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The section of psychology that studies human development is based on building theories with a help of observing behavior. According to Miller (2011), the critical distinction of a developmental theory is its focus on changes that happen over a certain period. Its tasks include describing changes that happen in a chosen behavior area, comparing them to other areas, and explaining them. Developmental theories are valuable since they organize facts and give meaning to them while offering direction to future research works (Miller, 2011).
The process of formulating a theory starts with making assumptions and hypothetical constructs, which are not tested and cannot be observed, though they relate to visible behavior (Miller, 2011). The next step in creating a theory is to formulate hypotheses – “tentative statements about the relations among events, objects, properties, or variables” (Miller, 2011, p. 3). Finally, when a hypothesis is supported by research, it becomes a statement or a law. Most developmental theories deal with the issues of human nature, quantitative and qualitative factors of psychology, the effect of nature and environment, well as discuss the object of development.
The general idea behind building a developmental theory is observing an individual’s behavior, making notes about it, and putting distinguished traits as a basis for supporting a hypothesis. It must be said that psychologists often belong to one of the so-called schools of thought, or perspectives, which explain human behavior from different systems of scientific beliefs. For instance, the Piagetian focus on behaviorism contradicts at some point with Freud’s psychodynamic approach. In this way, theory construction is initially influenced by the culture and beliefs of a researcher.
Some researchers believe that previous studies in the field of developmental psychology focused on objectives that could not be properly evaluated. For instance, Newman and Holzman (1997) propose that, instead of studying conversations, theorists must switch focus to the performance of conversations. Children learn the language through a “relational activity of creatively imitating others” (Newman & Holzman, 1997, p. 129).
Traditionally, psychological research on development is carried out in groups of children or adults that need to solve a number of problems. Researchers design a method of testing those groups before the event, collect data and analyze it to find results that match or contradict their hypotheses. Based on how well participants deal with a problem, conclusions are made on their mental abilities. However, models for research are often formal and their main limitation is that the psychology of participants is evaluated using the same characteristics for everyone. This approach might work well with neuroscience studies, but development theories should also consider the individual and collective differences of people.
As Miller (2011) mentions, theories in textbooks do not fully describe the real behavior of people, which usually “proceeds in a much messier, irrational fashion” (p. 5). This fact is especially important when connecting development theories with education. Teachers often believe that a child gains knowledge from formally organized studies. However, the process of gaining knowledge by children is not systematic (Newman & Holzman, 1997). Keeping this idea in mind should help educators in planning their lessons in a way, which would give more opportunities for students to learn rather than simply follow a pre-determined plan. Sometimes improvisation lets children understand new concepts better than a structured lecture.
Finally, the important thing is to make children understand that they are learners by nature, and that “learning is what human beings do” (Newman & Holzman, 1997, p. 131). This notion is rather important not only for children students but also for adults. People gain knowledge their whole life and seeing this process as essential may help in building a successful career in the future.
Classroom Behavior and Theories
As has been mentioned previously, there are many psychological theories that can explain the students’ behavior, which is observed in the classroom. Different opinions give explanations based on biologically determined possibilities, individual specifics, and other characteristics of people’s psychology. To better understand the differences between these theories, it is better to apply them for explaining the real-life cases that were happening in the classroom.
Learning how to count is one of the fundamental skills given to young children in school at the beginning of their educational path. A group of first-graders was given a problem, where they had to determine the number of apples they would have if a friend gave them two apples, and they had seven of them before. Every teacher knows that there is more than one way to solve this problem. Most children counted the total number from the beginning, while some of them started from the bigger digit. Those who used the second strategy solved the problem faster.
There are several theories that can be applied to this situation. For example, the theory of cognitive development stages proposed by Jean Piaget describes that children of this age group can perform basic concrete operations (Hock, 2009, p. 136). The important notice, however, is that mathematical operations done by children of this age group must relate to things that they are familiar with from real life. Apples are objects that all children have seen in their life, which makes them appropriate for use in a mathematical problem. However, if students had to count abstractly, it would take them more time and create additional difficulties.
