Building blocks to grown-up thinking

The Developing Person through Childhood and Adolescence. Seventh Edition - How Children Develop. Second Edition - Psychological Development and Early Childhood. First Edition - Children's Personal and Social Development. First Edition - How Children Develop Social Understanding. First Edition - Research Manual in Child Development. Second Edition
November 24, 2006

Teaching methods seem to have changed considerably since I was an undergraduate. Students have been taught to expect lecture notes and simple source materials. I remember an occasion when a friend of mine asked a lecturer if he could borrow his overheads in order to photocopy them. The answer was a not-too-polite "no". It seemed harsh, but we learnt to take notes and then go back to the original research to further our knowledge.

There are still some universities where students are expected to work hard for their degrees, but in many cases textbooks provide a simple way of learning the basics of child development.

Not so long ago, infants were thought to be mostly passive, with little awareness of their environment. Developmental psychology has shown us that this is far from the truth. The infant brain is a complex organ preprogrammed to learn and react to its surroundings. For me, understanding the changes that occur during infancy and childhood - the subject of these six developmental textbooks - is the most exciting area of psychological research.

Let us begin with the seventh edition of Kathleen Stassen Berger's book. Flicking through its brightly illustrated pages, I had a feeling of deja vu. It looks almost the same as the sixth edition, which seemed uncannily similar to the fifth; but it is subtly different in that it includes more up-to-date research in areas such as brain development and education. One cannot really fault this book. It does what it says on the cover, discussing all the different research areas of development from birth through to the early teens. It is also a pleasure to read. Theories and ideas are discussed simply, and at the end of each chapter complex concepts are summarised to ensure that all students, regardless of ability, can understand the logic connecting the different strands of research. Overall, this is a good, solid, comprehensive developmental textbook, suitable as a course text at undergraduate level. However, the concern remains that teaching from a single textbook such as this one will inhibit students from reading original journal articles.

How Children Develop , by Robert Siegler, Judy Deloache and Nancy Eisenberg, is another all-encompassing textbook. As with Berger's book, there are new features in this edition, such as a chapter on gender development. There is not much to differentiate it from Berger's. Both take the approach of putting development in context as a means to engage the reader and are very successful in this. The two books also have additional resources, such as companion websites and, equally excellent, videos (including the Scientific American "Frontiers" video), guides for instructors and many other useful additions.

All these resources are very good and should aid the learning experience. Particularly impressive is that Siegler et al. also provide, free of charge, 15 notable Scientific American articles. These include classics such as Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk's "Visual cliff" study and Harry F. Harlow's "Love in infant monkeys".

It is essential that students are encouraged to read journal articles early in their education and not rely on textbooks alone. This helps them to gain insight into the process by which new knowledge of development is arrived at. However, it is important to choose wisely the articles we recommend to students. Many refereed journal articles seem to be written in obfuscatory language - such articles generally drive students back to textbooks. Siegler et al. have put together a collection of articles that should inspire students to learn more about child development, and for this alone I give them ten out of ten.

Psychological Development and Early Childhood is much smaller than the two books just discussed, there are fewer glossy pictures, and it is an edited collection. The most obvious difference is in the style. Each chapter is written pretty much like a review article but is perhaps more accessible.

At the end of each chapter are extracts of relevant research articles. For example, after chapter two, "Theories of development", one of the readings comes from Lev Vygotsky on egocentric speech. This is an excellent, fun way to get students to read source material, and one of the reasons that I prefer edited books, because each area is discussed by an expert. Alan Slater and John Oates's chapter on "Sensation to perception" is a very good read. Considerably more space is devoted to visual development over auditory development, but this may simply reflect the authors' interests.

Re-reading the extract from Robert Fantz's classic 1963 paper on infant vision at the end of this chapter brought a smile to my face, since it was this paper that piqued my interest in infant perception. Psychological Development and Early Childhood is undoubtedly a very good textbook. But I am not sure that students will choose it over the previously reviewed books simply because it does not cover as many topics.

Sharon Ding and Karen Littleton's book, despite being an edited textbook, is not so successful. The layout is poor, with headers and subsections interleaved with boxes that together make the book annoying, confusing and difficult to read. The inclusion of a section on "Learning outcomes" at the beginning of each chapter suggests that the authors have paid too much attention to the course titled "Teaching and learning in UK Higher Education".

The content of the book is actually very simple, yet it is hard to read. For example, the first section in chapter one asks, "what is a parent?" You might think that there is some depth to this question, but you would be wrong. Of course, this chapter covers more than such facile issues and does explain the main theories of attachment, although in not much more detail than you could get from Wikipedia. But I cannot take a book seriously when it uses quotes, such as the following from the BBC parenting website: "You'll need an unlimited amount of love. You may also need a backup supply for use at 4am."

Despite chapter one, I ploughed on and looked forward to reading about disturbed and disturbing behaviour. Here, there should have been a discussion of psychopathic behaviour in children, but the subject is not even mentioned. The remainder of the book follows the same pattern: poor layout, average content and a dull style.

In contrast, Jeremy Carpendale's and Charlie Lewis's book is engaging, informative and up to date. The authors examine social development using evidence from typical and atypical populations. Although many of the chapters relate directly to current research in autism, the focus of the book is in understanding what is required for the development of successful social cognition. The authors provide a comprehensive analysis of the various areas of research in social development.

The content far exceeds what is usually found in a textbook and reads more like a critical analysis of the field as it currently stands. The only criticism is that there is relatively little space given to recent brain-imaging research. A footnote is also irritating: in relation to single-cell recordings in the brains of macaque monkeys, the footnote states that "these studies are invasive and as vegetarians we do not applaud the use of surgery on animals to conduct research. However, the findings of these studies are significant enough for us to feel we should talk about them here". Either include them or omit them, but do not make self-indulgent excuses for including them. That said, this book is superb.

Finally, we come to Lorraine Nadelman's book. Over the past few years I have not come across one final-year student who had a clear understanding of the different methodologies used for testing infants and young children.

In fact, students learn relatively little about experimental methods. I am not sure how this situation can be rectified, but it is good that there is now a book students can refer to.

The book is divided into three sections: research considerations, including ethical ones, observational studies in infants and children, and finally a number of different experiments. It gives one of the clearest introductions I know on how to conduct experiments with children. The authors explain a number of different methodologies and then give examples of when to use them. Personally, I think that there should have been a significantly larger section on infant testing. Only habituation techniques are mentioned and although they are probably the most widely known, there are a number of other techniques, including neurological ones such as event-related potentials. The experimental studies in the final section are all fairly well known - especially Piaget's "three mountain task". But they are a rather unimaginative and uninspiring collection, compared to the studies used by Siegler et al.

Janine Spencer is lecturer in developmental psychology, Brunel University.

The Developing Person through Childhood and Adolescence. Seventh Edition

Author - Kathleen Stassen Berger
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 550
Price - £42.99
ISBN - 0 716 77050 4

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