Theories of development are much more specific than paradigms or worldviews (Miller, 1993). A theory of development deals with change over time and is usually concerned with three things. First, it should describe changes over time within an area or several areas of development. Second, it should describe changes among areas of development. Third, it should explain these changes.
No one theory has proved adequate to describe and explain learning or development. Numerous theories of development have influenced educational practices during the 20th century (Aldridge, Kuby, & Strevy, 1992), and currently a shift is affecting theories of child development and education. Some of the historical and current theories that have influenced education include Gesell's (1925) maturational theory, Skinner's (1974) behaviorist approach, Freud's (1935) psychoanalytic theory, Piaget's (1952) constructivist theory, Vygotsky's (1978) sociohistorical approach, Bronfenbrenner's (1989) ecological sysstems theory, and Gardner's (1983) multiple intelligences theory. More recently, critical theory (see Kessler & Swadener, 1992) has influenced education and child development practices, even though critical theory is not a theory of development. Finally, postmodern conceptions have changed the way we think of children and how to educate them (Elkind, 1995,2000/2001).
The maturational theory of Arnold Gesell (1925) continues to affect what goes on in schools, particularly in early childhood classrooms in some parts of the United States. Gesell based his theory on three major assumptions: (a) development has a biological basis, (b) good and bad years alternate, and (c) body types (endomorph, ectomorph, mesomorph) are correlated with personality development (Thomas, 1992). Maturational theory strongly influenced the teaching of reading in the mid 1900s (Morphett & Washburne, 1931). Children were not thought to be ripe for reading until they had a mental age of six and a half years. Consequently, readiness activities were developed for children who were not yet ready to read. Some of this nonsense still occurs in preschool, kindergarten, and even primary-level classrooms. Today, maturational theory is partially responsible for the existence of prekindergartens and pre first grades aimed at children who supposedly need the" gift of time," because of immaturity or a late birthday. These classrooms tend to have a ratio of boys to girls of anywhere from 7:1 to 10:1 (Aldridge, Eddowes, & Kuby, 1998).
Practitioners subscribing to maturational theory consider any difficulties a child experiences as being found within the child. This oversimplistic explanation for anything from reading problems to Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (AD[H]D) is extremely limiting to children and to those who work with them. If a problem lies within a child, then what value does a supportive (or, for that matter, a nonsupportive) environment have?
Another, perhaps unintentional consequence of maturational theory is the recently popular "late birthday" phenomenon. Children in classrooms who are the youngest and have a "late birthday" are often branded by the teacher as slower and less ready for instruction. Many teachers report other instructors as saying, "I knew the child would have problems. He has a late birthday."
The behavioral theories of Skinner (1974) and Bijou (1989) also continue to influence what goes on in schools, especially for some special education programs. The mechanistic theory of behaviorism emphasizes the role of the environment on an individual's development. Preparing the environment for appropriate reinforcement is a major goal.
Two examples of Skinner's (1974) contribution to education include behavior modification and programmed learning. Both of these rely heavily on immediate reinforcement, in which a child has to exhibit the "right" behavior or produce the "correct" answer in order to be positively reinforced.
Teachers using behavioral theory will consider any difficulties a child has as being found within the environment. As with Gesell's (1925) overemphasis on nature, Skinner's (1974) overemphasis on nurture limits our understanding of children and their differences. Applications of this theory have resulted in an overemphasis on isolated skills and drill, as well as a heavy reliance on teacher-directed and teacher-reinforced activities. Consequently, teachers often ignore children's curiosity and prior knowledge.
Many educators believe the theory behind No Child Left Behind is behaviorism. The methods reported to be scientifically based are rooted in the behaviorist tradition, and so the methodology recommended under No Child Left Behind is behavioral in nature.
Freud's (1935) psychoanalytic theory served as the theoretical basis for analysis of behavior disorders during the 1920s through the 1940s. "Behavior problems displayed by children were viewed as symbolic manifestations of unresolved conflict, often emanating from early caregiver-child interactions" (Hinshaw, 1994, p. 10). Problems with attention and activity levels were attributed to unconscious processes. Play therapy was the recommended form of intervention, with accompanying therapy for the child's parents. Psychodynamic models continue to have an effect on education and intervention for children with special needs.
One of the biggest problems with psychoanalytic theory is the inherent allocation of blame on parent-child interactions—more specifically, on the mother's actions. Fortunately, theoretical shifts have moved from a blame-the-parent model to more bidirectional, transactional, and interactional models of childhood differences.
