Digital Futures & Human Development After COVID-19: Invited Talk in Summer University “Critical Psychology 2021”

According to a recent study, at least 17 million people will need to altogether change their profession in the US, due to the automation and digitalisation of production and consumption by 2030 (which is a 25% higher estimation than before the COVID-19 pandemic). Already 100 years earlier i.e., in 1930, L.S. Vygotsky tried to anticipate the implications of such technological progress on human development in his article published in VARNITSO* with the title “The socialist alteration of Man”. Vygotsky’s pioneering work explores the links between the organisation of social activities and the organisation of psychological functions. Taking Vygotsky’s work as a point of departure: How can one think of the present-day technological and psycho-social changes in the aftermath of a global pandemic i.e., in a world that is more interconnected than ever before in the human history, as well as increasingly divided? What are the implications of these developments for children, young people and education? 

My talk in the Summer University “Critical Psychology 2021” explores these questions by revisiting case studies from a series of research projects, while exploring, in specific, how to best support disadvantaged children and young people to imagine yet unknown futures across urban and rural settings. 

The PowerPoint slides of the talk are available here:

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3 Years of Collective Research Endeavour at ICY: Inclusion, Childhood & Youth Research Centre, University of Leeds

[posted originally with minor amendments here]

Dear colleagues, dear postgraduate researchers,

As we are approaching the summer break, and given that this has been a particularly challenging year for all of us, I would like to thank you all for your hard work and commitment to our research activities. It will soon be three years since I undertook the Centre Director position and the plan is that another colleague will take the lead beginning from the next term. The ICY Research Centre brings together diverse scholars conducting research on learning and human development, inclusive and equitable quality education, children’s rights and sustainable development in rapidly evolving knowledge societies. Our work is informed by a broad understanding of inclusion referring to the intersection of specific resources and needs, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, mental health and wellbeing, dis-/ability, socio-economics as well as digital, cultural, religious and geographical aspects.

There are strong links between our teaching practice and our research on inclusion and, while this is very much a team effort, including work by our student education service team and our highly esteemed colleagues from other University Centres, I would like to warmly congratulate Indira Banner, Haley Davies, Katie Gathercole, Judith Hebron, Anne Luke and Jackie Salter – among many other colleagues – for the excellent achievements in recent evaluations: The Complete University Guide has placed the University of Leeds at number 18 in the UK for Education. This success follows Education subjects at Leeds being very highly ranked in the UK – and top 100 in the world – in the Times Higher Education (THE) Subject Rankings 2021.

Without getting ahead of ourselves, I believe that we can also be very proud of our REF entry, which made explicit how we all come together so that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Excellent colleagues, such as Paula Clarke, Peter Hart, Judith Hanks, Lou Harvey, Matt Homer, Gill Main, Rachel Mathieson, Judy Sayers, James Simpson, Ruth Swanwick, Aisha Walker and Lucy Taylor (to mention only a few) have been involved in outstanding projects & impact case studies, as you can read, for example, HERE and HERE.

We have achieved significant impact through our established collaboration with colleagues from across disciplines and sectors, including several other Research Centres at the University of Leeds – most importantly the Centre for Research in Digital Education, Centre for Disability Studies, Centre for Applied Education Research (i.e., Born-in-Bradford cohort study team), Centre for Immersive Technologies and Centre for Global Development. The recent podcast episodes presenting work by Bridgette Bewick on student mental health; by Fereshte Goshtasbpour & Bronwen Swinnerton on online learning, and by Miro Griffiths on disability activism can be seen as excellent examples of this very fruitful ongoing collaboration. Even though our podcast series was only recently launched, we have already had around 200 listeners on various platforms, including Anchor, Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Updates on Inclusion & Education on Weibo

I am immensely grateful to Luke McFarline for his excellent work on this front. Let me also mention that there are more than 250 scholars and partners who regularly engage with our posts on Twitter. Most importantly: I am particularly proud of the Chinese postgraduate researchers leading our Weibo account on inclusion & education, which is accessible to all students and PGRs who reside outside of Europe and may not be able to access our “Western” social media: LeedsUni教育研究中心. The leading postgraduate researchers, whom I would like to especially thank for their outstanding social media engagement are: Zhongyan Zhang, Shichong Li, Xiaowen Liu and Shouqiang Wang. We are receiving excellent applications by prospective PhD candidates from all over the world as a result of our media work and we have been highly efficient in attracting outstanding researchers from diverse geographical areas and backgrounds.

