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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Robot nannies and applied ethics

In the journal "Science", 24 April 2009, pp. 463-464, two letters from computer specialists take different sides on the desirability of proposed "child-minding" robots. One letter states, "Intuitively, we... suspect that nanny-bots are not good for the psychological development of children left in their care, but until empirical research demonstrates this, we must suspend judgment; such research might, in fact, find no harm at all." The other letter rejoins, " I think that waiting for empirical research to demonstrate psychological harm to children is dangerous. Suspending judgment about possible harm when many empirical studies show the lasting effects of neglect is not a good option."

A critical point about this disagreement has to do with the fact that there will be no empirical research on "nanny-bots", unless some dramatic changes in research ethics take place. Research that has the potential for harming children is not approved, much less funded, unless its dangers are balanced by the likelihood of finding information that will prevent some existing cause of harm from functioning. "Primum non nocere"-- first, do no harm-- is the principal guideline for researchers who work with infants and children. Institutional Review Boards, groups that review and approve or disapprove research plans, are equally concerned with the possibility that experimental work might cause developmental problems.

Very well, though, aren't there different approaches to research? Nanny-bots are not against the law. Suppose some parents chose to use them? Could researchers not collect data about the bot-reared children and use that information to decide whether robots fostered good development? Yes, this could be done; but no, the results of this research would not give us satisfactory answers about the effect or robot-rearing. This type of quasi-experimental research design is plagued by confounded variables-- factors that occur together in such a way that we can't figure out which of them has which effect. For example, we might guess that the average parent would not choose to use a nanny-bot. What kind of parent might make this choice? We can only speculate, but such a choice might accompany an unusual level or type of education; family income; family realtionships outside the marriage; marriage itself; involvement with the community; professional demands on the parents; health status of parents; mental health and personality; characteristics of the child that make him or her difficult or easy to care for; and many other possibilities. If a bot-reared child develops worse than other children-- or better-- we have no way to know which factor or factors caused the difference.

Interestingly, the authors of these letters were concerned that robot-rearing might be analogized to neglect, and have effects similar to neglect, but presumably a nanny-bot would be built to respond quickly to infant cues. The big problem would seem to be that the nature of those cues changes rapidly in the course of early development, so the nanny-bot would need to be re-set to different types of cues as time passed. The authors also referred to "bonding" and "attachment" as problems resulting from the children's "anthropomorphic projection", but the meaning of this concern was not clear. The most likely developmental problem for the bot-reared would probably have to do with communication and language, both of which involve complex cognitive abilities on the part of adults partnering with communicating infants.

Goodman, K.W., & Einspruch, N.G. (2009, April 24). The way forward in the world of robotics. Science, 324, 463-464.

Sharkey, N. (2009, April 24). Response. Science, 324, 464.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jean Mercer's publication list

PUBLICATIONS: N.B. Jean Mercer's name was legally changed from Gene Lester in 1977.

Lester, G., & Morant, R. (1967). Sound localization during labyrinthian stimulation.
Proceedings of the 75th Annual Convention of the American Psychological
Association, 1,19-20.
Lester, G. (1968). The case for efferent change during prism adaptation. Journal of
Psychology, 68, 9-13.
Lester, G. (1968). The rod-and-frame test: Some comments on methodology. Perceptual
and Motor Skills, 26, 1307-1314.
Lester, G. (1969). Comparison of five methods of presenting the rod-and-frame test.
Perceptual and Motor Skills, 29, 147-151.
Lester, G. (1969). The role of the felt position of the head in the audiogyral illusion. Acta
Psychologica, 31, 375-384.
Lester, G. (1969). Disconfirmation of an hypothesis about the Mueller-Lyer illusion.
Perceptual and Motor Skills, 29, 369-370.
Lester, D., & Lester, G. (1970). The problem of the less intelligent student in the introductory psychology course. The Clinical Psychologist, 23(4), 11-12.
Lester, G., & Lester, D. (1970). The fear of death, the fear of dying, and threshold differences for death words and neutral words. Omega,1, 175-180.
Lester, G. (1970). Haidinger’s brushes and the perception of polarization. Acta
Psychologica, 34, 107-114.
Lester, G., & Morant, R. (1970). Apparent sound displacement during vestibular stimulation. American Journal of Psychology, 83, 554-566.
Lester, G. (1971). Vestibular stimulation and auditory thresholds. Journal of General
Psychology, 85, 103-105.
Lester, G. (1971). Subjects’ assumptions and scores on the rod-and-frame test.
Perceptual and Motor Skills, 32, 205-206.
Lester, G., & Lester, D. (1971). Suicide: The gamble with death. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Lester, D., & Lester, G. (1975). Crime of passion: Murder and the murderer. Chicago:
Lester, G., & Rando, H. (1975). No correlation between rod-and-frame and visual
normalization scores. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 40, 846.

Lester, G., Bierbrauer, B., Selfridge, B., & Gomeringer, D. (1976). Distractibility,
intensity of reaction, and nonnutritive sucking. Psychological Reports, 39, 1212-1214.
Lester, G. (1977). Size constancy scaling and the apparent thickness of the shaft in the
Mueller-Lyer illusion. Journal of General Psychology, 97, 307-398.
Mercer, J. (1979). Small people: How children develop and what you can do about it.
Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
Mercer, J. (1979). Personality development and the principle of reciprocal interweaving.
Perceptual and Motor Skills, 48, 186.
Mercer, J. (1979). Guided observations in child development. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America.
Mercer, J., & Russ, R. (1980). Variables affecting time between childbirth and the establishment of lactation. Journal of General Psychology, 102, 155-156.
Mercer, J., & McMurphy, C. (1985). A stereotyped following behavior in young children.
Journal of General Psychology, 112, 261-265.
Mercer, J. (1991). To everything there is a season: Development in the context of the
lifespan. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Mercer, J.,& Gonsalves, S. (1992). Parental experience during treatment of very small
preterm infants: Implications for mourning and for parent-infant relationships.
Illness, Crisis, and Loss, 2, 70-73.
Gonsalves, S., & Mercer, J. (1993). Physiological correlates of painful stimulation in preterm infants. Clinical Journal of Pain, 9, 88-93.
Mercer, J. (1998). Infant development: A multidisciplinary introduction. Belmont, CA:
Mercer, J. (1999). ‘Psychological parenting” explained (letter). New Jersey Lawyer, July 12, 7.
Mercer, J. (2000/2001). Letter.Zero to Three, 21(3), 39.
Mercer, J. (2001). Warning: Are you aware of “holding therapy?” (letter). Pediatrics, 107, 1498.
Mercer, J. (2001). “Attachment therapy” using deliberate restraint: An object lesson on the identification of unvalidated treatments. Journal of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatric Nursing, 14(3), 105-114. This paper is posted at
with permission of the publisher to the Child and Adolescent Bipolar
Mercer, J. (2002). Surrogate motherhood. In N. Salkind (Ed.), Child Development
(pp. 399). New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
Mercer, J. (2002). Child psychotherapy involving physical restraint: Techniques used in four approaches. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 19(4), 303-314.
Kennedy, S.S., Mercer, J., Mohr, W., & Huffine, C.W. (2002). Snake oil, ethics, and the First Amendment: What’s a profession to do? American Journal of
Orthopsychiatry, 72(1), 5-15.
Mercer, J. (2002). Attachment therapy: A treatment without empirical support. Scientific
Review of Mental Health Practice, 1(2), 9-16.
Mercer, J. (2002). The difficulties of double blinding (letter). Science,297, 2208.
Mercer, J. (2002) Attachment therapy. In M.Shermer (Ed.), The Skeptic Encyclopedia of
Pseudoscience (pp. 43-47) .Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Mercer, J., & Rosa, L. (2002). Letter on Attachment Therapy. New Jersey School
Psychologist, 24 (8), 16-18.
Mercer, J., Sarner, L., & Rosa, L. (2003). Attachment therapy on trial: The torture
and death of Candace Newmaker. Westport, CT: Praeger. (see also reviews in Scientific American, PsycCritique, Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice).
Mercer, J. (2003). Letter to the editor. APSAC Advisor,15(3), 19.
Mercer, J. (2003) Attachment therapy and adopted children: A caution. Readers’
Forum. Contemporary Pediatrics, 20(10), 41.
Mercer, J. (2003). Violent therapies: The rationale behind a potentially harmful child psychotherapy and its acceptance by parents. Scientific Review of Mental Health
Practice, 2(1), 27-37.
Mercer, J. (2003). Media Watch: Radio and television programs approve of Coercive Restraint Therapies. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2(2).(see also letters in subsequent issues)
Mercer, J. (2004). The dangers of Attachment Therapy: Parent education needed.
Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, 20(10), 1, 6-7.
Mercer, J. (2005). Bubbles, bottles, baby talk, and basketty. Early Childhood Health Link
(Newsletter of Healthy Child Care New Jersey), 4(1), 1-2.
Mercer, J. (2005). Coercive Restraint Therapies: A dangerous alternative mental health intervention. Medscape General Medicine, 7(3). (see also letters in subsequent issue).
Mercer, J. (2006). Understanding attachment: Parenthood, child care, and emotional development. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Mercer, J. (2006). IEPs and Reactive Attachment Disorder: Recognizing and addressing misinformation. Scope (Newsletter of the Washington State Association of School Psychologists), 28(3), 2-6.
Mercer, J., Misbach, A., Pennington, R., & Rosa, L. (2006). Letter to the editor (age regression definition). Child Maltreatment, 11, 378.
Mercer, J. (2007). Behaving yourself: Moral development in the secular family. In D..McGowan (Ed.), Parenting beyond belief (pp. 104-112). New York: Amacom Books.
Mercer, J., & Pignotti, M. (2007). Letter to the editor (neurofeedback research critique). International Journal of Behavioral and Consultation therapy, 3 (2), 324-325 ( ).

