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Family Matters No. 36 - December 1993

The development of competence

Don Edgar


This article on child development examines the nature of true intelligence, the elements of the growth of competence and how we might better stimulate the development of a child's many intelligences. The author points out some of the blinkers that have restricted our view of children and their potential. Issues addressed include: how intelligence develops, the emerging sense of control, the importance of early childhood, cooperative learning, the importance of play as work, the changing social context of childhood and the community as parent.

If Australia ever needed greater attention to be paid to child development, it needs it now more than ever, for:

Childhood is the name of the world's immediate future; of such, and such alone, is the promise of the kingdom of man. - Walter de la Mare

We forget as a society how brilliant is the new-born baby, the child's capacity to learn, the vast realms of observation, synthesising, problem-solving that bring each baby to such competence within a few short years. Bogged down in formal systems of education, battles about teachers' pay, college amalgamations and a national curriculum, we forget that: 'The real magic wand is the child's own mind' (Ortega y Gasset). Parents in close touch with their children never cease to wonder at and admire this inbuilt magic.

Children are born learners. Unlike other animals wired to respond in a fixed way to the environment, the human kind has the capacity to adapt, to change and to learn, with large portions of the brain uncommitted to any set plan or behaviour, able to adapt to and actively control its environment, capable of responding to the changing demands and currents of life with remarkable flexibility. It is that innate sense of curiosity, exploration and motivation to control the world around us that sets the pattern for the development of human competence.

I want to outline what seems to be the nature of true intelligence, what are the elements of the growth of competence, how we might better stimulate the development of every child's genius, the full range of their many intelligences, so that Australia might become not just 'the clever country', but the thoughtful, the thinking, the wise, the problem-solving country. I want to point out some of the blinkers that have restricted our view of children and their potential, and to call for a 'Lift Off', both in the sense of lifting the heavy lids off our children's capacities and in the sense of a rocket launch to lift us off the bland, the ordinary, the standardised and average, into the fantastic opportunities for children which might 'ensure our future'.

How Does Intelligence Develop?

We are told by research neurologists and learning theorists that the early years are those of our greatest learning potential. The density of brain cell synapses increases sharply during the first months of life and reaches a maximum at the ages of one to two. The child's rapid, and virtually untaught, acquisition of language during infancy is no doubt related to an environment which allows her to exploit the large number of brain cell connections available at that time.

In those early years children can learn a vast range of competences, skills and understandings, in their natural settings, by observation of and interaction with their parents, siblings, community. Every child, almost regardless of the degree of formal tutelage, learns its basic native language, learns to understand key relationships within its social world, learns how the physical world operates (such things as the constancy of matter, the process of cause and effect) and learns to use a range of symbolic codes (gestures, music) that are valued within its own culture. All of these basic learnings derive from the child's sensory and motor interactions with, first, the world of objects and, second, the circle of other people available to him/her. Some writers call this 'intuitive' knowledge as compared with that requiring more formal teaching to master the notation systems of the culture.

Above all, children are physical and tactile. Their scribblings become drawings of likenesses in the things seen around them, and there is a flowering of creative expression around age five for a couple of years when drawings are used to express inner feelings and sensibilities. Once language and more formal codes of perspective and realism take control, creativity is often lost and many become adults who 'could never draw'. As strength and control of limbs expand, the body becomes master and the world of the self expands. The confines of the crib can be expanded by throwing things out of it, climbing out and crawling away, making a ball bounce to a pattern, swinging on the monkey bars. Body kinesthetics help the child explore its limits and encourage spatial intelligence, the relative placement of things in the world around.

My point here is to draw out some common misconceptions about 'intelligence' or 'competence', misconceptions that often have parents worried that their child is 'different'or 'slow'in comparison with other infants.

First, intelligence is not one thing. There is no unitary 'g' factor that can be called 'general intelligence'. Such a concept derives only from the individual's performance based on experience in a variety of arenas, and is an artefact of the factor analytic techniques used for convenience by the early testers such as Binet and Spearman to make life more efficient for the military and the school system.

Instead, there are multiple intelligences in every individual, each developing at different rates and different times depending upon both innate brain capacities and the social opportunities afforded each child to learn and expand those capacities. Spearman originally found around 32 such separate areas of intelligence. Howard Gardner has identified at least seven intelligences each with its own neurological base, its own phases of growth and its own unique contribution to exercising control. These are: verbal/linguistic intelligence, logical/mathematical intelligence, visual/spatial intelligence, body/kinesthetic intelligence, musical/rhythmic intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence.