Although there are several "brands" of constructivism, Pia get's theory (1952) continues into the 21st century to affect what goes on in many classrooms. This theory relies heavily on logical-mathematical knowledge and universal invariant stages of development to the neglect of other forms of knowledge and the importance of context in a child's development. Even though knowledge is constructed from the "inside out" through interaction with the environment, the focus is more on the individual's coordination of relationships rather than on socially constructed knowledge.
Autonomy is the aim of education in constructivism (Kamii, 2000). Constructivist theory, however, has not adequately addressed either individual differences or cultural and contextual contributions to development and education (Delpit, 1988; Kessler & Swadener, 1992; Mallory & New, 1994). Thus, the needs of children who are different often are not met in constructivist classrooms.
The Sociohistorical Approach
The more cultural approach of Vygotsky (1978) affected learning and development through an emphasis on sociohistorical context, language and literacy learning, and the scaffolding of an adult or more able peer within a child's zone of proximal development. Although Vygotsky (1978) emphasized the salience of culture and language, the zone of proximal development concept probably has had the biggest effect on education.
The zone of proximal development is the instructional level of a child, the area in which the child can most benefit from instruction with the help from an adult or more knowledgeable peer. According to Vygotsky (1978), that which a child can do today with help from a teacher (or more able peer), the child can do tomorrow by herself. Trying to figure out a child's zone of proximal development, however, is somewhat nebulous and difficult. Vygotsky (1978) did not expound on the nature of the child's zone of proximal development, how to determine it, or how to work with a child within that zone. For children exhibiting attention and activity-level difficulties, the zone of proximal development may be even more difficult to determine and utilize.
Ecological Systems Theory
Another theory used to guide education in the late 20th century and early 21st century is Bronfenbrenner's (1989) ecological systems theory. Bronfenbrenner (1989) proposed that children are influenced by, and thus influence, the multiple systems in which they reside, either directly or peripherally. These systems include the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem. Applications of this contextual theory focus on the seemingly endless variables within the child, and between the child and the numerous contexts affecting her. Although few people would quarrel with the importance of these influences, trying to account for all the endless interactions and variables affecting a child is exhausting and impractical. How would we ever have enough information about children's temperament, activity levels, attentional states, or learning capacities as they relate to the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem?
Multiple Intelligences Theory
The multiple intelligences theory of Howard Gardner (1983) is a more recent influence on education. Traditional views of intelligence favored particular cognitive processes, including certain types of problem solving (mathematical-logical intelligence) and language abilities (linguistic intelligence). According to Gardner (1983), however, these are just two types of intelligence. Five other intelligences—musical, visual-spatial, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal-must be considered. Gardner (1983) has also added an eighth intelligence he calls the naturalist. A naturalist is someone who has the ability to recognize important distinctions in the natural world (Checkley, 1997).
Multiple intelligences theory shows promise in developing appropriate practices for children who do not fit the traditional mold or do not excel in the math or linguistic areas. Teachers can use children's types of intelligences to assist in planning and teaching in areas in which they are not as gifted. Schools and teachers, however, are not usually equipped equally to deal with multiple intelligences. For example, children from lower socioeconomic areas may not have many opportunities to explore music or visual-spatial intelligences, even if these are areas in which they might thrive. More efforts need to be made to understand multiple intelligences fully and to develop the resources necessary to support them.
Excerpt from Current Issues and Trends In Education, by J. Aldridge, R. Goldman, 2007 edition, p. 96-99.
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Next Article: The Development of Mental Abilities
Vygotsky's work is the foundation of what is known in child development psychology as Social Development Theory. His ideas characterise many of our 21st century norms about how learning and development takes place.
Writing shortly after the revolution in Communist Russia, Vygotsky's work was influenced by Marxist ideas of social and historical development. Vygotsky believed that all cognitive development happens through social learning, and thus is inextricable from one’s social-cultural context. In contrast to Piaget who believed there were universal stages of development that all children naturally pass through – Vygotsky argues that learning happens through our social interactions, and thus is dependent on experience. Where Piaget sees intelligence and cognitive development as ultimately fixed at birth, or genetic, Vygotsky leans towards the nurture side of the debate, seeing intelligence as something changeable, and dependent on learning and culture.