Pignotti, M., & Mercer, J. (2007). Holding Therapy and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy are not supported, acceptable social work interventions: A
systematic research synthesis revisited. Research on Social Work Practice,
17 (4), 513-519.

Mercer, J. (2007). Systematic child maltreatment: Connections with unconventional parent and professional education. Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice Advocate (Division 37 of APA), 30 (2), pp.5-6.

Mercer, J. ( 2007).Media Watch: Wikipedia and "open source" mental health information. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. 5(1), 88-92.
Mercer, J. (2007) Destructive trends in alternative infant mental health approaches. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 5(2), 44-58.

Mercer, J., & Pignotti, M. (2007). Shortcuts cause errors in Systematic Research Syntheses: Rethinking evaluation of mental health interventions. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 5(2), 59-77.

Mercer, J. (2008). Minding controls in curriculum study (letter). Science, 319, 1184.

Mercer, J. (2009).Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings.Los Angeles,CA: Sage.

Mercer, J., Pennington, R.S., Pignotti, M., & Rosa, L. (2009, in press). Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy is not "evidence-based": Comments in response to Becker-Weidman and Hughes (2009, in production). Child and Family Social Work.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

An unpublished paper

The posts following this one are sections of an unpublished paper discussing the importance of critical thinking abilities for mastery of child development concepts.

Scroll down to the "Introduction" section to begin reading, then follow the numbered sections.

Critical thinking and mastery of child development concepts, References

This is the reference section of an unpublished paper on critical thinking and the teaching of child development.

Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Alberts, B. (2009). Redefining science education. Science, 323, 437.
Brown, J.A.C. (1963). Techniques of persuasion. Baltimore: Penguin.
Burbules, N., & Linn, M. (1988). Response to contradiction: Scientific reasoning during adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 67-75.
Daniel Yankelovitch Group for Zero to Three and Civitas. (2000). What grownups understand about child development: A benchmark study. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.
Des Jarlais, D.C., Lyles, C., & Crepaz, N., for the TREND Group (2004). Improving the reporting quality of nonrandomized evaluations of behavioral and public health interventions. American Journal of Public Health, 94, 361-366.
Gula,R.J.(2002).Nonsense:A handbook of logical fallacies. Mount Jackson,VA:Axios.
Johnson-Laird, P.N., Legrenzi, P., Girotto, V., & Legrenzi, M. (2000). Illusions in reasoning about consistency. Science, 288, 531-532.
Kagan, J. (2000). Three seductive ideas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Klaczynski, P., & Narasimham, G. (1998). Development of scientific reasoning biases. Developmental Psychology, 34, 175-187.
Kuhn, D. (1993). Connecting scientific and informal reasoning. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 39, 74-103.
Lawson, T.J. (1999). Assessing psychological crtical thinking as a learning outcome for psychology majors. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 207-209.
Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., & Lohr, J.M. (2003). Science and pseudoscience in clinical psychology: Initial thoughts, reflections, and considerations. In Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., & Lohr, J.M. (Eds.), Science and pseudoscience in clinical psychology (pp. 1-14). New York: Guilford.
McCabe, D., & Castel, A. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effects of brain images on judgment of scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107, (1), 343-352.
Mercer, J. (2009). Child development: Myths and misunderstandings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Moher, D., Jones, A., & LePage, L., for the CONSORT Group (2001). Use of the CONSORT statement and quality of reports of randomized trials: A comparative before-and-after evaluation. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285, 1992-1995.
Moore, J.A. (1999).Science as a way of knowing. Cambridge,MA: Harvard University.
Penningroth, S.L., Despain, L.H., & Gray, M.J. (2007). A course designed to improve psychological critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 34(3), 153-157.
Perry, W.G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.
Piaget, J. (1922). Essai sur la multiplication logique et les debuts de la pensee formelle. Journal de Psychologie Normale et Pathologique, 19, 222-261.
Price, M. (2009). Programmed for life? Monitor on Psychology, 40 (2), 29-31.
Prose, F. (1999). I know why the caged bird cannot read: How American high school students come to loathe literature. Harper’s, 149, 76-84.
Roisman , G. I., Fraley, R.C., & Belsky, J. (2007). A taxometric study of the Adult Attachment Interview. Developmental Psychology, 43(3), 675-686.
Santiago Declaration(2007).Retrieved Jan. 26, 2009,from
Sharp, I.R., Herbert, J.D., & Redding, R. (2008). The role of critical thinking skills in practicing clinical psychologists’ choice of intervention techniques. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 6 (1), 21-30.
Stanovich, K.E. (2004). How to think straight about psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124-1131.
Waldrop, M.M. (1987).Causality, structure, and common sense.Science,237, 1297-1299.
Waters, E., Kondo-Ikemura, K. Posada, G., & Richters, J. (1991). Learning to love: Mechanisms and milestones. In Gunnar, M., & Sroufe, L. (Eds.), Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology,23; Self-processes and development (pp. 217-255). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Weisberg, D.S., Keil, F.C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., & Gray, J.R. (2008). The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive

Critical thinking and mastery of child development concepts, Part 6

This is the sixth section of an unpublished paper on critical thinking and the teaching of child development.