Stages of growth are different for each area of intelligence or competence. This is often forgotten because of the wholesale adoption of Piaget's stages of development which are heavily based on the verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical styles of thinking. We all know a child whose language emerges very early but is physically slow, or a child who is physically agile yet a poor reader, or one who catches on easily to maths concepts but copes badly with inter-personal relationships. Yet we say the verbal one is 'intelligent', the others less so. Parents boast about the first words, first steps but don't always realize or notice the emerging signs of other forms of intelligence.

To illustrate briefly, the sequence for musical/rhythmical intelligence is mostly right brain hemisphere, starting with random sounds and imitations, to matching a rhythmic structure at four months, inventing songs at age two years, and by school age having a schema of what a song is and reproducing it. With inter-personal intelligence, the infant first distinguishes faces of parents from strangers; by ten months the first stages of empathy occur; they engage in role-playing between two and five years, and by school age can step beyond family boundaries and nurture peer relationships. But even within these realms, the rates of growth vary individually.

So it is vital that we get rid of the rigid notion of 'stages of development' in childhood learning. Certainly there are sequences and building blocks, but the research evidence is now clear that the stages in one domain do not correlate with stages in the others. All forms of learning do not develop in synchrony.

Gardner (1990) puts it as: 'The breakdown of the "Piagetian synthesis", which asserted that the same cognitive stages and structures of development obtained across all domains ... it is simply a mistake to expect that more culturally specific competences - such as understanding of discipline-based concepts - can unfold without explicit tutelage.'

Gardner (1990) defines an intelligence as 'an ability, skill or a set of abilities or skills, to solve problems or to fashion products, which are valued in at least one cultural setting' (pp.14-15). It is important to draw out the elements of that definition if we are to understand the full development of competence in children. Those elements are (i) the different sets of abilities or skills, ranging from logical-mathematical to musical, to inter-personal skills, by which (ii) we solve problems in everyday or more theoretical life and through which (iii) we make products such as food, music, bridges, cricket bats and so on.

The Emerging Sense of Control

Underlying both problem-solving and product-making is the basic human motivation to understand and be in control of the world around us (White 1959). If it is cold or we are hungry we need to fashion shelter, clothing, food to solve the problem. If the sun rises every day, we fashion gods or myths or scientific theories about the universe in order to explain the phenomenon and bring it under some form of predictability and control. If other people are being hostile or rejecting, we must develop skills of empathy and self- understanding and self-presentation in order to alter their behaviour in ways that better suit our needs and purposes.

'Knowledge is the universal set which may be regarded as both neutral and pluralistic, as though all knowledge were of equal worth and simply the possession of different groups in different life situations . . . Knowledge put to use is the action side of competence, praxis, the effecting of ideas in order to be in control.' (Edgar 1980, p.153)

The fourth element is equally crucial, for it stresses that intelligence is a culturally-defined, socially-produced concept, not an abstract 'thing' in the head of an individual child or adult. Parents are the key definers and transmitters of what is 'valued' knowledge. This is a contextualised view of human intelligence which says we are not just biological but also cultural creatures, operating within a socio-political context, within a particular historical time and geographical space. The family is the earliest context in which we learn the limits of our control within physical and social constraints and opportunities.

In sum, the nature of competence or intelligence lies in real skills or abilities that are applied in real situations to solve meaningful problems or to fashion actual products that are socially valued. It is not an abstract, cross-cultural or timeless entity, though elements of each intelligence will find expression in most cultures.

To illustrate simply, the Eskimos have many words for snow in order to live safely in that environment. Aboriginal people have highly developed skills which help survival in a very different environment. The western urbanite may not see either of these as elements of intelligence, but if you withdraw from him his own tools, techniques and symbol systems for getting to work by car or public transport, he will indeed seem very 'stupid'.

It follows that competences/intelligences are socially distributed and depend upon the relative degree of social sharing of valued skills and of the resources on which they can be developed. I have called this 'the social distribution of competence', elsewhere Gardner talks of his 'distributed view of intelligence'. In simpler terms, we speak of access, equal opportunities, educational disadvantage, social justice, and of the cultural bias of IQ tests, the 'hidden curriculum' of the middle class school, cooling out those children whose family backgrounds don't 'fit' with the dominant views of what is correct language, good manners, acceptable dress and behaviour. The family itself and the way parents structure the child's experience is, of course, the basic source of that social distribution.

