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Extending Thought in Young Children by Chris Athey

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This book was recommended to me with the words “this will change the way you look at children’s learning forever”. Strong words.

The book is one of the results of the Froebel Early Education Project, which was run by Chris Athey from 1973 to 1978, at the Roehampton Institute of Higher Education, London. Tina Bruce was the appointed teacher. The children came from nearby Wandsworth, from a range of backgrounds. The project’s aims were to:

Observe and analyse, on a daily basis during a two-year teaching programme, children under the age of 5 in order to:

  • Identify developments in each child’s thinking
  • Describe the development of symbolic representation from early motor and perceptual behaviours
  • Identify curriculum content assimilated to developing forms of thought (page 3)

Very wide ranging aims indeed. So how has the author, Chris Athey, approached this in the book? She has divided it into 3 parts: Events influencing the Project; the Findings of the Project and Later Patterns of Thought.

Part 1 is an overview of the political background and government initiatives, with an illuminating Chapter 4 about constructivist pedagogy, Piaget and how this fits with current theories. And here we find the motivation for the Project and the book:
Constructivists are interested in the processes by which children construct their own knowledge (page 43) and there is a great difference between ‘know-how’ and consciousness of ‘know-why’ (page 44).

Part 2 is a highly detailed breakdown of the observations, drawings, actions and dialogue that were observed during the Project. It is prefaced by the observation that in previous research it was content which was more important than form. So Eng’s observation of “jagged teeth” and “stairs” seem to show no correspondence in content – but when the zig-zag form is considered they are a common representation. The Project concentrated on form, which includes topological space, space notion and representation. As children develop they begin to develop perception (a face must include a mouth before it will elicit a smile, even at 5 months). Children must then use this perception to create their representations in drawings and 3D models.

Using these representations, Athey discusses 5 graphic schema in detail:
Lines; Core and Radial; Open and Closed Arcs; Zig Zags and Angles and Quadrilaterals. This also includes discussion on how the same drawing can be re-interpreted i.e. how Eng interpreted the jagged teeth as “aggressive” but the Project team interpreted this as open triangles (zig-zags schema). Each schema is discussed in detail with plenty of examples of how they may progress as the child matures. The most practical part of this is the subsequent analysis of the representations, with the details of form as schemas start to be combined and perfected.

This part of the book concludes with chapter 6 From Action to Thought. This chapter demonstrates how schemas become co-ordinated with each other and develop into systems of thought (page 153). Seven action schema have been considered in great detail, namely: dynamic vertical schema; dynamic back and forth; circular direction and rotation; going over, under or on top of; going round a boundary; enveloping and containing; going through a boundary.

Each has been sub-divided and considered with respect to Motor level (physical action); Symbolic Representation Level (drawing, models); Functional Dependency Relationship (how the schema is used during play, dialogue, early thought); Thought Level (demonstration, usually through dialogue, of how schemas have been used to create original thoughts) and Discussion (explanation of how children have moved through each area resulting in thought). Finally Thought as internalised action is discussed.

This was a truly fascinating chapter as it draws together all the theory and clearly demonstrates how understanding and building on children’s schema improves their cognitive functioning.

Part 3 of the book takes us even further on the children’s journey, demonstrating how (and examples of which) schema impact on speech, writing and complex concepts, in primary education. For example, levers and pulleys need comprehension of linear movement (dynamic vertical), rotation and going over.

The final chapter explores parental participation and extended experience. This details the learning journey that the parents also undertook during the Project. It is hoped here that this “great source of untapped ability and energy” is used to its full potential in the future. Personally I would have liked some more specific examples of the ways parents were involved and benefited from being a part of this Project, as this could help practitioners to engage more confidently.

Extending Thought in Young Children is a detailed analysis of a complex and long running project. Consequently the book contains plenty of technical language. It is this detail which makes it an excellent reference book. But it does make it a book to be read at several sittings.

There were loads of moments where, as I read a description of a child’s behaviour, the light bulb came on and previously unrelated behaviour suddenly came into focus. I recognised the form of many drawings, plenty examples of which have been illustrated throughout the book. One of the bitter-sweet comparisons is two sets of “draw-a-man” illustrations, one by Project children and one by children matched for age, sex, ethnic background and neighbourhood. The Project children perform significantly better. I couldn’t help feeling a little sad that not all children could benefit from being a part of the Froebel Project.

Finally, has this book changed the way I view children’s drawings, actions, dialogues, behaviour and thought processes? Absolutely. Forever.

 

It is still available from Amazon

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3 Comments
  • Cath Arnold Dec 10,2016 at 7:27 pm

    Wonderful to see you acknowledge Chris Athey’s work. She was certainly my ‘guru’ and I’m still investigating aspects we discussed !!

    • Kathy Dec 11,2016 at 6:18 pm

      Hi Cath,
      Many thanks for your comment. It has been fascinating reading your research at Pen Green and seeing how you’ve explored different facets of schematic play (my particular favourite is schemas and emotion).
      Best regards
      Kathy

  • John Siraj-Blatchford Aug 11,2016 at 3:15 pm

    Chris Athey’s work continues and is extended at SchemaPlay.com

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