Peter is a developmental psychologist. His research is about children’s perception and their logical reasoning.
His first degree was in Psychology at Cambridge University (1961). He did his PhD at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London (1963) and continued working there until 1967 when he went to Oxford University as a university lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology and the tutorial fellow in Psychology at St John’s College. In 1980 Peter was appointed the Watts Professor of Psychology in the same department and a Professorial Fellow in Wolfson College. He retired from his position as the Watts Professor in 2004 and is now a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Education in Oxford University and an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College.
Peter was given the British Psychology Society’s President’s Award in 1984 and was elected to the Academia Europaea in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1991.
In 1991 Peter received the APPORT International Award for “contributions to Psychology and co-operation with Portuguese Psychology”. In 1999 he was given the award for Outstanding Scientific Contribution by the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading. He was elected to the Reading Hall of Fame in 2013.
Peter was the founding editor from 1982 to 1986 of the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. He was also the editor of Cognitive Development from 2000-2005.
Peter’s PhD research (1963) was on children and adults with learning difficulties. Soon after that, he spent a post-doctoral year (1964) in the University of Geneva working with Prof. Piaget and his colleagues.
In 1967 Peter began a series of experiments on children’s perceptual and logical abilities, which led to his first book Perception and Understanding in Young Children (1974) and to a very controversial article in Nature, written with Tom Trabasso, on children’s transitive inferences in 1971.
Around that time Peter began working on children learning to read and, together with his colleague Lynette Bradley, created a novel design which they called the ‘reading age control match’ to establish for the first time that many dyslexic children are remarkably insensitive to the sounds that make up words (i.e. to phonology). With the same kind of phonological awareness tasks Lynette and Peter went on to conduct a large-scale longitudinal study, combined with an intervention study, which was also a completely new design at the time, to test the causal hypothesis that children’s phonological awareness has a pervasive and powerful effect on the progress that they make in reading and spelling. This was published in a much-cited article in Nature in 1983. Peter and Lynette also wrote two books on the subject of phonology and reading.
Soon after that, Peter began to work with Terezinha Nunes on another form of linguistic awareness, the awareness of morphemes, and its relation to reading. This research also involved combinations of longitudinal research and intervention, and it has shown that morphemic awareness is also a powerful determinant in learning to read, particularly later on in the school years.
Terezinha and Peter have also been doing research on children’s mathematics, and in particular on children’s ability to reason about quantitative relations. They persuaded the ALSPAC research team to include measures of children’s additive and multiplicative reasoning in their very large-scale study and that allowed them to plot the longitudinal relationships between these measures and the children’s success in key stage assessments at 11- and 14-years in a large number of children. The study found a vey strong predictive relation between the children’s reasoning and their subsequent success in the key stage assessments of mathematics.
This interest in children’s understanding of quantitative relations led naturally to research on what are called intensive quantities i.e. quantities like density and probability, that are based on a proportional relationship between two other quantities. Recently Terezinha and Peter were invited by the Nuffield Foundation to write a report on Children’s Understanding of Probability (now available on the Nuffield Foundation website). They followed this with an intervention study of children learning about probability in a project directed by Terezinha Nunes and her research team consisting of Peter, Deborah Evans, Laura Gottardis and Emmanouela Terlektsi. This project was with 10-year-old children and involved two 15-session intervention studies in both of which one group learned about probability and another about mathematical problems solving. These studies established that it is possible for children of this age to learn how to solve probability problems.
Peter’s reason for coming to the Oxford Department of Education was his work with Terezinha Nunes. Peter has also been able to participate in some of the classes in the MSc in Education, Child Development and Education Pathway. His contacts with the Mathematics Education group in the department have also been very useful.