Inkeles (1969) defines competence as: 'the ability to attain and perform in three sets of statuses: those which one's society will normally assign one, those in the repertoire of one's social system one may appropriately aspire to, and those which one may reasonably invent or elaborate for oneself' (p.265). So although socially-defined forms of intelligence or competence may be restrictive, the active elaboration of each child's ability and the new challenges faced in each environment ensure creativity and radical challenge to the status quo. This last is obviously more likely to happen the more individual exploration and problem-solving is encouraged and rewarded. If parents are cautious, restrictive, not encouraging of playful exploration and curiosity, the elements of control are stifled very early in the child's life.

Importance of Early Childhood

I stress this issue because it is so revealing of our inconsistency in dealing with children. Even those who know about cultural bias, language codes, and the restricting effects of poverty on our children, often still harbour in their intellectual hearts a view of intelligence that is unitary, general, inborn, not dependent upon the social opportunities given children to activate their potential and fully grow. We are so concerned with the later structures of schooling and curricular disciplines that we forget they are notations and codes for skills of problem-solving based on the situation every person faces in early childhood. So we neglect early childhood, put little money or effort into helping parents stimulate and develop their child's multiple intelligences, fail to see that neglect at this stage becomes 'stupidity' later on, with enormous economic and social cost to the nation. We assume that 'parenting'comes naturally, we neglect 'teaching'parents about their great influence on early learning, valuing what they do, or neglect providing wider resources for parents to enhance their impact on the child's emerging intelligence.

Cooperative Learning

There is one more element in this definition of competence/intelligence that must be drawn out, before I come back to the matter of what changes should be made to ensure our children's future.

If intelligence is based on the chances an individual has to explore and activate skills of language, space, maths, music, bodily movement, the self and others, if it is contextual, problem-solving and culturally valued, then it follows that intelligence grows in conjunction with other people and not just inside the individual's brain. Competence is thus cooperative, not private. The mind is a constructing, not a receiving instrument. It works with others to build, do, construct, solve problems. Yet our education system so often denies this, as though each individual child must master certain skills, alone, and perform tests which show individual mastery.

This flies in the face of how children actually learn and is mocked by the real world outside the school. Children learn and grow in competence with other people- mother, father, siblings, friends. Few tasks are done alone. Parents help, support and guide them in getting a spoonful of food safely into the mouth, or to ride a tricycle for the first time and not fall off. A cubby house is built as a cooperative enterprise and each child's skills at climbing, nailing, decorating, concealing and mystery-making is drawn on in a jointly satisfying exercise.

No office or production line is an exercise in lone intelligence. Different people with different competences are brought together in a cooperative program to produce an end product that all feel part of. Poor management and poor productivity reflect a failure of cooperative competence.

There are systems of tutoring one's peers, learning by teaching, the multi-age small rural school which show how superior cooperative learning may be. Vygotsky suggests that: 'What children can do with the assistance of others might be . . . even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone.'

And Edward Bellamy wisely comments: 'Competition, which is the instinct of selfishness, is another word for dissipation of energy, while combination is the secret of efficient production.'

Indeed, 'none of us is as smart as all of us' (Johnson) and 'the cruelty of compelling children to work for petty and contemptible rewards- gold stars or honour rolls or report cards studded with As - for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else' (Holt) probably lies behind much of the incompetence and distaste for education of our children.

Montague writes: 'Certainly aggressiveness exists in nature, but there is also a healthy nonruthless competition, and there exist very strong drives toward social and cooperative behaviour. These forces do not operate independently but together as a whole, and the evidence strongly indicates that, in the social and biological development of all living creatures, of all these drives, the drive to cooperation is the most dominant, and biologically the most important . . . It is probable that man owes more to the operation of this principle than to any other in his own biological and social evolution.'