Critical Thinking Problems Related to Topics in Developmental Science
In this section, I will describe some specific problems of critical thinking-- incidents where many thinkers make systematic errors-- and their relevance to some topics and problems of developmental science. It is possible that correction of these types of errors can help students understand material that they otherwise find confusing. It is also possible that the modeling of these errors by lecture or textbook may limit students’ ability to detect them. The types of errors discussed here were chosen from a list put together by Gula (2002), who did not use examples from child development.
Problems of Irrelevance
A major critical thinking issue for most students is their inability to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant information, and their tendency to be distracted or confused by irrelevancies. I would point out again that our well-intentioned efforts to make textbooks and lectures vivid and engaging, through the use of vignettes and illustrations, add to the amount of irrelevant and distracting information presented to students.
The argumentum ad hominem. Forms of argument that focus on personal characteristics of theorists and researchers are appealing to students, but distract attention from the theory or research itself. Weaknesses of the individual or of his or her work are used as ways to evaluate entire systems. For example, a discussion of economics on National Public Radio recently began with some of the less attractive personal characteristics of John Maynard Keynes, and one discussant expressed surprise that the country was turning to such a person for solution of its economic difficulties. In discussions of developmental science, here are some similar situations, where an instructor might offer “gossip” as a way to get interest, and students might then reject the more important information:
Piaget’s observations of his own children are considered a reason to dismiss the entire theory of cognitive development.
J.B. Watson’s questionable treatment of little Albert, and his ill-judged advice about parenting, are seen as arguments against behaviorism.
Kohlberg’s suicide is taken to mean that his work on moral development is worthless.
The non sequitur. The presentation of conclusions that do not logically follow from evidence is distracting to student thought, but usually not recognized by students as causing any problem. An illustration caption in the textbook mentioned earlier reads:“… overstimulating babies with academic training and other lessons can impede brain development and the child’s desire to learn” (the connection between brain development and the desire to learn being the non sequitur).
The Appeal to Irrelevant Authority
Irrelevance can be confounded with other factors, too.
The appeal to the past. Arguments that begin with references to past claims (“Freud said…”, “Parents have long known…”), without presenting further evidence, are distracting and conceal their irrelevance to the cognitive task at hand.
Apriority and the appeal to personal belief or experience: Students like to hear personal stories from their instructors, and publishers certainly believe that vivid personal details add to the desirability of a textbook. However, the use of such details presents two problems: first, the distraction of general irrelevancy, and second, the suggestion that if one individual’s experience is of a certain kind, all or many others have similar experiences, and the vividly described experience can be taken as typical of an entire population. In fact, however, an individual’s experience may be quite atypical and therefore irrelevant to population characteristics.
More generally, the appeal to personal experience involves the problem of apriority, or the building of argument on unexamined a priori assumptions of various kinds.
Confident Speculation
It is a common error of critical thinking to present speculation as if it is reliable evidence that backs up a claim. This error is an easy one to make in teaching about developmental science, as many claims are based on complex research whose details are far beyond what can be handled in a first undergraduate class. In addition, the many aspects of developmental work that are value-laden—for example, questions about physical punishment of children—may have little or no actual evidence basis.
Personal assurances of certainty. Especially when discussing emotionally-laden topics, instructors are often driven to say, “Nobody really knows, but I’ll tell you what I think, for what it’s worth.” Students may attend much more carefully to the personal assurance given in this statement than to the warnings of possible uncertainty that the instructor feels he or she has given. In cases where instructors use the classroom as a bully pulpit, of course, the impact of their assurances may be inappropriately great.
Appeal to personal experience. Because pedagogy for the last 40 years has stressed the need for students to make a personal connection with topics they are studying, most instructors and textbooks make a point of asking students to review their personal experiences. This was apparent in a number of the textbook quotations given earlier. In fact, however, the appeal to personal experience is a matter of confident speculation to the effect that the individual’s experience is typical and representative of members of a group under study.
Developmental science, and development itself, are complex and multifactorial, and in many cases involve nonlinear relationships. Teaching and writing for undergraduates requires us to abstract and simplify some complicated material. The danger in terms of critical thinking is that necessary simplification will become oversimplification, and that we will fail to correct oversimplification by students.
Posing complex questions that contain apriority. The textbook question quoted earlier, “Cite a difference between******” addresses complex issues of variability and its causes. However, it oversimplifies by implying that generational differences are larger than individual differences within a generation, an a priori assumption that may or may not be correct.
The excluded middle, or categorical thinking. It is an error of critical thinking to assume, without evidence, that an idea is either completely correct or completely incorrect, or that phenomena belong to clearly dichotomous categories. This type of error is common in textbook statements and questions (“Do you believe…?”), but historically speaking, it is also a characteristic of the study of development, with its long discussion of a dichotomized Nature vs. Nurture. The love of typology is one of the more problematic aspects of the study of development, although the existence of cases of three rather than two categories may obscure this issue. For example, note the many decades of acceptance of categories of attachment security (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978), and the minor interest displayed in attempts to examine attachment phenomena in terms of continuous variables (Roisman, Fraley, & Belsky, 2007). Students for whom critical thinking is difficult may be drawn to categorical descriptions which require memorization of a short list of categories and provide easy applications to real-world events.
The fallacy of the beard. This problem of critical thinking has to do with the understanding of overlapping categories. If a person has no whiskers, he doesn’t have a beard; if he has hundreds of whiskers, he does have a beard. If he has two whiskers, or three, he has no beard, but the addition of more whiskers will eventually mean that there is a beard. Problems of this kind challenge critical thinking abilities because they require systematic discrimination of evidence and the recognition that definitions may be arbitrary. For the weak critical thinker, it is much easier to assume that if the phenomena overlap, there is no difference between them, or that, if the overlap is small, there are no similarities between them. To avoid this kind of error, it is essential to work through and agree upon definitions of terms.