Piaget believed that there are four stages of development that every child reaches at a certain age (as cited in Hock, 2009). He explained that development is a natural process, and children have internal means for psychological growth. Piaget’s belief was extended by the idea that since development is natural, everyone should develop in the same manner and same age even with little or no instruction. However, this theory does not explain why every class has students with different learning results. For example, some children in kindergarten already develop an understanding of an area, while Piaget gives this characteristic to school students.
The theories of information processing can also be applied to analyzing classroom behavior. Their core idea is that human brain functioning resembles an algorithm of a computer program, and thinking itself is an information process (Siegler, 1997). Thinking is limited but at the same time, it can adapt to changing conditions. The structural characteristics of this system include different types of memory – sensory, working, and long-term (Siegler, 1997). For example, theories state that children that are younger than ten years old cannot divide verbal and spatial information, both of which are a part of working memory. Long-term memory is interesting by the fact that people remember several characteristics of an object, and only some of them may be partially recalled in the future to help to bring up the whole (Siegler, 1997).
This idea is often seen in class when children try to remember a secondary book character by listing his or her appearance elements or activities, or some items with names that are difficult to keep in mind. For example, one of the first-graders was re-telling a plot of a book that he had read the previous week, and he could not remember what had been the job of the main character. He remembered things like “she looks for old things buried in the ground”, “she sometimes finds treasures”, and “she travels many places like deserts.” Apparently, the main character was an archaeologist.
Automatization and encoding also characterize information processing (Siegler, 1997). These two processes explain what happens with information after it was received by a person. Automatization is very important because it gives an opportunity for the brain to put leave more memory resources for performing various tasks. For example, first-graders from the example about counting apples spent relatively much time on this problem. However, older students have the process of adding one-digit numbers automated, which leaves them more time to solve other problems.
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The ideas of Piaget were combined by some scientists with the information-processing theories of human development (Siegler, 1997, p.72). The main objective of this combination is that children develop in stages as Piaget claimed, but cognitive growth is reached by increasing the capacity of working memory (as cited in Siegler, 1997). Automatization is believed to be one of the reasons for this transition. Children who just start their education path in school have to spend a lot of memory resources to solve problems. However, as they learn, students start to perform problem-solving algorithms automatically, which allows them to build up knowledge by adding new information into the freed space.
Relationship Between Learning and Development
After studying different theories of development, I have understood that there is no single approach that can describe all sides of this process. Instead, it is better to use several theories in different situations and combine them to receive the whole picture. The role that development theories play in the education sphere is that they claim that there should be a certain basis for reaching further levels of knowledge. Learning processes are different depending on the development stages of children. This information is valuable to education leaders as they can plan their lessons based on the psychological characteristics of their students.
For example, students of the first grade sometimes whisper to themselves or move their lips when writing a story or solving a mathematical problem. This is an example of speech that they have running in their heads. This is an example of egocentric speech – a term first introduced by Piaget (as cited in Crain, 2011). Another psychologist, L. Vygotsky, also worked with the concept of internal speech. However, he disagreed with Piaget about its role and transformation in the development process. Piaget believed that egocentric speech has no value and disappears as a child grows up. Vygotsky viewed this element as a tool for planning and organizing thoughts, which transforms from a spoken version to a silent monologue led inside a person’s mind (as cited in Crain, 2011).
The idea of egocentric speech has given me the understanding that it is important for children to plan their words and actions before they make them in reality. Sometimes parents and teachers discourage little children from talking out loud to themselves and tell them to keep quiet. The theories of Piaget and Vygotsky about egocentric speech show that this is not a correct order. Moreover, Vygotsky introduced the concept of metacognition – “the awareness people have of their own thought processes” (as cited in Crain, 2011, p. 226). Adults always have thoughts running in their minds, many of which are shortened. They are aware of the inner thinking processes they conduct all the time. However, they forget that young children have not yet mastered this idea.
One of the most important differences between the ideas of Piaget and Vygotsky is the level of spontaneously acquired knowledge. Piaget believed that every child has inner resources to make discoveries and develop thrstorylineough invention (as cited in Crain, 2011).
However, I find Vygotsky’s theory better as it focuses on the importance of formal instruction. Vygotsky did not argue with the idea that some development is spontaneous, but he added that schooling is also important for this purpose (as cited in Crain, 2011). When a teacher gives lectures about different things that are a part of children’s everyday life, their understanding of words and ideas becomes more classified and structured. In the long run, it helps a child to develop conscious thinking skills.
