Book Review: Children’s Minds by Margaret Donaldson

Margaret Donaldson Children's Minds - Header

It’s fair to say that my Psychology department like a reading list, not quite as much as I imagine the English department do, but none-the-less, they like to suggest that you keep your head in a book; or more often than not, a journal article; drowning under monotonous descriptions of research methods and monochromatic walls of statistical data. Occasionally though the list will be kind, and an actual, proper book will appear, hidden amongst the periodicals and offering a chance to read something not formally structured or academically stifled.

Psychology, obviously, covers a vast array of topics and ideas. I have mentioned Neuroscience (the study of the physical structures and workings of the brain) in my review of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks, and it’s a field that I find fascinating, but vast amount of psychological research and time is spent on developmental psychology. The study of children and how we grow to become the adults that live and exist as we do in society within specific social, cognitive and behavioural boundaries.

Jean Piaget - Children's Minds by Margaret Donaldson

Within the field of developmental psychology one of the biggest names, on which modern thinking has developed and debate constantly raged, is Jean Piaget. I’m not going to explain his ideas, whether I agree with them or even tell you much about him (I’ll lend you a book if you really want to know!) but rather, simply say that he has been so influential on the field that he gets 2 lectures dedicated to him and his theory, and that it was in the reading list for those lectures that Margaret Donaldson’s book: Children’s Minds appeared. Annotated as “recommended” the brief description about why we should read it stated “it contributed to the re-evaluation of at least two huge theories – especially those of Piaget” and when I realised you could pick up a used copy on Amazon for 1p, it became impossible to justify not reading it!

The first obvious thing that hit me as I started is that the book feels old. My 1p copy, although in stunning condition physically, visually told its age. The pages are a bit yellow and the font small, old and heavy, reminiscent of its era and the typewriter it was written on and the perception this gave the book did put me off a little. I thought I’d struggle to read it, I thought it was the type of book that would demand focus and attention but it really wasn’t.

I’m not really sure what I was expecting in terms of what I would find. I think because it had been hinted at as part of the foundation that challenged Piaget, I expected to be presented with his theory and then chapters tearing it apart. Microscopically pointing out how foolish and wrong he was. But that isn’t what happens.

Professor Margaret Donaldson Portrait - Children's Minds

Margaret Donaldson, essentially, presents her own views. She explains what the current research shows and where necessary, uses it to argue or challenge the claims Piaget made. And I found it made the book fascinating. The more I read, the more concrete the ideas and examples became, the more questions and intrigue appeared in my mind. I didn’t read it and feel like I was learning, or that I was simply absorbing facts to make a point, but rather, I felt like I was being taught how to ponder, and question, and go beyond the simple black and white.

The book ignites something within and I really enjoyed reading it. I have a young Niece and as I read it, my mind kept imagining her growing up and it was with a pang of disappointment that I realised, due to the distance she lives away from me, that I wouldn’t be able to observe her mature. I wouldn’t be able to see first hand how the theories I agree with, or the questions I form, actually relate into real life.

Out-dated Words - Children's Minds by Margaret Donaldson

Whilst the book is wonderfully enlightening, there are times when the language felt truly dated and difficult, not only to follow but also unravel. It warmly invites you in and feels like friendly, it also has an undercurrent of academic professionalism to it. But times move on, standards change and presentation styles modernise. The book, obviously, hasn’t. So from time to time, it would break the connection it was making by referring to something outdated, or in a way I didn’t expect, and I’d get an instant reminder that while we are interested in the same field, the same ideas, we were approaching it through very different eyes.

As I write this, there are still loads of copies on Amazon for 1p (granted there is £2.80 postage on top) but, for a book that isn’t very big, won’t take long to read and will bring to life the wonders of psychological questioning and the conflicts involved in one of the most important debates around the development of children you cannot really argue not purchasing a copy. But as I said, be warned, whilst it topic is fascinating, the book really is a mature student in appearance.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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