The beard error is especially problematic for the understanding of gender differences and other population differences, like those associated with culture. Even more importantly for the teaching of developmental science, the fallacy of the beard interferes with the understanding of developmentally appropriate practice. Students prone to this fallacy may confuse the characteristics of toddlers, preschoolers, school-age children, and adolescents as they group all these ages under the rubric “children”. Alternatively, and even alternately, they may exaggerate differences between adolescents and people of other ages, blurring the resemblances between adolescents and younger children. Students who ask practical questions in class (I know a boy who… what should I do?”) rarely indicate the age of the child in question and must be asked before an answer can be given. Similarly, both students and parents tend to prefer preschool child care that resembles elementary school, and exaggerate the resemblances between older and younger children rather than the developmental differences.
The fallacy of determination. An oversimplified view of behavior concentrates on an individual’s wish to carry out an action, claiming that if a person, particularly a child, wants to do something, he or she will do it, and that if he or she does not act, the reason is a lack of motivation. From this critical thinking error follows the assumption that behavioral or cognitive change results solely from the manipulation of motivation by means of reward or punishment. Such assumptions interfere with understanding of cognitive development and indeed of all development based on maturational change.
Analogies and Metaphors
Analogies and metaphors are useful thinking techniques that compare two different things by showing the ways in which they are similar. These techniques are helpful in teaching about development, as many developmental events are difficult to observe directly or occur over long periods of time. The problem with analogies and metaphors is that although they may be used to convey ideas, they cannot in themselves establish an argument or support an inference. To attempt to use them in that way is to risk the error called “abusing an analogy.”
Common analogies. Here are some common analogies and metaphors used in the teaching of developmental science: 1) “stages” or “milestones” of development; 2) the term “attachment” or “bond” to describe an attitude toward another person; 3) brain/cortical/ hand/ gene “dominance” (this metaphor may be one reason why it is so difficult for students to define dominant and recessive genes); 4) “regression” (not the statistical kind); 5) the term “sexual” in the description of psychosexual stages of development. These comparisons may be extremely valuable for teaching purposes, but their downside is the student’s assumption that phenomena that have some things in common will have everything in common.
Abusing analogies. As Gula (2002) has suggested, analogies are abused when the terms of one element are used (and assumed) to predict the terms of another element. In order to avoid such abuse, several steps in evaluation are needed. 1) The thinker needs to ask whether all the properties of X and Y—the two elements or phenomena—have been cited. Concentrating on similarities alone is potentially problematic. 2) The thinker needs to ask what proportion of the characteristics show similarities. 3) The thinker needs to ask what proportion of the similarities are actually relevant to the issue under study; for example, the fact that many mice and many human beings have brown eyes is irrelevant to the use of mouse developmental information to draw conclusions about human beings. 4) The thinker needs to ask to what extent X is actually different from Y—that is, what proportion of the characteristics of the two are different. No clear rule exists for accepting or rejecting an analogy on the basis of these questions, but questioning the analogy can help prevent misuse of this type of reasoning.
Easily abused analogies. In the study of development, one common instance of abuse of analogies involves reasoning from aspects of non-human development to aspects of human development. For example, John Bowlby’s application of ethological concepts of imprinting in birds to human attachment abused an analogy, and was fortunately rejected after some consideration by developmental scientists. But this type of critical thinking error is still with us, and not in textbooks alone. For example, a recent article in the APA Monitor on Psychology (Price, 2009), entitled “Programmed for life?” has a subhead stating that “Your developmental environment can undercut your memory, give it a boost, or possibly even predict how you’ll treat your children.” Examining this article, one sees that the only information relevant to “how you’ll treat your children” is a study of factors influencing how much mice lick and groom their pups. A comparison of the characteristics of mouse and human infant care suggests that this author has abused an analogy in order to conclude that the factors being discussed “may” predict how humans will treat their children.
A bad example: Attachment as a “tie”. A particularly questionable use of analogy occurs when a comparison is presented as if it were a definition. For example, many textbooks and other sources define attachment as “an emotional tie between parent and child.” In fact, attachment is only somewhat comparable to a tie of a physical nature. It keeps the individuals close together, but being tied is different from attachment in that attachment changes with age, is not directly measurable but is implied by behavior, and influences the two partners differently. If the tie in question is a social relationship rather than a physical tie (using an analogy to create another analogy), the definition and the comparison become circular, and the only meaningful part of the definition is “between parent and child”; even this is deceptive, as it implies that the emotions of parent and child are similar, which they are not.
Affirming the Consequent and Other Forms of Transductive Reasoning
Piaget’s discussion of preoperational cognition included a description of transductive reasoning, a form of primitive logic in which a child assumes that when two events share some characteristics, they are likely to share others, including a cause-and-effect relationship which may work in either direction. Piaget’s famous example of this was a situation in which his daughter, given a cup of orange-colored chamomile tea, insisted that a green orange she wanted must have become ripe and attained the color that meant she could eat it. Similar examples involve the wind being made to blow by trees waving their branches, and fire engines causing (“putting out”) fires. The adult version is the belief that correlated events are causally related. Other specific forms of this error may be highly relevant to the teaching of developmental science.
Affirming the consequent: This fallacy or error in critical thinking involves the practice of assuming that the converse, or reverse order, of a claimed condition is true. For example, let’s take the statement that
If a child has Reactive Attachment Disorder, she has lived in an orphanage or under similar conditions. [this is true, as the DSM list of criteria for the RAD diagnosis includes the etiology.]
The converse of this statement is the following:
If a child has lived in an orphanage (or under similar conditions), she has Reactive Attachment Disorder. [this claim is available to students on a number of Internet sites.] To assume that this converse statement is true without requiring other evidence is to affirm the consequent.
Similarly, here is a correct claim:
Children who are developing normally have gone through many repetitions of infant reflex movements.
The converse of this statement is the following:
Children who have gone through many repetitions of infant reflex movements develop normally. [Affirmation of the consequent in this case argues support for the CAM treatment “patterning”.]
Denying the antecedent. This critical thinking error involves the assumption that if a positively-stated claim is true, a negative statement (the obverse) can also be assumed to be true, without further evidence. For an example, here is a common (although questionable) claim:
If a toddler carries a blanket around, it means he feels insecure without it.
Here is the obverse of the claim:
A toddler does not feel insecure [without a blanket], if he does not carry a blanket around. [The problem, once again, is in the assumption that manipulating the words of the claim permits an accurate conclusion, whereas in fact additional evidence would be needed to support the obverse statement. In its present form, the statement suggests that insecurity can be cured by taking away a toddler’s blanket, and this view is sometimes taken by students.]

