The infant's acquisition of skills that last a lifetime

Child Psychology: Development in a Changing Society. Authors Robin Harwood, Scott A. Miller and Ross Vasta. Edition Fifth. Publisher Wiley. Pages 665. Price £39.95. ISBN 9780471706493.

Understanding Human Development. Author Stephanie Thornton. Edition First. Publisher Palgrave Macmillan. Pages 1260. Price £27.99. ISBN 9781403933065

May 22, 2008

These two textbooks provide very contrasting styles. Child Psychology has the usual strengths of a North American text - plenty of colour, photographs, comments in the margins and relevant illustrations. A feature I liked was the boxes that provided conversations with people pertinent to the topics of the chapters. In contrast, Understanding Human Development contains virtually no photographs and illustrations, or figures. The "boxes" to break up the text are relatively rare and even where colours are used these are muted greys and blues.

Despite these differences in presentation both books take a similar approach to dividing up child/human development. The chapters at the beginning of the books focus on major theories, methods, biological processes and infancy. These are followed by a more topic-based approach: for example, Piaget and Vygotsky - cognitive development; intelligence and schooling or individual differences in cognition; language and communication; and so on.

Within these chapters there is a chronological approach to each topic, with the focal age span varying with the content area. The obvious strength of this approach is that students become familiar and understand particular topics about child development. In addition, lecturers can point students to particular chapters for further reading. The obvious drawback is that students can lose sight of the broad profile of children's development.

There is an interesting difference in the way that methods are introduced. Child Psychology has the second chapter devoted to this, while Understanding Human Development has only part of the first chapter devoted to the subject, and specific methods are discussed at appropriate points later in the book. My personal preference is to have methods positioned in relation to the relevant content, as my impression is that this is more interesting for students. However, the chapters in Child Psychology are engaging, although I suspect that for most British students they contain a lot of material that will have been dealt with in introductory courses or at A level.

Given the range, scope and complexity of child and human psychological development, any textbook on this subject is a massive undertaking in terms of what needs to be written and the equally difficult topic of what needs to be left out. Stephanie Thornton is to be congratulated on tackling this as a single author. In contrast, not only is Child Psychology written by three authors, their acknowledgements of colleagues' contributions cover two pages.

So what about the content? Child Psychology covers a lot of topics, but often these are not discussed in very great depth. For example, the information about language acquisition does not go much beyond Chomsky's language acquisition device (LAD). However, each topic is well structured, with the reader being presented with relevant information. Perhaps because of the absence of all the illustrative material, Understanding Human Development covers topics in more depth, and more recent research is included. For example, the chapter about language acquisition includes connectionism and even dynamic systems theory. In addition, the style is more thoughtful, intelligent comments are made, and the complexities and uncertainties are made apparent to the reader.

These two books are written for different student markets. I suspect that each will do well in its main market, and for this reason I think Understanding Human Development is a much better buy for those UK students who want to produce better-informed essays.

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