For example, a young child given a jigsaw may spend hours playing with it and not work out how to put it together. However, with some help from a parent, who displays and explains to the child strategies for finding the right pieces (look for the straight edges first, for example), the child can learn how to put the jigsaw together, and very soon, will start to succeed at putting the jigsaw together on his/her own. Thus the interaction with the child's parent spurred his cognitive development.
Depending on the cultural context of the parent, the strategies provided would be different – for example, through verbal instructions or more visual or demonstrative methods. Thus, Vygotsky argued that individual cognitive development cannot be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded.
As Andrew Sutton points out in his article, ‘Would the real Vygotsky please stand up’ , a child's cognitive development potential is 'actively created out of the process of upbringing and education’. If a child's educational outcomes are mediocre, then this is a product of their education and upbringing, and critically something could have, or still could, be done about it!
Main principles of Vygotsky's theory of cognitive development
1. MKO - More Knowledgeable Other
Vygotsky points to the role of a More Knowledgeable Other in demonstrating ideas, values, strategies, speech patterns and so on that a child internalises and learns from. In early stages of development, this is likely to be a parent, but it can also be a teacher, peers, or a technology.
2. ZPD – Zone of Proximal Development
At the core of Vygotsky's theory is the theoretical construct of the Zone of Proximal Development (or Near Development). Vygotsky claimed that a child has limits to what he/she is able to learn alone, however these limits are extended under the guidance and support of an MKO. The Zone of Proximal Development represents the potential ability of a child when given guidance and help from others. For learning to occur, the learner must work with a challenge that is within his ability when provided with assistance, and gradually, as the assistance is reduced, learning and cognitive development occur.
Vygotsky states: ‘What lies in the zone of proximal development at one stage is realized and moves to the level of actual development at a second. In other words, what the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow. [italics added]’ (Thinking and Speaking, 1934/1987).
3. Authentic Activities
An interesting element of Vygotsky's construct of the ZPD is the stipulation that learning and teaching should happen in 'whole' or 'authentic' activities that mimic real life. For example, a child should not be taught to write as an abstract skill, rather through purposeful tasks such as writing a letter. The activities should create a need to achieve the new learning as this establishes the environment in which the ZPD of the learner is embedded.
Implications for current teaching practice
1. Intelligence and ability
From a Vygotskian perspective, ability (or lack of ability) is not inherent or genetic. Rather a child will learn most effectively if the learning is within his ZPD. Learning outside of a learner's ZPD – i.e. learning that is too challenging – will be inaccessible, opening the child up to failure and affecting his/her confidence as a learner. Similarly, as noted by Philip Adey, ‘the under-stimulated child does not develop their intelligence as they should’.
2. Intelligence and self-conception
IQ-based models of ability and teacher and student conceptions about intelligence as fixed and static can affect successful learning. Carol Dweck, American Psychologist has shown how a student’s preconceptions about whether their ability to perform a task is predetermined and not open to change – or indeed, flexible and incremental – can have a profound influence on how they cope with challenge. She calls this the 'Growth Mindset'. For more information, visit the website here.
3. Formative assessment
A child's learning goals must be personalised to his needs and abilities and his success measured in terms of progress from his personal prior levels, in line with his dynamic and changing ZPD.
4. Scaffolding and modelling
Scaffolding and modelling are at the core of the ZPD model (in contrast to, for example, a discovery-learning model). Much research shows how parents model and scaffold their children's learning through mediating language to the developmental level of the child and modelling play activities or tasks.
Modelling and scaffolding are commonplace today in education – the main implications of Vygotsky's work are to ensure that scaffolding is available to all students (not just the weak or SEN students) and that it is geared at the ZPD of the relevant learner, as opposed to a one model fits all approach. The aim of the scaffolding should be to enable the child to access the challenge. It should involve leading questioning and should direct the child to succeed in undertaking the challenging task themselves, rather than offer a sentence starter/word bank/gap-fill approach to managing completion of the task.
5. Mixed ability groupings and peer to peer-tutoring
Peers are equally able to act as the MKO, and students that have mastered a skill/subject are able to support other students to achieve it. Heterogeneous rather than homogenous groupings are valued as a means of forwarding learning of all.
Vygotsky related pedagogies
1. Reuven Feuerstein’s ‘Mediated Learning'
Feuerstein worked with new immigrant children to Israel after WW2, who had come from the concentration camps or from North Africa. Both groups of children had experienced war, family upheaval and destruction and upon their entry into Israel, were refused schooling on the basis that they were uneducable. Feuerstein theorised that these children’s social circumstances had robbed them of the interactions they would normally have had with adults which would have given children the interpretative skills to analyse and reflect upon the world in which they live.