Critical thinking and mastery of child development concepts, Part 5

This is the fifth section of an unpublished paper discussing critical thinking issues and the teaxhing of child development.

Problems in the Classroom: Critical or Uncritical Thinking?
We have considered what developmental issues and what experiences may make it difficult for undergraduate students of child development to think critically. It is unpleasant but important to ask whether there are also factors in coursework that encourage uncritical thinking about development and discourage critical thinking.
Coursework and Assessment
One possible factor has to do with the types of assignments and particularly of assessment approaches used by instructors. Unless they are carefully discussed and analyzed at some later time, multiple-choice tests do little to encourage critical thinking; even though very good multiple-choice examinations may require the instructor to think analytically, they do not have the same effect on students. Essay assignments and examinations have a far greater potential for revealing student thinking patterns and providing opportunities for encouraging critical thinking, but this potential is realized only if instructors devote themselves to providing feedback—and, of course, if students pay attention to it. Small classes may offer opportunities for oral discussion with critical thought about evidence and reasoning, but instructors may find appropriate responses difficult, and students may resent having their thinking dissected in public. Instructors can model critical thinking by commenting at length on issues, but of course this takes away time from “covering” other points. All the solutions available to instructors involve trade-offs between encouragement of critical thinking and the achievement of other goals for the class.
Trouble with Textbooks
In addition to instruction, discussion, and assessment methods, faculty members have some choice of textbooks for developmental science courses, but there are some serious difficulties involving these books. Almost all of them are beautifully produced, colorful and interesting to look at, and engagingly written, with many vignettes about specific children and rich description of some events in development. They are loaded with “features”, boxes discussing research issues, thought questions of various kinds, and attempts to engage the student by raising questions about real-world applications. Regrettably, however, many of them provide no more impetus for critical thinking than did the high-school assignments discussed by Francine Prose.
I have chosen some quotations from a very popular textbook which had best be nameless, especially because it is really no worse than its competitors. As the reader will see, both statements and questions fail to use or trigger critical thinking skills.
“…theories have contributed to new approaches to education that emphasize exploration, discovery, and collaboration. As a result, children express greater enthusiasm for learning.” [No information in the chapter supports the latter claim, or suggests how enthusiasm would be measured or whether it is associated with actual learning.]
“Cite an aspect of your development that differs from a parent’s or grandparent’s when he or she was your age. How might contexts explain this difference?” [Nothing in the question or the chapter directs the student to ways to measure aspects of development, or comments on effects of memory on the older person’s presentation of his or her past. In fact, the student is not asked to get information from an older person. The first part of the assignment is irrelevant to the second, which basically asks for some contextual factors and effects they might (not do) have.]
“Find out if your parents read Gesell, Spock, or other parenting advice books when you were growing up. What questions… most concerned them? Do you think that today’s parents have concerns that differ from those of your parents? Explain.” [Whether the parents read advice books is irrelevant to the questions that concerned them, so this aspect distracts from a critical approach ; the question does not guide the student to ways to find what concerns today’s parents have, so he or she is asked to respond without sufficient supportive information; the student is unlikely to have an informed opinion on this point unless he or she is a parent, so the question further encourages uncritical thinking without sufficient information.]
“What aspect of behaviorism made it attractive to critics of psychoanalytic theory? How did Piaget’s theory respond to a major limitation of behaviorism?” [The student is asked to work with insufficient information. The text does not state that either assumption is true. In addition, to ask how Piaget’s theory “responded” to an aspect of behaviorism suggests that the theory was shaped by shortcomings of behaviorism, which is not correct and tends to confuse the student’s attempt to compare behaviorism and other theories. This language may simply be an ill-advised attempt to avoid saying “Compare and contrast”.]
“Return to [the] table… which lists advantages and disadvantages of parenthood. Which are most important and which least important to you? What is your ideal family size?” [Other than the use of the table, this question appeals only to the student’s personal views and does not involve the weighing of evidence or other critical thinking skills. There is little connection between the question and information about development. In addition, neither the student nor the instructor can use a response to this question to determine whether the student understands relevant information or has given a considered answer.]
“____, who is expecting her first child, recalls her own mother as cold and distant. ___ is worried about whether she will be effective at caring for her new baby. What factors during pregnancy are related to maternal behavior?” [The details about ____ are irrelevant to the question, and potentially distract students into answering in terms of relationships they have experienced. In addition, the question cannot be answered on the basis of any information in the related chapter, which refers to maternal attitudes but not maternal behavior.]
“Which explanation of infants’ cognitive competencies do you prefer, and why?” [This question is couched in terms of personal preferences, not of evaluation of evidence or logic. A student who reads closely may be tempted to say “I like this one because the words are easier to spell”, but most will simply search the text for the right answer.]
“Do you believe that teaching infants and toddlers to control the expression of negative emotion is very important? Explain.” [This question asks the student to state a personal value (very important), without explaining either the goal of the training, what it would mean for the training not to be very important, or whether control means suppression of emotion or regulation of modes of expression. Once again, the ambiguity of the question encourages an uncritical response.]
Finally, the frequency of emotional language in this book should be noted, as it encourages an uncritical approach by providing irrelevant details and distracting the student from the task at hand. The table of contents contains the following words: amazing, tragedy, mysterious tragedy,and powerful, none of which are necessary descriptions of the contents. Here is the caption under a picture of a toddler: “ This boy has spent his first two years in a Romanian orphanage, with little adult contact and stimulation. The longer he remains in a barren environment, the more he will withdraw and wither and display permanent impairment in all domains of development.” This vivid writing is no doubt engaging, but creates a barrier rather than a bridge between the illustration and available evidence concerning the later, non-withered, development of the Romanian orphans who have received such careful study.
Trouble with Instructors
Regrettably, it is all too easy for instructors to contribute to critical thinking problems by responses in the classroom or by assessment of essay assignments. For example, most instructors attempt to make their remarks vivid, memorable, and student-friendly by including dramatic events and descriptions of interesting but extraneous factors. Students do remember such information, and many instructors have found that answers to essay questions sometimes refer to “what you said about what your little boy did” or other personal details. However, it has been demonstrated clearly that extraneous information, however attention-getting it may be, confuses critical thinking about the real issues ( Stanovich, 2004; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974; Waldrop, 1987). To omit those interesting details seems undesirable, as they do help establish memory for concepts; however, it may be a good idea to follow such examples by reminding students about individual differences.
Instructors often permit or provide plausible, unsupported explanations of developmental events, as indeed do developmental theorists. Discriminating between the plausible explanation and the explanation supported by evidence is one of the steps in developing reasoning capacities (Kuhn, 1993). Of course, recognizing that an argument is a plausible one is an important critical thinking skill, without which the formulation of hypotheses would be extremely time-consuming, if not impossible. But recognizing that an argument is only plausible is an essential advance, without which “confident speculation” is a likely response. It is easy enough to remind students of the evidence that would be needed to support a plausible argument found in developmental science work. It is more difficult to respond to a student’s offered plausible explanation in such a way that criticism is perceived to involve the nature of all plausible arguments, rather than the acceptable plausibility of this one.
Instructors may find it quite difficult to avoid emphasizing confirmatory data over non-confirmatory, or permitting students to stress confirmatory data (Klaczynski & Narasimham, 1998). Having asked students to participate by offering examples of the developmental phenomenon under discussion, and having received one or two appropriate examples, how many of us inquire, “how many people have had completely different experiences? “ rather than simply thanking the students who have commented? Generally, instructors are happy if examples are relevant to the issue, and fail to concern themselves with the importance of counter-examples.
Instructors generally fail to give adequate attention to the examination of false statements. If a student has made the statement, the instructor politely turns to someone else for the answer, knowing that students are offended by any clear statement that they are wrong, or by any attempt to examine the reasoning behind the statement. (Even if the statement is correct, trying to explore the reasoning behind it often makes the respondent feel that he or she has made a mistake-- if it’s right, it’s right, and that’s all there is to be said.) If a false statement has appeared in the textbook or come up in media presentations, instructors often ignore, ridicule, or dismiss it, rather than modeling for students the process of examining it thoroughly. These practices play into the problematic tendency to stress what is true rather than what is false, thus creating problems in examining the consistency of a set of statements ( Johnson-Laird, Legrenzi, Girotto, & Legrenzi, 2000).

Critical thinking and the mastery of child development concepts, Part 4

This is the fourth section of an unpublished paper on critical thinking and teaching child development.