Our events have been very well attended by staff and postgraduate researchers. These include:

  • Two major externally-facing events with external stakeholders (#EDU4FUTURE in 2019 and #LINKS in 2021)
  • Reading group meetings every two months on “Current Debates on Inclusion, Childhood and Youth”
  • About two internally-facing “thinking aloud/allowed” workshops per year which provide an informal space to meet new colleagues, share research ideas, discuss raw empirical data, brainstorm on future projects and present unfinished work.

Since my very first days at the University of Leeds I have worked closely with Ruth Swanwick, who has until recently been working incredibly hard to support all of us in her role as Director of Research & Innovation. I am grateful to Ruth Swanwick for her kindness, wisdom and supportive leadership. Having worked with very different Heads of Schools at different universities, I would also like to express my gratitude to our Head of School, Alice Deignan, who has been working day and night leading the School of Education, supporting our staff and students, and ensuring that everything has functioned so smoothly over the years – and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most importantly: thank you everyone who has offered so much support and encouragement in this difficult year.

EDU4FUTURE Conference Poster, ICY 2019

As a first-generation student and an immigrant to the UK, it is vital to me that this collective research endeavour continues and I will do my best to help the next Centre Director take these activities forward. Thinking especially of the challenges which today’s children and young people – the so-called “Generation Covid-19” – will be faced with in the near future, I believe that powerful possibilities for public good can emerge if we combine research on inequalities with innovative approaches to learning in knowledge societies, as I explain on our recently launched YouTube channel.

There is always hope as we know from… Banksy.

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The Fluid Classroom: New Media in Education

Increasing numbers of children and young people from around the world are engaging in speedy communication which takes place through interactive, fast and mobile media that enable the distributed production and peer-to-peer circulation of advanced audio-visual designs and bits of information across the most different geographical areas – the prediction being that by 2025 every child and young person in the planet will have daily access to the Internet at a speed of 1 MB per second. In this frame, even before the recent school closures during the Covid-19 outbreak, schooling, teaching and learning have fluidly transcended online and offline spaces. New media and digital technologies have enabled connections between different life spheres, diverse cultural and socio-economic milieus, and different times and places that would have been impossible a few years ago.

My research with colleagues from the Netherlands, Finland and Brazil has explored the possibilities entailed in this new condition for teachers and pupils in formal educational settings as well as in spaces outside the formal education system:

Kontopodis, M. & Kumpulainen, K. (2020). Researching Young Children’s Engagement and Learning in Makerspaces: Insights from Post-Vygotskian and Post-Human Perspectives. In: A. Blum-Ross; K. Kumpulainen, J. Marsh (Eds.). Enhancing Digital Literacy and Creativity: Makerspaces in the Early Years (pp. 11-23). London: Routledge. OPEN ACCESS HERE

Da Cunha Junior F.R., Kontopodis M. & van Oers B. (2020). Online Groups in Educational Settings: An Opportunity for Argumentation. Brazilian Journal of Socio-Historical-Cultural Theory and Activity Research, 2(1), 1-22. Golden Open Access:

Da Cunha Júnior, F.R., van Kruistum C., Kontopodis, M. & van Oers B. (2019). Students on Facebook: From Observers to Collaborative Agents. Mind, Culture & Activity, 26(4), 336-352. Golden Open Access: HERE.

Kontopodis, M. (2019). The Fluid Classroom: Book Narratives, YouTube Videos & Other Metaphorical Devices. Paragrana, 28(2), 101-105. OPEN ACCESS HERE

Further details on digital childhoods & digital youth are also provided here:

Last but not least, this is a brief relevant video from a recent YouTube conference, which I organised at the University of Leeds in 2021, exploring LINKS: Learning in Inclusive Knowledge Societies after COVID19:

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“Those in power don’t listen”: Review of “Youth Participation in Democratic Life: Stories of Hope and Disillusion” by Bart Cammaerts, Michael Bruter, Shakuntala Banaji, Sarah Harrison & Nick Anstead (PalgraveMacMillan)

By Michalis Kontopodis & Myrto Nikolopoulou

Young people around the world have recently been engaging with different modes of political participation, including significant protests & social movements, such as: “XR”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Kill the Bill”, etc. How do we however define “participation” & “politics”? What are the pertinent figures and views by the young people themselves as well as by other relevant stakeholders regarding youth participation in political life? Addressing a significant gap in the relevant literature and research, the 2016 book Youth Participation in Democratic Life: Stories of Hope and Disillusion by Bart Cammaerts, Michael Bruter, Shakuntala Banaji, Sarah Harrison and Nick Anstead can still be read as a highly valuable and timely contribution to mapping the current modes and levels of political participation by young people across a wide range of European countries (Austria, Finland, France, Hungary, Poland, Spain and the UK).

