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Dedicated to Teachers

On the Podcast: Looking Through a Developmental Lens with Susan Engel


Today on the Heinemann Podcast, what role does developmental psychology play in teaching?

Susan Engel is an educator, psychologist, and author of the new book The Children You Teach. In it, Susan describes the great need for what she calls a “developmental lens." Often feeling out-of-reach to teachers of young children, Susan explains why and how developmental concepts can be easily used in the classroom.

Our conversation begins with how Susan first came to bring these two worlds of education and child psychology together…

Below is a full transcript of the conversation. 

Susan: When I was a little girl, I think I was 11 the first time I was hired to work with young children. I was an assistant to a woman in her 20s running a summer program. A lot of teachers will recognize what I'm talking about. I don't know what it was, but I just had a feel for kids. I liked them, I was good with them, we had fun together, we brought out the best in one another.

I had something going for me that not all young teachers have, which is even at 11, I had a sense of authority. I loved working with kids, and from that moment on, I made it my business to find ways to be with young children. I ran a summer program, I helped out in the nursery school at the school I attended. When I got to college, people encouraged me to study child development, and my first reaction was, "Nah, I don't want to study that. I'm good with kids, that's all I need. I want to study something different, theory and science, that's just going to muck it up."

However, eventually an advisor really pushed me into it and said, "I know you're going to love this, you're going to love reading about kids and studying development. You should take the course." And I did, and I was instantly in love. I found my second passion in life. But for a long time I kept those two things separate. I worked with kids even when I was a college student, I taught in several schools in New York City, just for an income, and then I went on to graduate school to get a doctorate in developmental psychology, and I totally loved it, and I was working in the school, in New York, to make money again, and because I loved it, somewhere in there I began to be frustrated by the gap between the two worlds.

I loved talking to other psychologists, they had such great ideas about how children develop, how they learn, how they operate in the world, how they change over time, but they didn't know all that much about real kids and real settings. They seemed out of touch with the world of schools and families, and little kids themselves, and the same thing was true for what I experienced in the schools where I worked, which is that teachers were skilled, they were knowledgeable with the kids, they had great ideas for curriculum, they knew how to talk to parents, but they didn't know much about child development.

They might have had a few bits and pieces of information from a course they had taken, like what three year olds do in the sandbox, or what a six year old can't do, but it was bullet points they had in their head, and it wasn't a really rich or subtle understanding of child development. I began to think, "What could these two groups do if they were more connected to one another, if they talked to one another, if they shared their field of expertise with one another?"

If I had to trace this book to something, it was all the way back to that experience of wishing those two communities of experts worked more in harmony.

Steph: Right, and you offer so many wonderful stories throughout the book, of real teachers who were in situations when developmental concepts, developmental psychology would have really helped them. It seemed like these teachers felt like that was a little bit out of their wheelhouse, which of course you demonstrate is not really the case. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Susan: Yes, I think that all too often teachers are given a really impoverished picture of the field of child development, through no fault of their own. Then, once they're teaching, they are doing so much and they have to have a grasp of so many kinds of knowledge and skills just to be in the classroom every day, that the expectation that they would read a gillion new studies, which are coming out all the time, and keep up to date with models of child development, it's not realistic.

And yet, they're the ones working with kids all the time, observing them, and interacting with them. What I wanted to do was provide them with a way of thinking about child development that they could match with these wonderful, rich, interesting sources of insight that they have each and every day by working with kids.

I mean, teachers do the thing that psychologists wish they could do, which is have constant access to real children in real settings, and what I wanted to give them was a mental framework for making sense of those daily experiences. I do think that often when teachers run into a teaching problem, like a kid who can't seem to master certain math skills, even though they seem bright and engaged in every other way, or a child who seems inexplicably disengaged from the learning process, or a group of kids who can't seem to get along with one another, even though individually they're awesome kids.

Those are all problems which might have fairly simple solutions if you dug to the bottom of what was going on on developmentally. That's what I wanted to write about.

Steph: You also touch on this issue of the ways that children learn outside of school and the ways that we expect them to learn in school.

Susan: Yeah, I love to talk about that. Because one of the things developmental psychologists know from all of our studies, both of children in everyday settings, and in the lab, is that kids are incredibly skilled learners. Often, the people around them, both the older children and the adults in their environments are very skilled natural teachers.

We know that there's a great deal of informal learning that takes place, and when you think about what kids learn long before they get to school, you'll know what I'm talking about. Kids learn not only to use the language of their culture, but to use it in particular ways. To tell stories, to tell jokes, to lie, to entertain, to inform, and they learn all that in a very informal way.

