studying philosophy and psychology. His organizational efforts in the child-study movement stimulated and consolidated existing interests and activities in several countries. In 1882 Hall introduced a course in child study at Clark University, advocating child study as the core of the new profession of pedagogy. He became a prominent member of the National Education Association, where he found an enthusiastic response for his plans. Hall invited parents and teachers to participate in child-study research and sent out hundreds of questionnaires to collect observations of children. Hall used the results of this research to provide arguments for educational reform. In 1904 he published Adolescence, which he described as a period of life bestowed with special challenges and in need of special consideration. This book became very influential with parents, teachers, and individuals involved with child welfare agencies.

In 1891 Hall founded the Pedagogical Seminary, which became the most prominent outlet for research in child study worldwide. (The journal was renamed in 1931 the Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology and in 1954, the Journal of Genetic Psychology.)

Participants in the child-study movement investigated a wide range of topics, including the physical, cognitive, and moral development of children, health and HYGIENE, fatigue, educational practices and their effect on learning, the interests and imagination of children and the nature of their religious experiences, and children's attitudes toward various matters. A wide variety of methods were used: undirected observations of children at home and at school; personal letters or journals by children; quantitative and qualitative answers to a variety of questionnaires; observations of concrete behavior; measurements of weight, physical growth, and mental growth; results of a variety of special tests; diaries by mothers and teachers recording children's behavior; and autobiographical statements by adults reflecting upon their childhood.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, a number of psychologists and physicians argued that research in child study had resulted in vast amounts of incoherent data based on free observation under unspecified conditions, unguided by theories and hypotheses, and collected by untrained observers. They urgently advocated lifting the scientific standards of child study through more rigorous, laboratory-based research by qualified scientists. There were two approaches to doing so. The first one was advocated by education psychologists, who stated that pedagogy was the application of psychological knowledge that was based upon laboratory research or extensive psychometric testing. According to them, teachers and educational administrators needed to inform themselves about psychological research and apply its results. A number of educators and pedagogists advocated a second approach: they proposed the establishment of experimental schools and pedagogical laboratories to conduct educational research. They were convinced that pedagogy or the science of education could not be reduced to psychological research.

Psychologists made two contributions to educational research: they developed mental testing and investigated the fundamental laws of learning. The first INTELLIGENCE TEST was developed in 1905 by ALFRED BINET (1857–1911), who had been associated with the French Society for the Psychological Study of the Child (Société libre pour l'étude psychologique de l'enfant) and the educational system in Paris. For Binet, the intelligence test was an individualized diagnostic tool to diagnose pupils with mental RETARDATION or learning disabilities in order to place them in appropriate classes. The test was graded in terms of the age at which normal children would be able to solve a number of tasks. Psychologists in the United States and the United Kingdom found new uses for mental tests and developed the psychology of individual differences. In addition to developing mental tests, behaviorist psychologists investigated the laws basic to all learning and claimed that educational practices needed to conform to these laws in order to optimize learning in schools.


Research in child development in Germany started with the publication of Die Seele des Kindes (The mind of a child; 1882) by the physiologist William T. Preyer (1841–1897), which was based on extensive physiological and psychological observations collected during the first three years of the life of his son. Preyer was influenced by Darwin's theory of evolution and proposed a developmental scheme in which instinct and reflex were gradually replaced by language and purposeful action. According to Preyer, scientific insights could be gained only through the continuous observation of a great number of healthy, normally developing children. He therefore encouraged mothers to observe their newborn babies by keeping diaries, starting at birth, making observations for several hours a day. Preyer's work suggested ways in which child development could be investigated scientifically, and it stimulated wide interest in the possibilities for such research.

The General German Society for Child Study (Allgemeiner Deutscher Verein für Kinderforschung) and the Society for Child Psychology (Verein für Kinderpsychologie) were founded in 1889. The latter society published the Zeitschrift für Pädagogische Psychologie (Journal for pedagogical psychology) in 1905, and the journal Die ExperimentellePädagogik (Experimental pedagogy) commenced publication that year as well. Initially, German child study was dominated by the activities of teachers, who were active in a variety of associations and institutes. The methods of research were as eclectic and varied as those adopted by the American child-study movement, although German teachers were more interested in research conducted according to hermeneutic methods, which aimed at acquiring an intuitive understanding of how children think and learn, instead of quantitative research, which provided indications of the abilities and achievements of groups of children.