Youth Participation in Democratic Life is written in a very accessible way and describes in detail the theoretical frame, methodology and results of a large-scale research project led by renowned scholars from a variety of relevant disciplines such as media and communication, political science, political psychology and youth studies. It reviews a wide range of data generated through a highly innovative mixed-methodological design (combining documentary analysis, comparative secondary data analysis, large-scale representative survey of pre-voters [16-18 years old] and young voters [18- 30 years old], an experiment in e-voting, stakeholder interviews and focus group discussions).

The book consists of two introductory chapters with relevant theoretical and methodological contributions and five empirical chapters on: elections (chapter 3), European policymaking and representation (chapter 4), volunteering (chapter 5), participation through traditional and new media (chapter 6), non-participation and exclusion (chapter 7). It analyses and assesses the contexts, nature and the diversity of young people’s participation in European democratic life and explores their views regarding the political elites who appear to run the current so-called “representative democratic systems” as well as their attitudes towards volunteering, protesting, taking part in grass root community-based initiatives and employing traditional and new media for purposes of political participation. The authors manage very well to dig into details – for example when discussing quotes by diverse young people or relevant statistical data from the various local and national contexts. At the same time, in the last part of the book, they manage to provide the reader with a very good overview of the general issues that emerged through the data analysis, which in turn leads to a series of concrete and constructive recommendations for improving modes and levels of youth participation across Europe.

It is commendable that the book explores views and modes of participation by highly diverse young populations through sampling pre-voters along with young voters from 7 European countries – thereby including “active” as well as “excluded” youth. The book does not cover though refugee youth, which was the case in other publications by the authors (de Block, et al. 2005). It could also be interesting to shed more light on right wing youth by linking the analysis to further work by the authors such as the Mapping extreme right ideology by Bruter & Harrison (2011).

A main argument of the book is that youth may not regularly engage with the standard forms of political participation not because they are apathetic, but rather because the political offer does not match their concerns, ideas, and ideals of democratic politics. Diverse groups of young people feel that “those in power don’t listen” (Cammaerts, et al. 2016: 57). Youth are therefore critical against mainstream politics and traditional media and feel that they must not merely be given a voice, but also possibilities to participate in follow-up processes and to further shape the relevant debates and policy implementation. This empirical finding fits very well with studies of youth in non-European contexts (cf. Kontopodis 2014) as well as with recent theorizing on youth development and socialization (Stetsenko 2016).

Even if the term democratic life is used in the title and widely employed in the book, the authors question therefore legal and formal understandings of democracy. While official discourses fetishize certain and marginalise other forms of participation, the authors extend the term democratic life so that it covers every form of political participation young people may be involved into: from volunteering to NGOs or sharing political views on Facebook to participating in peaceful or violent demonstrations. What is more: according to the analysis, “democratic life” does not refer only to various forms of participation but concerns contents, as well: unemployment combined with the risk of poverty and social exclusion is a significant concern for today’s youth, and a major challenge to what they see as “democratic life”.

This insightful assertion can lead to the expansion of the notion of participation, and also addresses the question, whether all forms and contents of participation are considered as solely positive and desirable per se. When considering, for example, initiatives where young people are involved in far right wing movements, participation can have totally different outcomes to what participation in democratic life entails. Summing up: even if published a few years ago, the wide array of analysis and the close attention to detail render Youth participation in democratic life: Stories of hope and disillusion a valuable and much needed contribution to the research literature in youth studies and the relevant disciplines. We are looking very much forward to discussing the book with our BA and MA students, most of whom are young people and may have participated in recent protests and social movements, such as: “XR”, “Black Lives Matter” and “Kill the Bill”.

NOTE: This blogpost is based on our book review from 2018: Kontopodis M, Nikolopoulou M. 2018. Book Review: B. Cammaerts, M. Bruter, S. Banaji, S. Harrison and N. Anstead (2016). Youth Participation in Democratic Life: Stories of Hope and Disillusion (Palgrave). YOUNG. 26(4), pp. 113-115.