We would be wise to remember the biblical Ecclesiastes 4:9-13:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.... And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Yet in our schools we deny our inter-dependency and the cooperative, shared nature of intelligence. We set children apart, in a competitive one-to-one power play with teacher. Group work is sometimes allowed but assessment is of the individual. Books and other resources are not equally available, yet we call those 'cheats' who borrow or share their understandings with one another. In the current welter of 'projects', 'assignments', 'research tasks', we forget that one family has a full battery of books, computer, public contacts, a wired Mum and Dad who can help, while others don't even have access to a public library or transport to visit a museum or other resource. Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) call this doing 'symbolic violence', sorting, blaming, stigmatising people who have had no opportunity to learn the symbol systems of the dominant culture. At one end, it involves sneering at those who do not appreciate opera or ballet. At its worst, it is calling people 'dumb' when they are illiterate and have never been given a chance to learn to read. The symbolic violence lies in assuming such abilities develop 'naturally', ignoring the long process, both formal and informal, by which some children learn the valued codes of a given society or elite group.

The Importance of Play as 'Work'

There is another thread running through this discussion which, I hope, has been picked up. That is that intelligence develops paradoxically through 'the hard work of play'. Early childhood educators from Rousseau, to Froebel, to Montessori and on have always noted how intent and intense are children at play. The central importance of play, however, is too often taken to mean letting children alone to have a good time until the time when social demands slam down on them and they must work, first at school and then to earn their keep. Some parents regard 'play'as a frivolous waste of time, certainly when their children are in kindergarten or at school.

That is a fundamental misrepresentation of the nature of play and we should perhaps substitute words like playfulness, experimentation, role-taking, innovative action, and trying things out in new ways, for that is what play is. Children work very hard at their play because they are modelling and modifying their place in the world. Effort lies at the heart of all effective learning, and effort usually arises where there is some intrinsic motivation, some meaningful problem to solve, some fascinating patterns or materials to explore. The best toys are those which have open rather than closed possibilities. The best games are those where roles can be changed to test one's skills.

So when we speak of activating and extending the growth of competence in every child, we are calling for effort, hard work, challenge and stimulation, not some sort of mindless meandering through a range of options open to the child to choose if it can be bothered.

I am with Boomer in his critique of the 'progressive' approach to learning, doing 'projects' which have no clearly defined product other than their 'completion'. I am solidly on side with his call for a 'radical pragmatic' teacher (and parent) who recognises the injustice done to any child who is not taught properly to read, to enquire, to think in a problem-solving way, to understand that maths and science and language are not just 'subjects' but tools by which we can sort out, arrange, classify and control our real everyday lives.

The message to parents and other educators of every child should be to challenge, lift the lid off, demand effort, hard work and achieve that through meaningful projects and apprenticeships whose 'products' are clearly of value to the child and the culture. We have to feed the fires of competence and supply every child with opportunities to activate their multiple intelligences. Understandings develop over time so learning must engage children in purposeful and complex projects, not accepting performances which are rote, ritualised and conventionalised merely to repeat what the teacher has modelled.

Gardner (1990) writes about the need to offer children 'apprenticeships to excellence', education for understanding, not imitation. He calls for schools to be more like the 'atelier' where problems can be explored, but the master is there to enhance the child's skills, not just to wander round aimlessly ensuring every child is 'happily busy'. The best word for good learning I can think of is the French word 'engagement'. This is no mean task, for engagement depends upon the extent to which each child's environment invites and encourages that 'taking a grip' on reality. And the contexts in which today's children grow are both varied and changing. It is to this that I now turn.

The Changing Social Context of Childhood

If, as I have argued to this point, intelligences are socially produced and competences are socially distributed; if, as I have also argued, the child's mind is a constructing, active instrument working in and on other people, other objects to make sense of and thus 'control' them; if, as I have further suggested, every child has the potential to develop a range of competences, at their own pace and in their own way, it then follows that the social contexts in which children grow are crucial to their achievement of maximum potential across the range of competence areas.

As a sociologist, one who has been deeply involved in the study of families in society for over a decade, I have to report that there have been marked changes in the social ecology of childhood.

The family has always been the crucible of competence, where the basic ingredients are mixed for a later learning explosion or paste-like passivity. We know that family poverty, inadequate income to buy basic food, clothing, shelter, toys and books, can stunt a child's growth and deny exposure to so many of the elements of learning which middle class schools take for granted (Edgar 1985).

We know, too, that family conflict, tension and violence between parents or between them and their children, correlates strongly with low self-esteem, timidity, poor school performance and lack of motivation. And conflict runs across all family types (Amato 1987).

