The Roots of Research. By Keith White

For this issue of TTCJ with its focus on research I intend to go back to the very origins of research.  To do this it is necessary to connect the educational philosophy of Frederich Fröbel, with studies of plants and marine biology.

First Fröbel.  I came across his educational theory when researching in India.  Fröbel’s methods and resources are based on original and primary research that he undertook into the way children develop. He did this by observing very young children (and their mothers) at play in the open air.  (By doing this in public spaces he overcame one of the fundamental challenges of any social research which is gaining appropriate permission to observe and analyse what is happening.) One of his key discoveries was that physical movement was one of the primary features of, and triggers to, learning and discovery.  Children are designed to move, to engage with the natural world and its movement (say through running water; clouds; the distinctive behaviours of insects, animals and birds; leaves and branches; through the growth of fruit and shrubs; through active interaction with wood and other materials, reshaping and combining them).

The toddler who has just begun to move of her own accord, even to crawl, stand and walk, has unknowingly set about the most important and strategic research of her life.  Her movement will bring her into contact with every aspect of the natural and social world, earth, air, fire and water, involving any number of bumps and scratches, and endless discoveries and connections.  It is a mind-bogglingly complex project which is the origin of all research.  It is not an option, but integral to human being, survival and growth.  In order to make sense of the natural and social world in which we find ourselves we have to find ways of understanding and naming its constituent parts, their characteristics, and how they interact with each other, and respond to our engagement with them.

Armed with the evidence of his research, Fröbel went on to model educational methods, tools (“gifts”) and environments in which children were encouraged to move, even to dance as part of the whole process of all learning including subjects such as maths and grammar.  This was in sharp contrast to prevailing methods of formal education that assumed children would be seated, sitting still and learning by rote, listening or writing.

Now for (scientific) research into the natural world.  Here I would like to cite the sea squirt as one of the very best examples of how physical movement relates to the brain and intellectual development.  It is such a common feature that we may overlook the significance of the fact that whereas no plant has a brain, all animals do.  Why is that?  The evidence suggests that it is because animals move (albeit at different speeds and in different ways and mediums, including air and water).  And that movement requires constant checking of coordinates, calculation of the substance of materials…or to give it its usual name, research.

The sea squirt is a remarkable proof of this.  In the early part of its life cycle it swims around like a tadpole, its movement requiring and made possible by its brain and nerve cord. But when it matures, it fixes itself to a rock, where it then stays in that one place like a plant.  Now here comes the exciting bit: because it no longer moves, it has no need of its brain, so it digests its own brain and nerve cord!  I came across this example in the book by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell, Human Givens (Chalvington: HG Publishing, 2018, page 6), but the data can be found in any encyclopaedia.

Putting educational philosophy and marine research together it seems that we have evidence of the roots, the DNA, of research.  Of course, research comes in many shapes and forms, and can be of considerable quantitative complexity, but in essence, it is about movement, about growth, about change and modification, size, numbers, substance, the dynamics of groups.  And children who thrive are encouraged not only to move physically (without the worrying advice accompanying every move: “Be careful”), but to allow their minds to wander, and their imaginations to dream.

In his seminal book, Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler argued (with many examples) that the great breakthroughs in scientific research came through something very like play.  Einstein imagined how things would look from two different model trains travelling alongside each other.  There are stories about Newton and an apple, and Archimedes and an overflowing bath.  However apocryphal these may be, there can be little doubt that such breakthroughs did not come about by observation, linear thought or number-crunching.  And you will have noticed that the three examples chosen at random, all involve physical movement.

With this in mind, I would like to draw this piece by drawing from some of the seminal research in child development and to show how observation of movement plays a critical role.

Much contemporary child development theory draws from the research of Rene Spitz and William Goldfarb and John Bowlby done in the 1940s and 1950s. There were a number of types of studies done, but a theme in all of them concerned observation of how children moved (or remained stationary).  A major variable in the samples was between children who were in residential institutions (orphanages, camps or hospitals) and those who lived at home or with foster carers.  There are harrowing films that demonstrate the distinctive and divergent reactions of each category of children to the presence or absence of an adult or carer.  Those who have seen them never get over the sad rocking of children constrained within cage-like cots or beds.  Visits to zoos confirm a similar pattern in some animals that are restricted and kept from their natural environments.

Carefully studied, these movements indicate something deeply significant about the feelings and emotional state of the children, that paved the way for much understanding of separation and loss.  Dan Hughes developed his therapeutic work with children who had not experienced secure attachment on these insights, and significantly one of his contributions to practical therapy concerns attunement, and what he refers to as the “dance” between parent and child.  We are back to physical movement as a way into much, much more.

A parting reference to the research of Piaget.  His experiments focussed on how children at different stages of development conceived and understood the relationships between shape, size and space.  Could a child imagine for example how things appeared to a person situated in another place?  It doesn’t take much thought to realise how important this is to any, and all, human relationships: discovering how “the other” sees and feels about things from another perspective.

Not only are these examples focussed on movement, they also show adult researchers observing and learning from children.  It’s not obvious how they could have arrived at their conclusions without the assistance, conscious or otherwise of real children.

If we could as a society see how the very best form of learning is all about enabling children to do research, and to gain confidence in exploring the world including human relationships for themselves, there could be the seeds of a gentle revolution not only in education and schools, but in the way we understand human development, and go about parenting, therapy and care…not to mention research!

A poem that seems best to capture the essence of learning together in the natural world.  It is by Jane Tyson Clement, and imagines a teacher and a child in some sort of educational setting:

Child, though I take your hand
and walk in the snow;
though we follow the track of the mouse together,
though we try to unlock together the mystery
of the printed word, and slowly discover
why two and three make five
always, in an uncertain world –

child, though I am meant to teach you much,
what is it, in the end,
except that together we are
meant to be children
of the same Father
and I must unlearn
all the adult structure
and the cumbering years

and you must teach me
to look at the earth and the heaven
with your fresh wonder.


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