Jerome Kagan: A Teacher’s Appreciation

A guest post, by Rob McEntarffer


I didn’t get to learn about Jerome Kagan (1929-2021) during my teacher’s college training. I regret that.

While I was a teacher, my contact with Kagan’s research was limited to teaching about temperament research during the developmental psychology unit of the high school psychology class I taught for 13 years.

Students learned about how Kagan measured infant temperament, and how those reactions predicted temperament later in life (Kagan, 1978). This research often helped my students think about how their thinking and behavior might be influenced by earlier factors in their lives, which opened a door for some of them in how they thought about themselves.

Kagan’s research helped us start great, research-informed discussions.

As a public-school administrator (assessment/evaluation specialist), I now realize that I could have learned much more from Kagan’s research.

I often focus exclusively on specific aspects of teaching and learning (like cognitive load, working memory, and retrieval practice) and ignore other important elements. As Chew (2021) and many others highlight, our models of teaching and learning need to include much more: student fear/mistrust, student mindset, and other self-perception and emotional factors that directly influence what students learn.

Kagan (2006) said:

“Although humans inherit a biological bias that permits them to feel anger, jealousy, selfishness and envy, … they inherit an even stronger biological bias for kindness, compassion, cooperation, love and nurture – especially toward those in need. This inbuilt ethical sense is a biological feature of our species.”

As I help teachers figure out how to create assignments that allow students to express what they are thinking, Kagan might remind me to think about how ethics, and an “inbuilt” ethical sense, could be usefully included in classroom discussions and assignments.

I experienced this sense often as a teacher: in my psychology classroom, our discussions about research often moved into discussions about ethics and feelings of compassion. We talked about what should be, not just what is.

As an administrator, Kagan can remind me to include these ideas in my current work. In the end, teaching and learning are also about ethics and care, not just about what environments create the most likely context for elaborative encoding.

I’m grateful for Jerome Kagan’s thoughtful, caring research, and thinking about this work will change how I work with teachers.



Kagan, J., Lapidus, D., & Moore, M. (1978). Infant Antecedents of Cognitive Functioning: A Longitudinal Study. Child Development, 49(4), 1005-1023. doi:10.2307/1128740

Stephen L. Chew & William J. Cerbin (2021) The cognitive challenges of effective teaching, The Journal of Economic Education, 52:1, 17-40, DOI: 10.1080/00220485.2020.1845266

Kagan, J. (2006). On the case for kindness. In A. Harrington & A. Zajonc (Eds.), The Dalai Lama at MIT. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dr. McEntarffer is an Assessment and Evaluation Specialist with the Lincoln Public School System in Lincoln, Nebraska.

You can read more at his blog, Not For Points.


tags: category: L&B Blog

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