Bruter, M., and Harrison, S. 2011. Mapping extreme right ideology: An empirical geography of the European extreme right. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cammaerts, B., Bruter, M., Banaji, S., Harrison, S., and Anstead, N. 2016. Youth participation in democratic life: Stories of hope and disillusion. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

de Block, L., & Buckingham, D., and Banaji, S. 2005. Children in communication about migration (CHICAM): Final project report. London: Center for the Study of Children, Youth & Media, Institute of Education, University of London.

Kontopodis, M. (2014). Neoliberalism, pedagogy and human development: Exploring time, mediation and collectivity in contemporary schools. London and New York: Routledge.

Nolas, S-M., Varvantakis, C. and Aruldoss, V. 2016 “(Im)possible conversations? Activism, childhood and everyday life.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 4(1), 252-265.

Stetsenko, A. 2016. The transformative mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

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New book: Revisiting Vygotsky for Social Change

Very pleased to announce the publication of the second volume in our Peter Lang book series “(Post-)Critical Global Studies“: Revisiting Vygotsky for Social Change.

This book edited by Adolfo Tanzi Neto, Fernanda Liberali & Manolis Dafermos, brings together researchers from across different countries and disciplines, who are currently employing Vygotsky’s theory in order to understand and deal with new social challenges arising in our globalized and yet, deeply divided world. The chapters of this book shed light onto the foundational principles of Vygotsky’s theory while adding critical and social perspectives as a way of expanding Vygotsky’s legacy to global contemporary issues. Through a series of case studies from across so-called “Global North” and “Global South” settings, this books explores crises and dramatic life events; critical reflection, imagination and social change; social dynamics and human development; ethical-political issues, as well as activism and political engagement. The book has been published as a paperback, so that it can be easily purchased without being too expensive.

Further details are provided here:

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Cultural-historical Activity Theory Travels to Greece

How have socio-cultural, cultural-historical and activity approaches to education and psychology traveled to Greece over the last three decades? It has been a pleasure for me to collaborate with M. Dafermos and A. Chronaki and explore how these approaches have been introduced in the Greek context while identifying key dimensions of this process, such as: diverse interpretation of original works, key actors in academic teaching and research and linkages with educational policy and activism beyond the university spaces.

Greece with its specific history of military dictatorship, constitutional change, varied struggles for democracy within the university, European integration, and current crisis and neoliberal reforms is seen as a sample case; taking this case as a point of departure, we develop a meta-theoretical frame on how to evaluate the various ways in which socio-cultural-historical and activity approaches to education and psychology have traveled across social, cultural, historical, institutional, political, regional, and also, increasingly globalized contexts of education.

GOLDEN OPEN ACCESS: Dafermos, M., Chronaki, A., Kontopodis, M. (2020) Cultural-historical Activity Theory Travels to Greece: Actors, Contexts and Politics of Reception and Interpretation. Cultural-Historical Psychology. 2020. Vol. 16(2), 31-44.

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Now published as paperback: Global Youth in Digital Trajectories

“This is a fascinating and thought provoking volume on youth engagement with digital technology and one that is genuinely transnational and transdisciplinary in flavour. Studies of gaming, video production and social media show how new technologies are woven into the lives of young people, supporting their developing sense of agency and civic engagement. An important contribution to the field.”

Guy Merchant, Professor of Literacy in Education, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

9781138236035Edited by Michalis Kontopodis, Christos Varvantakis and Christoph Wulf, the volume titled “Global Youth in Digital Trajectories” has just been published as a paperback with Routledge.

Global Youth in Digital Trajectories explores the most recent developments regarding youth and media in a global perspective. Representing an innovative contribution to virtual research methods, this book presents research carried out in areas as diverse as Greece, the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, Russia, and India. The volume examines which new anthropological, and cultural-historical conditions and changes arise in connection with the widespread presence of digital media in the lives of the networked teens. Indeed, it is highlighted that the differentiation between an offline world and an online world is inapplicable to the lives of most young people.