Why Don’t Students Already Think Critically?
I will take it for granted that undergraduate students need to improve their critical thinking abilities. Although research in this area is complicated by the fact that few humans ever perfect this set of skills, so it is hard to choose a comparison group, recent work suggests that even professional psychologists with graduate training may be far less competent in critical thinking than we would like to see (Sharp, Herbert, & Redding, 2008). The remarkable difficulties shown by adults who need to ignore irrelevant information have been demonstrated for many years, beginning with the work of Tversky and Kahneman (1974). Superficial information included in a question confuses many adults (Waldrop, 1987).
What factors limit the critical thinking skills of professionals, those of other adults, and, we can assume, those of undergraduates? Some of these factors are developmental in nature, while others involve past and present instruction, intentional or otherwise.
Formal Operations and Horizontal Decalage
The study of formal operational thought by Piaget ( ) provided some important insights into critical thinking. Formal operational thinkers can create a variety of hypotheses as possible explanations for an event and can figure out experimental tests to support or reject a hypothesis. In addition, they are able to co-ordinate factors rather than having to consider each one separately, allowing them to deal with issues like rates or proportions. They can also collect data systematically and consider sources of error and the possibility that their conclusions are wrong. Without all these abilities, critical thinking would be much impeded.
Students in undergraduate child development courses are generally at least in the sophomore year of college, and the youngest are about 20 years old. The textbooks we assign them state that they have had the ability for formal operational thought for some years, and surely formal operational thought is the foundation of many critical thinking abilities. However, anyone who has attempted to teach undergraduates what formal operational thought is, must have become very aware that the students did not seem to bring formal operational abilities to the study of formal operations. Demonstrations or videos showing the use of ratios and isolation of variables are commonly met with anxious student faces, behind which are anxious minds questioning whether they themselves are able to do the tasks represented as possible for 12-year-olds.
Piaget’s concept of horizontal decalage is an important part of the explanation of apparent delays in formal operational thought. This concept suggests that cognitive abilities can appear to be less uniform than we expect, depending on the familiarity of a problem for a student. Unfamiliar material is less easily treated with formal operational or other high-level cognitive abilities than is familiar material; for example, as Burbules and Linn (1988) demonstrated, reasoning ability can be improved simply by free exploration of a situation. Characteristics of infants and children are relatively unfamiliar for most undergraduates in the United States; small families and intense age-grading have prevented them from having much opportunity to observe younger children. It would be surprising if undergraduates were able to apply critical thinking skills to child development information as they can to, say, cooking, or repairing a car.
For developmental reasons, then, it is unlikely that students in undergraduate child development courses will be able to muster formal operational skills without help or effort, and thus unlikely that they will be able to use critical thinking abilities effectively throughout the course.
The Perry Scheme
There have been relatively few discussions of cognitive changes that occur during the college years. One approach to this topic, based on a small number of students at Harvard, offers some ideas that are intriguing although somewhat speculative. The “Perry scheme” (Perry, 1970) proposed stages of undergraduate development with strong relevance to critical thinking. Perry proposed that entering freshmen tend to focus their thinking on the idea that there are right and wrong answers, known to authorities; this position is referred to as “Dualism/Received Knowledge.” Perry suggested that the initial, basic attitude is that all problems are solvable, and the student’s task is to learn the right solution. A second step in this dualistic position has to do with attitudes toward authorities. Some authorities (for example, literature professors) are seen to disagree, whereas others (like physicists) are believed by the student to agree. Those authorities who have agreement about right answers are the ones to pay attention to. (It seems doubtful that developmental scientists are considered to be among those who agree on right answers.) Critical thinking by the student is not an option.
A second position, taken by students who have passed the dualistic freshman stage, is one that acknowledges conflicting answers, but concludes that the existence of conflict means that only one’s own intuitive response is correct, and external authorities are not correct. Perry referred to this position as “Multiplicity/ Subjective Knowledge.” Students at the beginning of this position assume that there are problems whose solution is known, and others whose solution is not known; the student’s job is to find the right solutions that are known. Later, a new assumption appears: most problems have no known solution, so either everyone has a right to their own opinion, or it doesn’t matter which solution you choose, and the student’s task is to amplify on these points rather than to try to solve the problems. Critical thinking would be a waste of time, and opinions are nothing more than unexamined prejudices.
A third position described by Perry develops out of the first two. This position, called “Relativism/Procedural Knowledge”, is a step that makes critical thinking possible. It includes the idea that there are reasoning methods favored by disciplines, and that study of a discipline requires mastering these as well as amassing a supply of facts. Subjective responses are considered, but separated from techniques of objective analysis. In the initial step for this position, “Contextual Relativism”, the student acknowledges that there are reasons for all proposed solutions to problems, and that solutions need to be examined in context and relative to the type of support they have. Although solutions may be equally good, one may be better than others in a given context. The student’s job is to learn to evaluate solutions—a matter requiring critical thinking skills. Contextual Relativism would seem essential to the serious study of developmental science, an area in which multiple causes are responsible for multiple outcomes, and dynamic systems theory suggests that nonlinear relationships are common. Value-laden aspects of developmental studies also make it important that students have the understanding of subjective responses characteristic of this period of development.
“Relativism/Procedural Knowledge” is not the last step in Perry’ scheme, but it may be the lowest level that allows for mobilization of critical thinking skills, and thus the first level that permits good understanding of the complexities of developmental science. It is not clear how we can persuade or push students to arrive at this level, however, nor can we make it a prerequisite for enrollment in a child development course.
Students’ Past Experience
College students who received their secondary education in the United States have generally received some encouragement to think critically and may believe that they are accomplished at critical thinking tasks. However, examination of secondary school experiences suggests that these may diminish rather than foster critical thinking abilities. Some years ago, the novelist Francine Prose examined efforts toward critical thinking used in high school English textbooks and other assignments (Prose, 1999). In her article, aptly named “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read”, she noted a failure to require close, line-by-line reading, and a tendency to questions about social or moral implications rather than about the actual content of the novel. Prose referred to one teacher’s manual that asked students reading Huckleberry Finn to count the ways in which Mark Twain negated the humanity of the slave character Jim, rather than comparing the number of such incidents with the number in which his humanity was witnessed. Prose also noted the frequency of assignments in which questions asked were peripherally relevant to the information available to the student. For example, students might be asked what a character might do about a situation not mentioned in the book. Similarly, students might be asked to answer questions whose answers they would be unlikely to know, such as a question about the mental health prognosis of the heroine of The Bell Jar. Assignments of these types discourage a focus on relevant, available information, and encourage the view that all possible answers (if long enough) are acceptable.
College students who have experienced high school assignments of the kind Prose described are likely to feel comfortable with irrelevancies and low levels of abstraction, and even to believe that they are excellent critical thinkers because of their handling of such matters. Facing a child development course, with its demands for identification of relevant information and for evaluation of ideas and practices, such students may feel offended, even humiliated by their perceived failure to succeed with the methods they have been rewarded for.
Seductive Ideas
Kagan’s fascinating book, Three seductive ideas (2000), discussed a number of common preconceptions that interfere with understanding of psychology in general and the study of development in particular. These “seductive ideas” are broad assumptions about the nature of human beings, and when they are unrecognized or incorrectly applied, they can well create confusion about material commonly included in the teaching of developmental science.
Kagan proposed that one important “seductive idea” was abstractionism, the assumption that if two phenomena have some characteristics in common, these characteristics can be abstracted and used to reason from one phenomenon to the other. For example, as animals and human beings have certain things in common, especially in their early lives, the application of abstractionism would suggest that whatever is true about young animals can also be expected to be true about young humans. Similar reasoning can be applied to brain and mind, with the assumption that whatever is shown to be true about brain processes can also be assumed to be true about mental processes. Both of these applications of abstractionism have the potential for confusing thinking about development.
A second “seductive idea” is infant determinism. This is the assumption that in all aspects of development, early events influence outcomes more powerfully than later events. The assumption of infant determinism can cause confusion about the nature of plasticity by blurring the distinction between experience-expectant and experience-dependent plasticity, as well as by convincing students that a reliable principle makes it unnecessary for them to examine the evidence about the effects of experience.
The third major “seductive idea” mentioned by Kagan is the pleasure principle. The belief that motivation is determined by the pursuit of gratification (and, perhaps, by avoidance of discomfort) is at odds with a number of important ideas about development. For example, difficulties in teaching of Piagetian concepts are confused by student application of the pleasure principle, as students search for ways in which infants “must” be positively reinforced for cognitive developments. Similarly, the idea of mastery motivation as a general principle, and of attachment behavior as seen from an ethological viewpoint, are difficult to comprehend when the pleasure principle is a starting point for thinking.
“Folk Psychology”
Not all “seductive ideas” are broad generalizations. Some are specific beliefs, common currency of thought about development and reinforced by repetition in the media and in casual conversation. There are probably hundreds of these claims that “everybody knows” and few approach critically. Here are some examples of folk or na├»ve developmental psychology (Mercer, 2009):
Sugar causes hyperactivity (which is, incidentally, the same thing as hypertension).
Toddlers drop food off their high chairs because they want to make their parents mad.
Teenagers learn to be antisocial under peer pressure from bad companions.
Autism “clusters” mean that something in a local environment causes the disorder.
Breastfeeding causes a baby to become attached to her mother.
These common beliefs contradict and confuse understanding of evidence-based information about development. Addressing them directly and modeling critical thinking for students may help to lessen their potential for damage.
Mass media and other sources of information
Newspapers, television, and other media sources repeat much incorrect information which they garner from each other. This is especially true with respect to any topic which is “flavor of the month”, as is the case currently for attachment. The television program “20/20” recently presented a show which uncritically described the practice of keeping adopted children within three feet of a parent at all times, night and day, for a number of weeks. “Made for TV” movies have dramatized similar ideas. In addition, materials written for parent or child care use may be quite unreliable; for example, a pamphlet distributed to child care workers (Koralek, 1999; still in use) claimed that securely attached children will usually not be upset when dropped off at day care, and that they will smile and show interest in other people— questionable statements unless they are accompanied by information about the age and circumstances of the children.

Critical thinking and child development, Part 3

Here is the third section of an unpublished paper on critical thinking issues and teaching child development.

Why do We Want Child Development Students to Develop Critical Thinking?
With respect to learning during a course in child development, it is desirable for students to use critical thinking skills, as such skills will help them to understand how to apply what they learn. Critical thinking skills also help students avoid confusion between related or similar concepts; clarifying material through critical thinking helps students to understand and remember correctly what they have studied. And, of course, application of critical thinking skills helps solve the old problem of “not knowing what’s important.”
In addition, we want students to have critical thinking abilities that are of special importance to child development information, so that they will continue to use a critical approach to developmental issues long after they have forgotten exactly what a Fels multiplier is. Most students will be parents and have the responsibility for choosing schools, medical and psychological treatments, and parenting practices that will influence their children. As one interview study of young parents has shown, parental understanding of early development is spotty at best (Daniel Yankelovitch Group, 2000). Many students will be teachers, participate in choices of academic and social curricula, and interpret tests and behavior. Some students will be attorneys and judges making decisions about child custody and juvenile justice, tasks which will demand some ability to think critically about developmental issues. Some students will be legislators deciding on laws and on funding of family and school services; if these can bring critical thinking skills to their consideration of developmental outcomes, the community will benefit. Some students will be physicians, psychologists, and social workers whose critical thinking skills will directly affect children; they may also be the authors of systematic research syntheses on which other practitioners will depend for their choice of treatment approaches. Finally, of course, a few students will be members of the Society for Research on Child Development, and the developmental scientists of the future.