As an educational leader, I have experience in seeing how the children’s process of formulating their thoughts increased gradually as a result of attending school. Little children often do not have the pattern of interconnections between their ideas. They often say whatever comes to their mind, changing subjects rather quickly, and their supporting evidence for things that they describe can be irrelevant or even misleading. However, in school students learn to present their thoughts in a structured way so that everyone else can understand the plot. They develop the skill of building a storyline, which is supported by valuable details that help to get a bigger picture of described events.
While schooling is important to make the thinking process structured, I cannot disagree with Piaget that a child must reach a certain stage before he or she can learn new things. The example of students structuring their thoughts as a result of studying in school cannot be applied to younger children. Babies cannot tell stories no matter how much effort their parents put into teaching them. The stages of development determined by Piaget offer guidance about which skill can be learned by a child based on his or her age. As a teacher, I would not ask first-graders to understand difficult abstract concepts like the theory of changing mass, since not all of them are even familiar with the term. All examples given in class to this age group must relate to objects that they often meet in real-life conditions.
According to Piaget (1952), children are capable of making inventions by using familiar means in new situations. His series of experiments showed that it is not necessary for some situations to instruct children on how to use certain objects. Instead, they can figure out problems themselves after trying several times. In this way, improvisation in class is important because it lets children develop naturally by using inner resources. Teachers should not focus so much on bringing everyone to the same pattern of thinking, but rather praise creativity and let development a bit more individual. In fact, abstract thinking is a skill that cannot be easily taught and requires inner resources for it to develop.
Individual and Cultural Differences
My experience with individual and cultural student differences was received in a bilingual class of first-graders. Each of the children had to create a story after learning about its elements – place, characters, the main problem, and others. The class was conducted in English, and the instructions were also given in English. One student spoke Spanish as her mother tongue, and that appeared to create difficulties for her in understanding the assignment. Instead of creating a story, she was talking to her friends in Spanish, while ignoring everyone who spoke English. I tried to help her with solving the issue, but there was not much time left.
The conclusion that I have made as a result of this situation is that teachers must find an approach to each student. Every child may have reasons that stand in the way of gaining knowledge. Apparently, the girl was not motivated to study English, and every task that required knowledge of this language was difficult for her. Instead of judging students as slow learners, a teacher should be well aware of developmental psychology theories to notice any reasons why a child falls behind the group.
Social factors like environment influence human development just as nature does, which is a part of what Vygotsky proposed in his theory. Children develop through a program that is biologically determined by brain functioning characteristics. However, it is obvious that people from different social groups show different behavior. It can be seen in their speech manner, reactions to different situations, life choices, and other traits. Language is one of the elements of this system that can serve as an example of this idea. In the introduction to his book, Gee (1990) offers a concept of discourse, which is “much more than a language” (p.xv). He gives an example of two settings, where different social groups of people use the same language, but in a different way.
The discourse, in its general understanding, is used to show differences between how various groups of people communicate. What is acceptable and usual for one social group, may sound awkward for another. Gee (1990) offers an example of how two girls of different races and backgrounds tell stories to their class. The White girl uses a formal approach and offers a structured storyline, while the Black girl uses a rhythmical pattern and repetitions. The first story was told to inform, the second one – to get an emotional reaction. This difference came from the discourses of social groups that the girls belonged to. However, the teacher did not recognize the value of the Black girl’s story.
This example shows that often teachers disregard the socio-cultural background of their students. They make attempts to bring children’s performance to a formal model described in teacher guides. From this point of view, assessment of knowledge and development considers only certain performance as successful, which means that some students may feel unmotivated after being marked as slow learners. As a result, they are not willing to participate in class discussions because they feel that their opinion will not be valued.
While discourse is usually something that characterizes a one-nation community, there are also differences that come between people from various countries. When students from different nations meet in the same classroom, collaborative activities may become an issue. This problem is often associated with the idea of individualism and collectivism. These are the two polar determining dimensions of cultural variation (Triandis, Bontempo, Villareal, Assai, & Lucca, 1988, p. 323). For example, Western culture is highly individualistic, while people from Asian countries value community. Of course, this is a generalized idea, but it reflects the difference in attitude towards collaboration between these two cultures.