Like Vygotsky, Feuerstein believes that these interpretative skills, which are bestowed from one generation to another, are what we normally understand as intelligence. If this process of bestowal is disrupted, as a result of circumstance, poverty or neglect – a child’s thinking apparatus may be dysfunctional. Feuerstein centralises the role of a mediator and culture to successful learning, and thus finds that learning problems can be redressed – by facilitating the right culture and mediation experiences.
Feuerstein developed a teaching approach that targets the specific cognitive problems of individual children and provides specific sorts of pupil/mediator interactions that aim to correct the child’s problem. He designed a set of instruments designed to facilitate these interactions which he calls ‘Mediated Learning Experiences’ and the instruments collectively – ‘Instrumental Enrichment’. He also developed a set of tests that could pinpoint the child’s area of cognitive weakness and in a ‘test-teach-test’ routine establish how far a child could travel with a little mediation. For further information about Feuerstein’s work in practice, see Howard Sharron’s article, ‘Diagnosing learning difficulties’ and book ‘Changing Children’s Minds’ (Available for purchase here).
2. Cognitive Acceleration
Phillip Adey, the theorist behind Cognitive Acceleration is interested in how we can improve learners’ 'intelligence'. He understands intelligence as the ability to make connections between past and current learning, to see situations as complex and multifaceted. He argues that the ability to make useful connections is connected to our 'working memory capacity', as opposed to our 'long-term memory'. Working memory is the capacity to recall information from our long-term memory and make associations from it, thus boosting our ability to process complex information. Working memory capacity is limited and grows with age – thus enabling an older person to hold more bits of information simultaneously and hence process more complex information. The Cognitive Acceleration projects aim to boost intelligence, by increasing a student's ability to handle complex information and make connections.
The Cognitive Acceleration projects are based on putting these principles into practice in projects. For further information, see Philip Adey’s article, ‘Cognitive Acceleration’.
3. Accelerated Reader
Accelerated Reader is a computerised program that helps children improve their independent reading capacity based on ZPD principles. Children undertake an initial assessment (STAR reading enterprise assessment) to identify their optimal reading level, and then the program suggests suitable reading material difficult enough to keep them challenged but not so difficult to cause frustration. It helps teachers set personalised goals for each student. It also offers assessment 'quizzes' on texts with instant feedback, which monitor students levels of comprehension and inform further instruction or intervention. For further information, visit their website here.
4. Collaborative Learning
Collaborative or 'co-operative' learning refers to getting children to work in small groups to help one another learn academic material, or to undergo an enquiry, or challenge together, with an emphasis on promoting dialogue and joint responsibility. However, as Slavin argues, real co-operative learning has its own pedagogy and putting children in groups to learn is really only the beginning. In Slavin's article, ‘What makes groupwork work?’, a wide range of co-operative learning models and strategies are reviewed.
For a greater look at the pedagogy behind Collaborative learning and the ZPD theoretical underpinnings, see the Peter E Doolittle article, ‘Understanding Cooperative Learning through Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development’. For an excellent article outlining ideas for effectively facilitating collaborative learning in the classroom, see Chris Watkins’ article, ‘Collaborative learning’.
5. Philosophy for Children
Mathew Lipman's Philosophy for Children is a pedagogical approach that centres on developing thinking and reasoning skills through a student-led group enquiry approach, called 'Community of Enquiry'. Lipman was influenced by Vygotsky's social model of cognitive development and central to his Community of Enquiry model is the notion that children's thinking develops through learning in peer groups. As Roger Sutcliffe explains in his article ‘Philosophy for Children’, Lipman believed that children learn to think and feel better ‘through internalising each other's speech patterns and values’.
Similarly Lipman adopts the MKO role for the teacher, suggesting that the teacher will model good, critical, and creative patterns of questioning and reasoning in the early stages to guide the learners appreciation of enquiry skills, and as they develop in ability and responsibility, the teacher will back off.
For an introduction to Philosophy for Children, see the P4C knowledge bank.
6. The Growth Mindset
Carol Dweck's notion of how students’ concept of their own intelligence has been used to try to measure and improve self-concept. Bob Burden's article ‘Myself as a Learner’ discusses the connection between student self-concept and student motivation, and introduces MALS – a scale designed to focus directly on students' perceptions of their learning abilities.
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