ment. Advances in cognitive abilities do not simply unfold with age; nor is the child a passive receptacle for the knowledge delivered by others. Rather, current understandings suggest that cognitive development takes place in the context of the child’s interactions with others and with the environment—interactions in which the child is a very active participant. The implications for learning opportunities and for early childhood pedagogy are substantial. The child’s current understandings must be engaged and built on; knowledge cannot simply be provided for the child. When learning is the product of the child’s guided construction rather than the teacher’s transmission and the child’s absorption, what is learned becomes very individualized. And teaching becomes a two-way relationship in which the teacher’s understanding of the child is at least as important as the child’s understanding the teacher.

Current conceptions of early childhood development and pedagogy are built on a century of research. A review of central ideas from that research literature can inform the understanding of current pedagogical ideas and beliefs.


Philosophers such as Renee Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx have heavily influenced developmental psychology (for a history of these influences, see Cairns, 1983). The powerful influences of these different philosophical traditions, combined with the complex nature of human development, help explain the diversity of theories germane to early childhood pedagogy.

Over the course of this century, preschool pedagogy in the United States has tended to focus on one or two grand theories for a period, then move on to another theoretical perspective, and so on. For example, at mid-century there were many who embraced the ideas of “behavioral objectives” and positive reinforcement. Others focused on the idea that young children’s affective-social systems should be the focus of attention, a clear influence of Freud.

By the 1970s, Piagetian stage theory helped educators structure exploratory learning opportunities, especially as regards one

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement