Historical Theories on Development
Preformationist View: Well into the 18th century, children
were merely thought of as little adults. Preformationism, or
the belief that a tiny, fully formed human is implanted in the
sperm or egg at conception and then grows in size until birth,
was the predominant early theory. Children were believed to
possess all their sensory capabilities, emotions, and mental
aptitude at birth, and as they developed these abilities unfolded
on a predetermined schedule (Thomas, 1979). The environment
was thought to play no role in determining development.
John Locke (1632-1704): Locke, a British philosopher, refuted
the idea of innate knowledge and instead proposed that children
are largely shaped by their social environments, especially their
education as adults teach them important knowledge. He
believed that through education a child learns socialization, or what is needed to be an
appropriate member of society. Locke advocated thinking of a child’s mind as a Tabula Rosa
or blank slate, and whatever comes into the child’s mind comes from the environment. Locke
emphasized that the environment is especially powerful in the child’s early life because he
considered the mind the most pliable then. Locke indicated that the environment exerts its
effects through associations between thoughts and feelings, behavioral repetition, imitation, and
rewards and punishments (Crain, 2005). Locke’s ideas laid the groundwork for the behavioral
perspective and subsequent learning theories of Pavlov, Skinner and Bandura.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778): Like Locke, Rousseau also believed that children were
not just little adults. However, he did not believe they were blank slates, but instead developed
according to a natural plan which unfolded in different stages (Crain, 2005). He did not believe
in teaching them the correct way to think, but believed children should be allowed to think by
themselves according to their own ways and an inner, biological timetable. This focus on
biological maturation resulted in Rousseau being considered the father of developmental
psychology. Followers of Rousseau’s developmental perspective include Gesell, Montessori,
and Piaget.


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