The different approaches of Wilhelm August Lay (1862–1926) and Ernst Neumann (1862–1937), two pioneers in pedagogical research in Germany, illustrate the development of experimental pedagogy or paidology in Germany. Both Lay and Neumann attempted to make child study more rigorous and scientifically respectable. Lay started out his career as an educator and conducted his research from the perspective of teachers. He advocated the establishment of experimental schools and viewed them as the ideal places for pedagogical research. Neumann was a psychologist who viewed education as a field in which psychological insights could be applied. The difference between these perspectives indicated the increasing tension between teachers and psychologists in their attempts to control the development of experimental pedagogy. Eventually, psychologists came to dominate the field. In Germany, however, pedagogy as a field remained influential within the educational system.

After World War I (1914–1918), German research on child development succeeded in acquiring a permanent place in the universities. The psychologist William Stern (1871–1938) had kept, with his wife Clara, detailed diaries of the psychological development of their three children. Stern later published his work on language acquisition and development of memory in young children based on this material. Other influential psychologists were the Austrian couple Karl (1879–1963) and CHARLOTTE BÜHLER (1893–1974), whose maturational and life-course psychology became very influential. Charlotte Bühler's research was based on guided observations of children, intelligence tests, the interpretation of diaries, and experiments with free play. She aimed to develop a unified scheme of psychological development from birth to early adulthood and focused on cognitive and personality characteristics of developmental stages.

United Kingdom

Child study in the United Kingdom followed developments in the United States and Germany, although it never reached the same level of activity. Interest in children and education grew when, during the 1890s, several medical surveys of schoolchildren, particularly those from poor working-class districts, revealed that many pupils were in poor health and suffered from malnutrition and a range of medical problems, including what was then called mental deficiency. In 1913 the Mental Deficiency Act was passed, mandating the proper treatment and care of individuals with this condition. Furthermore, philosophical psychologists in England had written several books on educational reform, educational philosophy, and the importance of modernizing the curriculum. And there were widespread calls for educational reform in order to increase national productivity through a bettereducated labor force and calls to make education child-centered.

In 1898 the British Child Study Association was established by a number of individuals who had become acquainted with Hall's work in the United States and who wished to organize child study in England. The association started publishing the journal The Paidologist one year later (in 1908 the name was changed to Child Study; it ceased publicationin 1921). In 1911 the rival Journal of Experimental Pedagogy commenced publication as well (it was renamed the British Journal of Educational Psychology in 1931).

Initially, educational psychology in England focused on the construction and administration of mental tests. Research into the nature of intelligence had been the lifework of Charles Spearman (1863–1945), who had analyzed a wide range of test results with a statistical technique called factor analysis and concluded that all intelligence tests measured a stable and inherited quality of general intelligence. In 1912 the psychologist CYRIL BURT (1883–1971) was appointed as psychologist at the London County Council, which was the central educational authority in London. In this position, Burt tested children recommended for special or remedial schools and classes. He also developed mental and diagnostic tests. In The Backward Child (1937), Burt argued that pupils who could not do the work of the grade they were supposed to be in on the basis of their age often suffered from environmental handicaps such as poverty, poor health, and inadequate housing. Despite that, he also believed that the majority of these cases were irremediably backward as a result of the general inferiority of their intellectual capacity, which, according to him, was inborn, hereditary, and therefore unalterable. According to Burt, the existing class structure was justified because it was based on innate differences in intelligence. Because he was convinced that intelligence did not improve because of education, he advocated the establishment of special educational tracks for children to match their innate general cognitive ability.

United States of America

At the turn of the twentieth century, psychologists criticized the child-study movement for the lack of scientific rigor and inconclusive nature of its research and the lack of clarity in its basic objectives. Consequently, the movement lost its momentum. In particular, educational psychologists attempted to make research into child development scientifically respectable. They aimed to provide teachers and educational administrators with the scientific tools to rationalize and improve educational practice. The Journal of Educational Psychology, which published their research, commenced publication in 1910.

According to the psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike (1874–1947), educational psychology could provide normative standards for the rational organization of educational practice. Thorndike promoted the widespread application of intelligence and achievement tests to make the work of schools visible in a numerical way: the statistics generated by these tests made classes, grades, and schools comparable, which made it possible to evaluate performance. In particular, educational administrators found this type of numerical information useful. Apart from developing psychometric tests, Thorndike presented the laws of learning as a rational foundation for educational practice, as behaviorist psychologists had formulated them. His most influential and controversial contribution was his opinion that there was little or no transfer of training between learning in different areas. This statement was used as an argument against the classical curriculum, in particular the teaching of Latin in HIGH SCHOOLS. After all, if the mental discipline acquired through learning Latin had no ramifications for learning in other areas, it became very difficult to defend teaching the subject.

