Friday, August 20, 2010

Beyond Universals in Cognitive Development

I have been reading David Henry Feldman's book Beyond Universals in Cognitive Development and it is a tough read for a woodworker. It's not that I don't have the intellect for it, but that just as a professor from Tufts might have to work his brain around how to cut a dovetailed joint, I am a bit unused to the domain.

Here is a woodworker's nutshell, and a bit about how things dovetail with the Wisdom of the Hands, and I offer my apologies to Dr. Feldman if for any reason I have missed the point.

Children, regardless of location or culture, go through universal stages of development, provided they are in an environment offering at least minimal opportunities for those stages to occur. Child development study as initiated by Piaget and others has been largely focused on those "universals". Kids walk, talk, begin cognitive processing, development of the ability to reason, at a pace, within a time frame, that can be observed throughout the world. Dr. Feldman suggests that developmental psychologists look beyond the universals to those developmental aspects which drive a child toward unique, as well as universal expression.

That is where the "child as craftsman" metaphor comes into the picture. You really don't have to spend very much time with children to learn that they are very interested in finding ways to excel and express exceptionalism. In fact, one could suggests that one of the universals in child development is, given adequate environmental support, the impulse toward the unique through the development of specialized skills and abilities.

There is an interesting parallel in the making of furniture. Furniture craftsmen in the Studio furniture movement, try to establish a look for their work that is distinctive, that can be regarded as "signature," a unique expression. The irony is that in order to gain recognition for unique expression, one has to touch upon or incite a sense of the universal within the viewer or potential buyer... Not a sense of "Oh, that's different." But a sense of "Wow, that touches me and means something to me!" And so, you can see that the life of a craftsman is a balancing act between the unique and the universal. If craftsmen can do it, can it also be balanced in our nation's schools?

The photo above shows one more step in making a small walnut display cabinet. You will have to use your powers of creative visualization to see what I'm doing. As the edges become tapered from the bottom of the cabinet to the top, the edges will also become tapered in thickness, narrowing toward the top. There are many things involving human intelligence that can't easily be put in words. And yet in academic settings discursive ability has long reigned supreme. Now, with failing schools and failing economy, the time has clearly arrived for the strategic implementation of the hands... and (thanks to Dr. Feldman) recognizing "the child as craftsman."


  1. Thanks for reading and struggling to understand this idea. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a member of our board when I taught a Waldorf kindergarten. I have always tried to be alert to the leadings, gifts, skills of children around me. So when she asked if I was more an educational generalist or specialist, I took the part of specialist. She argued, as Steiner did, for the more balancing part of teaching. I'm a firm believer in Joseph Campbell's description of "bliss" and yet I now recognize the two sides as just another dualism, all the while continuing to listen and watch for special attributes.
    Style, new discoveries, enlightenment are all a forms of bliss.
    My sad experience with specialization, though, was being married to an artist/potter who thought he could manhandle his way to style. It just doesn't happen.

  2. Cindy, it seems that specialization is a natural inclination as children seek to gain notice from parents and peers. Each child seems to want to specialize in an area in which they feel they can gain mastery. Schools would do well to take advantage of this inclination, but don't, and instead offer only limited areas for pursuit. Parents are often surprised when their first child tends toward athletics or academics, and then their second or third child seeks other creative avenues. We could learn a few things from that. It is often not a matter of aptitude, but of inclination.

  3. Interesting! You have a lot more experience in the classroom than I do. I appreciate your observations. Yet, in my family, the inclinations related to birth position are reversed. I am more strongly creative and my youngest brother is more strongly academic and sports oriented. The same is true for my husband. I guess that makes us black sheep twice over. But, seriously, it's a good subject for ongoing work.
    Also, I am reminded of Sir Ken Robinson's ELEMENTS.
    He believes that it is when both aptitude and inclination come together that we find our greatest satisfaction.