Critical thinking and the mastery of child development concepts, Part 2

Here is part 2 of an unpublished paper discussing the use of critical thinking concepts in teaching child development courses.

What is Critical Thinking? And Why Do We Care?
Critical thinking is thought that uses a set of skills specialized for evaluation of evidence and of logical processes that support or fail to support conclusions. The alternative approach, uncritical thinking, accepts evidence and logic that would be rejected if critical thinking skills were applied to the information. In academic circles, critical thinking skills are considered to be highly desirable, but it is unlikely that any human being manages to use such skills on every occasion when they are called for.
In fact, avoidance of critical thinking seems more characteristic of human beings – and more comfortable for them—than its use. As J.A.C. Brown (1963), a student of techniques of persuasion that combat critical thinking, commented, most people want to feel that issues are simple rather than complex, to have their prejudices confirmed, and to find an enemy to blame for their frustrations. To satisfy those common desires usually requires uncritical thinking.
As teachers of developmental science, we would like to move our students away from the characteristics Brown noted. We would prefer for them to do the following, all of which require critical thinking:
1. Understand that human issues are complex.
2. Become willing to examine their own assumptions.
3. Realize that humans behave and may even develop in varying ways, but all share some aspects of human development.
4. Minimize the use of developmental science material to sermonize against “the wrong”, while remembering that understanding of development can improve outcomes.
In considering our situation and goals, we would do well to realize that other disciplines are experiencing similar problems. Natural scientists, in particular, are concerned that “[v]ast numbers of adults fail to take a scientific approach to solving problems or making judgments based on evidence. Instead, they readily accept simplistic answers to complicated problems…” (Alberts, 2009, p. ). In the hope of encouraging students to use critical thinking, natural scientists have set goals for science education such as knowing science facts, generating and evaluating evidence and explanations, understanding the nature and development of scientific knowledge, and participating in scientific practices and discourse (Alberts, 2009; Moore, 1999). Except for the simple knowledge of facts, these goals also require critical thinking.
We cannot devote a semester of a child development course to instruction in critical thinking, but we can give some consideration to reasons for uncritical thought, and to the ways that improvements in critical thinking can improve student understanding and retention of the material they study.
General Critical Thinking Skills
A set of critical thinking skills can be considered as generally applicable to assessment of information, including information about developmental science. Some are more likely than others to be demanded in a first undergraduate course in child development.
Inference. Inference is the skill of discriminating among degrees of truth or falsity of conclusions drawn from given data. While this is a particularly important skill for developmentalists at more advanced levels, few students in the first undergraduate course are called upon to make inferences. Such courses rarely involve examination of data or reading of research articles in professional journals. In addition, inference as carried out in developmental science generally involves statistical analysis, and statistics or research methods courses are usually not prerequisites for the first child development course.
Recognition of assumptions. This critical thinking skill involves the detection of unstated assumptions or presuppositions in given statements or assertions, including, of course, those the person makes himself or herself. Recognition of assumptions is an important skill for students of developmental science, as common beliefs frequently contradict empirical research about development; students who cannot recognize their own a priori beliefs may become confused by what they see as the unlikely results of systematic investigation.
Deduction. The critical thinking skill of deduction involves determining whether certain conclusions necessarily follow from given information. Deduction is an essential aspect of developmental science, and is especially relevant to questions about correlation and causality. As most students do not enter the first course with a background in statistics and research design, coursework may need to emphasize ways in which developmentalists examine conclusions.
Interpretation. The critical thinking skill of interpretation stresses the weighing of evidence and determining whether generalizations or conclusions based on the evidence are warranted. This skill, so important for more advanced developmentalists, is only at its beginning in younger students. Textbooks offer little specific evidence and less evaluation of the source of the evidence, and research reports are generally too complex and difficult for undergraduates to read. Study of research design is needed before most students can evaluate evidence effectively. However, instructors can model evaluation of evidence by discussing research designs as they have been used in the study of child development. Thoughtful Internet assignments may also be valuable in development of this skill.
Evaluation of arguments. This aspect of critical thinking involves distinguishing between arguments that are strong and relevant and those that are weak or irrelevant to a question. Before students can evaluate arguments, they must abandon the position that all evidence is equal, and the belief that it is inappropriate and intolerant to reject someone’s argument. Practice and feedback from the instructor or classmates are helpful supports for development of this skill, but these are rarely provided in child development courses. When students’ performance is evaluated through multiple choice examinations, feedback about irrelevant arguments is quite infrequent. Instructors who want to encourage the development of evaluative ability must commit themselves to dealing with extensive written assignments. Attention to detail is a necessity for critical thinking, and assignments cannot reveal the presence or absence of critical thinking unless they themselves display reasoning in detail.
Attempts have been made to design courses that will improve critical thinking with respect to the study of psychology. Lawson (1999) designed a course that guided study of experimenter bias, single versus multiple causation, correlation as opposed to causation, the use of comparison groups or measures, and the problem of confounding variables. Penningroth and her colleagues (Penningroth, Despain, & Gray, 2007) put together a one-credit course intended to improve psychological critical thinking. These efforts are obviously relevant to the enhancement of critical thinking about developmental science, but the latter topic requires emphasis on additional specific issues that are not necessarily important to the general field of psychology.

Critical thinking and child development concepts: Introduction

This post and several subsequent posts comprise an unpublished paper dealing with teaching issues and on the use of critical thinking concepts as they apply to the understanding of child development.

Critical Thinking and the Mastery of Child Development Concepts

Developmental psychology, developmental science, child development, childhood and
adolescence, lifespan development: all these terms can be used for courses that attempt to teach
how developmental change functions in humans from conception through adolescence. Why so
many different names? Part of the answer has to do with the ways course materials are organized
and divided, but more is related to rapidly changing characteristics of a field that is quite
different from what it was fifty years ago.
A changing field creates a challenge for instructors, but the study of child development
(to choose one of the labels) presents other challenges too. Child development courses involve
more natural science components than other psychology courses, with the exception of
physiological psychology and of sensation and perception. Students, and even instructors, may
find it unexpectedly difficult to master neuroscience and genetics concepts for which they may
have little background. Research design and its implications are essential to the understanding of
causal factors in child development, but few psychology curricula have statistics or research
methods as prerequisites for child development courses, even though variability is at the heart of
any discussion of development. These natural and mathematical science aspects of child
development courses are particularly difficult to combine with more value-related material
(“how should parents behave?”) or material with immediate practical effects (“how should
schools be run?”)
Further challenges arise because of expectations and beliefs about development which
students bring into the class. One problematic expectation is that everyone’s personal
experiences are a good background for study of child development-- that in fact everyone,
having been a child, already knows a good deal about developmental change in childhood.
However, although students think they have a lot of knowledge about development, the evidence
seems to be that adults actually have a rather poor understanding of development, especially of
its social and emotional aspects (Daniel Yankelovitch Group, 2000).
Complex material like developmental science requires a high level of critical thinking for
mastery. In this paper, I will discuss some important critical thinking issues relevant to the
teaching of child development courses, and will propose some practices that may help harness
critical thinking skills and improve student understanding.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Reasoning from animals to humans

A fascinating recent article on an ability usually thought to be human, but apparently shared by some birds:

von Bayern, A.M.P., & Emery, N.J. (2009). Jackdaws respond to human attentional states and communicative cues in different contexts. Current Biology, 19 (7), 602-606.