The use of mental tests in education was promoted by Lewis M. Terman (1877–1956), a member of the faculty at Stanford University who had translated Binet's intelligence test into English and published it as the Stanford-Binet test in 1916. Terman's version of the intelligence test could be administered to groups. According to Terman, intelligence, often expressed in the form of the intelligence quotient, or IQ, was a relatively stable and inherited quality. To accommodate students with a wide variety of intellectual ability, he proposed that schools organize different educational tracks suitable for different levels of mental ability. Similarly, Terman was convinced that modern society was essentially meritocratic in nature: intelligent individuals would naturally enter into the more desirable occupations. In his view, differences in income and socioeconomic status are based on intelligence rather than on differences in educational opportunity or the effects of discrimination, exclusion, and deprivation. Terman's views were very influential among psychologists and educators throughout the twentieth century.

Child Development Research in the 1920s

In the early 1920s, research into child development was a modest endeavor. It occurred on a small scale at a number of universities and received small amounts of funding. Researchers were engaged in research on different aspects of child health, child welfare, and educational research. The decisive impulse to make child study an area of scientific research came from the LAURA SPELMAN ROCKEFELLER ME-MORIAL (LSRM), which, starting in 1924, funded interdisciplinary research at a number of research centers devoted to child development in the United States and Canada. As a result, CHILD PSYCHOLOGY or developmental psychology was transformed into a respectable profession with professional societies, journals, and university-based research and training centers. In 1925 the Committee on Child Development was founded by the National Research Council to coordinate research activities.

According to Lawrence K. Frank (1890–1974), who initiated this program within the LSRM, most research involving children had focused on DELINQUENCY, abnormality, and pathology. Relatively little was known about normal children and normal child development, knowledge of which he considered essential for guiding educational and child-rearing practices. Because the first years of life were essential for the formation of personality, Frank thought it essential that these would become the object of scientific research. The centers for research on child development funded by the LSRM generally opened a laboratory NURSERY SCHOOLwhere children from the age of about twelve months could be observed for longer periods. Researchers often had associations with elementary schools and high schools to investigate child development in its later stages. At several research centers, longitudinal research projects, in which individual children were followed for several decades to study their development, were undertaken. Other studies involved observational studies of children and the measurement of individual differences in intelligence and ability. According to Frank, research in child development needed to be closely associated with the popularization of its results. He insisted that every center for child research institutionalize programs for public education. He also initiated the establishment of PARENTS MAGAZINE in 1926, a popular magazine with child-rearing advice for parents.

One of the first institutions to receive funding was the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station, which had opened in 1917. Researchers there developed measurements of physical development and investigated the importance of nutrition. Several observational studies were undertaken in a laboratory nursery school and at an adoption agency. Researchers at Iowa concluded that the IQ of young children could be highly variable: the IQ of children attending nursery school and adopted children generally rose several points. These conclusions were repeated by Helen Thompson Woolley (1874–1947) of the Merrill-Palmer school in Detroit but were contested by other researchers, in particular Lewis Terman and Florence Goodenough (1886–1959), who worked at the Institute for Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota. At his Yale University laboratory, ARNOLD GESELL (1880–1961) investigated the physical growth of children. According to Gesell, maturation and growth entailed the unfolding of inborn traits, which could be delayed by environmental deprivation. Gesell designed a number of normative scales measuring levels of mental and motor development in children. At the University of Toronto, several longitudinal research projects investigating the social behavior of children were undertaken. At the Institute of Child Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley, a similar research project was initiated. Researchers there also doubted the invariable nature of IQ scores in individuals. At the Child Development Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, family relations and the personality development of children in nursery schools were studied. The research centers on child development provided career opportunities for women, who were excluded from most other fields of scientific research.

As a consequence of the funding provided by the LSRM, research in child development became scientifically respectable. Over time, researchers became less interested in public education activities, which were often discontinued. The association of research in child development with educational reform became increasingly tenuous over time as well. The research had developed a momentum of its own and lost its association with movements for social change.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Scientific Child-Rearing.


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