In her book Children’s Minds, she distinguishes between thinking embedded in natural contexts and other thinking that is not embedded. Embedded knowledge and skills come easy, non-embedded knowledge and skills we find hard. This is similar to Geary’s distinction between primary and secondary learning, although his theory is informed by evolutionary psychology, hers is based on developmental psychology.
She places great emphasis on reading as a skill, as it frees us from embedded knowledge, not just to read that which is written by others but as a way to reflect on language and one’s own mind. Her experiments in developmental psychology contradicted Piaget and she recommended that children were capable of learning much earlier than he had suggested, in, for example, mathematics.
She proposed four ‘modes’ of learning:
Point mode – immediate present
Line mode – ability to think forwards and backwards to past and future
Construct mode – make the leap from the specific to general
Transcendent mode – thing abstractly beyond space and time
These are cumulative, in other words they are retained as new forms of thinking develop. What is important here is that the first two come naturally, the later modes need to be taught and learned. She rejects the child-centred approach of Neil and to a degree Rousseau, as the child’s perspectives are necessarily limited and need their mind deliberately opened up to possibilities and new knowledge and skills. This, she insists, does not mean an overstructured and standardized approach to education.
In Human Minds she turned her attention to another problem, the underplaying of emotion in learning. Unlike most learning theorists, she sees, like Hume, that thought itself is intimately bound up with emotion. The affective mode in education is too often ignored for a purely rational approach. To ignore the affective side of learning is to ignore what many need to be motivated in learning.
Donaldson was welcome brake on the fixed nature of Piaget’s developmental stages. She was sensitive to the problems teachers face when teaching in the face of embedded cognition, careful to avoid being both too child-centric and too didactic. She had a significant influence on teacher training and was perhaps overshadowed by her less careful peer – Piaget.