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Dr Andrew O'Shea

Spotlight on Research: Growing into childhood - philosophy, wellbeing and human development

This week's Spotlight on Research is with Dr Andrew O’Shea, Lecturer in Philosophy of Education and Human Development, Coordinator of the Subject of Human Development, DCU School of Human Development

Andrew, you are interested in several aspects of human development, what does the subject cover?

“Human development is an interdisciplinary field that looks at humans across the lifespan and over a longer historical timeline. The subject emerged in Ireland through some visionary educationalists at St Patrick's College, about 25 years ago and today in DCU Human Development combines psychology, sociology and philosophy to study human beings through the lens of contemporary concerns; it's very person-centred. From teaching human development across education and humanities for many years, my interests have evolved in the direction of childhood, wellbeing and ill-being.”

Why is childhood such an interesting area for research?

“There is a lot to explore. We usually think we know where childhood begins, and we argue over where it ends. In ancient Athens, the Greek ideal was based on manliness and that often negatively informed their attitudes to and treatment of children, we need only think of the brutal education regime of the Spartans. Christianity introduced a more sentimental and spiritual view of the early years. My work involves a philosophical history of childhood through the ages with a particular focus on the emergence of our modern western concept of childhood and how it is understood today. I like to think that childhood has helped us to become more human.” 

How does that relate to education?

“Historically education, specifically primary education, has driven a more positive understanding of childhood that emphasises learning and play and values that are appropriate to the early years over a view in the past that didn’t see children as being fully human, at least not until they left the early years behind. Childhood was considered against an adult norm of development, as ‘not yet’, but that has changed especially in the last 50 years. Childhood has become something where children can be seen as participants in their own development. That said, childhood today can also be seen as an adult construct which is oppressive; something children must 'escape' from. We shouldn't take it for granted. It is a contested space and this contested space is something I examine and critique in my teaching and research.”

Tell us about your interest in wellbeing and ill-being.

“There tends to be a bias in the social sciences towards positive psychology, and while it's important to emphasize strengths over weaknesses this approach to wellbeing can overlook the reality of suffering and loss as part of the human experience. So as a philosopher I attempt to try and take that seriously, and that means looking at social contexts as well as the human person in all her depth and complexity. We need to help young people find a language to affirm their own experience and what is important. Often young people can have a critique, but it isn’t taken seriously, it is seen by adults as a 'phase', but maybe their's is an important critique and we need to provide the language and space for them to articulate this on an ongoing basis.”

What have you been working on?

“I recently worked with my DCU colleague Dr Maeve O’Brien, who is a sociologist, on a report about wellbeing at junior cert cycle for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). We looked at the available research about wellbeing in childhood and adolescence and we emphasised the need to have a more holistic paradigm for thinking about wellbeing. It’s important for schools to avoid a 'flat-pack approach', we need to be able to engage with young people in a real way as they attempt to make sense of their lives and values in that crucial period of adolescence. Currently I'm working on wellbeing and illbeing as a way of being oriented or disoriented in a space of important moral questions and concerns, which I'm just back from presenting on to an international audience.”

What are the possible benefits of this kind of engagement? 

“It has to do with authentic agency. When young people hit their teens, they begin to see the adult world as less than ideal, they break with their younger selves around the time they begin to see through some of the myths of the adult world, and so they can find it difficult to place themselves in relation to that world. They have to recover something from that process and put things together again for themselves. Things don't always go well. It's complex and it's ongoing. There needs to be a space where there is dialogue and the possibility that the adult world can be genuinely challenged. It means that they have opportunities to make meaning for themselves and build their own agency, while staying connected to community where reliable meanings can be passed on.”

What do you do to take a break from lecturing and research?

“I really value spending my time off with my family. We have a young son and it amazes me how he continuously learns. Even on a simple walk in the park. There is such freshness and wonder to his engagement with the world. Surely this 'early years wonder' is a boon for all teachers everywhere! When I get a chance, I like to get outdoors, I head for the hills and just walk in nature. I’m also interested in art, so I’m always looking at creative ways to cross mediums and find new ways to communicate ideas.”

14th September, 2018