Part 2: The Implications of Dispositions for Early Childhood Education Practices  Dispositions: Definitions and Implications for Early Childhood Practice

There are at least seven reasons for suggesting that dispositions should be included among the goals (each of which should be stated in terms of strengthening desirable and weakening undesirable dispositions) of early childhood education. The most important reason is that the acquisition of knowledge and skills alone does not guarantee that they will be used and applied. As Cantor (1990) puts it, "having" is not necessarily "doing." For example, it is likely that most children have the capacity to listen, usually referred to as listening skills, but they may or may not have the disposition to be listeners. Similarly, there is some suggestion in the research on social development that children with social difficulties often have the skills required for competent peer relationships, but do not employ them with sufficient strength or frequency. Since skills are likely to be improved with use, teaching strategies should take into account ways that the dispositions associated with them can be strengthened.

Second, dispositional considerations are important because the instructional processes by which some knowledge and skills are acquired may themselves damage or undermine the disposition to use them. For example, one risk of early formal instruction in reading skills is that the amount of drill and practice required for successful reading of the English language at an early age may undermine children's dispositions to be readers (Katz, 1992). It is clearly not useful for a child to learn skills if, in the processes of acquiring them, the disposition to use them is damaged. On the other hand, having the disposition to be a reader (if such a disposition were possible), for example, without the requisite skills would also not be desirable. Thus the acquisition of reading skills and the disposition to be a reader should be mutually inclusive goals of education.

Third, some important dispositions relevant to education, such as the disposition to investigate, may be thought of as inborn. When children's experiences support the manifestations of a disposition with appropriate scaffolding (see Rogoff, Gauvain, and Ellis, 1990) and environmental conditions, it is likely to become robust and without such supportive experiences it is likely to weaken if not extinguish. Though knowledge and skills not acquired early in life might be acquired later, dispositions are probably less amenable to reacquisition once damaged or extinguished.

Fourth, the processes of selecting curriculum and teaching strategies should include considerations of how desirable dispositions can be strengthened and undesirable dispositions can be weakened. In the case of desirable dispositions, it seems reasonable to assume they are strengthened when opportunity to manifest them is available, and vice versa for undesirable ones. For example, if the disposition to investigate is accepted as worthy of strengthening, then a curriculum and appropriate teaching strategies must be designed accordingly. If the disposition to accept peers of diverse backgrounds is to be strengthened, then similarly, opportunity to manifest such acceptance must be available.

Fifth, on the basis of the evidence accumulated from research on mastery versus performance motivation, it seems reasonable to suggest that there is an optimum amount of positive feedback for young children above which children may become preoccupied with their performance and the judgments of others rather than involvement in the task, and hence their learning would be acquired at the expense of their disposition to learn. What constitutes an optimum level is likely to vary widely in any group of children, and must be determined by close observations of their reactions to adult feedback.

Sixth, if we agree that dispositions are sufficiently important aspects of children's development and education to be among the goals, then they must be included in the evaluation and assessment of an educational program. Inclusion of dispositions as goals requires determination of which dispositions to include and how their manifestation can be assessed.

Seventh, dispositions are not likely to be acquired through didactic processes, but are more likely modeled by young children as they experience being around people who exhibit them. Therefore, teachers and parents might consider what dispositions can be seen in them by the children they are responsible for. If teachers want their young pupils to have robust dispositions to investigate, hypothesize, experiment, conjecture, and so forth, they might consider making their own such intellectual dispositions more visible to the children. In many years of observations in preschool programs, I have yet to observe a teacher say something like "I've been wondering whether this is the best time to do so-and-so. What do you think?" or, "I'm not sure if this is the best place to put this [piece of equipment]. Anybody got any ideas?" or, "When I thought about your question, I thought that the answer might be X or Y. It would be interesting to find out what the answer is," or "I haven't thought about [X] that way before," and so forth. The list of potential ways that teachers of young children could exhibit the intellectual dispositions to be strengthened and supported in the early years is potentially very long and deserves serious attention in the course of curriculum planning and teacher education.


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