Table of Contents

Introduction: Exploring Global Youth in Digital Trajectories

Michalis Kontopodis, Christos Varvantakis & Christoph Wulf

Chapter 1: Digital Identity Building: A Dialogue with Berlin Technology & Computer Science Students – Nika Daryan & Christoph Wulf

Chapter 2: Young People, Facebook and Pedagogy: Recognizing Contemporary Forms of Multimodal Text Making – Jeff Bezemer & Gunther Kress

Chapter 3: Playing Sports with Nintendo Wii in Berlin: Technography, Interactivity & Imagination – Nino Ferrin & Michalis Kontopodis

Chapter 4: Digital Filmmaking as a Means for the Development of Reflection: A Case Study of a Disabled University Student in Moscow – Olga Rubtsova & Natalya Ulanova

Chapter 5: Youth Tubing the Greek Crisis: A Cultural-Historical Perspective– Manolis Dafermos, Sofia Triliva and Christos Varvantakis

Chapter 6: Dove YouTube Campaign “The Pressure on Young Girls & Women to Fit an Artificial Body Ideal”: A Sequential Analysis – Alexios Brailas, Giorgos Alexias & Konstantinos Koskinas

Chapter 7: Youth, Facebook and Mediated Protest in India: A Cross-Media Exploration – Supriya Chotani

Chapter 8: Enhancing Multimedia Use in State Secondary Schools in São Paulo: Α Critical Collaborative Perspective – Fernanda Liberali, Maria Cecília

Magalhães, Maria Cristina Meaney, Camila Santiago, Maurício Canuto, Feliciana Amaral, Bruna Cababe & Jessica Santos

Instead of an Epilogue: Iconophagy: Impact and Impulses for Global Youth & Education – Norval Baitello jun.

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Developmental Psychology: History, Critique & Future Perspectives by M.K. & S. Rani (University of Leeds)

The Modern Origins of Developmental Psychology

Numerous ancient religious and philosophical texts refer to children, upbringing and education. The term psychological development, however, has not been used in its contemporary meaning until the early modernity. Psychological development implies a normative understanding of time as leading to predefined outcomes that apply to everybody in quite a universal way. The scientific subdiscipline that studies psychological development – developmental psychology – emerged in parallel to the establishment of the modern education system and its modern origins have been closely linked to evolution theory. Developmental psychology became the discipline that generated the required knowledge on child development, so that mass schooling could effectively be organised according to children’s needs and abilities. This change happened in the early days of industrialisation, when rural populations left the countryside and moved to newly established urban areas as to work in factories. Learning-by doing i.e. acquiring skills related to farming and agriculture gave then its place to mass education i.e. to learning in the classroom how to read, write and calculate.

Beginning with England, the Elementary Education Act commonly known as Forster’s Education Act, set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 12 in England and Wales in 1870. It established local education authorities with defined powers while authorising public money for schools and teachers. Seven years later in 1877, the English biologist, Charles Darwin, best known for his contributions to evolution theory, published the first modern developmental psychological publication: “A Biographical Sketch of an Infant” (Mind, 2, 285-294). In England in the Middle Ages, development was the act of unfolding or unwrapping the linen strips in which a baby was enveloped for their arms and legs to grow straight, according to the popular beliefs of that time.

Psychological development, in modern times, signified the inner unfolding of natural forces and predispositions until certain outcomes have been achieved. The emerging scientific discipline of psychology defined these outcomes as well as provided formalised knowledge on how to best support and streamline development in modern, mass educational settings for these outcomes to be achieved. A variety of subareas of developmental psychology have been established focusing on infancy, childhood, adolescence; atypical development; parenting; peer interaction; teaching and learning, language, cognitive, emotional and moral development, respectively.

Even if the day to day work of taking care of, nurturing and teaching children has often been left to women, so-called big white men had the power and rigor to establish developmental psychology as a scientific subdiscipline. What exactly typical or healthy psychological development should be, has not been much questioned or debated upon; certain forms of being and becoming have been taken for granted thereby reflecting Northern-European cultural values and social norms. Dividing children in typically and atypically developing aimed to optimize positive development as well as to prevent or minimize problematic outcomes. At the same time, this normative knowledge promoted European and masculine tropes of development as universal and rendered all other forms of being and becoming as underdeveloped, pathological and abnormal.

Critical developmental psychological approaches have questioned the normative understanding of development as progress that applies to everybody and leads to predefined outcomes in quite a universal way. In the 1980s, critical psychologist Klaus Holzkamp (1927-1995) criticized classic developmental psychological approaches for colonising childhood, as developmental psychology does not envisage childhood in its own right, but as an intermediate stage leading to adulthood. In the 1990s, feminist developmental psychologist Erica Burman (1960-) in her seminar publication Deconstructing Developmental Psychology, interrogated the relations of power, the assumptions on gender, family life and parenting as well as the practices surrounding the psychology of child development and provided a critical evaluation of the role and contribution of developmental psychology within social practice.