These researchers looked at the ability of jackdaws to pay attention to the eye movements of nearby humans-- a skill that human beings show from an early age. Human infants develop in the first year of life the ability to look at another person's gaze and figure out what he or she is looking at, as well as the ability to use their own eyes as "pointers" and attract another person's attention to something by looking at the object and then back at the person. However, animals like chimpanzees and dogs do not seem to be able to "read" eyes in this way, although they pay attention to the way a person's head is turned. Can birds demonstrate a skill that chimps and dogs cannot?

von Bayern and Emery put out food for their jackdaws and then timed how long it took them to approach it when an unfamiliar (so, from the jackdaws' viewpoint, possibly dangerous) person was gazing at it. The jackdaws hesitated to approach the food that a stranger was looking at, but readily approached it when a familiar person gazed at it. But the jackdaws did not seem to be able to follow a steady gaze to find food they could not see; a familiar person had to shift the eyes toward the food and point in order to get the birds to pick up on the help that was offered.

Why should jackdaws be able to use humans' eye movements or gaze to get information, when "higher" animals cannot? Does this study mean that other birds can also pick up cues from humans' eyes? One possible reason for jackdaws--but not necessarily other birds-- to have this ability is that jackdaws have dark pupils and light irises, as many humans do. This pattern makes for a complex and attention-getting visual stimulus which may
be familiar to these birds because they have looked at other jackdaws. Of course, human eyes are even more complex patterns, because they have the surrounding white area as well as the contrast between pupil and iris.

Birds that have all-dark "shoe-button" eyes may not have experienced bird eye movements as interesting or important, so they may not pay attention even to the details of human eyes. In addition, the jackdaws in this study had been reared by humans and had had a good deal of face-to-face social interaction, with a chance to learn a lot about the meaning of human eye movements. Birds who grew up in the wild might react differently.

In fact, knowing about jackdaws does not tell us directly about other kinds of birds. Only similar research with other birds can do this. In the same way, research with human-reared jackdaws does not tell us directly about wild-reared jackdaws. Jumping from bird to human, or even from bird to bird, is a dangerous form of speculation unless we have a lot more information about each species.

The ethologist and Nobel prizewinner Nikolaas Tinbergen got into some dangerous speculation years ago when he jumped from studies of ducks to consideration of autistic children. Tinbergen proposed that attracting the gaze of autistic children would help them pay more attention to human beings and lead them to behave more normally. Tinbergen even suggested the use of masks with extra-big eyes that would catch the children's attention.

Tinbergen's method proved to be of little use, but the idea that autistic children avoid attention to other people's gaze continues to be heard frequently. However, researchers like M.A. Gernsbacher have shown some evidence that autistic children are not avoiding eye contact, but instead are able to see others' eyes when they are not in the center of the visual field, a difficult task for the non-autistic to carry out.

Tempting though it may be to jump speculatively from jackdaws to humans or from ducks to autistic children, we need to study each group carefully and separately, or risk making serious mistakes. It's particularly risky to assume that more "advanced" creatures have all the characteristics of all the less advanced ones, and additional characteristics as well. Most of us would consider a chimpanzee more advanced than a jackdaw, but it appears that the jackdaw can do at least one important thing that the chimp cannot.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The animal-human analogy

Several days ago, I commented on an article by Price in which information about mouse behavior was
[over]generalized to suggest that human beings showed similar factors at work in maternal behavior. This tendency to equate behaviors of different species has become quite common, especially in textbooks for undergraduate courses, where authors hesitate to acknowledge that they are using animal studies. (This hesitation is not just because of the problems human-animal analogies create, but because of the strength of organizations like PETA that object to experimental work with animal subjects.)

The issue of human-animal comparisons is one we should think about in this Darwin anniversary year. My concern is not about rejecting all such comparisons. Some do reject the analogy on the grounds that humans are special, made in God's image, have souls, etc., and thus are not comparable to non-humans. I accept the comparison and think it can be valuable-- but only when it is used with caution.

The human-animal analogy is easily "abused" by people who consider that what is known about one must provide reliable information about the other. In fact, such reasoning only works when careful comparisons have been made of the characteristics the two groups have in common AND that are relevant to the question at hand. Mice have fur, humans have hair; this commonality is relevant to skin functions, but probably not to the study of maternal behavior. Humans mourn over dead babies; mice eat them-- does this difference mean they have nothing relevant in common? Only attention to detail can tell us where we are in any comparison of one species to another.

As J.P. Scott showed many years ago, not only species but strain differences shape social behavior in dogs. Comparing one strain of one species to members of another species may give quite different results than if another strain were used in the comparison.

Studies of animal behavior are fascinating and valuable in themselves. Sometimes it may be possible to use their data to explain human characteristics-- but sometimes, and more often, not. To find out about a species, it's best to study that species.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Those Book Reviews

On both Amazon and Barnes & noble, several of my books-- including Myths and Misunderstandings--have been the targets of attacks by review. Curiously, one such review appeared when Myths and Misunderstandings was still in production, weeks before it was released to the public, but the "reviewer" apparently thought he knew what was in it. He posted almost identical reviews for two other books on quite different topics, as well as for Myths.

Here are some points made in these attack reviews, and some needed corrections or elaborations:

1. The reviews say that child development textbooks are more appropriate than Myths .

Comment: How true! Myths is not a child development textbook and could not take the place of one. It is a supplementary text, to be used parallel with either a chronologically- or a topically-organized child development text. The two types of books are like apples and apple pie, related but not the same thing.

2. The reviews note that I am not a mental health professional and conclude that I am without training on child development.

Comment: No, of course I am not a mental health professional, nor have I ever claimed to be one. I have a doctorate in general experimental psychology and have worked in the area of developmental psychology for 35 years. As a matter of fact, I was for 5 years president of the New Jersey Association for Infant Mental Health and am still an officer of that organization, so I have some expertise in the problems of parents and young children, but like many people working in infant mental health I am not licensed and do not regard myself as a therapist. I taught courses on child and adolescent development and on infant development for over 30 years. I recently gave an invited presentation on critical thinking in the teaching of child development at the developmental science teaching institute of the Society for Research in Child Development.

I should point out that most mental health professionals have very little formal training in child development, with a single undergraduate course as the most common preparation. References to licensure are certainly impressive to the layperson, but let's recall that barbers have to be licensed too; academic training and licensure are not necessarily the same thing.

3. The attack reviews claim that Myths is poorly written and inaccurate.

Comment: Like all books brought out by legitimate publishers (as opposed to vanity presses or "printer-ready" publishers), Myths went through several rounds of reviews by experts in the field, was copy-edited, and received further attention in the course of production. Any book may contain errors in spite of all efforts, and if the reviewer has seen some, I wish he would point them out specifically. As he has not done so, I assume that he is simply grasping at straws in this attempt to find negative statements to make.

What is it all about? Readers who have seen the negative reviews may have noticed one signed by Arthur Becker-Weidman. In fact, the others are either written or instigated by the same person. Becker-Weidman is given to the use of various "sock puppets" as a way of avoiding genuine discussion, and as a consequence of this habit he has recently been banned from Wikipedia for the second time.

Becker-Weidman is a licensed clinical social worker in New York state and a practitioner of a treatment called Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy(DDP), used primarily with adopted children. He would like to present DDP as evidence-based and therefore appropriate for coverage by private and public health insurance , but the research done so far does not qualify it for that category. Becker-Weidman's motivation to attack my books stems from the fact that I have pointed out in print that DDP is not evidence-based. An additional issue for him is that I have pointed out to journal editors his penchant for self-plagiarism and submission to journals of material that has been published elsewhere.

There is more to tell about this situation, but I will keep that back until events warrant telling it.

Meanwhile, I hope readers will become aware that public "reviews" and sources like Wikipedia may be far from objective in nature. Personal axes are readily ground in these ways.