They also learn how to navigate the social constraints or the rules of their particular community in a very skillful way. They learn a great deal of information about the world. If you take stock of what most four-year-olds are good at, it might have to do with sports or animals or building things, they know how to acquire a great deal of information.

One of the things that I think our schools have totally unwittingly done is ignore all the processes that kids use at home and try to replace those with a set of formal procedures that aren't always as effective. There's good reasons, historically, why that might have happened, but it's a shame. Because while we're busy trying to force these somewhat formal kinds of learning because we think they're more efficient or they're more high powered, we waste a lot of the natural learning skills that children have, and often a lot of the natural teaching skills that grownups have.

Steph: Just to circle back a little bit, can you just explain briefly what exactly this developmental lens is?

Susan: I'll give you a few examples. There are certain kinds of development that children undergo that are internal and very complex and they don't happen bit by bit. They happen in what seem to be moments of great transformation of the whole system. I'll give you two examples. One is before the age of about five, no matter where you grow up or what books you have in your home, or what little lessons you've got, most children don't seem able to think about the fact that another person knows different things than they do, because they've had different experiences.

I'll give you a very familiar example. In the book Little Red Riding Hood, we know when we read it that Little Red Riding Hood, when she knocks on the door, the person in the cap and the apron comes to the door isn't really her grandma. We know that it's the wolf, but we also know that Little Red Riding Hood is fooled because she doesn't know what we, the readers, know.

Before the age of five, kids can't make that distinction. Whatever the kid knows, they assume Little Red Riding Hood knows, and that's because they don't have what we call a theory of mind. They can't imagine what's in other people's minds, based on their experience. At around age five, most children or most typically developing children acquire a theory of mind and it changes everything about their experience of the world. Both informal learning settings and in informal settings. I can't tell you how revolutionary that change is.

You cannot teach that to a three year old, no matter what cool flashcards you have, or storybooks, or lessons you have. Children are not able to grasp that and all the kinds of learning and reasoning that that allows them to engage in. That's a developmental transition that goes through the whole system. It changes everything about the child's experience of the world.

Once they have that, there are all kinds of specific things you can teach them about how other people think, or about reasoning, about various kinds of history, or social situations, or things that happen in books, but you can't do it before. That has to do with the developmental understanding of what's going on.

I'll give you another example. When children are little, their idea of number is very tied up with the appearance of things. So, this is a famous example from Jean-Pierre [Jay 00:08:57], a line of 10 pebbles to them is a different quantity than a circle of 10 pebbles, because lines and circles look so different.

The idea that it's 10, whether it's a circle or it's straight, is not accessible to them. At a certain point, virtually every typically developing child, no matter where they're growing up, acquires this sense that the absolute number of something stays the same no matter what it looks like. Whether it's a heap or a straight line or a circle, that may sound like a tiny discovery, but it's the beginning of a whole new way of experiencing the abstract characteristics of the number world.

You can't teach that through a series of lessons. That's an internal, qualitative transformation that children go through. Once they've gone through that, there are all kinds of specific things that you can teach them about the nature of counting and number and quantity. One thing that I would say that I hope teachers will get from the book is a sense of the difference between learning and development, the things that you can acquire by being taught them or practicing them, and that happen bit by bit, and you learn one rule and then another rule, or one piece of information, then another piece of information.

That's learning and that's quite different from the kinds of internal transformations that happen to children over time, that I would call development.

Steph: I just want to make sure that I acknowledge the fantastic layout and design of this book, which for people who don't have the book right in front of them, it's laid out chapter by chapter, real examples of real teachers who encountered hurdles with children and were able to bring this developmental lens that you just spoke about into their problem solving.

At the end, you offer a user's manual, and you touched on this a little bit, but how do you hope this user's manual and the book will be used by the teachers?

Susan: I'm a reader, and so I know that it can be dry and frustrating to read information and instructions that are set out there in a plain way. I love stories, and luckily the world of development and education is one that's filled with stories. Stories of children who are changing and stumbling and flourishing, and stories of teachers who whether they're experienced or inexperienced, super gifted or just trying to get better, face hurdles, face unexpected challenges.

Every teacher, no matter how wonderful they are, does face those challenges. My hope was that by telling stories that have a real plot to them, because real life does have plots in it, I would make this book that teachers would really love to read, that they would look forward to reading it, read it at night in their bed, not just when they're getting ready for class, that it would engage them, that they would want to know what was going to happen in each story.