Nature vs. Nurture

While most modern developmental psychological thinking shared the focus on ideal developmental outcomes as universally valid, there has been much disagreement on the primacy and the interplay of nature and nurture in determining human psychology. To mention only a few prominent figures: Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and Jean Piaget (1896-1980) have founded opponent schools of thought in this frame.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) envisaged the unconscious forces underlying psychosexual development as prevalent. He conceptualised human development as the outcome of innate drives of aggression and libido processed through five stages. The oral stage, from birth to year one, is when the infant’s greatest satisfaction derives from the stimulation of the mouth and lips. Freud believed that inappropriate oral stimulation could lead to oral fixation in later life. Oral personalities engage in oral behaviours particularly when stressed i.e. smoking, nail biting and thumb suckers. At the anal stage from years 1-3, the greatest pleasure for the child is gained from control. The child desires tend to be in conflict with the reality of the outside world, signalling the development of the ego. Fixation in this stage results in anal-explosive personalities that result in the adult being messy, disorganised and rebellious. The phallic stage, years 3-6, is when the child becomes aware of the anatomical differences between the sexes. This awareness sets in motion the conflict between erotic attraction, resentment, rivalry, jealousy and fear which is called the Oedipus complex for boys and the Electra complex for girls. Both these sub-stages are resolved, according to Freud, through the adapting to characteristics of the mother for the girls and father for the boys. In the latency stage, years 5-6 to puberty, sexual drives become dormant, the focus instead becomes play with other children of the same gender. Genital stage, from puberty to adulthood, is when the individual engages with sexual experimentation which is eventually resolved with a loving one-to- one relationship with another person of a similar age.

Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) emphasised, on the contrary, the role of external stimuli (such as rewards and punishment) in shaping human behaviour, explaining development as a product of nurture. Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments involved learning to associate an unconditioned stimulus enabling a particular response with a new conditioned stimulus, so that the new stimulus brings about the same response. For example, Pavlov’s salivating dog experiment identified three stages in the development of behaviour: before conditioning, during conditioning and after conditioning. Before conditioning, food is the unconditioned stimulus, with salivation being the unconditioned response. The bell is rung, with no response elicited. During conditioning, however, the bell and food become the unconditioned stimuli, with salivation being the unconditioned response. After conditioning, the bell becomes the conditioned stimulus and the salivation the conditioned response. In a quite similar way, according to this classic school of thought, human behaviour is established and can be scientifically explained.

In a yet different perspective, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) explored the development of mental functions such as abstract thinking or memory as resulting from biological maturation. Piaget’s understanding of cognitive development is different to previous developmental theories as the child is an active agent through continual interaction with their environment supported with biological maturation. Piaget describes four stages of cognitive development. Sensorimotor stage (birth to 1 years) is when the child become aware that an object still exists even if it hidden known as object permanence. The preoperational (2-7 years) stage is where the child communicate to others through their ‘language’ of symbols. Concrete operational (7-11 years) is the beginning of the child’s process to thinking logically, being able to understand that something can stay the same despite a change in appearance. The final stage of formal operations (11 years and over), is when the child can begin to think about abstract concepts. According to Piaget’s classic works, these stages are natural and rather universal in human development.

Different methods and approaches have been employed in developing the above-mentioned theoretical approaches, which, in turn, resulted in the establishment of distinct schools of psychological thinking: unstructured oral accounts resulted in psychoanalysis, experiments in behaviourism, tests, interviews and measurements in cognitivism. The emergence of each distinct paradigm has often rendered the previous dominating one obsolete or forgotten – unfortunately with very little dialogue taking place between the different approaches. Over the course of psychology’s history more complex and synthetic approaches have of course been developed such as the school of cultural-historical psychology founded by Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). The nature vs. nurture debate underlies contemporary research with cognitive neuroscientists such as Michael Gazzaniga (1939-) attributing psychological states to brain mechanisms while constructionist and discursive psychologists such as Kenneth Gergen (1935-) and Jonathan Potter (1956-) emphasize the primary role of language and social construction in human psychology.

The “Individual” as Unit of Analysis

Developmental psychology has commonly focused on the individual as the primary unit of development commonly understanding the ideal adult as balanced, coherent and accountable. The word individual seems to refer to its Latin etymology: an unbreakable unit; the collective is often described as being more than the sum of the individuals involved in it – without however that it is always made explicit how the collective and the individual may be linked.