For example, if Americans and Chinese children meet in the same classroom, they are likely to participate differently in group discussions. As Triandis et al. (1988) suggest in their research, Americans value their own goals more than the ones of the group, have a high competitive spirit, and rely on themselves rather than on other members. This observation gives a possibility to state that American students will try to dominate the discussion and prove their point of view. At the same time, Chinese culture values harmony in society. Creating a conflict is something very bad that needs to be avoided. This way, Chinese students will try to agree with the rest instead of proving their point if it may lead to an open argument.
Teachers that evaluate performance in group discussions should take the idea of collectivism and individualism into account. They may assume incorrectly that students who are quiet have nothing to say and, as a conclusion, are less developed than their peers. However, the reason for such behavior may be caused by the cultural background that values modesty and peacekeeping. To properly evaluate students’ progress, teachers should include different methods of sharing knowledge so that children can choose a method that seems the most comfortable for them.
Personal Philosophy of Teaching and Education
The theories of psychological development learned during this course help in understanding what the process of education should be like. They give an opportunity to develop a teaching style that benefits students with different learning needs. Moreover, theories of development offer guidance in assessing children’s performance without being biased. Although I have found several ideas to be better than others for the described purposes, I feel that the combination of elements taken from different theories will work best.
Firstly, I believe that while the formal structure of the learning process is important, teachers should give more opportunities for students to improvise. Since learning is often not linear, but rather spontaneous, sudden ideas and solutions that appear in the process of improvisation may contribute a lot to psychological development. Besides, learning is an ongoing process and people keep gaining knowledge even after graduating from educational institutions. Knowing how thinking works and keeping in mind that humans are learners by nature may help children to act more confidently during brainstorming and solution search in the future.
Secondly, there should be a balance between the level of difficulty of new information given to students and their current stage of development. On one hand, a teacher should not give materials that discuss concepts, which cannot be understood by children of a certain age group. Piaget’s stage model may offer guidance to education leaders about what children can already understand, and what should be left for the future. On the other hand, there can be little progress made if children receive information that only operates the ideas they are already familiar with. There should always be a challenge of finding a new approach to solve a problem. The hardest part of this strategy is trying to find the balance that will keep children motivated and eager to learn.
I would not, however, pay too much attention to the information-processing theory that describes brain capacity with the ideas of different memory types. While these ideas are accurate in how they describe automatization, encoding, and other processes, they do not pay attention to individual differences between learners. Memory capacity is increased over time, as children gain more knowledge and become experienced in its processing. However, every brain functions differently, and the number of neuron connections varies among students. Teachers should not measure development by things like how well students memorize poems and plot lines.
Finally, I agree with Vygotsky’s idea that social context plays a role in a child’s development. A teacher should pay attention to the cultural background of each student and build an educational process that benefits a diverse community. Children of all nations and cultural groups must feel comfortable in school. Their feelings are linked directly with motivation level, performance, and success in general. It is especially important to form a welcoming and positive atmosphere in primary school because it sets the base for future life-long learning.
One more thing should be mentioned about using the theories of development. Like all theoretical information, they do not focus on the great variety of people’s behavior. In fact, they present generalized models of development that try to classify people according to a set number of factors. However, real-life situations are often irrational and require flexibility to work with them. This fact adds the last element to my philosophy of education, that learning must be a naturally flowing process directed by students’ needs rather than be structured to meet guidelines drafted on the basis of theories.
Crain, W. C. (2011). Theories of development: Concepts and applications (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Gee, J. P. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London, UK: The Falmer Press.
Hock, R. R. (2009). Forty studies that changed psychology: Explorations into the history of psychological research (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Miller, P. H. (2011). Theories of developmental psychology (5th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Newman, F., & Holzman, L. (1997). The end of knowing: A new developmental way of learning. New York, NY: Routledge.
Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. (M. Cook, Trans.). New York, NY: International Universities Press, Inc.
Siegler, R. S. (1997). Children’s thinking (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Triandis, H., Bontempo, R., Villareal, M., Assai, M., & Lucca, N. (1988). Individualism and collectivism: Cross-cultural perspectives of self-ingroup relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 323-338.