That was my goal, because I'm not just a writer and a psychologist, I'm a reader. But to answer the other part of your question, my experience as I said has been often when teachers do face a problem in the classroom, they rush to find a solution and often they're looking for a quick fix that doesn't quite work right. The reason is they're rushing to the solution before giving themselves a chance to figure out what's really going on developmentally.

My experience over 30 years of doing this is that very often, even for new teachers, when they give themselves the chance to really figure out what's going on developmentally, the solution just announces itself. Often it's a quirky, unusual solution, but not fancy, not expensive, not time consuming. Simple, small shift, a slight change in what they're doing with a child or a classroom, and it's just the tail end of the process of thinking careful about what's going on.

I hope that teachers will get that, just by reading the chapters, the stories about real kids and real teachers. However, at the end, as you said, is a user's manual, and that's supposed to take you step-by-step through the process that you've seen in all the chapters which is, what do I need to do first as a teacher? I need to watch, I need to listen, I need to figure out where a kid is thriving or where they're stumbling, or what the nature of the problem is.

Almost always that involves observing in a closer, more systematic way than most of us can do, or think we can do. There's some very simple low tech suggestions in the end of the book for how to observe and how to keep a record, a very simple record. Check times of the day when a particular child really seems engaged, really seems frustrated, or noticed the time when kids are working together and when they're not. Whatever it is that you need to be noticing, and to keep a record like that over let's say a couple of days or a week or two, and then sit down and begin to make sense of it.

What's the pattern? What's the story that information is giving you as the teacher? I really love teachers and I love what they do, and I've often described it at its best, when teachers are fully engaged and have a chance to enjoy their work in the classroom, the complexity and importance of what they do, the only thing I can think of that's comparable to it is brain surgery.

When I was younger and I used to ask people what they thought of that comparison, they'd say, "Well, but doctors are saving people's lives." I think teachers are doing the same thing. My writing in this book stems from that love and appreciation for what teachers do, and wanting to give them all the power and knowledge they need to do what they do well in the classroom, and to free them up, not to always be following someone else's guidelines or instructions, but to be able to improvise in the way that great practitioners in every field need to be able to improvise, by giving them the knowledge and the way of looking at things that will empower them to make the decisions they need to in their classroom.

One thing that I notice in a lot of conversations about education at the national level, and often in teacher education materials, is a slight tendency to make the process of teaching so overwhelming or so technical that it won't even feel fun anymore. One way that I try to introduce that sense of fun and playfulness back into teaching is by as I said, empowering teachers to notice, to identify patterns, to come up with their own solutions.

But there's another even simpler way that I try to do it, because the other thing that I really love, children. I never get tired of watching real children do all the interesting and amazing things they do each and every day, and if anything, all my knowledge of research and developmental psychology has taught me how ingenious and interesting children are. Collectively, and individually.

You can understand what's going on inside their heads and how they got to where they are developmentally and still just be delighted by who they are, by all the interesting things they do, even the things you need to shift a little as a teacher. You can appreciate how fascinating they are. I hope that this book gives teachers a chance to be delighted by what they do and to be delighted by the children they work with.

• • •

Learn more about The Children You Teach at Heinemann.com

Download the Sample Chapter From The Children You Teach

susanengelSusan Engel is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Founding Director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College. She currently serves as the Williams College Gaudino Scholar, a position that creates and promotes opportunities for students to stretch beyond what they are familiar with. She has taught all ages from three year olds through college. Her research interests include the development of curiosity, children’s narratives, play, and more generally, teaching and learning. Her current research looks at the development of children’s ideas. Her scholarly work has appeared in journals such as Cognitive Development, Harvard Educational Review, and the American Education Research Journal.

She is the author of seven previous books: The Stories Children Tell: Making Sense of the Narratives of Childhood, Context is Everything: The Nature of Memory, Real Kids: Making Sense in Everyday Life, Red Flags or Red Herrings: Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood, The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools, and most recently, A School of Our Own: The Story of the First Student-Run High School, and a New Vision for American Education which she co-wrote with her son Sam. Her writing on education has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, Salon, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe.

Susan is one of the founders of an experimental school in New York State, where she served as educational advisor for eighteen years. She lives in New Marlborough, Massachusetts with her husband Tom Levin. They have three sons, Jake, Will, and Sam.


Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, The Children You Teach, Susan Engel

Date Published: 11/01/18

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