When focusing on individual children as the interchangeable participants randomly allocated to an experimental condition or a survey in developmental psychological research, the specificities of the child are not at the centre of the researchers’ attention, because the researchers are interested in the abstract properties of children in general or the average effect of some intervention on learning and development, and not in a child’s own historical and idiosyncratic individuality. As an example, Piaget’s classical three-mountains task was used to measure the age in which children move beyond thinking egocentrically to decentred thinking i.e. begin to recognise that there are more viewpoints then their own and crucially recognise others. The three mountains task would begin with the child sitting at a table and be presented with a model of three mountains that were different in appearance. Once the child had returned to their seat a doll would be placed at one of the mountains. The child would then be asked to select from 10 pictures that show different views, the child would have to select the view the doll would have. Children of 7 years were the only age category to do this correctly showing decentred thinking.

In research based on interpretative interviewing and ethnographic observations, individual children are often referred to in the role, in which they are positioned, while they are being interviewed and/or observed, e.g., student, daughter, patient, member of a specific community etc. In this case, the individual child is often seen through the “eyes” of a specific institution or the profession. This is often marginalising and devaluing the voice of the child, still reinforcing the societally constructed hierarchy of adult then child.

Theory and method remain in all cases integrally linked, as different methods lead to different results, and have even led to different paradigms of psychological thinking, as mentioned above. Relational approaches to developmental psychology have more recently focused on activity systems, institutional relations, and communities of practice as to move beyond the individual as a unit of analysis and explore learning, development and social interaction as contextualised and interlinked psychosocial processes. In previous work (Kontopodis, 2014), we have explored links between individual and collective human development in a wide range of educational and community settings around the globe. We introduced a differentiation between two discrete modes of human development: individual development (as in classic developmental psychology) and development of new societal relations, which is at the same time individual and collective. Exploring the links between individual and collective developments in open-ended ways is of particular importance especially when referring to the education and social integration of vulnerable children from minority communities, who have often been placed in the margins of developmental psychological research as well as in the margins of society.

Psychological Knowledge, Values & Positionality

Developmental psychology has often been criticised as the science of the white, heterosexual, adult, middle-class men and has sometimes even been explicitly racist – especially in its early phases. Historically formal testing i.e. examination, assignments, practical’s, questionnaires, scientific research, and especially intelligence quotients (IQ), developed by Alfred Binnet (1857-1911), was used as a way to ‘scientifically’ support white supremacy. Although IQ testing is less popular in modern day, formal testing through examination and assignments within British Education is a way segregation is still practiced today with formal testing beginning at age 6. This initiates early segregation between more or less abled children creating a hierarchy of groups determining their path of progression based on their intelligence.

Significant efforts to reflect on the values, contexts and limitations of classic developmental psychological theories and propose alternatives to these from feminist, LGBTQ, post-colonial and other critical standpoints have indeed taken place in the second half of the 20th century. Prominent female psychologists such as Carol Gilligan (1936-), Valerie Walkerdine (1947-), Anna Stetsenko (1958-) and Erica Burman (1960-) and have emphasised the significance of care, social justice, equality and relationality in human development as well as questioned the norms underlying classic developmental psychological theories. LGBTQ theorists (from beyond the discipline of psychology) such as Judith Butler (1956-) have introduced plural ways of understanding gender, sexuality, race, health, and disability while a variety of movements to establish so-called “indigenous” or “postcolonial” psychologies have taken place around the globe – beginning with the seminal “Black Skin, White Masks” published by African scholar Frantz Fanon (1925/1961) in the 1960s.

More recently, Beverly Daniel Tatum (1954-) developed psychological theory and research with a focus on the development of racial identity. She introduced a specific method of confronting racial stereotypes, the so-called three F’s: felt, found and feel. For example, if one would be confronting another person’s racial stereotypes, one would use the ‘three F’s’ in the following way: “I felt that the words you used were harmless; but I found out that those types of words reinforce stereotypes and create a divide. I feel that it’s really important to let you know that I don’t think those words are appropriate to use.” Such a method of positive confrontation is in opposition to classic psychological research, as it does not overlook history and preconceived cultural norms, but takes these as points of departure in attributing responsibility and encouraging agency with the explicit aim of tackling racism in society.

Taking a reflective stance towards classic psychological research, one could argue that there are multiple ways of being, becoming and developing. How one understands and evaluates development depends on one’s epistemological, ontological and theoretical presumptions as well as on the methodologies, techniques and values involved in studying development. Researchers are not neutral entities external to the research procedure, but choose the focus of their research and contribute (not always consciously) to the complex dynamics of institutional and cultural continuity and change when producing, applying and disseminating developmental psychological knowledge.