Our research also suggests that other family processes, such as the sense of family cohesion, group togetherness, strong affective relations between each parent and each child have positive effects on child competence outcomes. In addition, father attention to the child (not necessarily in doing lots of household chores or caring tasks, but being involved in decision-making and showing an interest in the child) improves the child's coping capacities; and giving the child responsibility for some tasks or chores which are clearly useful and important to the family unit as a whole enhances both self-esteem and learning performance. We also know that siblings, older brothers and sisters can have a powerful effect on competence outcomes.

Yet what is happening to the family context of many children? Whereas larger families once provided a complex and protective scaffolding for child development, we now have fewer children, with fewer adult mentors living nearby, living in separate family households. (Though these trends can be exaggerated, see McDonald 1993). The parent-child power differential has swung towards the parent in that each precious child must prove to be good and successful, yet parental confidence has been undermined by public confusion about what it means to be 'successful', either as a parent or as a child. In many families, father absence at work has been extended to mother absence, with so-called 'quality time' jeopardised by the lag between male values and attitudes (which agree they should help equally) and actual behaviour (which shows they do not). (Again, recent research suggests this gap may be narrowing as men face the new realities of sharing work/family responsibilities. See VandenHeuvel 1993.)

An irony is that many households have shifted from being the domain of the housewife to the domain of the child, with greater autonomy and less need to negotiate with an interfering parent what one can and can not eat or watch on TV (Qvortrup 1990). Yet smaller family size also means fewer equals to test oneself against in play, fewer peers in the neighbourhood to extend the range of inter- and intra- personal competences so essential to survival in a complex, interdependent society. New attitudes to marriage, greater economic independence of women have meant changed parental roles and often higher separation and divorce rates, so 'the family' for many children may now involve two parental households, two sets of extended family relatives, varied contact with each parent, a changed form of contact with (usually) the father and a whole new range of stresses, disruptions, shifts of home, school, neighbourhood.

On the wider front, families themselves exist in a changing social context. A growing heterogeneity of the population adds richness but also confusion to the value base. Growing unemployment and family poverty make for uncertainty and despair. Family pressures lead to strains on local support networks and pressures on schools now expected to retain and train every child rather than only an elite minority. The rapid pace of urban life and technological change bring access to destructive lifestyles, and children are hedged in, supervised, driven to and from activities rather than being free to explore safely their own neighbourhood. Despite greater independence from parents, today's child is also a highly organised, highly institutionalised child.

The Community as Parent

These are marked shifts and we do not yet understand their real impact on young children. Non-parental care has always existed in every society throughout history because of the parents' need to work for economic survival (Lamb and Sternberg 1991). But in today's world we are struggling to provide new and better substitutes for mother-at-home care. Creches, family day care centres, kindergartens, child care centres in the community and at work may well be better contexts for stimulating child development than being at home all day in an impoverished environment with an unhappy and isolated mother.

But we still think in either-or terms. The psychology of attachment theory and the absurd research to prove that poorly attached children are afraid of strangers (Ochiltree, forthcoming), has ignored the wider ecology of childhood which people like Bronfenbrenner (1986) and Popenoe (1988) insist must be taken into account.

What is needed is a new synthesis which sees children, especially the young, as a public resource and a public responsibility. Child museums, parks and playgrounds, the design of shopping centres and public transport should all encourage the child's curiosity, question-asking, problem- solving, challenging thought and manipulation. Groups not normally seen as relevant to early child development (such as youth or the early retired) should be shown how to assist, given opportunities to act as mentors, models, aides to parents and their young children. That most potent of modern forces, television, must be used to open up new avenues to competence, with extensive back-up materials that parents and others can use to engage the intelligences of children. The incredible giftedness of children must be nurtured not just by mothers and fathers but by every resource at the community's disposal to ensure they are surrounded by the wider ecology of a stimulating, learning- oriented society in which children really are seen as, and treated as, our future.

This article is based on a paper given by Don Edgar to the CAFHS National Conference, 'Ensuring Our Future: The Fabric of Childhood in Australian Society', in Adelaide in May 1991.


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  • Armstrong, T. (1991), Awakening Your Child's Natural Genius: Enhancing curiosity, Creativity and Learning Ability, St Martin's Press, New York. (Quotes through text taken from this book)
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