The question poses itself in this frame, why shouldn’t children themselves participate actively in the production of developmental psychological knowledge, as well? Children are indeed commonly seen by psychologists as the recipients of the universally valid knowledge and the intervention programmes that adults design for them. Contemporary sociologists and anthropologists of childhood have recently achieved significant outcomes in making research with diverse children and not only about or for them. With the use of visual technologies, it is not difficult nowadays to employ innovative means of communication and enable diverse children to express themselves, to experiment with different possibilities of organising their institutional everydayness and to participate actively in the production of knowledge on themselves and their realities. Such participatory research could inspire new advances in developmental psychology, too – most importantly: it could enable developmental psychology to overcome its Euro- adult- and male- centredness. Will participatory methodologies indeed transform the future of developmental psychology? Will developmental psychology, as a scientific subdiscipline, move beyond its contested cultural history? We leave this question open and look forward to the answer, which imminent developments in science and society may stipulate.

Further readings

Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development. Boston: Pearson.

Burman, E. (2017). Deconstructing developmental psychology (3rd edition). New York: Routledge.

Christensen, P., & James, A. (2017). Research with children: Perspectives and practices (3rd edition). New York: Routledge.

Fanon, F. (1952/1967). Black skin, white masks. New York: Groove.

Kontopodis, M. (2014). Neoliberalism, pedagogy & human development. New York: Routledge.

Slater, A. & Quinn, P. (Eds.) (2012). Developmental psychology: Revisiting the classic studies. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Stetsenko, A. (2017). The Transformative mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Tatum, B. D. (1997). “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: A psychologist explains the development of racial identity. New York: Basic Books.

Walkerdine, V. (1993). Beyond developmentalism? Theory & Psychology, 3(4), 451-469.

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Mapping Global Childhood & Youth Futures

Special thanks to everybody who attended my inaugural lecture “Mapping Global Childhood & Youth Futures” at the School of Education, University of Leeds yesterday. I feel very thankful to family, friends & colleagues from around the world for their kind support since I completed my PhD in 2007. PP slides including videos & hyperlinks from the inaugural lecture are available HERE.

Since 1795 when philosopher Immanuel Kant published his essay on Perpetual Peace there has been much debate on cosmopolitanism i.e. the idea that all human beings to belong to a single “global” community, based on a shared morality that would apply to all people independently of their races, colours and ethnicities, local histories, gender, age or any other specific characteristics. This proposition has been much criticised by scholars emphasising Otherness – in its different facets: Otherness as a general principle (e.g. in phenomenology), Otherness as a concrete product of the history of colonialism, and Otherness in terms of intersecting age, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, colour, ethnicity and/or dis-/ability.

KontopodisHow do these debates play out in a world that is interconnected through the flows of capital, technologies, populations, media images and ideas as well as divided through nationalist movements, inequalities, and in-/ visible borders and walls?

In my inaugural lecture, I explored this question by revisiting case studies from my research projects from the past ten years.

Drawing on research from these diverse contexts I reflected on what global childhood and youth studies could entail in the contemporary frame, in two directions:

  • hyper-connecting youth & co-experiencing developmental crises in the context of global crisis
  • remembering common pasts & mapping yet unknown futures in urban and rural educational settings

I concluded my lecture with rethinking pedagogy and education while exploring how globalisation from above could be transformed into globalisation from below.

Further details are given in the various books and articles above.

University Webpage:

Twitter: @m_kontopodis

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De-centring the Psychology Curriculum: Diversity, Social Justice & Psychological Knowledge

The psychology curriculum has close ties to the histories and cultural traditions of industrialised societies’ white middle-class populations, so it is unclear how it may relate to the values and interests of students from a variety of ethnic, racial and socio-economic backgrounds in the contemporary higher education settings. To address this question, me and my colleague Marta Jackowska, we established an innovative research project of de-centring the psychology curriculum, so that BA students from diverse backgrounds could familiarise themselves with cultural-historical, postcolonial, feminist and other critical approaches and reflect on the histories, contexts and limitations of classic developmental psychological theories and research. We also conducted focus group discussions with the students as to explore the teaching of psychology through their perspectives. The findings of our research form the basis for critical reflection on the positionality of psychological knowledge and the possibilities and challenges of de-centring the psychology curriculum in the contemporary university settings.

The relevant article (published with Theory & Psychology) is available HERE.

Looking very much forward to your feedback.

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